Dr. Robert Hickson 5 May 2020
Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572)
“Leisure…is a form of silence. Leisure amounts to that precise way of being silent which is a prerequisite for listening in order to hear; for only the listener is able to hear. Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in, reality; an openness of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of ‘mental labor’ can ever achieve.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology-Lesebuch (1985), page 140—my emphasis added)
“I wonder whether, in his relationship to the Church, the contemporary intellectual has not been offered a unique opportunity [as of 1985, and under the reflective Pope John Paul II] to employ and to give full play to all his potentialities, his special propensities, and liberties and even weaknesses?
“For example, could not the intellectual manifest his nonconformity by expressing his disagreement with those criticisms of the Church [such as her resisting permissive marital issues and disallowing artificial forms of birth-prevention] which are now being shouted from every roof-top? By the way, the source of the word ‘nonconformity’ is Scripture: nolite conformari huic saeculo, “And be not conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2)!….But how would it be, for a change, if an intellectual chose to defend publicly, with imagination and verbal skill, the thesis that purity is integral to the proper functioning of a human being?….
“But above all, has there ever existed such a challenging opportunity for the intellectual to exercise his noblest office, truly his nobile officium, as this: To take up the lance of the provocative word and to fight to defend her who is despised by all the world—namely the Church?” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), pages 132-133—my emphasis added)
“Nothing else can confront us with one indispensable challenge, the challenge contained in the following question:
“After we have accomplished, with an admirable amount of intelligence and hard work, all that is necessary, after we have provided for the basic needs of life, produced the essential foodstuff, protected the realm of life itself—after all this, what is the meaning of the life itself that we have made possible? How do we define a truly human life?
“To ask this challenging question in the midst of all our accomplishments as [they] establish ourselves in the world, to keep this question alive through honest and precise reasoning: this is the fundamental task of philosophy, its specific contribution to the common good—even though, by itself, it is unable to provide the complete answer.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), page 111—my emphasis added)
“The time has come to speak of the contemplative mode of seeing the things of the Creation. I am referring to things which are perceptible to the senses, and to the kind of seeing we do with our eyes. It would be impossible to exaggerate the concreteness of this vision. If a person has been terribly thirsty for a long time and then finally drinks, feels the refreshment deep down inside and says, ‘What a glorious thing fresh, cold water is!’—then whether he knows it or not, he may have taken one step toward that beholding of the beloved wherein contemplation consists.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), pages 145-146—my emphasis added)
When one reads anew his refreshing, often-challenging, 1985 authorial-selected anthology, Josef Pieper’s incisive, unexpected citation of the French writer André Gide will also lead us to consider afresh the distinctions and interrelations between the active life and the contemplative life, as well as the purpose of politics and the nature of earthly contemplation itself.
Such reflections, for which we are again especially grateful to Dr. Pieper, might also be helpfully illuminating and consoling for us now, amidst the current constrictions and imponderables in society, to include religious societies and their forms of public worship and indispensable penance during a pestilence which is both patent and latent and of uncertain protractedness.
We may see now how Josef Pieper approaches Gide’s own candid insights:
But practice [such as the phenomenon of “politics”] does become meaningless the moment it sees itself as an end in itself. For this means converting what is by nature a servant into a master—with the inevitable result that it no longer serves any useful purpose. The absurdity and the profound dangers of this procedure cannot, in the long run, remain hidden. André Gide writes in his Journals: “The truth is that as soon as we are no longer obliged to earn our living, we no longer know what to do with our life and recklessly squander it.” Here, with his usual acuteness, Gide has described the deadly emptiness and endless ennui which bounds the realm of the exclusively practical like a belt of lunar landscape. This is the destruction which results from destruction of the vita contemplativa [the contemplative life]. In light of such a recognition, we suddenly see new and forceful validity in the old principle [as expressed by a young Thomas Aquinas]: “It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.” For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of society the truth that is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick [or standard] of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life. (122—123—my emphasis added)1
To understand better the hierarchy and proper subordinations between the active and contemplative lives, Josef Pieper offers a clarification about the traditional notion of hierarchy, lest it be misunderstood, as is often the case:
We do not mean…to scorn or decry practical life [the vita activa]….And here it seems proper to put in a word about the nature of hierarchical thinking. The hierarchical point of view admits no doubt about difference in levels and their location; but it also never despises lower levels [of subsidiarity or subordination] in the hierarchy. Thus the inherent dignity of practice (as opposed to theoria [i.e., “contemplatio” in Latin]) is in no way denied. It is taken for granted that practice is not only meaningful but indispensable; that it rightly fills out man’s weekday life; that without it a truly human existence is inconceivable. Without it [the realm of varied active practice], indeed, the vita contemplativa [the contemplative life] is unthinkable. (122—my emphasis added)
In a three-page section of his anthology entitled “The Purpose of Politics” (121-123), Dr. Pieper begins his reflections with the following elucidating paragraph about the nature, limits, and inherent disposition of the active life:
All practical activity, from practice of the ethical virtues to gaining the means of livelihood, serves something other than itself. And this other thing is not practical activity. It is having what is sought after, while we rest content in the results of our active efforts. Precisely that is the meaning of the old adage that the vita activa is fulfilled in the vita contemplativa. To be sure, the active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Thomas [Aquinas], principally in the practice of prudence [the first cardinal virtue], in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity. Vita activa est dispositio ad contemplativam; the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation [especially unto “contemplation of the truth” (122)]. (121—my emphasis added)
For the rest of this essay, we shall attempt to present Josef Pieper’s essential understanding of “Earthly Contemplation” (143-148) and its deep nourishment, also as a foretaste (praegustatum) of a possible, but not yet a certain and indefectible, final fulfillment in Vita Aeterna.
Over the years—lest there be sinful presumption (one of the two sins against hope, and thus also one form of hopelessness), and yet being very aware of the scope and mystery of human liberty— Dr. Pieper would frequently, but modestly say: “Up until the moment of our death, we retain the permanent possibility of voluntary defection.” (He also knowingly spoke of our supportive need for the Donum Timoris: the Gift of Fear.)
We turn now to his other connected insights coming from Tradition, indeed from a long-tested and much-challenged Catholic Sacred Tradition:
The great thinkers of the Western tradition regard as a self-evident and inviolable truth the idea that the ultimate satiation of our desires awaits us only on the other side of death, and that this beatitude will take the form of seeing. However, this eschatological assertion concerning the perfection which ultimately lies in store for us has always, at the same time, been interpreted as a commentary on the earthly existence of man in the world. It has in fact been interpreted to mean: not only in the life to come, but also in his material existence in history, man is, to the very roots of his being, a creature designed for and desiring vision; and this is true to such a degree that the extent of a man’s happiness is only as great as his capacity for contemplation. (143—my emphasis added)
Dr. Pieper quite assuredly knows and shows us that this above-expressed theory of contemplation “appears so remote from the contemporary view of man” (144), so remote that it seems to be even “absurd” (144). However, he says that responding to this set of insufficient perceptions will be, in part “the subject of my discourse,” for, he adds:
The concept of contemplation which I have just outlined implies and presupposes several things which are not immediately apparent. For example, in the first place that man in this world is capable of visionary knowledge, that this means of ascertaining the nature of reality are not exclusively mental, i.e., do not consist solely of working with concepts and of intellectual exertion. It implies and presupposes the celebration of the simple act of looking at things. Anyone who disputes the possibility of such a celebration [as conveyed in a “loving gaze”] cannot accept the thesis of the joy of contemplation….
Our theory of contemplation also presupposes something else: namely, the fact that not only does the act of vision beyond death exist in a rudimentary, inchoate, premonitory form in this life, but also that the object of the beatific vision can be glimpsed, however imperfectly, by means of earthly contemplation….
Only the vision of something we love makes us happy, and thus it is integral to the concept of contemplation that it represents a vision kindled by the act of turning towards something [or someone!] in love and affirmation. (144—my emphasis)
After his varied preparation, only a part of which I have introduced, Dr. Pieper modestly says:
It is now possible for us to formulate a more complete definition of the essential meaning of contemplation. If we direct our power of affirmation, i.e., our love toward the infinite and divine source of satiation which flows through all reality from its ultimate fount, and if this beloved source reveals itself to the gaze of the soul in a totally unmediated and utterly serene vision—even if the vision persists for no more than a split second—then and only then does there occur what can, in an absolute sense, be called contemplation.
But perhaps it is more important to express this thought in positive terms and to say when the aforementioned conditions are fulfilled, contemplation always occurs. For what seems to me particularly significant in the traditional theory of contemplation is the fact that this blessed awareness of the divine satiation of all desire can be kindled by any event, by the most trivial cause. Contemplation is by no means confined to the cloister and the monastic cell. The element crucial to contemplation [as with poets and other artists] can be attained by someone who [like Hilaire Belloc afoot in the Alps or upon the sea!] does not even know the name for what is happening to him. Thus in all likelihood, contemplation occurs far more frequently than one would be led to believe by the prevailing image of modern man.
Not only do these inconspicuous forms of contemplation deserve more attention, more thought; they also deserve to be encouraged….We also need corroboration and confirmation of the fact that we are right to interpret and accept the beatitude of such experiences for what it truly is: the foretaste [“praegustatum”] and beginning of perfect joy. (145—my emphasis added)
Later in Josef Pieper’s essay, after his worthy and hopefully still to-be-savored discussion of the arts, he concludes with the following words of refreshment:
The indispensable nature of art [poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture and the like], its status as a basic necessity of human life, results above all from the fact that it prevents the contemplation of the Creation [or, gazing with love, Our Contemplation of the Passion of the Lord] from sinking into oblivion, and ensures [even under a grave, protracted quarantine and isolation] that it [contemplation] remains a living force in our lives. (146-147—my emphasis added)
© 2020 Robert D. Hickson
1Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985—first published in German in 1981 and then in a second edition in 1984), pages 122-123—my emphasis added. All future page references are to this English edition, and will be placed above henceforth in parentheses in the main body of this essay.
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