Josef Pieper on The Virtues of the Human Heart and the Test of Temptation

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                              28 January 2020

Saint Peter Nolasco (d. 1256)

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Second Feast of Saint Agnes (d. 304)



“A temptation wouldn’t be a temptation if it weren’t attractive.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to R. Hickson)


“If we be in the state of grace while also in the face of a grave temptation, we may not always have at that moment the sufficient grace to resist that temptation, but we always then still have the grace to pray for the grace we need.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to R. Hickson)


“Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, page 9)


In “A Retrospective Preface,” Josef Pieper’s historical and moving personal four-page introduction to the 1991 English translation of his little book—A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart—a reader will discover that this reissued German-language book had first been published fifty years earlier, in 1941, during World War II.1

Moreover, says Pieper himself, this little book, despite its being “a persistently exclusive production of plainly Christian religious literature” (7), was somehow allowed and even “provided with the official stamp of the ‘responsible’ political offices and placed on the list of officially permitted literature for mass distribution on the front lines” (9). (Germany, we may recall, was to attack the Soviet Union on Sunday 22 June 1941.)

In this short essay on this fresh and fine work, I therefore propose to concentrate on what Dr. Pieper writes as a young man of 37 about the virtue of courage (fortitude), the virtue of inner discipline, and those aspects of moral purity that aid our perception of reality and of the Christian virtue of hope.

At the end of his discussion of the virtue of justice, and just before young Josef Pieper’s examination of the virtue of fortitude (which itself presupposes the existence of moral evil), we also see how he carefully dares to speak of and to the National Socialist Regime in the midst of War:

In the human world there is hardly any worse or more hopeless calamity than unjust governmental rule….It is good to be forewarned that the mightiest embodiment of evil in human history, the Antichrist, could indeed appear in the form of a great ascetic….The worst corruption of the natural man is injustice….Above all, he [“the deceived natural man”] would be incapable of recognizing the [Antichrist in] the historical prefigures of that final condition; while he [the inattentive natural man] is looking out for the powers of corruption in a mistaken direction, they establish their rule before his eyes. (24—my emphasis added)

So, too, today.

When one cannot overcome at all (or at once) an unjust evil, one must—and should—learn to endure it while one is also learning to suffer well. Such is part of the quality of virtuous fortitude and endurance and the great gift of final perseverance. Thus, Josef Pieper will now prepare us, gradually, to face the meaning of certain virtues, such as the third cardinal (hinge) virtue of Fortitude:

Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude….To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous. (24-25)

When one attentively reads Josef Pieper’s slowly developing insights in his little book’s final thirty pages (24-54), one gradually notices the artfully intertwined interrelationships between bravery (fortitude, courage) and patience and discipline (moderation, temperance) and purity and hope (as a virtue). It is this progression that I now hope to follow selectively. It is to be recommended that the reader read all of these pages himself, so as even to understand much better the meaning of a feast and the strict meaning of prudentia (the indispensable first cardinal virtue of prudence).

Dr. Pieper is honest and unflinchingly steady in his presentation of inescapable reality:

Every wound of the natural being tends toward death [not only in war]. Thus every brave deed draws its sustenance from preparedness for death as from its deepest root….A fortitude that does not extend to the depth of readiness to fall is rotten in its root and lacking in effective power.

Willingness to be wounded constitutes only the half, [namely,] the forefront of fortitude. The courageous person is not willing to sustain a wound for its own sake. Rather, through it [his willingness] he wants to protect or gain a deeper, more substantial freedom from harm.

To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. To be sure, fortitude excludes a certain kind of fearlessness, namely, when it is based on a mistaken appraisal and evaluation of reality [i.e., a lack of sober and virtuous prudence]. (25—my emphasis added)

Moreover, he says, as he presents some further illuminating nuances:

Anyone who has lost the will to live does not fear death. This dispirited indifference, however, is remote from authentic fortitude….Fortitude apprehends, acknowledges, and protects the natural order of things. The brave person is perceptive: he realizes that the wound he gets is an evil. He does not falsify reality or alter its value: it “tastes” to him as it really is. He does not love death, nor does he despise life.

That person is brave who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point [as in the case of final despair] of forsaking the final and authentic good things [even Eternal Life], and thus [thereby] of taking on himself the ultimate and unlimited horror. This fear of the definitive terror belongs, as the “negative” of the love of God, to the plainly necessary foundation of fortitude (and of any virtue). (26—my emphasis added)

It should be further helpful to our own grateful understanding now—as we also imagine the 1941 German soldiers of World War II in their own savoring of wisdom—to see what Josef Pieper wrote in 1941 concerning the proper order and distinctive purpose of fear, especially “fear of the Lord” (47) as a guard against “presumption” (one of the two forms of hopelessness and sin against hope, along with despair):

One of the scarcely examined principles from which our age’s governing image of humanity is drawn asserts that it is not fitting for man to be afraid. In this attitude the waters from two sources are mingled, The one is Enlightenment liberalism [with its presumption!], which relegates fearfulness to the realm of the unessential, and, in its view of reality, room and place are assigned to fear only in an unessential sense. The other source is an un-Christian stoicism with a concealed link to impudence [and presumption] as well as to despair; it opposes the fearful things of existence, which are clearly seen, with defiant immobility, without fear, but also without hope….

Nonetheless, the Christian inquires after the ordo timoris, the order of fear; he inquires about what is genuinely and ultimately fearsome….What is truly fearsome, however, is nothing else than the possibility that man might separate himself from his Ultimate Ground of Being voluntarily through his guilt…. This fearsomeness, which accompanies as a real possibility the life of every man, including the saints—the fearsomeness and this fear are not surmountable by any mode of “heroism”; on the contrary, this fear is a prerequisite for any genuine heroism….

If this natural human fear, contemplating nothingness, is not fulfilled through the fear of the Lord, then this anxiety erupts “unfulfilled” and destructive into the realm of spiritual and mental existence. (46-47—my emphasis added)

Earlier, the reflective young Pieper had presented his analysis and nourishing affirmations:

Whoever in such a situation of unqualified seriousness [near death or protracted torture], in the face of which…every heroic gesture becomes crippled, nonetheless advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good, specifically for the sake of the good and thus finally for the sake of God, not out of ambition or out of fear of being taken for a coward: that person is truly courageous.

What is essential to the virtue of fortitude is not aggression or self-confidence or wrath but rather steadfastness and patience….because the real world is so structured that it is in the most extreme emergency [like blood martyrdom], where the only resistance possible is steadfastness, that the final and most profound spiritual strength of the person can become manifest….

[He] who is patient…does not allow himself thereby to be drawn into disordered sadness. To be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one’s soul to be taken away….The virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life [natural life] in such a way that he loses it [i.e., sanctifying grace and supernatural life and Vita Aeterna].

The Christian prototype of the “heroic downfall” is the testimony of blood, the martyr’s death….The same can be said concerning the foundation of Christian readiness for suffering…asceticism….[which] contains for the Christian believer a mystery-filled opportunity for the affirmation of Being in itself: namely, the opportunity of devotion to the community of the suffering Son of Man. (27-29—my emphasis added)

After this preparation, we may better consider the apt relation between justice and fortitude:

Without a “just cause” there is no fortitude. The decisive element is not the wound but the cause. “A man does not expose his life to the danger of death except in order to secure justice. Therefore the praise of bravery is contingent upon justice,” says Thomas Aquinas. And in his book On Duties, [Saint] Ambrose says, “Courage without justice is a lever of evil.”

For the moral virtue of fortitude, the old tenet of classical Western rules for living holds true: every virtue must always be tied with all others at their core; thus there is no bravery without truthfulness, without justice, or without discipline. It is a bourgeois illusion to think that a person can be just without ever being required to demonstrate this courage as well. It is no less a distortion of meaningful order that one can be brave even though he knowingly fights on the side of injustice; the bravery of the criminal is a contradiction in terms. Likewise, fortitude as a moral virtue can have no bond with indiscipline. In [Wolfram von Eschenbach’s] Parcival [of the early thirteenth century chivalric poem, Parzival ] it is said, “Never have I heard that a man was praised for undisciplined bravery.

Discipline [part of the Fourth Cardinal Virtue of Temperance and Moderation] is selfless self-preservation. Indiscipline is self-destruction through selfish debasement of powers intended for self-preservation. (30-31—my emphasis added)

As we prepare to present Josef Pieper’s mature meaning of hope and the existential structure of the act of hope, we shall also selectively touch upon other encouraging matters: for, example, his treatment of anger, magnanimity and humility, man’s inner order and significant “cheerfulness of heart” (“hilaritas mentis”(32, 35)) in contrast to “hebetudo sensus” (“dullness of the interior understanding in grasping spiritual realities” (36)) and destructive “curiositas,” in contrast to disciplined “studiositas.”

Dr. Pieper further develops his vivid and revealing thoughts—about an inner discipline of human faculties—by first considering the mystery of a certain ordinary fact:

It is an everyday but no less mysterious fact that the inner order of man is not…a merely given and obvious reality but rather that those same powers by which human existence sustains itself could subvert that interior order even to the point of the destruction of the spiritual moral person. It is especially hard to conceive that it is truly the innermost human self that can bring itself to self-destruction in disorder….We ourselves alone are always the agents of discipline and indiscipline, of self-preservation and self-destruction. (32—my emphasis added)

Hence our abiding need for the fourth cardinal virtue (temperance, moderation, discipline).

Indeed, Pieper affirmatively and winsomely adds—and it “especially applies when the love of truth or some other noble virtue is ready and eager to dare the utmost” (32):

Cheerfulness of heart…is the seal of selflessness….Cheerfulness of the heart is the unmistakable sign through which the inner authenticity of discipline as selfless self-preservation becomes manifest. (32—my emphasis added)

Even in this context of “an affirming cheerfulness” (33), Josef Pieper brings up the matter of anger:

The common Christian thinking, whenever there is a question of anger, seeks only to point out the unruly, the unspiritual, and the negative in anger. Still, just like “sensuality” and “desire,” the power of becoming angry belongs to the basic powers of man. In this power of becoming angry the energy of human nature speaks most clearly. This power is aimed at what is hard to achieve, at that which eludes easy grasp; it is always readily available where a bonum arduum [“a steep good”], a difficult good waits to be won….

Precisely with regard to overcoming licentiousness in pleasure, the power of becoming angry assumes particular gravity.

Thomas [Aquinas] is of the opinion that affirmation must be stronger than negation. It is his opinion that the degradation of mental power must be capable of being healed by the still undamaged core of some other power. Therefore it must be possible to overcome and, so to speak, quench the flabby licentiousness of a lecherous desire for pleasure, so that a difficult task might by undertaken by the willing resistance that the full power of anger can engender.

The connection of the licentiousness of the desire for pleasure with the indolent inability to get angry is the distinctive mark of complete and genuinely hopeless degeneration. It shows itself wherever a social class, a people, or a culture is ripe for ruin. (34-35—my emphasis added)

Since true humility might help the recovery of such a situation, Dr. Pieper surprises us again with his insight about magnanimity and robust and generous humility:

Nothing shows the way to a correct understanding of humility so clearly as this: that humility and magnanimity not only are not mutually exclusive but also near to one another and intimately connected; both together and in opposition to pride as well as to faintheartedness. What indeed does magnanimity mean? Magnanimity is the expansion of the spirit toward great things; one who expects great things of himself and makes himself worthy of it is magnanimous….In the Summa Theologica [of Saint Thomas] it is stated, “If one disdains glory in such a manner that he makes no effort to do that which merits glory that action is blameworthy.” On the other side, the magnanimous one is not broken by disgrace; he looks down on it as unworthy of himself….Undaunted uprightness is the distinctive mark of magnanimity, while nothing is more alien to it than this: to be silent out of fear about what is true.

Magnanimity encompasses an unshakable firmness of hope…and the thorough calm of a fearless heart. The magnanimous person submits himself not to the confusion of feelings or to any human being or to fate—but only to God. (37-38—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Pieper again draws up the wisdom and repeated convictions of the Summa Theologica where somewhat surprisingly, for example:

It is stated in the Treatise on Humility several times that humility does not conflict with magnanimity. One can now consider what this sentence, uttered as a warning and a precaution, truly means to say. It means nothing else than this: that a “humility” that would be too narrow and too weak to bear the inner tension of coexistence with magnanimity is no humility. (38-39—my emphasis added)

After his interwoven and sobering set of reasoned affirmations, Pieper presents to us some negative examples, as if to say that “such contrast will further clarify the mind”:

There is a lust for seeing that perverts the original meaning of sight and casts a person into disorder. The meaning of sight is the perception of reality. However, “concupiscence of the eye” does not seek to perceive reality but rather just to see [as is “the itch for innovation”)….The degradation into curiositas [curiosity] of the natural desire to see can thus be substantially more than a harmless confusion on the surface. It can be the sign of one’s fatal uprooting. It can signify that a person has lost the capacity to dwell in his own self; that he, fleeing from himself disgusted and bored with the waste of an interior that is burnt out with despair, seeks a thousand futile ways with selfish anxiety that which is accessible only to the high-minded calm of a heart disposed to self-sacrifice and thus in mastery over itself: [in and towards] the fullness of being. (39-40—my emphasis added)

Moreover, we must also consider the effects of unchastity, not just the destructively “extirpative power” (40) and “restlessness” (40) stirred up by “the concupiscence of the eye”:

In a very particular way, unchastity destroys this self-possession and behaving oneself by man. Unchaste abandonment and prostitution of the soul to the sensual world wound the fundamental capacity of the moral person: to hearken in silence to the call of the real and out of this recollected silence within himself to make the decision appropriate [as in virtuous prudence] to the concrete situation of concrete action.

For us men and women of today, who are of the opinion that in order to know the truth one need more or less strain the brain, and who scarcely regard as sensible the concept of an ascesis of the intellect—for us, the deeply intrinsic connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness. [Saint] Thomas notes that the firstborn daughter of unchastity is the blindness of spirit. An impure and selfish degraded will for pleasure ruins both the decision-making power and the inmost resource of the soul to give silent heed to the discourse of reality.

To be open to the truth of real things and to live by perceived truth: these constitute the essence of the moral person. Only one who sees and affirms this objective reality is also able to recognize how deeply the ruin penetrates that an unchaste heart allows to happen within itself. (42-43—my emphasis added)

In his sincere consideration of the deeper meaning of purity, Josef Pieper shows an intimate part of his own heart and elegiac sense of irreparable loss:

Purity means that crystalline, morning-fresh artlessness and selflessness in relation to the world, as it becomes a reality when the shock of a deep pain [such as the death of the beloved] brings him to the the limits of existence or when the nearness of death touches him [as in war]….This sobriety belongs to the essence of purity….Tragedy achieves purification, catharsis. The donum timoris, the spiritual gift of fear, which Thomas subordinates to temperantia [i.e., the fourth cardinal virtue], also cleanses the disposition as the blessed experience of the innermost peril to the person [perhaps one’s damnation]; it has that purity as its fruit in virtue of which one renounces [as in the sacrament of penance] the selfish seeking after deceptive and false fulfillment. Purity is the unreserved openness of the entire being, for which alone the word can be spoken: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38)….This supreme realization of purity is expressed…in an image of immaculate beauty and radiant authenticity: “Untroubled, the undaunted rose/ stays open in hope.” (Konrad Weiss)

Here a new depth becomes manifest: namely, that purity not only is the fruit of purification but also comprises in itself the readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and deadly, with the brave openness of a trusting heart and so experience its fertile and transforming power. (45-46—my emphasis added)

We may now consider the last portion of Josef Pieper’s gracious and modest little book: namely, his youthful and sober treatment of hope: the meaning and effects of hope, as well as the deadly and corrosive two forms of hopelessness (presumption and despair). We may then also better understand how this pure book might well have touched and formed the hearts of the men at war in 1941 who first read its grace-filled words of wisdom.

Before Pieper discusses natural hope and then the indispensable uniqueness of supernatural hope (implanted Christian hope), he more abstractly and theoretically presents his deep understanding of the structure of the act of hope. We shall attempt to convey his more philosophical grasp of hope’s intrinsic structure after we first try to articulate his position about the two forms of hopelessness, which are also the Catechism’s classic two sins against hope:

In the two forms of hopelessness, in despair as well as in presumption, this [distinctive] youthfulness of the hoping person comes to nothing all the same, but in different ways: in despair, in the way of the senile; in presumption, in the way of the infantile. (50—my emphasis added)

After I first met Dr. Pieper in Spain in the summer of 1974, he often compactly expressed to me the essence of presumption and despair. These are his words and as exactly as he incisively taught me:

Presumption is the premature anticipation of final fulfillment. Despair is the premature anticipation of final non-fulfillment.

In The Virtues of the Human Heart, he wrote, moreover:

In despair as in presumption, the truly human [and “youthful”] quality stiffens and congeals, and only hope is able to preserve it in radiant litheness. Both forms of hopelessness are in the real sense inhuman and deadly. “These two things kill the soul: despair and perverted [presumptuous] hope,” says [Saint] Augustine. (50—my emphasis added)

As to the structure of hope, in general, Pieper somewhat densely says the following:

For man who, in statu viatoris [in the condition of a wayfarer], in the state of being on the way, experiences the [his!] essential creatureliness, the “not yet really existing being” of his existence, there is only one appropriate answer to this experience [of dependency and vulnerability]. The answer cannot be despair—for the meaning of creaturely existence is not nothingness but rather is being, which means fulfillment. The response also cannot be the comfortable security [and assurance] of possessions—for the creature’s “being as becoming” still borders in peril on nothingness. Both of these, despair and assurance of possession [i.e., presumption], militate against the truth of real things. The only answer that is suitable for man’s authentic existential situation is hope. The virtue of hope is the first appropriate virtue of the “not yet.” In the virtue of hope, before all others, man understands and affirms that he is a creature, a creature of God.

Human nature and everything that immediately pertains to it have “the structure of hope.” We are viatores [wayfarers, and not yet comprehensores], on our way, “not yet” beings….Who could say that he already possesses the being intended for him, that he has comprehended anything (to comprehend means to know something as much as it is knowable, to perceive something completely), that he has taken the measure of all existing things? (47-48—my bold emphasis added)

And, as usual, Dr. Pieper acutely and candidly presents the darker matter of certain deceptions, self-deceptions, and camouflages of hope and despair:

Yet never can a pagan be tempted to such deep despair as a Christian and, so it appears, precisely [even in] the great Christians and saints.

Hope and despair can each differ in depth. Above a hope that is rooted in the soul’s innermost depth of being, there can be varieties of despair near the surface, so to speak. Yet they [these superficialities] do not touch the more profound hope [espérance, as distinct from espoir], and they have no definitive meaning. Furthermore, a person, who in the final analysis is in despair, can appear to be a thorough-going optimist in the penultimate concerns of existence, such as the naturally cultural, to others and to himself, as long as he is able to seal off radically the innermost chamber of despair, so that no pain can erupt outward (and it speaks volumes that the contemporary man of the world has made a real art of this [concealment]). (50-51—my bold emphasis added)

Reinforcing these sobering insights and psychological truths, Josef Pieper approaches and presents the last two pages of his book, and deftly touches upon nonchalance and complacency (or spiritual acedia), and presumption:

It is easy to flatter oneself [and especially one’s pride!] that one hopes for eternal life; however, it is hard truly to hope while in the midst of temptations to despair. In the situation of utmost bravery it becomes evident whether the hope is authentic. No one knows more deeply than the one who is truly brave that and how greatly hope is “virtue” and thus not “to be be had” casually and, as it were, “without charge”; no one experiences more clearly that the hope for eternal life is a grace. (52-53—my emphasis added)

These matters are so important for Josef Pieper—and for us—that he adds some earnest and manly additions especially helpful for those in war (to include even the valorous Ernst Jünger):

It can happen that, in a period of temptations to despair [for example, in the winter on the Russian Front, and in captivity], all inner prospects for a “happy ending” grow dark. It can also happen that, for a person confined to the natural, nothing else remains than the hopeless bravery of the “heroic downfall.” Indeed, this possibility will present itself as the only one to the true gentleman, since he is just the one who is able to forego soothing self-deception and narcosis along with, as Ernst Jünger notes [who himself later loyally became a Roman Catholic!], “the outlet [or gift] of luck.” In a word, it can also sometimes happen that supernatural hope remains simply the only possibility of hope at all….The sentence from Sacred Scripture [Job comes to mind here]—“Even were he [God] to kill me, I have no other hope that him. (The Book of Job 13:15)….Christian hope is first and foremost an existential direction of man toward the perfection of his being, toward the fulfillment of his essence, thus toward his ultimate realization, toward the fullness of being….

If, then,…at times all natural hopes become meaningless, then that means that, at times, supernatural hope remains simply the only possibility for man to align himself toward Being. The depressing bravery of the “heroic downfall” is fundamentally nihilistic; it looks toward nothingness; it presumes that it is able to endure nothingness. The bravery of a Christian, however, thrives on the hope in life’s abundance of reality, in eternal life, in a new heaven and a new earth. (53-54—my emphasis added)

Would that I (and many others) had had this little book with us in the 1960s in Vietnam and nearby, as the Germans first saw it in 1941 and kept it afterwards.

May we now at least remember anew and gratefully act upon my beloved mentor Josef Pieper’s words, supernatural hope included: “Virtue is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.” (9)


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper’s 1988 republication of the earlier 1941 book is entitled Kleines Lesebuch von den Tugenden des menschlichen Herzens (Ostfildern bei Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag AG, 1988). The 1991 English translation is entitled A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991). All further page references will be to this translation and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay and selective commentary.

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