Hilaire Belloc’s “The Barbarians” (1912) and the Analogy of a Self-Sabotaging Cultural Immune System

(Author’s note: this essay was first published in 2017, and we hereby reprint it in light of current events.)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                8 August 2017

Saint John Marie Vianney (d. 1859)


“The Barbarian….will consume what civilisation [hence sacred tradition] has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort but he will not be at…pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that has brought them [such goods] into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation [especially Christian civilisation, Christendom] should have offended him with priests and soldiers….In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere [even as a Caudillo Churchman] in this that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but he cannot sustain; and of every Barbarian in the decline or peril of every civilisation [to include, even now, what remains of “the great and ancient body of Christendom”] exactly that has been true.” (Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” pp. 281, 282-283—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)


“Upon the model of this conception men, watching the dissolution of our own civilisation to-day [before World War I, in 1912], or at least its corruption, have asked themselves whence those Barbarians would come that should complete its final ruin [as was once the case in North Africa and in Asia Minor, also with the Faith].” (Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” pp. 273-274—my emphasis added)


“But the truth is that no such [mere] mechanical explanation will suffice to set forth the causes [not just the symptoms] of a civilisation’s decay. Before the barbarian in any form can appear [also inside the Church], it [the civilisation] must already have weakened. If it cannot absorb or reject an alien element [such as a doctrinal heresy] it is because its organism [thus its immune system] has grown enfeebled, and its powers of digestion and excretion are lost or deteriorated; and whoever would restore any society which menaces to fall, must busy himself about the inward nature of that society [to include its composite and intimately religious society] much more than about its external dangers or the merely mechanical and numerical factors of peril to be discovered within it.” (Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” pp. 274-275—my emphasis added)


After recently re-reading after some years Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 essay, entitled “The Barbarians,” I have thought to apply a few of his keen insights about both ancient and modern civilisation to the current Catholic Church and her own “cultural immune system,” as it were.1 This limited analogy may also thereby allow us to consider the additional phenomenon of “auto-immune diseases,” whereby an immune system comes to sabotage itself—sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly.

Belloc begins his own searching essay with an aptly cautionary sentence: “The use of analogy, which is so wise and necessary a thing in historical judgment, has a knack of slipping into the falsest forms.” (273) We must therefore be careful with our application of compressed metaphors and likewise preserve a just sense of proportion. For, analogy itself means proportion (analogia).

To help us understand his caution, Belloc gives an illustrative example:

When ancient civilisation broke down its breakdown was accompanied by the infiltration of barbaric auxiliaries into the Roman armies, but the settlement of Barbarians…, upon Roman land, …, in some provinces [was accomplished], by devastatingirruptions of barbaric hordes.

The presence of these foreign elements, coupled with the loss of so many arts, led men to speak of “the Barbarian invasions” as though these were the principal cause of what was in reality no more than the old age and fatigue of an antique society. (273—my emphasis added)

In this context, we might also helpfully recall what the Roman historian, Livy, had earlier (and very trenchantly) written, even back in 19 B.C., and in the general introduction to his own multi-volume history of Rome. Livy had then said that Rome had so degenerated and come down in those times even to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies” (“donec ad haec tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus peruentum est”).2 This compact insight about cumulative decadence is certainly “a terrible thing to think upon” (in the words of Father François Rabelais). Into such a weakened culture—to include a fatigued and weakened culture and immune system of the Catholic Church—there will come various parasites and barbarians. They should be expected (and firmly resisted). For, a certain kind of weakness constitutes a “provocative weakness” (in the memorable words of Dr. Fritz Kraemer)—“for it is so weak that it is provocative to others.”

But, in the face of certain threats, there is also a dangerous progression: from denial to indifference to despair. Some have even colloquially referred to the three sequenced tricks often employed by the Prince of this World: “I don’t exist”; “I do exist but it makes no difference”; “I do exist and that’s all that exists, the reality of evil; goodness is an illusion.” We might also call it a slothful mental or spiritual movement from “What’s the difference?” to “What’s the use?”—an expression of the despairing sense of futility. From denial to presumptuous sloth to despair.

Father Enrique Rueda’s 1982 book—The Homosexual Network: Private Lives and Public Policy3—illustrated for me such an enervating psychological pattern unto futility, if not, after all, despair. Father Rueda had told me that three-fifths of the specific evidence and other materials he had assembled he had cautiously “sent to Rome, and confidentially”: inasmuch as he did not want to scandalize the vulnerable faithful.4 His published Homosexual Network already had 680 pages of evidence and argumentation, and that was only two-fifths of the evidence he had produced. Even in 1982—during the reign of Pope John Paul II—there was already a grave problem of homoeroticism in the Catholic Seminaries in the United States, and also in some of the Catholic clergy. Father Rueda himself had, in his careful research, first discovered the meaning of “gay” which was an intentionally used ideological and meliorative word. For, he discovered, “gay” meant that both “being homoerotic” and “also acting out such a yearning disposition” were, in themselves, “good” and, conversely, “being straight was bad.” However, now in 2017—35 years later—Catholics so nonchalantly use the word “gay,” thereby appropriating (perhaps unknowingly) the soiled language of their own enemy or adversary or opponent.

Hilaire Belloc illustrated this same linguistic and essentially moral phenomenon back in 1912. Let us consider this matter now, especially the implications of an attenuated language concerning Marriage:

It is certain that if the fundamental institutions of a polity are no longer regarded as fundamental by its citizens, that polity is about to pass through total change which in a living organism we call death.

Now the modern attack upon property and upon marriage (to take but two fundamental institutions of the European [at least as of 1912]) is precisely of this nature. Our peril is not that certain men attack the one or the other and deny their moral right to exist. Our peril rather is that, quite as much as those who attack, those who defend [marriage and property] seem to take for granted the relativeness, the artificiality, the non-fundamental character of institution which they are apparently concerned to support. (278-279—my emphasis added)

Belloc then considers the purported defence of marriage more specifically:

See how marriage is defended. To those who would destroy it under the plea of its inconveniences and tragedies, the answer [especially in England as of 1912] is no longer made that, good or ill, it is an absolute and is intangible. The answer made is that it [marriage] is convenient, or useful, or necessary, or merely traditional.

Most significant of all, the terminology of the attack [such as “gay” in another “marital” context] is on the lips of the defence, but the contrary is never the case. Those opponents of marriage who abound in modern England will never use the term “a sacrament,” yet how many for whom marriage is still a sacrament [such as Roman Catholics] will forego the pseudo-scientific jargon [e.g., “sustainable developments in and among the gay, single-sex civil partnerships”] of their opponents? (279-280—my emphasis added)

Adopting the categories and undefined equivocal language of one’s opponents is, indeed, a recurrent peril and often a sophistical trap. Much alertness is required to detect and resist sufficiently such ensnaring sentimentalism or subtle humbug based on false premises.

Belloc will now introduce us to one such unprincipled form of the “strutting Barbarian”:

The [presumptuous] Barbarian, when he had graduated to be a “pragmatist,” struts like a nigger in evening clothes [sic—as in Fats Domino’s own singing of “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball”!], and believes himself superior to the gifts of reason [and to “the accuracy of mathematics” (280)], or free to maintain that definition, limit, quantity and [the law of] contradiction are little childish things which he [the strutter as well as the dialectical Hegelian] has outgrown….

The Barbarian hopes—and that is the very mark of himthat he can have his cake and eat it too. He will consume what civilisation [or our sacred tradition] has slowly produced after generations of selection and effort [as in the cultivated vineyards!] but he will not be at… pains to replace such goods nor indeed has he a comprehension of the virtue that brought them [such goods] into being. Discipline seems to him irrational, on which account he is for ever marvelling that civilisation should have offended him with priests and soldiers.

The Barbarian wonders what strange meaning may lurk in that ancient and solemn truth, “Sine Auctoritate nulla vita” [“Without Authority there is no life”]. (281-282—my emphasis added)

Belloc concludes with some candor that should make us more attentive and more wholeheartedly resistant now to the ongoing subtle, and also the crude, subversion of our Catholic Faith:

The real interest in watching [and then resisting] the Barbarian [within the gates and even within the walls] is not the amusement derivable from his [often perverse] antics, but the prime doubt [i.e., “dubium”] whether he [perhaps even as a crude lout or Caudillo leader] will succeed or no, whether he will flourish. He is, I repeat, not an agent, but merely a symptom, yet he should be watched as a symptom. It is not he in his [unmanly] impotence that can discover the power to disintegrate the great and ancient body of Christendom [and the Faith], but if we come to see him [that same Barbarian] triumphant we may be certain [“sine dubio”] that that [corrupted] body, from causes must vaster than such as he could control, is furnishing him with substance and forming for him a congenial soil—and that is as much as to say that we [and thus our sustaining culture of the Faith] are dying. (282-283—my emphasis added)


Hilaire Belloc’s fresh insights about the Barbarian and about his recurrent qualitative conduct throughout history will now also prepare us, I hope, to ask with integrity certain candid questions about our own “fundamental convictions” and, thus, about some “fundamental institutions,” especially the sacred and enduring institution of the Mystical Body of Christ (the Corpus Christi Mysticum), also known as the Catholic Church—to include the threefold interdependence and interrelationship of the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant. My observations and questions propose to cover the interval of time beginning mainly in October of 1962 (or a little before) and continuing until today. When the Second Vatican Council formally began on 11 October 1962, I was still nineteen years of age, and very young.

By slightly introducing some autobiographical evidence as a witness, beginning with my time as a West Point cadet (5 July 1960-3 June 1964), I hope thereby to make more pertinent, even more trenchant, some of my own searching and specific questions as a Catholic layman down the years, and amidst many intellectual, spiritual, and moral challenges. For, some of the things I first heard or read in my callowness and considerable theological ignorance later became much clearer, and, for me personally, even momentous. However, I early on was reliably led to understand that the deepest ongoing revolution was about the very nature of the Church, de Ecclesia. The subtle revolutionaries, striving to bypass and offset Pope Pius XII’s own doctrinal distinctions, attempted to say that “the Mystical Body of Christ” was larger than the Catholic Church, and thus more “inclusive” and much more “ecumenical.”

Professor Roberto de Mattei has just recently made me understand this larger matter freshly and still more deeply than ever before. His brief 2 August 2017 article on Corrispondenza Romana5 said the following, for example:

On the historical level, however,Vatican II constitutes a non-decomposable block [sic]: It has its own unity, its essence, its nature. Considered in its origins, its implementation and consequences, it can be described as a Revolution in mentality and language, which has profoundly changed the life of the Church, initiating a moral and religious crisis without precedent. If the theological judgment may be vague and comprehensive, the judgment of history is merciless and without appeal. The Second Vatican Council was not only unsuccessful or a failure: it was a catastrophe for the Church….

When Vatican II opened in October 1962, Catholics from all over the world were waiting for the disclosing of the Third Secret [of Fatima] and the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary….What better occasion for John XXIII (died 3rd June 1963), Paul VI and with circa 3000 bishops gathered around them [at the ongoing Second Vatican Council still in Rome], in the very heart of Christendom, to meet Our Lady’s requests in a solemn and unanimous way? On February 3rd 1964, Monsignor Geraldo de Proença Sigaud, personally delivered to Paul VI, a petition signed by 510 prelates from 78 countries, which implored the Pontiff in union with all the bishops, to consecrate the world and, in an explicit manner, Russia, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Pope and most of the Council Fathers ignored the appeal….

The failed consecration allowed Russia to continue spreading its errors throughout the world and these errors conquered the highest ranks of the Church, inviting a terrible chastisement for all humanity. Paul VI and the majority of the Council Fathers assume an historical responsibility for which today we gauge the consequences. (by Roberto de Mattei ) (My bold emphasis added to the text itself.)

It was sometime in early 1963—a year, more or less, before the 4 February 1964 Marian Petition to Pope Paul VI—that our two West Point Catholic Chaplains (Monsignor Moore and Father Mc Cormick) said something unforgettable in a conversation. Speaking of the Vatican Council, they said: “They have now asked the Blessed Mother to leave the Marriage Feast of Cana.” (It was only many years later—in the early 1980s—that I learned of a French priest who seems to be the first one to have written those piercing and sad words, namely L’Abbé Berto, himself a peritus at the Council: Victor-Alain Berto (1900-1968).) Quoting Our Lady, he also poignantly wrote: “Vinum non habent” (“They have no wine.”). Perhaps in her dismissal she still had time to tell them that. About Grace, too.

Some twenty years later, in the 1980s—while he was visiting my home in Front Royal, Virginia for the evening and for some deep historical and theological discourse—the learned Jesuit priest, Father Robert I. Bradley, S. J., unexpectedly told me a related story from back in 1965 and from inside Saint Peter’s, concerning Our Lady’s newly proposed title as the Mother of the Church (Mater Ecclesiae).

Father Bradley’s careful historical recollection of these 1965 events—where he was personally present—had to do with the audible unsettling reaction to Pope Paul VI’s new proposal, which he made in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the end of the Second Vatican Council. (And he actually proposed it after the formal close of the Council itself, as Father Bradley himself said from his first-hand experience there.) It came to pass that Pope Paul’s somewhat weak and shaky voice publicly proposed to the larger Assembly to restore an older title of Our Blessed Lady and Blessed Mother, and thus to address her once again as the “Mater Ecclesiae.”

Immediately after that Papal proposal, as Father Bradley earnestly acknowledged, there came an audible hiss throughout Saint Peter’s—a rudely disapproving and an unmistakably audible and permeating hiss inside the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

It was only after this shocking report that I told Father Bradley about Abbé Berto’s own 1963 words about Our Lady’s being asked to leave the Marriage Feast of Cana. In both cases, she seemed to be an unwelcome barrier to Ecumenism, the new coalescent ecumenism or syncretism. Father Bradley and I then considered together whether or not to use, without scandalizing others, an evocative and reality-revealing formulation: “The Theological Journey from Our Lady’s Being Asked to Leave the Marriage Feast of Cana to Her Being Crudely Hissed At in Saint Peter’s.” It was, moreover, a weakening and self-sabotaging Journey of only two years: from 1963 to 1965. The Church’s immune system was thereby further weakened. There are also signs of auto-immune reactions and disorders, or self-sabotaging actions (or evasions), whereby one actually subverts one’s own protective immune system.

We may now incorporate these events and implications into what we have already considered concerning Our Lady of Fatima and her entire Message of Mercy and Warning—to include the already mentioned (and ignored) 3 February 1964 Petition to Pope Paul VI from 510 Prelates during the Vatican Council who were asking for the special and specific consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Not consecrating Russia then also may have weakened the Church’s immune system.

In this context, we should ask a few other questions. For example:

To what extent were all—or selectively only some—of the Council Fathers informed about the the content and resolutions of the secret meetings held in Strasbourg, France and in Metz, France prior to, or slightly after, the October 1962 opening of the Council—those meetings being respectively held with Moscow and with certain representatives of the modern Jews? (The great Catholic scholar and French layman, Jean Madiran (1920-2013), wrote extensively and reliably about these matters.6)

To what extent did Cardinal Tisserant (after Metz) and Father Yves Congar, O.P. (after Strasbourg) make known the existence of their own individual private meetings and, especially, the content of their binding “ecumenical” decisions and agreements, to include any “secret accords” and hence their promised “self-censorship” henceforth about certain strategic and contested topics at the Ecumenical Council? Were most of the Council Fathers intentionally kept in the dark about such matters of secret diplomacy, and was this thought to be a sign of integrity and pastoral and ecumenical forthrightness? Were the leaders of the Council “playing with a full deck of cards”?

And how many of the more progressive (or purportedly “liberal”) Council Fathers and their own Periti may very well have gravely perjured themselves at the Council? For, they had all by then taken themselves the solemn Anti-Modernist Oath, which was only later withdrawn—after the Council–and then made non-binding and was even effectively, but quite quietly, revoked by Pope Paul VI himself, in July of 1967.

We wonder how such things affected the larger deliberations at the Council—especially their deliberations about the unique doctrines of the Catholic Faith, such as the matter of Supernatural (and Sanctifying) Grace and the specific Seven Sacraments and the Two Deadly Sins against the Virtue of Hope (Presumption and Despair), i.e., against the Infused Virtue of Hope.

Does it not seem that even the proposed Gospel of Life—as in Evangelium Vitae—is essentially (if not entirely) about Natural Life, not Supernatural Life?

Moreover, how are we to understand that a Pastoral Ecumenical Council would not want to know more fully—and with a provision of Strategic Intelligence—at least two major adversarial groups (or combatant ideologies): Communism; and both the Range and the Substantive Content of Modern Judaism?

That is to say, what do we need to know about the Political Action of Communist Forces? What do we need to know about the Cultural Action of Communist Forces?

Likewise, what do we need to know about the Political Action of Jewish Forces, and also especially about the Cultural Action of Jewish Forces?

A wise French mentor [Arnaud de Lassus], recently deceased, said to me years ago (in the 1980s) two especially memorable and reality-illuminating things:

“As I look back at the Council and the cumulative Aftermath, I see, on several fronts, the Attenuation of Sacrificium, Sacramentum, and Sacerdotium—and of Grace!

Secondly, he said:

“Our great challenge in this situation today is ‘How do we properly resist the Corruptions of Authority without thereby subverting the Principle of Authority?’”

My beloved mentor saw and sensed so well the ongoing weakening of the Church’s cultural immune system and its sometimes inattentively careless (and delusional) resort to self-sabotaging actions, to “auto-immune disorders and diseases,” as it were. He also knew that such enervating conduct would more and more provoke the barbarians unto further-sapping, or conquering, actions.

Like Hilaire Belloc and Jean Madiran, Arnaud de Lassus (R.I.P.) was a very great man of integrity, and graciously modest, as well. He was invariably charitable, but always after the truth.


© 2017 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “The Barbarians,” to be found in his own Anthology of Essays, entitled This and That and The Other (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press—Essay Index Reprint Series, 1968—an exact reprint of the original 1912 edition), pp. 273-283. Further page references to this reprinted text will be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of this essay.

2See Titus Livy, Titi Livi Ab Urbe Condita—Oxford Classical Texts (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press—Oxford University Press, 1974, reprinted in 1979), p. 2—Praefatio (Preface)—my emphasis added.

3(Reverend Father) Enrique Rueda, The Homosexual Network: Private Lives and Public Policy (Old Greenwich, Connecticut: Devin-Adair Company, 1982), 680 pages.

4Father Rueda also told me that, in his confidential report to Rome, he earnestly, and even insistently, recommended that the problems with homoeroticism should be dealt with on a “one-to-one basis, individually,” and “not at all with group dynamics” or with more collective “consciousness-raising sessions,” both of which would only exacerbate the situation and the disordered (or worse) affliction. He later told me that his recommendation was ignored and effectively rejected “because the problem is also in Rome.” These words were spoken to me by Father Rueda in 1982, while I was on the Faculty of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

5See the 2-page English translation of Professor de Mattei’s own article,“The Second Vatican Council and the Message of Fatima,” which is now to be found conveniently on the website of Professor de Mattei himself: http://www.robertodemattei.it/en/2017/08/03/the-second-vatican-council-and-the-message-of-fatima/. Professor de Mattei’s original article was in Italian.

6See Jean Madiran, “Rome’s Secret Accord with Jewish Leaders,” (10 pages), first published in French in Itinéraires in 1986—and it was translated into English for Apropos, in Issue 9 (1990). The journal is printed in Scotland. This earlier article (with four others) is still to be seen on the Apropos website on 29 July 2013. Until his sudden death on 28 August 2014 the Editor was Anthony S. Fraser (R.I.P.). See www.apropos.org.uk (Archives), also Approaches: issues 84, 85, 86, 88, and 93-94 for additional writings by Jean Madiran. Approaches was Hamish Fraser’s earlier magazine, later re-titled.

“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.

“Easter” and “Spring”: Two Poems by Isabella Maria Hickson

Note: During this time of lockdown, our 12-year-old daughter Isabella has had the inspiration to write two lovely poems, inspired by the joy of Easter and of Spring. We thought they might delight the hearts of our readers and inspire them with the love of Christ and of God’s Creation. Still in this Easter Season, we hope you enjoy them.



Easter is a joy-full tide

When Christ Himself to Heaven He rides

On that happy morn

Our Lord was not born

But rose from the dead

To give us His Eternal Bread

With His Death He opened the Gates of Heaven

So that we also may reach Heaven

And drink Eternal Life

So we may no longer have strife

And our souls not to soil

Also no longer to toil

So on this happy morn

All our sorrow is gone

Let us be joyful

And make us for Him delightful

Also to Him our love to bring

And His glory to sing


The mild spring, the season most beautiful

Is a season who feels dutiful

To come every year

Or the world could not bear

Not to witness that season

For so many a reason

The mild weather

With the animals eating grass from their tether

The fresh blossoming trees

And the busy bees

The fresh young grass

That let the animals pass

I love the spring

And all the joys it brings

This is my favorite season

For many a reason

Josef Pieper’s Further Insights on Silence and Purity and Incipient Contemplation: From His 1985 Anthology and Lesebuch

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 visioneven 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.

Josef Pieper on the Purity of Heart and the Perception of Beauty

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                20 April 2020

Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1313)


“A new depth here opens to our view: purity is not only the fruit of purification; it implies at the same time readiness to accept God’s purifying intervention, terrible and fatal though it might be; to accept it with the bold candor of a trustful heart.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), page 83—my emphasis added.)


“Only a chaste sensuality can realize the specifically human faculty of perceiving sensual beauty…and to enjoy it for its own sake,…undeterred and unsullied by the self-centered [i.e., selfish] will to pleasure. It has been said that only the pure of heart can laugh freely and liberatingly. It is no less true that only those who look at the world with pure eyes can experience its beauty.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology, 1989, page 81—my emphasis added.)


“It is in such an asceticism of cognition alone that he may preserve or regain that which actually constitutes man’s vital existence: the perception of the reality of God and His creation, and the possibility of shaping himself and the world according to this truth, which reveals itself only in silence.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology, 1989, page 87—my emphasis added.)


In the following considerations, I wish to present and discuss briefly some of Josef Pieper’s insights into the matter of purity and beauty, and their interrelations.

First in 1981, Josef Pieper published in Munich, Germany his own authorial anthology by which he personally selected and editorially arranged from all of his writings a fitting representation of much of his deepest thoughts down the years.

In 1984, Dr. Pieper, upon request, then published a second and more ample German edition, also with Kösel Verlag in Munich, and still entitled Josef Pieper: Lesebuch. From this second edition came the 1989 English translation, Josef Pieper: An Anthology,1 a portion of which we shall now consider. On pages 80-87, we shall find these four chapter subtitles sequentially (27-30), as follows:

Only the Pure of Heart Can Perceive Beauty; The Fruit of Purity; Temperance [as the Fourth Cardinal Virtue] Creates Beauty; and “Concupiscence of the Eyes” [1 John 2: 16; 5:19, for example, as a disorder].

Let us now follow the sequence of some of Josef Pieper’s insights and affirmations:

Christian doctrine does not exclude sensual enjoyment from the realm of the morally good (as against [as distinct from being the realm of] the merely “permissible”). But that this [sensual] enjoyment should be made possible only by the virtue of temperance and [disciplined] moderation—that, indeed, is a surprising thought. Yet this is what we read in the Summa theologica [of Thomas Aquinas], in the first question [quaestio] of his tractate on temperance—even if more between and behind the lines than in what is said directly….

Man, by contrast [to a lion, for example], is able to enjoy what is seen or heard for the sensual “appropriateness” alone which appeals to the eye and the ear….For intemperance (like temperance) is something exclusively human….Keeping this distinction in mind the [this] sentence becomes meaningful: unchaste lust has the tendency to relate the whole complex of the sensual world, and particularly of sensual beauty, to sexual pleasure exclusively. Therefore only a chaste sensuality can realize the specifically human faculty of perceiving sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty, and to enjoy it for its own sake,…undeterred and unsullied by the self-centered will to pleasure. (80-81—my emphasis added)

Thus, Josef Pieper would especially want to convince us now that: “Temperance is liberating and purifying. This above all: temperance effects purification.” (82—my emphasis added) And we recall, as well, his earlier words that “only the pure of heart can laugh freely and liberatingly” and “only those who look at the world [or another sudden person] with pure eyes can experience its [or her or his] beauty.” (81—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Pieper:

If one approaches the difficult concept of purity…and begins to understand purity as the fruit of purification, the confusing and discordant sounds, which…move it dangerously close to Manichaeism, are silenced. From this [fresh] approach the full and unrestricted concept [and reality!] of purity…comes into view.

This is the purity meant by John Cassian [circa 360-435 A.D.]. when he calls purity of heart the immanent purpose of temperance: “It is served by solitude, fasting, night watches, and penitence.” It is this wider concept of purity which is referred to in Saint Augustine’s statement that the virtue of temperance and moderation aims at preserving man uninjured and undefiled for God. (82—my emphasis added)

Dr. Pieper then asks us a question and answers it at once unexpectedly:

But what does this unrestricted concept of purity stand for? It stands for that crystal-clear, morning-fresh freedom from self-consciousness, for that selfless acceptance of the world which man experiences when the shock of a profound sorrow [like the death of one’s child] carries one to the brink of existence or when he is touched by the shadow of death. It is said in the Scriptures: “Grave illness sobers the soul” (Ecclesiasticus 31:2); this sobriety belongs to the essence of purity. (82—my emphasis added)

Further to clarify his nourishing, though complex, concept of purity, our author adds new insights from the related Greek tragic notion of “Catharsis” and an aspect of the infused “Gift of Fear”:

That most disputed statement of Aristotle: tragedy causes purification, catharsis, points in the same direction. Even the Holy Spirit’s gift of fear, which Saint Thomas assigns to temperantia, purifies the soul by causing it to experience, through grace, the innermost peril of man [i.e., the loss, finally, of Eternal Life, “Vita Aeterna”]. Its [that divine gift’s] fruit is that purity by dint [by means] of which the selfish and furtive search for spurious fulfillment is abandoned. Purity is the perfect unfolding of the whole nature from which alone could have come the words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) (82-83—my emphasis added)

After this preparation concerning the concept and reality of purity, our modest, though dedicated and resolute, guide will consider more fully the fourth cardinal virtue of temperantia and its inherently moderating discipline:

To the virtue of temperance as the preserving and defending realization of man’s inner order, the [additional] gift of beauty is particularly co-ordinated. Not only is temperance beautiful in itself, it also renders men beautiful. Beauty, however, must here be understood in its original meaning: as the glow of the truth and the good irradiating from every ordered state of being, and not in the patent significance of immediate sensual appeal. The beauty of temperance has a more spiritual, more austere, more virile aspect [and discipline]. It is of the essence of this beauty that it does not conflict with true virility, but rather has an affinity to it. Temperance as the wellspring and premise of fortitude [the third cardinal virtue], is the virtue of mature manliness.

The infantile disorder of intemperance, on the other hand, not only destroys beauty, it also makes man cowardly; intemperance more than any other thing renders man unable and unwilling to “take heart” against the wounding power of evil in the world. (83-84—my emphasis added)

How does one discern, especially from external manifestations, someone who is not just impatient but fundamentally intemperate and inwardly disordered, as we may now wonder about a certain character? But Josef Pieper will help us here again:

It is not easy to read on a man’s face whether he is just or unjust. Temperance or intemperance, however, loudly proclaim themselves in everything that manifests a personality: in the order or disorder of the features, in the attitude, the laugh, the handwriting. Temperance, as the inner order of man, can as little remain “purely interior” as the soul itself [i.e., “anima forma corporis”], and as all other life of the soul or mind. It is the nature of the soul to be the “form of the body.”

This fundamental principle of all Christian psychology [“anima forma corporis est”], not only states the in-forming of the body by the soul [the principle of natural life], but also the reference of the soul to the body….Temperance or intemperance of outward behavior and expression can have its strengthening or weakening repercussion on the inner order of man. It is from this point of view that all outward discipline….has its meaning, its justification, and its necessity. (84—my emphasis added)

Again on the premise that “contrast clarifies the mind,” we shall now conclude our reflections and presentations with Dr. Pieper’s own perceptions about the temptation and grave disorder of “the concupiscence [itching lust] of the eyes” (1 John 2:16).

Once again Pieper approaches his topic in a fresh way, though with some initial obscurity:

Studiositas, curiositas—by these are meant temperateness and intemperance, respectively, in the natural striving for knowledge; temperateness and intemperance, above all, in the indulgence of sensual perception of the manifold sensuous beauty of the world; temperateness and intemperance in the “desire for knowledge and experience,” as Saint Augustine puts it….The is no doubt that the will-to-knowledge, the noble power of the human being, requires a restraining wisdom, “in order that man may not strive immoderately for the knowledge of things.” (85—my emphasis added)

He promptly then asks: “But in what consists such immoderateness?”(85)… and then he adds: “The essential intemperateness of the urge for knowledge is ‘concupiscence of the eyes.’” (86)

Moreover, as Pieper now further proposes to teach us, there is much more to untangle, candidly and even bluntly:

There is a gratification in seeing that [both] reverses the original meaning of vision and works disorder in man himself. The true meaning of seeing is perception of reality. But “concupiscence of the eyes” does not aim to perceive reality, but to enjoy “seeing”….this is also true of curiositas. [According to Martin Heidegger, in his book Being and Time:] “What this [disordered or itching] seeing strives for is not to attain knowledge and to become cognizant of the truth, but [rather] for possibilities of relinquishing oneself to the world.”….

Accordingly, the degeneration into curiositas of the natural wish to see may [also] be much more than than a harmless confusion on the surface of the human being. It may be the sign of complete rootlessness. It may mean that man has lost his capacity for living with himself; that, in flight from himself, nauseated and bored by the void of an interior gutted by despair, he is seeking with selfish anxiety and on a thousand futile paths that which is given only to the noble stillness of the heart held ready for sacrifice…. (86—my emphasis added)

After an intervening four-paragraph presentation—sometimes quite harsh and glaring and coldly chilling—of the “destructive and eradicating power” (86) of the concupiscence of the eyes, along with cupiditas‘ “restlessness” (86), Pieper robustly disciplines his disgust and revulsion, and keenly says:

If such an illusory world [of “deafening noise” and “flimsy pomp” and such (87)] threatens to overgrow and smother the world of real things, then to restrain the natural wish to see takes on the character of a measure of self-protection and self-defense. Studiositas…primarily signifies that man should oppose this virtually inescapable seduction with all the force of selfless self-preservation; that he should hermetically close the inner room of his being against the intrusively boisterous pseudo-reality of empty shows and sounds. It is in such an asceticism of cognition alone that he may preserve or regain that which actually constitutes man’s vital existence: the perception of the reality of God and His creation, and the possibility of shaping himself and the world according to this truth, which reveals itself only in silence. (87—my emphasis added)

What a profound and eloquent selection Josef Pieper has made from the writings of his long life—even in 1984 when he was already eighty years of age. What a harvest and set of gleaning he has given to us here in his unique personal anthology. May his entire Anthology also be contemplated now.


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1See Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989). All future references will be to this 1989 edition of varied but approved English translations, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay. We shall be concentrating on pages 80-87, the last part of the first main category, entitled “Human Authenticity.”

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)


“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)


© 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.”

Insights on the Philosophical Mixture of Truth and Error: Louis de Wohl’s 1950 Historical Novel The Quiet Light

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    1 April 2020

Saint Hugh of Grenoble (d. 1132)

Saint Theodora (120 A.D.)

Blessed Karl of Austria (d. 1922)

Maike’s Nativity in Germany


“The Jews of this period [12th-13th centuries] translated the writings of Aristotle and of the Arabian philosophers into Hebrew, and these, retranslated into Latin, afforded the scholastics an opportunity for becoming acquainted with Greek thought. The most famous of the scholastics, ‘men like Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas, studied the works of Aristotle in Latin versions made from the Hebrew’ [S. Munk]….At a time when the Hohenstaufen defended the cause of science against dogma, and showed themselves the protectors of Epicureanism, the Jews occupied the first place among scholars and rationalist philosophers. At the Court of the Emperor Frederick II, ‘that hotbed of irreligion,’ they were received with favour and respect. It was they, as [Ernest] Renan has shown, that created Averroism [Earnest Renan—and hence at least implicitly the subversive doctrine of ‘the double truth’ of philosophy and religion, or of faith and reason, as in Siger of Brabant]. (Bernard Lazare (1865-1903), Antisemitism: Its History and Causes (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995—originally published in 1894, in French; and later published in London in English, in 1967, of which the 1995 edition of the main text is a reprint), see page 150—Chapter Thirteen—“The Jew as a Factor in the Transformation of Society”)—my emphasis added)


“’Then let me ask you, my son [said the Dominican Albert the Great to his student Thomas Aquinas]: Which is the most important rational faculty of man?

The faculty to discern the truth.’ The answer [of Thomas] came at once.

‘There are those who think man is unable to discern truth….What is it that makes an error so often credible?

The amount of truth its contains in proportion to the untruth.’ ….

Aye,‘ said Albert..’truth and error mixed…that is the danger. That is the danger we are confronted with.‘” (Louis de Wohl, The Quiet Light: A Novel about Saint Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996—originally published in 1950), pages 205-206—my emphasis added)


While recently reading aloud to my family another historical novel by Louis de Wohl—one first published in 1950 and entitled The Quiet Light: A Novel about Saint Thomas Aquinas1—I was especially touched by a timely and timeless conversation in Chapter X between Master Albertus Magnus and his gifted and abidingly modest student, Friar Thomas Aquinas. Therefore I have considered selectively presenting now again for the reader what had been so farsightedly depicted and politely conducted at the Dominican convent in Cologne, Germany during the mid-thirteenth century.

Master Albert (the future Saint Albert the Great), while visiting Thomas’ small cell, started their gradually deepening discourse with a searching question: “Which is the most important rational faculty in man?” (205)

After hearing Thomas’ prompt reply (“The faculty to discern the truth” (206)), Albert continues their ongoing exchange of insights, where they soon come to detect some self-refuting propositions, as it were:

“There are those who think that man is unable to discern the truth.”

“They are to be refuted [said Thomas] by the fact that they cannot make such a postulate without contradicting their own hypothesis. If man cannot discern truth, then they cannot state as true that man is unable to discern the truth.”

“Besides, we would never be able to recognize an error as an error,” said Albert, “though at times it can be difficult to recognize it. What is it that makes an error so often credible?”

“The amount of truth it contains in proportion to untruth.” (206)

While Thomas remained serene, Albert proceeded to surprise him, but only after he had reinforced Thomas’ earlier comment in slightly different words:

“Aye,” said Albert, nodding his heavy head, “truth and untruth mixed…that is the danger. That is the danger we are confronted with. That is what threatens to overcome the world, smash all our new [Gothic] cathedrals, and drive the Faith back into the catacombs. Unless…we liberate the giant.”

“Liberate the giant, my Father?” (206)

We again see Thomas’ sincerity and modesty as he proceeds to learn more about the giant.

Magister Albert, O.P. now further reveals his meaning concerning this formidable giant:

“None of those alive in the flesh…not even [Emperor] Frederick the Second, however powerful he may appear [just before 1250] to those whom he is crushing at the moment. He is roaring up and down Italy like a mad beast, seeking whom he can devour. But he and his little wars will be forgotten soon enough….except by those whose kith and kin have lost their lives through his cruelty. I hope this does not concern you, my son? Your family is still in Italy, as far as I know….

“I did not mean Frederick, the soon forgotten. I did not mean Louis of France either [i.e., the reigning King (Saint) Louis IX], though he will not be forgotten. My giant is not flesh and blood, though he was that, once. And those who lured him out of limbo are not flesh and blood either, though once they were, too.” [He was thinking about both Aristotle and his later Moslem interpreter, Averroes, as well as the derivative and subversive phenomenon of “Averroism.”].

Thomas waited, patiently.

“I’ll tell you a fairy tale, my son,” said Albert grimly. (207—the emphatic italics are in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Albert then gave Thomas a compact history of the rise and progress and gradual strategic encirclement of Islam (207-208), ending his summary introduction with these words:

“But still today [circa 1250] the green banner of the prophet Mohammed is raised over Spain, as it is at the very doors of the city of the great Constantine [Constantinople, to be finally conquered in 1453]. The emblem of the new religion is the crescent…and, shaped like an immense crescent, the Mohammedan lands are encircling Christendom, ready to strike at any moment. And some time ago [first in the 12th century], a new danger arose.”

“Now,” thought Thomas. He knew the story of Islam, of course. And he sensed at least some of what was coming. But he knew also that the Master was not telling him this “fairy tale” without good reason.

“The crude faith of Moors and Saracens,” went on Albert, “could never be a spiritual danger for Christendom. But then came the new danger. First Al Kindi in the ninth, then Al-Farabi in the tenth, and Avicenna in the eleventh century of Our Lord began to invoke the shadow of a giant who had died three centuries before Our Lord walked on earth. There was, at the time, no idea of claiming Aristotle as a forerunner of Islam. Al Kindi, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna wanted to know. Nevertheless, under their magic touch the giant [Aristotle] began to change, to be transformed….Then, just about a hundred years ago [in the 12th century], Averroes made his appearance….With Averroes…the birth of Mohammedan philosophy was completed. It was not an original philosophy. It was, to put it bluntly, a garbled and orientalized Aristotelian philosophy.” (207-208— emphasis added)

Still approaching his special and nuanced meaning and proposal—and his hoped-for mission with Friar Thomas, as well—Albertus Magnus repeats himself, nonetheless, for an important emphasis:

“But…but it was a philosophy. And it contained enough Aristotelian truth to carry oriental errors right into the heart and intellect of Christendom. At last, at long last, Islam [now] had a weapon against the Christian Faith, a weapon of such sharpness that it drove our own [Christian] philosophers [such as Siger of Brabant (see page 313—Chapter XVI)] to the terrible admission that there must be two truths …that of revealed faith and that of philosophy [namely, the claim that there is a truth of reason; and an incommensurate, parallel, and often contradictory truth of faith—along with its purported prior revelation!]. (208-209—my emphasis added)

It will be further helpful to our understanding of these grave claims and their implications (even today in the Catholic Church), if we now allow Albert to present with more detail his own fuller understanding of the enduring issues of moment, and his ardent encouragement to Thomas’ own further and fitting projects:

“And in the souls of intelligent Christians doubts are [thus] being raised for which theology has only the one answer: ‘Leave philosophy alone and stick to the faith.’ In other words: the Trojan horse is within our walls, and its name is the philosophy of Islam. What the vast armies of the camel driver could not do may be accomplished from within by the Trojan horse, by the spirit of the giant Aristotle, led by the spirit of Averroes. They say [Holy Roman Emperor] Frederick the Second is aping oriental customs in many ways, swearing by Mohammed and the Caaba, and making all things oriental [even Hebraic?] a fashion. It is a sorry sight. But it isn’t a tenth as dangerous as oriental [hence also Hebraic?] fogging our best ecclesiastical brains. And why is it that they are captivated by this thing? Because because the Averroist error is Aristotelian truth. Truth and untruth mixed…that is the danger. Unless…we liberate the giant.”

“We…” said Thomas incredulously. “We…?” (209—my emphasis added)

Albert promptly explicates to the modest Thomas the meaning of his “we”:

“You and I. I have cast about; I have been casting about for years to find the man who can do it. My own life is dedicated to it. But one life is not enough. No single man can free Aristotle from his chains. The task is immense. It isn’t simply a translation of [the original Greek, or the often dubious later Arabic, and even Hebrew, translations] of Aristotle into Latin.”

“It couldn’t be,” said Thomas breathlessly. “For even Aristotle was not always right.”

Son,” shouted Albert jubilantly, “that sentence alone proves that you are the man to do it.” (209—my emphasis added)

Somewhat stunned by Thomas’ concise words of simplicity and insight, Albert himself not only concurs but he also replies with a warning admonition:

“Aristotle was not always right,” he repeated. “Do you know that there is probably no man alive who’d dare to say that in public? Of those who have read Aristotle, I mean. For the others, and especially a few theologians I could name, are firmly convinced that the whole of Aristotle is the work of Satan himself. Can you imagine that? Good men crossing themselves when the very name of the Stagirite [Aristotle] is mentioned. But you, son,…oh, I love you for it…you have read him, and neither do you shrink from him, nor do you bow to him without reservations.”

He stopped abruptly. “Here is where we enter the fairy story, son…you and I, with our plan to unchain the giant and bring him back to his senses.”

“The great Jews will be of help [but also with reservations?],” said Thomas eagerly. “And especially Rabbi Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides (1135-1204), himself an anti-Christian]. His Guide of the Perplexed…”

“You have read that?” asked Albert, surprised.

“Oh, back in Naples,” admitted Thomas. “They [at the Frederick II-founded secular university] had a good copy [in a language unnamed, however] at the university. Rabbi Moses was a great man and a good one.”

“And he [Maimonides] also does not regard Aristotle as infallible. Son, do you realize where this leads?”

Thomas nodded. “The Christians will be able to say: ‘By the Grace of God, I believe; I have faith. There is much in my faith that surpasses reason but nothing that contradicts it.’” (209-210—my emphasis added)

Again even though very happy to hear the words of Friar Thomas’ succinct insight, Albert still gravely decides to be more explicit in his admonition:

I warn you of one thing, Thomas: our own people are going to make things difficult for you. The most intelligent Franciscan I ever met, Friar Roger Bacon…not the best, mind you, but the most intelligent…laughed at me when I told him my idea. He said it was impossible. It couldn’t be done.”

“We shall find out,” said Thomas.

“But the worst opposition won’t come from him. It will come from the narrow-minded, the chicken-hearted, the sterile…and some of them are very powerful. They are going to besiege you like the bulls of Bashan [see Psalm 22:12, for example]. And they will speak with formidable authority. They’ll quote the great saints against you, aye, and even the Fathers of the Church themselves. They’ll crush you with [Pope] Saint Gregory, with Saint Bernard, and the greatest of all, Saint Augustine…”

“It doesn’t matter who said it,” interposed Thomas. “What matters is what he said.”

Albert stared hard at him.

“By the love of God,” he said hoarsely, “I believe you mean it.”

Thomas stared back, in blank surprise.

I could not say so, surely, unless I meant it.”

The little man [Magister Albert], before whom they all trembled, said in a muffled voice: “Tell me, son…have you ever been intimidated by anyone?

“Oh, yes,” said Thomas.

I don’t believe it. By whom?”

By Our Lord…on the altar [before, during, and after the Consecration at Mass].”

[Thus cometh the memorable conclusion of this Chapter X.] (210-211—my emphasis added)

We may now, I hope, have better come to see and savor Louis de Wohl’s own accurate and reverent presentation of the life and challenges of Saint Thomas and his sincerity and purity and gifted discernments of truth, especially important truth that is properly unmixed with untruth and error. (With his unmistakable humility, Saint Thomas also knew that, as in the case of Aristotle, his opinions were not to be regarded as infallible.)

In any case, the varied wisdom expressed in Louis de Wohl’s book on Saint Thomas and his mentors, especially in Chapter X, could be well applied against Neo-Modernism today, not just those that were afoot around 1250 or in 1950 (under Pope Pius XII).


Writing about his own life for a scholarly source entitled “CatholicAuthors.com,” Louis de Wohl (b.1903-d. 2 June 1961) said the following:

Then, in May of 1948, I went to Rome, had my first audience with that living saint, the Holy Father [Pius XII], and asked him whom he wanted me to write about next! He said “Saint Thomas Aquinas.” Two years later I gave him the finished book, The Quiet Light, and asked him for his next order. This time he said “Write about the history and mission of the Church in the world.”

Also notably occurring in 1950, Pope Pius XII additionally accomplished three major things in and for the Church and her mission: the 1 November 1950 dogmatic declaration (rooted in Divinely Revealed Sacred Tradition) on the Assumption of the Blessed Mother (Munificentissimus Deus); preceded by the 12 August 1950 propagation of the incisive Encyclical, Humani Generis (a brief, polite update, as it were, of Pius IX’s earlier 8 December 1864 Syllabus Errorum (Syllabus of Errors); and, finally, the moving 24 June 1950 canonization of Maria Goretti whom the Pope warmly called a “martyr to purity.”


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Louis de Wohl, The Quiet Light: A Novel about Thomas Aquinas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996—a reprint originally published in 1950). All future references will be to the 1996 edition, and the pagination placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay. The excellent Chapter X itself is to be found in its entirety on pages 198-211 of the 1996 edition, and the reader would do well to read and savor the whole chapter, as well.

The 1571 Meetings of Miguel Cervantes and Don Juan of Austria: Louis de Wohl’s 1956 Historical Novel, The Last Crusader

Dr. Robert Hickson 15 March                             2020 Saint Clement Maria Hofbauer (1820)

Saint Longinus (1st century A.D)


“[Admiral of the Papal fleet] Marc Antonio Colonna, Duke of Pagliana, was a handsome man of no more than thirty-five….The sight from the [conquered] Sultana’s poop deck was never to be forgotten. Colonna had a few light guns trained on the [Turkish] galleys and brigantines still hovering near, and the two nearest surrendered without a shot, the first Turkish warships ever to do so. The flag from holy Mecca in the hands of the Christians and Ali Pasha’s head on a Spanish pike seemed to be more than they could bear.

Colonna started firing at the others [of the Turkish navy]. His ship, too, showed a good deal of damage.

Juan [overall Christian commander Don Juan of Austria himself] thought of the young man [also 24 years of age] on board there [with Colonna], what was his name? Cervas or Cervantes. Good luck, señor poet, he thought.” (Louis de Wohl, The Last Crusader (1956, 2010), pages 431 and 473)—my emphasis added


“Hope only becomes virtue as theological hope, however, meaning a hope moving toward salvation, which does not exist in the natural world.

Even so, Christian hope does not fail to keep our historical created world in sight as well. One can read this, too, from the character of the Christian martyr. The Christian martyr is something truly incomparable. It is not enough to look at him as a man who dies for his conviction – as if the truth of this conviction did not matter. The distinction and the uniqueness of the Christian witness lies in the fact that in spite of the terror befalling him, from his mouth ‘no word against God’s creation is heard’ (E. Peterson).

In the martyr’s hope three elements are joined together. The one thing truly hoped for is eternal life and not happiness found in the world. This is the first element. The second is the active ‘yes’ to the created world in all its realms. The third element is the acceptance of a catastrophic end to the world of history.

The connection of these three elements is, logically, filled with dynamic tension; it is not easy to hold these tensions together and endure them.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 26—my emphasis added. This excerpt is from an essay that was originally published in 1963 in Tradition als Herausforderung [Tradition as Challenge] (Munich 1963).


Earlier this year, after I had discussed and slowly read aloud to my wife and two young children around our glowing kitchen hearth Cervantes’ Don Quixote in its entirety, they unexpectedly requested that I then also read to them The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria by Louis de Wohl.1 Approximately fifty pages before the end of that almost 500-page book, we had a good surprise. It is this nuanced and touching surprise that I wish now to share with the reader, for it shows us how the future author of Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) met, warmed, and even charmed the heart of Don Juan of Austria himself in 1571—just before and then again the day after the 7 October naval battle of Lepanto in which the courageous Miguel Cervantes was gravely wounded in action.

Cervantes is shown to have been a volunteer soldier under the immediate command of Admiral Colonna, “the papal admiral” (442).

We shall introduce the meetings of Cervantes and Don Juan by first discussing the then-recent 5 August 1571 surrender of Famagusta on the strategic island of Cyprus and the cruel aftermath of that defeat, especially the deliberate and protracted Turkish tortures of Marc Antonio Bragadino, the military governor of Famagusta.

As Captain Barola now reports the grim early August 1571 situation to Don Juan and Admiral Veniero (the close friend of Bragadino), we shudderingly hear (but only in part):

“As soon as the town surrendered Mustapha [the conquering Ottoman Turk General] broke his word. All Christian captives were chained to the galleys—those over age were killed. Bragadino was tortured for twelve days…”

“Santa Madonna,” Veniero said. He was as white as the chalked wall of the desecrated church….

“Mustapha told him [Bragadino] that the cathedral would be transformed into a mosque. He told him how he was going to die. He would have him flayed alive. Then he screamed at him: ‘Where is your Christ? Why doesn’t he free you, if he’s so powerful?’ They began to flay him then and there, and they started at his feet. He began to pray the Miserere [Psalm 51—a lamentation and prayer for mercy]. That was his whole answer….”

He died a martyr,” Juan said. He crossed himself, and the others followed his example. “I command that this story be told to every man in the fleet. I take it that you are certain about your facts, Captain Barola?”

“Quite certain, Your Excellency, I am sorry to say.”

As soon as Juan was back on board [of his flagship] again, he made sure that his last order was obeyed. Within a few hours every man in the fleet knew about the fate of Famagusta [the consequence of its surrender on 5 August 1571] and of Marc Antonio Bragadino….

Juan conferred with Colonna. Veniero had excused himself and the commander in chief respected his grief.” (441-442—my emphasis added)

Shortly after this extended and provocative presentation, Admiral Colonna said to Don Juan, his 24-year-old superior, as follows:

“You seem to be very sure that we shall get hold of the Turk, Your Excellency.”

“I am very sure. Wherever they are, I am going to look for them until I find them.”

Colonna led his commander in chief through the ship. Juan found the discipline on board faultless, equal, if not superior to that of the Spanish ships. He particularly liked the admiral’s bodyguard, twenty-five men of the Pope’s [Pius V’s] own Swiss Guards under their young commander, a giant of a man, Hans Noelle by name.

The sword of Peter,” Juan said, smiling. “Mind you Messer Noelle, this time it will have to cut off more than just an ear.”

Noelle grinned cheerfully and said something in a Italian so grimly Swiss that Colonna had to translate it to Juan. ‘He says he wants a Turkish flag to send home to Switzerland….’

“Well, I hope he’ll get his flag. Who is that man there?” (443—my emphasis added)

Now we shall come to encounter and more fully to appreciate the future author of Don Quixote:

A tall, thin soldier was standing in the gangway and somebody was trying to drag him away by his coat. He resisted stoutly and at the same time saluted; his eyes fixed on the two great commanders [both Juan of Austria and Admiral Colonna]. (443—my emphasis added)

There appears now to have occurred an unexpected commotion and Admiral Colonna promptly responds in the presence of his own superior:

“What’s going on here?” Colonna barked.

The [unnamed] man behind the [dragged and resisting] soldier emerged, saluting sheepishly. “Physician’s mate, sir. This young gentleman is ill with fever, and ought to be in bed, sir.”

“It isn’t much of a fever, Your Grace,” the soldier said eagerly. “And I just heard what happened at Famagusta. I beg Your Grace’s pardon for intruding like this—I would like to ask a favor of Your Grace.”

“What’s your name?” Colonna asked, frowning.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, at Your Grace’s service.

“A Spaniard,” Juan said. “Where from?”

“I was born in Alcalá, Your Excellency.”

“I know it well. Where in Alcalá?”

“Our house was just next to the kitchen garden of the Capuchin monastery, Your Excellency. I was christened in Santa Maria Mayor. We went to Sevilla and then to Madrid.”

“You are a volunteer, I take it?” (444—my emphasis added)

Miguel Cervantes’ immediate reply to Don Juan’s previous question robustly articulates a wise and memorable vision and motivation, especially for a man of just twenty-four years of age:

“Yes [I am a volunteer], Your Excellency. That is to say, I am the kind of madman [like a certain Don Quixote?] who still believes that nobility of heart, courage, and poetry are the three things that matter most, next to the grace of God.”

You are a poet, then?” Juan said with that grave charm that won the heart of every man. (444—my emphasis added)

Don Juan’s question and manner drew forth a larger presentation of the Spaniard’s life and abiding ethos:

“Yes [I am a poet], Your Excellency. I went to Rome in the [clerical diplomatic] retinue of the Most Reverent Guilio Acquaviva de Aragon. But what is life at the most magnificent court when the bugle calls for battle against the infidel? Poetry can remain poetry only so long as it is paired with courage and nobility of heart.”

I wish all Spaniards thought as you do,” said Juan.

Miguel de Cervantes smiled deprecatingly. “There is need for the other type as well,” he said. “Has it ever occurred to Your Excellency that there are two types of Spaniards and two only?

[At this subordinate’s perk and spunkiness] Colonna cleared his throat [once again!] impatiently, but Juan was not to be deflected. “Two types only? What are they señor poet?” (444-445—my emphasis added)

Will our poet also still now make room for a Sancho Panza? Let us now consider the implicit possibility of such a pair and companionship!

The first,” Cervantes said, “is slim and dreamy and full of enthusiasm for all things great, sacred, and brilliant. The lady he loves is invariably the most beautiful in the world, and if she is not a queen she should be. He thinks the world is the field God gave him in which to perform shining deeds in the service of a great cause and so he is a hero and a fool, a poet and a knight.”

Like you,” Juan smiled. (445—my emphasis added)

After his “expression of politely hidden irony in his dark eyes,” Cervantes unfolds for Don Juan his own vivid and charming understanding of that second of two enduring types of Spaniard:

“The second type,” he said, “is intensely practical and knows the value of a maravedí, a real and a ducat, A woman to him is a very useful creature, and if she is pretty too, so much the better. He thinks the world is a field in which he must find a small place where he can live with a minimum of discomfort. You only have to look at a Spaniard and you will always know to which of the two types he belongs.”

Once more Colonna cleared his throat.

Thank you, señor poet,” Juan said, “I will certainly think about your theory. But what about the favor you were going to ask?” (445—my emphasis added)

And here is the favor Miguel Cervantes requests from the commander and chief:

“It is, Your Excellency, that I may be freed from the well-meaning but clumsy services of the physician’s mate and permitted to command a dozen soldiers in battle—preferably at bows [at the prow, or forecastle].”

“He’ll be killed there, most likely,” Colonna said.

“But, if he isn’t, he will reach Parnassus,” Juan said, and Cervantes’ eyes lit up. “Let him have his twelve men, Your Grace [i.e., Colonna], as a favor to me.”

“Very well, Your Excellency. You’d better go back to bed, messer poet, and come out only when it’s time to fight.” (445—my emphasis added)

A short time later—now after the decisive and won naval battle—and when Juan was festively about to sail along and salute the line of his assembled victorious fleet, “Colonna accompanied the commander in chief to the gangway.” (494) But then something unexpected was again to transpire:

A tall thin soldier appeared on it [the gangway], his left armed bandaged and in a sling. Somebody, a physician’s mate, was trying to drag him away by the coat, but he resisted stoutly and at the same time saluted, his eyes fixed on Don Juan.

Señor poet,” Juan exclaimed, smiling. “Leave him alone, you there! I am glad to see you still alive, although it looks as if you’ve been fighting as you said you would.”

“He did, Your Excellency,” Colonna affirmed. “And very bravely.”

“I lost the movement of my left hand for the glory of the right,” said Miguel de Cervantes. “And I want to thank you, Your Excellency. Yesterday [Sunday, 7 October 1571] was the most beautiful day of the century.”

So he knows, too, that there will not be another, Juan thought. “I thought of you once,” he said, “during the battle.”

Deeply moved, Cervantes said, “With or without a crown—you, sir, are a true king.”….

A true king, Cervantes thought. A magnificent young king. A crusader. Perhaps…the last crusader. (495—my emphasis added)

In the last few lines of his book (on page 495), Louis de Wohl considered the likelihood of a later tragedy, perhaps also to occur in Don Juan of Austria’s own young life, but also more broadly:

But those who were shouting “Hosanna” today might well be shouting “Crucify” tomorrow. Yesterday’s conquerer was today’s victim and tomorrow’s fool….Glorious fool! Glorious folly! Was there not someone who had spoken even of the Folly of the Cross. Saint Paul, of course. To whatever height a poet [has] soared, always a saint had been there before. (495—my emphasis added)

And the saints—especially the blood martyrs—knew the importance, and lived out the reality, of the virtue of hope, the hope of the Christian martyrs. A gift of grace, a theological virtue.

Miguel Cervantes knew well and later depicted the sorrows and tragedies of life, and he also cherished a virtuous hope: the hope of eternal life. May his companion, Don Juan of Austria, also have come to that sensitive awareness and virtuous conduct by the end of his short, but heroic life.


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Louis de Wohl, The Last Crusader: A Novel about Don Juan of Austria (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010—first published in 1956). All further references to this 495-page book will be to the paginations of the 2010 edition; and they will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay. This essay will especially counterpoint the brief and graciously subtle relationship between Miguel Cervantes as a combatant volunteer soldier, and Don Juan of Austria as the Commanding General of the Fleet—both of whom are 24 years of age.

Josef Pieper’s Summary Presentation of the Virtue of Prudence and Its Conscientiousness

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         16 December 2019

Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, Martyr (d. 371)


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 (1991 in English at Ignatius Press, page 9; first published in 1988 in the original German as Kleines Lesebuch von den Tugenden des menschlichen Herzens).


“The Latin word virtus means manliness. The German word for virtue, Tugend, comes from taugen, to be fit; and related to the English word doughty, now obsolete except in humor, but originally meaning able. Virtue makes a man fit and able to be what his Creator intends, and to do what his Creator wills. (Josef Pieper What Catholics Believe (1951), page 65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original))


“While prudence is the cornerstone of the cardinal virtues, justice is their peak and culmination. A good man is above all a just man.” (Josef Pieper, What Catholics Believe (1951), page 75.)


If thy eye is single [Latin “simplex,” i.e., “sine dolo,” “without guile,” and thus without duplicity, without hypocritical cunning], the whole of thy body will be lit up [full of light].” (Gospel of Matthew 6:22—and the Epigraph of Josef Pieper’s own 1959 book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue)


In 1951, Josef Pieper published in the United States his lucidly written and lucidly translated book, What Catholics Believe (Christenfibel in the original German).1 A portion of this deeply moving and refreshingly trustworthy book I now propose to consider more fully in this brief essay. It hopes to present Dr. Pieper’s compact understanding of the Christian virtue of prudence, and how and why virtuous prudence has a fitting consequence upon a well-formed conscience that is sincere.

Those who might find this brief consideration of sufficient worth in itself may also want to read and savor Josef Pieper’s later 1959 book for a fuller treatment—it is entitled Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue 2 and published by the same excellent publisher, Pantheon Books.

Before addressing the specific virtue of prudence (rooted practical wisdom), he presents his view of the concept and reality of virtue in general:

The fact that the word virtue has in our time [as of 1951] taken on the tinge of something unmanly and even ridiculous imposes two obligations upon the Christian. He must beware of any falsely pious abuse of the word and the concept, and he must come to recognize its healthy and genuine sense [of virtue], which it is his duty to embody, regardless of any human respect. (65—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Dr. Pieper soon proceeds to examine more closely the concept and reality of virtue, as well as the contrast of what true virtue is not:

Thus virtue is not good surface behavior and orderly deportment. A good man is more of a man that a bad one, in the sense that he is making more of his humanity. He is in every respect more fit. Thus a man’s virtue shows that he is putting his ability into practice; here and now he is making actual what would otherwise remain merely possible [potential] within him. This means that he does good—and that he does it not because he has to, but because he wills to. He wants to, and he can. Through sin, the willful turning away from God, a man of his own free will becomes unfit to be and to do what he is intended to be and to do.

The highest and truest fitness of the Christian is to be able to lead the life of a child of God, in close relationship with God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. His most abysmal unfitness consists in losing this power and this life through his own fault.

The most important Christian virtues are the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the four cardinal virtues of wisdom [sic—prudentia], justice, fortitude, and moderation [sic—temperantia]. (65-66—my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Josef Pieper now helpfully gives us two more framing, doctrinal paragraphs of substance in order to prepare us, even better, to focus specifically on the virtue of prudence: “The Theological Virtues and Sanctifying Grace”; and “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” as such (72-73):

All three theological virtues have their roots in sanctifying grace. Their seeds are implanted in us together with grace as new potentialities which would otherwise be beyond our reach. In the order of their nature, faith comes before hope, hope before charity. And sin destroys them in reverse order—charity first, faith last. The faith of a man living in mortal sin is indeed incomplete, but the spark from which the flame of his supernatural life can be lit again to become full, warm, and bright.

The cardinal virtues are natural perfections—human potentialities on the natural level. But as Christian virtues they have their roots in the supernatural soil of faith, hope, and charity; above all, in sanctifying grace. In a Christian, the infused moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance go far beyond their natural strength and nobility, to the fullness of the sanctity of a life centered in God. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Now at last we may more ably try to incorporate Dr. Pieper’s own incisive and lucid insights and gradually deepening understanding of “The Virtue of Prudence”:

The first of the four cardinal virtues, and the rule for the other three, is prudence. Now it goes against the grain of present-day thinking [as of 1951] to see in prudence a virtue, let alone the first of the four cardinal virtues. The reason for this is that we often have an entirely wrong idea of the virtue of prudence. Prudence as virtue has nothing to do with sharpness [cleverness] and guile, nor with the timorous attitude of undue caution [or at least, perhaps, a seeming cowardice]. Prudence is the quality of clearsightedness. The prudent man approaches each decision with his eyes open, in the full light of knowledge and faith. He discerns reality objectively, sizes up a factual situation for what it is, and weighs the real value of things. Only after careful consideration does the prudent man make his decision. Whoever follows the impulse of his will before appraising the facts and the circumstances of a situation accurately and objectively is imprudent and unwise. That man is prudent who directs the choice of his will according to his insight in a situation and in the true reality of things as God has created them, and who is able to apply the general principles of virtuous action to the concrete, immediate instance. (73—my emphasis added)

In only three more and vividly nuanced paragraphs, Josef Pieper will modestly and unassumingly attempt to convey to us many other facets of virtuous prudentia, such as in this situation:

If the prudent man feels that he is beyond his own powers of insight, he will rely on the insight of a more competent person. Hence, docility is a part of prudencethe ability to accept instruction and advice. Presumptuousness and lack of objective reflection are the contrary of prudence. The know-it-all and the man lacking objectivity are not humble enough to match their judgment with reality. This type of person believes that he can come to a decision impetuously and blindly. However, any decision not arrived at from a sober appraisal of reality is bound to be wrong [in part, like the generous Don Quixote himself!]. And if such a decision concerns a matter of morals, it cannot possibly be a good one. (74—my emphasis added)

Moreover, with all these things in mind, our beloved mentor Josef Pieper will now choose to come to some additional firm conclusions that are marks of his own practical wisdom:

The person that lacks objectivity and who is unable to keep still and [is unable] to allow the facts to speak, in order to gain a sound basis for his decisions, cannot possibly be a just man either. Justice and all the other cardinal virtues demand capacity for weighing facts, respect for objective reality, and ability to transform this theoretical knowledge into effective action [“from knowledge of reality to the realization of the good” as Pieper says elsewhere]. From all this, it becomes obvious that prudence is the first requirement for the other virtues. And that is why Saint Thomas call it their “mother” [i.e., “genitrix” in his own Latin].

Prudence is the art of deciding wisely. The prudent man acknowledges the obligations contained in objective reality. Not only does he know what is right, he also does what he knows to be right. The decisions based on prudence, therefore, are the verdict of our conscience. Conscientiousness and prudence are as closely related as effect and cause. Whoever works on the development of prudence in others and in himself also improves and perfects his conscience. (74—my emphasis added)


On the premise that one may (and could all too often) possibly have a sincere but erroneous conscience, one must thus be especially attentive to how one forms one’s conscience. We sincerely and competently ask ourselves: “on what grounds?” and “by what authority?” are we forming our Conscience reliably.

Having only an unformed and impulsive conscience is not sufficient, and may thus be an irresponsible laxity and slothfulness, even a culpability in our negligence.

Therefore, the cultivation of the Virtue of Prudence—as Josef Pieper presents it and understands it—will also improve and perfect one’s conscience to the extent that one is sincerely and potentially capable, and also capable of receiving grace: i.e., Gratiae Capax.

Dr. Pieper’s entire book on What Catholics Believe (1951), as well as his excellent and eloquent later book on Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (1959), will further help the reader to understand and to live out virtuously these various and interrelated matters of moment.


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper and Heinz Raskop, What Catholics Believe (New York: Pantheon Books, 1951), 112 pages and translated by Christopher Huntington. As Dr. Pieper later told me in person in his home in Münster, Germany, he himself was especially attentive to those portions on “The Christian Virtues” (pages 65-79), the virtues being one of his own academic specialties, also as part of his larger studies in Philosophical Anthropology. All further references to this 1951 book will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.

2Josef Pieper, Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959), 96 pages—and translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston.

E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) And His Inspiring Discussion of “Two Types of Problems”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         3 December 2019

Saint Francis Xavier, S.J. (d. 1552)


“To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas, following Aristotle, taught that ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.’” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 3.)


“Traditional wisdom had a reassuringly plain answer: Man’s happiness is to move higher, to develop his highest faculties, to gain knowledge of the highest things and, if possible, to ‘see God.’ If he moves lower, develops only his lower faculties, which he shares with the animals, then he makes himself unhappy, even to the point of despair.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 12—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)


“But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not convergent, capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort. No, they [i.e.,“moral problems”] are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.

“Can we rely on it [namely,] that a ‘turning point’ [i.e., ‘a metanoia‘—p. 139] will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked [as of 1977], but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes” would lead to complacency [hence to presumption], and the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, page 140—my emphasis added.)


“In the life of societies there is the need for both justice and mercy. ‘Justice without mercy,” said Thomas Aquinas, ‘is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution‘ [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 5:2]—a very clear definition of a divergent problem. Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 127—my emphasis added.)


In 1977, the year of his death, the author of Small Is Beautiful (1973) introduced for us his effectively testamentary book—A Guide for the Perplexed—with some rather lengthy, yet freshly insightful, quotations from Saint Thomas Aquinas. These profound words from the Summa Contra Gentiles, as they are presented in Chapter One, also thereby help E. F. Schumacher to anticipate what he will later also say and develop in his intellectual and spiritual testament’s last chapter, Chapter Ten, which is entitled “Two Types of Problems.”

Let us ourselves therefore first consider two portions of Saint Thomas’ words:

With imperturbable certainty [says Schumacher] Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued:

“No man tends to do a thing by his desire and endeavour unless it be previously known to him. Wherefore since man is directed by divine providence to a higher good than human frailty can attain in the present life…it was necessary for his mind to be bidden to something higher than those things to which our reason can reach in the present life, so that he may learn to aspire, and by his endeavours to tend to something surpassing the whole state of the present life….It was with this motive that the philosophers, in order to wean men from sensible pleasures to virtue, took care to show that there are other goods of greater account than those which appeal to the senses, the taste of which things affords much greater delight to those who devote themselves to active or contemplative virtues.”1

Schumacher continues this line of emphasis by first introducing Saint Thomas’ second passage:

These [above] teachings, which are the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world, have become incomprehensible to modern man [as of 1977], although he, too, desires nothing more than somehow to be able to rise above “the whole state of the present life.” He hopes to do so by growing rich, by moving around at ever-increasing speed, by traveling to the moon and into space. It is worth listening again to Saint Thomas. (13—my emphasis added)

And here is what Saint Thomas specifically argued in his apologetic work, the Summa Contra Gentiles (Volume 3), as a complement to the passage presented above from Volume 1:

“There is a desire in man, common to him and other animals, namely the desire for the enjoyment of pleasure: and this men pursue especially by leading a voluptuous life, and through lack of moderation become intemperate and incontinent. Now in that vision [“divine vision”—says Schumacher] there is the most perfect pleasure, all the more perfect than sensuous pleasure as the intellect is above the senses; as the good in which we shall delight surpasses all sensible good, is more penetrating, and more continuously delightful; and as that pleasure is freer from all alloy of sorrow or trouble of anxiety….

In this life there is nothing so like this perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below. Hence the philosophers who were unable to obtain full knowledge of that final beatitude, placed man’s ultimate happiness in that contemplation which is possible during this life. For this reason too, Holy Writ commends the contemplative rather than other forms of life, when our Lord said (Luke X:42): Mary hath chosen the better part, namely contemplation of truth, which shall not be taken from her. For contemplation of truth begins in this life, but will be consummated in the life to come: while the active and civic life does not transcend the limits of this life.” (13—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

In this context, let us now consider what Schumacher calls “convergent problems,” as distinct from “divergent problems,” the latter of which are much more demanding and stretching of a man’s higher faculties (such as our sensitively formed consciousness and our humble self-awareness).

After beginning his Chapter Ten with a partial recapitulation of his previous nine chapters, he says:

It remains to examine what it means to live in this world. To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems. Unsolved problems tend to cause a kind of existential anguish….

This extraordinary situation might lead us to inquire into the nature of “problems.” We know there are solved problems and unsolved problems. The former, we may feel, present no issue; but as regards the latter: Are there not problems that are not merely unsolved but insoluble? (120-121—my bold emphasis; italics in the original)

He will now gradually prepare us to look at the mystery and challenge of divergent problems, after briefly considering some lesser challenges. For, as he later says in his Epilogue—while still “learning how to cope, to grapple, with the divergent problems that are the stuff of real life” (139—my emphasis added):

The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Only if we know that we have actually descended into infernal regions [as was the case in Dante’s Divine Comedy] where nothing awaits us but “the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations,” can we summon the courage and imagination for a “turning around,” a metanoia. This then leads us to seeing the world in a new light [perhaps under Grace]. (139—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Thus now comes Schumacher’s own step-by-step teaching:

First, let us look at solved problems. Take a design problem—say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is “the answer”—a bicycle—an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable over time. Why is this answer so stable? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe—laws at the level of inanimate nature.

I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you (whoever you are) study them, the more the answers converge. They may be divided into “convergent problem solved” and “convergent problem as yet unsolved.” The words “as yet” are important, for there is no reason in principle why they should not be solved some day….

It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people may set out to study a problem and come up with answers that contradict one another. They do not converge. On the contrary, the more they are clarified and logically developed, the more they diverge, until some [such as “Justice and Mercy” or “Growth and Decay”] appear to be the exact opposites of the others. (121-122—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Schumacher’s attentive mind and fatherhood now give us an important exemplification of this kind of divergence, as it especially again applies to the little children:

For example, life presents us with a very big problem—not the technical problem of two-wheeled transport, but the human problem of how to educate our children. [And it has long been acutely and wisely perceived that “there are no technical solutions to moral problems.”] We cannot escape it; we have to face it. (122—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Schumacher will now concretely unfold his challenge about an often intractable “divergency,” that is, “a divergent problem” (123):

And we ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them, on the basis of clear intuition, tell us: “Education is the process by which existing culture is passed from one generation to the next. Those who have (or are presumed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. For the process to be effective, authority and obedience must be set up.” Nothing could be simpler, truer, more logical and straightforward. Education calls for the establishment of authority for the teachers and discipline and obedience on the part of the pupils.

Now, another group of our advisers, having gone into the problem with the utmost care, says this: “Education is nothing more nor less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, whose function is to make available healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots; through these it will extract the nutrients it requires. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.” In other words, education as seen by this second group calls for the establishment, not of discipline and obedience, but of freedom—the greatest possible freedom. (122-my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Deftly and with some hyperbole and unmistakably fine irony, Schumacher now considers some implications of these two positions:

If our first group of advisers is right, discipline and obedience are “a good thing,” and it can be argued with perfect logic that if something is “a good thing,” more of it would be a better thing, and perfect discipline and obedience would be a perfect thing…and the school would become a prison house.

Our second group of advisers, on the other hand, argues that in education freedom is “a good thing.” If so, more freedom [as if truth mattered?] would be an even better thing, and perfect freedom would produce perfect education. The school would become a jungle, even a kind of lunatic asylum.

Freedom and discipline (obedience) here is a pair of perfect opposites. No compromise is possible. It is either the one or the other. It is either “Do as you like” or “Do as I tell you.”

Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true its opposite cannot be true at the same time [pace Hegel!]. It also insists that if a thing is good [such as the Catholic Faith or the infused Virtue of Hope], more of it will be better. Here we have a very typical and very basic [and paradoxical?] problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, “straight-line” logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.

“What is the best method of education?” presents, in short, a divergent problem par excellence. (122-123—bold emphasis added; italics in original)

In partial answer to that question, Schumacher says:

Love, empathy, participation mystique, understanding, compassion—these are the faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of a policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently, requires a high level of self-awareness, and that is what makes a great educator.

Education presents the classical example of a divergent problem, and so of course does politics, where the most frequently encountered pair of opposites is “freedom” and “equality,” which in fact means freedom versus equality. (123—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

These overall words also remind me of one of the classic definitions of happiness, and eventually Beatitude: Happiness is the exercise of the full range of human faculties along lines of excellence.

However, we believe that Aristotle’s own range of the faculties and human potentialities and the virtues was not as capaciously large as those in the understanding and holy practice of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas believed that, not only was man intellectually “Capax Universi,” but also, in virtue of the Creation and the whole Supernatural Order, “Capax Gratiae.”

In 1971, seven years before his death, E. F. Schumacher became a Roman Catholic and recurrent subtle signs of that fact pervade A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), especially his affirming allusions to Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante and the Parables of Christ (e.g., 132-133, on the Parable of the Talents).

In the context of Dante and great literary art and, decisively thus, “the communication of Truth” (128-129), Schumacher says that such “art helps us to develop our higher faculties, and this is what matters.” (129) Moreover, he notes more broadly that:

All great works of art are “about God” in the sense that they show the perplexed human being the path, the way up the mountain, providing a Guide for the Perplexed. We may again remind ourselves of one of the greatest examples of such art, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante wrote for ordinary men and women, not for people with sufficient private means to be interested mainly in fine feelings. “The whole work,” he explains, “was undertaken not for a speculative but for a practical end…the purpose of the whole is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and lead them to a state of felicity.” The pilgrim—Dante himself—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, that is, at the height of his powers and outward success, suddenly realizes that he is not at the height at all but, on the contrary, “in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.”….He cannot remember how he ever got there….The true function of art is “so to dispose [the] heart with desire of going” “up the mountain,” which is what we really wish to do but keep forgetting, that we “return to our first intent.” The whole of great literature deals with such divergent problems. (129, 130, and 131—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

With these few additional thoughts, E. F. Schumacher will implicitly encourage us to savor his own testament and his proposed Guide more fully, and also to bid us farewell thereby that we may continue our own adventure and risk-filled pilgrimage:

Man’s life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of divergent problems which must inevitably be encountered and have to be coped with in some way. They are refractory to mere logic and discursive reason, and constitute, so to speak, a strain-and-stretch apparatus to develop the Whole Man, and that means to develop man’s supralogical faculties [hence our fuller virtues and our grateful receptions of Grace?]. All traditional cultures have seen life as a school and have recognized, in one way or another, the essentiality of this teaching force [and its potential]. (128—my emphasis added)

As another wise man—Father John A. Hardon, S.J.—used to say to me recurrently about “the Whole Man”: “What we have is Nature; what we need is Grace.” And “To live and die in the State of Sanctifying Grace.”


© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, page 13—italics in the original. Henceforth all references to this text will be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this brief essay. Saint Thomas’ own words are to be found in Volume 1 of his Summa Contra Gentiles (London: 1924-1928).