Josef Pieper’s Double Challenge to a Character of Virtue: Facing Both an Unjust Exercise of Power and an Intrinsically Unrepayable Debt

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  12 April 2020

Easter Sunday 2020

Saint Sabbas the Goth (d. 372)

Epigraphs

“We must remind ourselves…that our reflection here regards justice as a virtue, namely, an attitude [prompt disposition] to be achieved by the individual alone…We can speak of justice when each person in a group is accorded his rightful due:…. the habitual disposition of the will to render each and all we encounter their rightful due.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989—first published in 1984, in Germany), pages 58-59.)

***

“Christopher Columbus died in 1506. Not unlike his Master, who was crucified and abandoned by His own disciples. Columbus entered eternity without anyone paying any attention. He died estranged from his own contemporaries. In fact he died in disgrace. That too is a deep lesson. The price of bringing souls to Christ is suffering.” (Father John A. Hardon, S.J., Christopher Columbus: The Catholic Discovery of America (Bardstown, Kentucky: Eternal Life—Inter Mirifica, 2012, page 12))

***

After his many years of deepening his forthright search and understanding of the varied traditional intellectual and moral virtues—and then writing about them with lucidity—Josef Pieper also often counterpoints some of the deeper aspects of these challenging virtues by which we may so honorably and sincerely aspire to live.

One such virtue, now to be briefly considered through his eyes, is the second cardinal virtue of justice (iustitia), to include part of its range of meanings and, especially, our own candid acknowledgment of its inadequacy in human society, and in our human relations with God.

Let us thus now consider how, and even on one solid page effectively,1 Josef Pieper awakens us to much deep and abiding truth. For example, after introducing a surprising supportive quote from Immanuel Kant himself—“not exactly a Christian philosopher, either” (59)—Dr. Pieper says:

The fundamental rationale for all power is to safeguard and protect these rights. Whether we consider political power or authority in more confined situations—in the family, on the job, in a military unit—the following always proves true: whenever such power is not exercised to safeguard justice, dreadful iniquity will result. No calamity causes more despair in this world than the unjust exercise of power. And yet any power that could never be abused is ultimately no power at all—a fearful thought! (60—my emphasis added)

Although he does not discuss the matter in this chapter, one of the main themes in Josef Pieper’s writings is that, moreover, the very corruption of language leads to the corruption of power. (“Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power”—being the title of one of Dr. Pieper’s profound and lucidly brief books.)

Proceeding to disclose another recurrent challenge, Dr. Pieper politely says:

If we persist in pushing our reflection still further, we catch one feature that makes our topic of “justice” radically more complicated. The realm of our human relations is such that in certain highly significant situations it becomes impossible actually to render to the other what is doubtless his [rightful] due. The ancient thinkers here recalled first of all our relationship with God to whom we could never ever say: “Now we are even,” meaning “Now I have rendered you your due.” For this reason Christianity’s great teachers have declared that our relationship with God could not possibly be marked by justice, and that in its place, almost as a substitute and makeshift, there had to be religio: devotion, worship, sacrifice, a penitent heart.

But even in our human relationships lie certain debts that, by their very nature, can never truly be repaid and absolved. Thus, strictly speaking, I can never render what is their due to my mother, to my teachers, to honest public officials. And, to come right down to it, I cannot really “repay” even a friendly waiter or a reliable domestic in such a way that everything I owe them is rendered….Some other virtue is called to substitute [as in the reverential Latin concept,“observantia”] whenever justice proves inadequate: reverence, honor, and such respect (not only internal respect) as to proclaim: I owe you something I am unable to repay; and I let you know hereby that I am aware of this. (60—my emphasis added)

An “Honorarium” given to a good speaker, as distinct from a stipulated payment presented to him, illustrates such respect and gratitude, and deftly implies that we could never properly quantify the wisdom and eloquence you have imparted to us in you invited and unmistakably learned lecture. (Dr. Pieper, for example, often thought and spoke gratefully of all the unrepayable insights of truth and wisdom he had harvested and even gleaned from his master, Saint Thomas Aquinas.)

Aware that he has been the beneficiary of so many intrinsically unrepayable gifts, Josef Pieper movingly concludes his modest (and artful) chapter with these memorable words:

Once we thus acknowledge ourselves to be the debtors and recipients in relation to others and to God, we may be reluctant to base our life simply on the selfish question: “What is my due?” (61—italics mine)

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1See Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), pages 57-61 (Chapter 19—“We Have a Holy Sovereign”). All further citations will be to this English translation and placed above in parentheses, in the main body of this essay. This chapter was originally published separately in 1980, in German, as “Menschliches Richtigsein.”

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