“The Art of Not Yielding to Despair”: Josef Pieper’s 1972 Reflections on Final Hope

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    5 June 2020

Saint Boniface (d. 755)


“Whoever does not appreciate the significance of signs and symbols will never understand the essence of a sacrament, and only those who realize what constitutes a sacred action will find the way open to a deeper understanding of the Christian cultus and mystery [as in the Actio Sacra of the Mass].” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), page 164—this is a cited portion of his own “Foreword” to his earlier 1974 book, Über die Schwierigkeit Heute zu Glauben (About the Difficulty of Having Faith Today))


“Apparently Immanuel Kant had something like this theological aspect of hope in mind when he said [with his own Prussian Academy of Sciences’ citation to his Vol. ix, 24] that the fundamental philosophical (!) question, ‘What may I hope for?‘ is answered not by philosophy but by religion.” (Josef Pieper, “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair,” in his 1985 book in English, Problems of Modern Faith, page 186—my bold emphasis added; italics also in the original)


“And yet… the beginning and the end, the primal Origin of the Creation and the ultimate Consummation of the creative process, meet and touch in Christ; this closing of the ring….[i.e., with] God’s Incarnation….

“Let me repeat once again that anyone who, for whatever reasons, does not accept the historical reality of this primordial event—the Incarnation of God and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—must inevitably fail to understand the mystery celebrated in Christian worship [i.e., in the sacred Mass]. For, as I have stated, what ‘happens’ in the liturgical worship [the cultus] of the Church derives from that primordial event [Creation-Incarnation]. It [the public worship] is by nature a secondary phenomenon.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1989), pages 188-189—my emphasis added)


“For example, the idea of the Incarnation of God, in which the ultimate work of the Creation was linked with the Origin of that Creation to form a circle, might appeal to a ‘Gnostic’ philosopher who saw in it the unlooked-for confirmation of a world view based of a single all-embracing principle. But the facts that, within that framework, mankind hated and killed the God-made-man ‘without cause’ (John 15:25) and that yet this same death effected the salvation of man, who had committed the murder: these theological truths explode any tidy formula which anyone might conceive about the world.

“Another example: a philosophy of history which takes into account the possibility of a catastrophic end of history within time and yet, on grounds of the same apocalyptic theology, is opposed to the conclusion, born of despair, that existence is therefore absurd, must inevitably prove [to be] far more arduous, more complex, and, so to speak, ‘less satisfying’ than any philosophy of progress (whether based on idealist [e.g., Kantian or Hegelian], Marxist, or evolutionary conceptions) or any metaphysics of decline and fall. Thus a person who engages in a philosophic act appears to derive a handicap from his collaboration with theology, but simultaneously he derives an enrichment which can be summed up in the term higher truth. For the essential thing in philosophy is neither the avoidance of knotty problems nor the bewitchment of the intellect with plausible or conclusive proofs. Instead the essential thing is that not one single element of reality be suppressed or concealed—not one element of that unfathomable reality the vision of which is synonymous with the concept of ‘truth.’” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1989), pages 178-179—my bold emphases and italics added)


In his 1985 book in English, entitled Problems of Modern Faith, 1Josef Pieper has a seventeen-page essay surprisingly called “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair: Reflections on ‘The End of History,’” which was first published in 1972 in Munich, Germany to honor another professor.

There are portions of this candid and searching essay which—especially toward the end of the essay—are not only timeless, but quite timely in this already eventful year of 2020. Although variously fervent, even destructively revolutionary, hopes (in the plural) may not come to be achieved, there is still—sometimes—a more fundamental, existential hope (in the singular) that remains vividly alive as a gift and, thus, as an infused supernatural virtue. Moreover, despair and presumption are both sins against that virtuous supernatural hope. (However, many persons still do not trust these claims to be a reliable and important part of the truth.)

Briefly now, before Josef Pieper will come to answer a second of two proposed and primary questions, he will fittingly speak of the prior question: “Let us first address the question of what internal evidence exists for the probability or improbability of a catastrophic end to history.” (175-176—mt emphasis added)

Consequently and conditionally, he adds: “If one’s answer to this [first] question [about final catastrophe] is ‘Yes,’ then the second question is: What is to become of man’s hopes for the future, and is not the only appropriate response to human history one of despair?” (175—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

That we may appreciate more fully the methods and tones of his fair-minded enquiries and their spacious unfailing magnanimity, we now consider how he begins his essay:

If one accepts or even is willing to seriously ponder that concept of the temporal end of human history which has been an active feature of Western historical thought from the days of [Apostle-Evangelist] John on Patmos down to the time of [the Russian philosopher] Vladimir Soloviev [d. 1900], who in the final year of the nineteenth century published his myth of the Antichristi.e., the notion that the end of history (we should bear in mind that we are speaking of history within the framework of time!) will be characterized not by a triumph of “reason” or justice or Christianity, but rather by something in the nature of a universal catastrophe for which one of the most appropriate name is “the reign of the Antichrist,” a term implying the worldwide dominion of evil, a pseudo-order [deception] maintained by violence, and so on—if, I say, one regards this concept of history as something which at least merits serious thought, then of course one is immediately confronted by certain questions, and by two questions in particular.

First, does this conception of a catastrophic end to history within time possess any degree of internal probability, given our empirical knowledge of the historical process and of historical trends? In other words, do things [in 1972 or in 2020] “look as if” they might turn out that way? If one’s answer to this question is “Yes,” then the second question is: What is to become of man’s hopes for the future, and is not the only appropriate response to human history one of despair? (175—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

While presenting a set of then-contemporary examples of vaunted material progress and its sometimes ambiguous attainments (as of 1972), Dr. Pieper says:

Most remarkable of all are the great advances which have been made in the sphere of technological domination of nature and the exploitation of its resources. Of course in this area there are a “but” and a “nevertheless” to consider. Technological advances have always possessed the character of opportunities; and as we all know, it is possible to take advantage of an opportunity;….I will cite two examples of the ambivalence of technological progress, both of which relate to the theme of this discussion. The first example is that of research into the psychosomatic or psychophysical reality of man. Never before has investigation in this field revealed as many new techniques for healing man’s ills as it is doing today. However, it is equally true that these same techniques have created unprecedented potentialities for man to seduce, enslave, and forcibly modify the nature of other men.

A second example is that of atomic energy. At this point [in 1972] no one can predict whether the dangers of physical destruction and political abuse inherent in man’s control of atomic energy will eventually be outweighed by the potential of putting it to some meaningful use.

We have asked whether there exist any clues or signs which indicate the possibility, or even the probability, of a catastrophic end of history within time. In attempting to answer this question, I would like, for the time being, to refrain from expressing my own views, and instead present for our consideration statements drawn from other contemporary writers. (178—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

After considering, for example, “modern nihilism” (179) and such a man’s “yearning for self destruction” (179) and [as of 1972] the widespread “materialistic hedonism” (181) and even whether it is “no longer possible for man to maintain control over these factors on which his future fate depends” (179), Pieper presents the views of Aldous Huxley and, especially, his 1961 book, Brave New World Revisited.

Huxley himself is now quoted as follows as he is first shown to be explicitly re-examining his original 1931 book “thirty years later” (182):

“In 1931, when Brave New World was being written, I was convinced that there was still plenty of time. The completely organized society…, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable…—these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren….In this third quarter of the twentieth century…I feel a good deal less optimistic [now in 1961]….The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought.”

Then Huxley reviews his earlier [1931] book point by point and, on the basis of his experience of historical events which took place during the intervening years, predicts a future in which one of the most important elements will be a “scientific dictatorship” in which “there will probably be much less violence than under Hitler and Stalin,” and in which individuals “will be painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” To be sure, “democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial, but, “the underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism….“Non-violent totalitarianism” is the most inhuman form of totalitarianism—among other reasons because it can always cite what appear to be valid arguments to prove that it is not what it in fact is. This consummate mendacity must inevitably result in the atrophy of communication between human beings, which is essentially built on trust. (182-my emphases added)

To emphasize this factor of trust and distrust, Josef Pieper adds these insightful words from another experienced and understanding author:

Martin Buber attempted to express this fact [of a consequential atrophy] in the following terms: “In the future we may expect the total reciprocity of existential distrust to develop to a point at which speech will revert to silence [or to muteness].” (Of course [comments Pieper] not only does this breakdown of communication fail to eliminate “idle chatter” and mere verbiage (verbositas), but it actually encourages them.) The possibility of such a breakdown of communication, Huxley says, never for a moment occurred to the early advocates of universal literacy and the freedom of the press. “They did not foresee what in fact has happened….the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned…neither with the true or the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” (182-183—my bold emphasis added)

By way of closure of this preparatory introduction, Pieper assures us of something important: “Of course not one of the authors I have just quoted speaks so much as a syllable about the ‘Antichrist.’” (183) But, as he had earlier reminded us, as well: “Christians have never abandoned apocalyptic prophecy.” (179) Therefore, to such a matter we now fittingly turn—the second and last part of Josef Pieper’s overall and forthright structure.

Dr. Pieper makes the transition to his part two with the following words:

Tradidit mundum disputationi eorum, (Ecclesiasticus 3:11); God has turned the world over to men to do with [it] as they see fit. This is the terrible dowry of freedom, which necessarily involves the possibility of abuse. “Everything clearly indicates,” says Gabriel Marcel [in his The Mystery of Being], “that we ourselves have been given the authority to build the walls of the prison in which we want to live. This is the terrible price we pay for the unfathomable power which has been entrusted to us and which, moreover, is the foundation of our selfhood.” (183-184—my emphasis added)

Framing his final four points to be candidly accented in part two, Pieper then searchingly asks:

At this point we are in a position to experience the full impact of the second question we posed at the beginning of this discussion: What reason do human beings have for hope if we must expect temporal history to end in catastrophe? Would not the acceptance of such a view necessarily paralyze, and deprive of value, all active engagement in the historical process? How, under such conditions, can we expect a young person to “set to work with a will”? I will attempt to answer this question in several [four] successive stages. (184—my emphasis added)

The final [six] pages of this Pieper essay [pages 184-194] ought now to be closely read and savored by the reader, for there are many nuances of his thought that are modestly, yet forcefully and artfully, presented. I shall now attempt to convey the substance of his four main points and conclusion.

In his “Point One,” Pieper first argues for a certain distinction between what we ardently desire and thus hope for, and what we objectively and alone, however, cannot attain; and therefore: “We must learn this distinction from the inherent wisdom of language itself, which tells us that hope is always directed toward something which we cannot achieve ourselves.” (184—bold emphasis added; italics in original) And Pieper adds:

Furthermore—and this is the most important fact to bear in mind—human hope (not hopes, but hope, which is always singular) is directed toward an ultimate and perfect satiation of desire. What we truly hope for is, as Ernst Bloch quite accurately states: fullness of life; the restoration or healing of man; a homeland, “coming home”; a kingdom; “Jerusalem” [a Visio Pacis]; the absolute satisfaction of all our needs; beatitude of a kind we have never known before. (184-185—my emphasis added)

Our modest mentor then poses another sobering question that “we must ask ourselves”:

Does anyone really believe that he has a right [a claim in justice, or an entitlement] to regard all engagement in the historical process as meaningless, or to deny its value, simply because it will not ultimately create a world without suffering and injustice, a heaven on earth? This question clearly parallels the question of whether we can reasonably maintain that everything we do in this corporeal existence is deprived of value by the fact that in the end we all must die. (185—my emphasis added)

In his “Point Two,” he continues with a lengthy and substantive conditional sentence:

If our historical existence in this world is totally defined by hope and possesses the inherent structure of the “Not-Yet”…; if, until the very moment of death, man is really a viator or traveler “on his way” [“in via”] to something; and if, even in the final instant of his life, the essential thing, fulfillment, still lies before him—then either this hope, which is identical to existence, is simply absurd, or the satisfaction of this hope lies on the other side of death! (185-186—my bolt emphasis added; italics in original)

Since this following passage reminds us vividly of some of the professed anarchists and nihilists who are prominent and also in destructive activities today, I propose to present some thoughts from 1972 or so:

Thus anyone who deliberately restricts his vision to the domain which lies of this side of the boundary of death, quite understandably sees nothing but futility and absurdity. C.S. Lewis says that the truly unfortunate man is the high-minded unbeliever who is desperately trying not to lose what he calls is his faith in man. On the other hand, the ability not to yield to despair when confronted with the fact of death, as well as with the prospect of the catastrophic end of temporal history, is a matter of great practical concern to us all. Even in the midst of catastrophe, a person who possesses this ability remains capable of affirmation, which in turn makes it possible for him to engage in activity on the historical plane: to engage, in other words, in “political” activity—activity directed toward the realization of justice—as well as artistic activity, whose purpose is to praise the Creation. As Erik Peterson [a Catholic theologian] has stated, the mouth of the martyr does not utter a word against God’s Creation. Despite everything which befalls him [the Christian martyr] and despite how the world of man must “really” look to him, he still persists in saying: The Creation is good, very good! (186—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

As to his briefer “Point Three,” Pieper will have us consider that:

Viewed in the context I have outlined, the emphatic conviction of Christians that hope represents a “theological” virtue may appear, if not plausible, at least somewhat more plausible than before. Apparently Immanuel Kant had something like this theological aspect of hope in mind when he said that the fundamental philosophical (!) question, “What may I hope for?” is answered by religion. (186—my emphases added)

Later, moreover, Josef Pieper says that the unique and infused theological virtue of hope “aims at true fulfillment, which, if it happens at all, will take place ‘beyond’ our corporeal and historical existence, and of which we ‘know’ only through faith.” (187—my emphasis added)

The last three pages consider his “Point Four” as he comes to lead us gradually to the acknowledging of a gift, and thus to invite our gratitude.

Pieper begins his “Point Four” with this sentence and then follows it up with a few more considerations:

The object of the theological “supernatural” hope [an infused virtue in the order of Grace] of the Christian must not be conceived as something wholly divorced from the human existence in this world….When apocalyptic prophecy [of Saint John, for example] speaks of the resurrection of the body and of the “New Earth,” it is in fact telling us that not one iota, not one jot or tittle of everything in this life which was good and right, just, true, and beautiful, fine and salutary will ever be lost. (187)

Nonetheless—and now recalling the practical wisdom of one of his own gifted mentors when he was a young man after World War I—Josef Pieper says:

Of course, the mere fact that two groups ‘have something in common’ [as is the case with certain proposed syncretisms, and even currently official “ecumenisms”] does not make them identical, and what Romano Guardini calls the task of ‘distinguishing that which is Christian’ from what is not, is a never-ending one, of particularly pressing importance at the present time [1972].” (189—my emphasis added)

Furthermore, and as a sort of conclusion, Pieper summarizes some substantive distinctions to carry with us, as part of our grateful acknowledgment of another portion of both “ordo et mysterium”:

Two elements are involved in this task [of fitting distinctions]. The first is the need to confirm and maintain awareness of the crucial insight that precisely because of the irrevocable “Not-Yet” structure of historical existence, the ultimate fulfillment of human hope (not hopes) cannot be realized this side of death. Second, it must be made clear that (and why) the object of this hope, which is at bottom identical with our existence itself,…cannot be formulated in terms of clearly defined plans and goals, or eschatological schemata. Instead, the man who hopes, like the man who prays, must remain open to a fulfillment of which he knows neither in what hour nor in what form it will finally come….

The art of not yielding to despair [or to prideful presumption!] is not something which one can simply learn. Like all other arts, and indeed to a far greater degree than any other [art], it is a gift.

Nevertheless, it is possible [for a creature who is Gratiae Capax] to specify certain conditions [and thus receptive dispositions] which, whether by means of conscious reflection or not, must first be fulfilled, if we are to prove capable of receiving this gift. (189-190—my emphases added)

What a challenge and abundance and risk-full adventure Josef Pieper has so deftly offered to us. In addition to our responsive gratitude, which he has elicited, may we now persevere to the end, which is itself a “magnum donum,” as our sound Catholic doctrine teaches us.


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1See Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith: Essays and Addresses (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985—originally published in German in 1974). The essay on “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair” will be found on pages 175-191 of this English edition. All future page-reference to this essay will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this commentary.

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