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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                20 April 2020

Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1313)

Epigraphs

“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.

–Finis–

© 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.”

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

Epigraphs

“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).

CODA

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.”

–Finis–

© 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.

Josef Pieper’s Final Portion of his Autobiography 1964-1988: A Story Like a Beam of Light

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                 7 March 2020

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

“I was especially pleased to see that the reason for the award [“the February 1982 Balzan Prize”], as I could now see for the first time, was precisely what had always been my greatest concern: namely, expressing myself in comprehensible, non-specialized language ‘which was capable of awakening for a world-wide public a philosophical awareness of the ultimate questions about human existence.’ And no matter how much it may seem like self-praise, I am not ashamed to say it.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020)—or A Story Like a Beam of Light (1988—in German), pages 155-156—my emphasis added)

***

“He [the senior modern German air force officer ]…said immediately: ‘In our training, you must remember, the theme “German Luftwaffe in World War II” was taboo.’ Here again, I thought, is confirmation of the words of my teacher Thomas Aquinas with their manifold implications: ‘Praise of bravery depends on justice.’ The most daring, most intelligent, most dangerous undertakings by soldiers—which are often associated with extreme willingness to make sacrifices—cannot simply be praised when they are performed in the service of a criminal power; but it would be no less false to condemn them summarily and without distinction as likewise criminal [as in the case of the gifted German paratrooper General Kurt Student]; and with regard to the decision to keep silent about these things: it is indeed understandable and possibly even deserving of respect; but it can also thwart the inner cleansing, the catharsis, through which this tragedy [of war], too, could perhaps make even these awful events fruitful.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega–or A Story Like a Beam of Light, page 166—my emphasis added)

***

“But in public I was also silent. Should I have shouted aloud [about certain “naked crimes” targeting the Jews]: there is terrible injustice happening here? Some people did that and paid for it with their lives. Inge Scholl wrote to me shortly after the war [in 1945] telling me that her brother had read my books. And not until the spring of 1986 did the sister of Willi Graf, who also belonged to the “Weiße Rose” group and had been executed, sent me the photo-copy of a piece of paper from her brother’s diary: ‘Read J.P. about the Christian conception of man.’ This affected me in two ways. I heard this news and was ashamed. Some write things and others do them.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 143—my emphasis added)

***

My objections [about some translations of “the texts of the Ordo Missae”] concerned not so much inadequate linguistic formulations but primarily the destruction of meaningwhich is almost always caused by misuse of language.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 37—my emphasis added)

***

“My conclusion was that perhaps under the reign of sophistry and pseudo-philosophy true philosophy as a distinguishable independent discipline would disappear, and the specifically philosophical object—the root of things and the ultimate meaning of existence—would only be considered by those with faith.” (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega, page 68—my emphasis added)

***

The third volume of Josef Pieper’s autobiography, after some considerable delays, has finally been translated into English and just recently published in February of 2020 by St. Augustine’s Press in South Bend, Indiana. This 2020 text is now entitled A Journey to Point Omega—Autobiography from 1964.

The original German text was published in 1988, some fourteen years before Dr. Pieper’s own death on 6 November 1997 at 93 years of age. His original 1988 book in German—as well as his later Volume EB2 of his 2005 Eleven-Volume Opera Omnia–was carefully and more poetically entitled: Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahli.e., A Story like a Beam of Light—and it was originally also modestly subtitled Autobiographische Aufzeichnungen seit 1964 (Autobiographical Notes since 1964-1986).

It is important for us to remember that when Josef Pieper first published the last portion of his autobiography in 1988, he was eighty-four years of age; and when his beloved wife earlier died in 1984 after their almost fifty years together in marriage, Josef Pieper was eighty years old.

A Journey to Point Omega essentially begins with the multiple effects of the sudden death of his son Thomas in Seattle, Washington on 25 July 1964, and ends with the poignant death of his wife Hildegard in Münster, Germany on 25 June 1984. These events shook Josef Pieper and took him to the roots of his faith, hence the permeating atmosphere of his memoir: not just the medley of “notes” and the variety of things to be considered in his final and abiding—and often elegiac—memoir, to include his forthrightness about the sad burden of some recent German history, as well as the loss of his son Thomas and his beloved wife Hildegard in 1964 and 1984, respectively.

Indeed once in February 1964—shortly before he was additionally to face the sudden death of his son in America on 25 July 1964—Josef Pieper said the following after having just met in person General Kurt Student (b. 1890), the gifted and chivalrous German parachute officer of the Luftwaffe in World War II:

As for myself, I went home somewhat and sad. The burden of our destructive history, which was still with me under the surface, had revealed itself to me only too clearly. On that evening [in Münster] in February 1964 I had known very little. The more important things I found out only later….Above all, at this time [in 1964] I did not yet know other things that happened after the war. The planner and leader of the [May 1941] attack on Crete, which was daring and had an unusually high rate of casualties, did not only receive the chivalrous distinction [and an awarded medal!] from his [very courageous] New Zealand foes; it also happened that a British General [New Zealand Commanding Officer on Crete of the 4th NZ Brigade, Brigadier General Lindsay Inglis], acting as a judge in court, absolutely refused to confirm—and thereby prevented—the sentence of five-year imprisonment passed by the victors’ military tribunal against the enemy for alleged crimes. And in a well-documented publication of the Freiburg Military Research Institute in 1982 I read that General Student, condemned to death by a French military court, then first had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment and later passed some time [five years] in humiliating circumstances in a prison.

There was no mention of all that at table on that evening [in February of 1964]. And although perhaps no one had anything to hide, General Student [d. 1 July 1978] was probably not the only one who remained silent about what he had done and what had happened to him.—But for the younger officers, who had still been sitting there together quite at ease [in 1964], the deeds and experiences of the German Luftwaffe in World War II were, as I learned recently [“in this summer of 1987”], ‘quite taboo.’ (Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (2020), pages 171-172—my emphasis added1)

Earlier in the memoir—at the very beginning of his important Chapter II (“Post-Conciliar Confusion”), Josef Pieper had quietly mentioned in passing the loss of his son and that “The requiem for our son Thomas [was] celebrated at the end of July 1964—about a year and a half after [before!] the end of the Council” [sic—a typographical correction is needed: i.e, “before” instead of “after”: “before the end of the Council” in October of 1965]. (32—my emphasis added)

Throughout his memoir, as he learned it from his mentor Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Pieper is attentive to the combination of “order and mystery”—Saint Thomas’ “ordo et mysterium.” As they understand it, reality is intelligible, accessible, and knowable—and yet unfathomable. And thus “Sapientis Ordinare”: namely, that it is characteristic of a wise man—or a seeker of wisdom—to give order to things.

Here is the way Josef Pieper recurrently alerts us and awakens us to the searching themes of his own writings and invited lectures: by modestly mentioning their substantive titles, such as: “the meaning of ‘God speaks’” (21 and 105); “what distinguishes a priest” (46); “a necessary attempt at clarification” (46); “theology as the attempt to interpret revelation” (29); “a communion chalice” is “full of what?” (52); “the Corpus Christi also as a warning” (52); “abuse of language, abuse of power” (67); “discipline and moderation”—“Zucht und Mass” (76); “courage and hope” (780; “sacred vestments” and “praeambula sacramenti” (101); “memorial Mass for Thomas” (110); “Body Memory”—Latin “Memoria Corporis” (120); “Death and Immortality” and “On Love” (121); “a consecrated priest” and “a non-priest” (132); “the dilemma of a non-Christian philosophy” (148); Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Thomas a Creatore” (G.K. Chesterton) (149); “the current relevance of scholasticism” (153); the moral of the local stories of Münster in Westphalia (152); “praise of bravery depends on justice” (152); “This memoir was too personal for my Westphalian taste” (137); and the gifted General Kurt Student’s own “chivalrous distinction” (171-172).

Now we may better consider Josef Pieper’s representative presentation of a form of mysterium and the veil that properly protects it against coarsening and trivializing language and also against the deeper germs and spreading virulence of de-sacralization.

In his highly differentiated and deeply discerning second chapter on “Post-Conciliar Confusion,” he says, for example:

The defenders of a desacralized way of speakingi.e., a way which even in the Church and in the Mass, approximates as closely as possible to, and is even identical with the average way of speaking—have occasionally, in debate with me, appealed to an official “Instruction” [from 25 January 1969] which [allegedly] allows and even recommends such freedom with language….

With the word mysterium, which is always connected with the language of the liturgy, another aspect of sacred language has been named….I am referring to the element of the veil by which the mystery is protected from the very direct threat of language….

I don’t know how often I have attended the Easter blessing of the baptismal water celebrated by the bishop in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Münster. I remember, above all, Clemens August von Galen, who, with his somewhat dull, tortured sounding voice as he let the Easter candle down into the water, sang on three different notes the words: Descendat in hanc plenitudinem fontis virtus Spiritus Sancti. Hundreds of people listened with deep, silent attention and observed the symbolic action; and I am convinced that here, despite the Latin language, what was mysteriously happening here was brought home to the simplest of Christians present in an incomparably moving way—much more than it could be by the completely clear new new German text, which is sad, impoverished, and cold: “Let the power of the Holy Spirit descend into this water!” [“Es steige hinab in dieses Wasser die Kraft des Heiliges Geistes!”]…

The Bishop of Münster said to me, upset and in shock after the first time he performed the new rite, “If I only had at least been able to sing it!” The Missale Romanum speaks continually of the plenitudo fontis. To say instead “this water” is obviously a wretched abbreviation. But if it is too “poetic” to speak of “this overflowing spring,” why not in this particular case—and it might not be the only one—keep the Latin text and, of course, not speak it but sing it? In any case, here as elsewhere, translating into German giving the true meaning is the real problem, which often enough remains unsolved. (34-36—my emphasis added)

Dr. Pieper later was to show his rootedness and special gratitude to the self-sacrificing previous generation that so nourished his own childhood and the childhood of many others:

In 1979, on a November afternoon when it was already becoming dark, I was to receive in the town hall in Münster, as a somewhat late birthday present, the St. Paul Badge of this city which early in my life had become my home town….

During all this, the thought occurred to me that, on receiving the St. Paul Badge, I should relate all these things which I had witnessed at first hand during my childhood years. I intended in this way to honor and to express my gratitude to the preceding generation….Everyone immediately understood that these [grateful words] were intended as stories with a “moral.” The idea was to show what these simple folk, our fathers and mothers, who had never had such a thing as a holiday in Mallorca and whose almost daily midday meal was stew, paid in order that their children could do more than just make money. They paid with their unquestioning frugality, their uncomplaining, untiring self-sacrifice and the neglect of their own needs. I wanted, above all, to make clear, that it is precisely from these types of people that a nation really lives, and to whom the fine words of the German Jew, Walter Benjamin [d. 1940, in Spain], apply: “Honor without fame/ Greatness without glitter/ Dignity without pay.” Benjamin used these words in introducing his memorial [1936] book about the “German People” (Deutsche Menschen]. (150-152—my emphasis added)

The last section (181-189) of Josef Pieper’s final volume of autobiography is intimately and evocatively entitled “In manus tuas…” and it poignantly depicts his wife’s longstanding sufferings and her final sacraments and moments in this life in the attentive presence of her husband and of their two living children, Monika and Michael. From the very beginning of this final portion ending with her death on 25 June 1984, we may again glimpse and savor Dr. Pieper’s modesty and characteristic tacitness about certain piercing personal matters of moment in his life, to include “Sister Rotrudis, the Icelandic-Westphalian nun” (111) whom he met in Iceland in 1923. Later now, we also learn more about those so close to him:

On Easter Sunday [23 April] 1985 we could have celebrated our golden [50th] wedding anniversary. Our parish priest was willing to celebrate Mass on that occasion in our house [at Malmedyweg 10] at the table at which we had had our family meals until a few years ago—under the Rembrandt painting with the Emmaus disciples, which has been hanging there since our wedding day [on 23 April 1935]. In reality nobody really thought that we should reach that day. For about a year my wife could not have understood what we were talking about when the children and I spoke of this possibility. She died [on 25 June 1984] ten months before the anticipated date. (181)

His beloved wife even learned during her sustained illness to memorize the seven stanzas of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn, “Adoro Te devote…,” though she later came to lose some of her recollection of some of its beautiful words, as well as some of her own Latin grammar as in their prayer “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (where she would say “spiritus,” instead).

Josef Pieper uses those last words to say goodbye to his beloved wife and to express a moving gesture, too; and he now introduces us to their final moments, with his two children attentively present:

Near midnight [on 25 June 1984] her breathing became noticeably shallow and, though calm, shorter and shorter—until the last breath came. I stood up, placed my hand around her neck and said with my face very close to her: “Mother, now we can say: ‘In manus tuas…’,” and I repeated her own last prayer including the grammatical error.—I am certain that in this mysterious, timeless moment of passing over from earthly life she did not just hear it but also prayed it with me. (189—my bold emphases added)

CODA

In July 1974, shortly after his 70th birthday on 4 May, Josef Pieper gave a set of lectures in Spain to a group of Catholic Americans at “the University of Maria Cristina” (85) very close to King Philip II’s inspired building of the Escorial in the Guadarrama Mountains northwest of Madrid in the village of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and near General Franco’s well-meant mountain memorial of reconciliation, “Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos” (86), known also as the Valley of the Fallen.

With my wife at the time, I was not only in attendance at Dr. Pieper’s 1974 summer lectures at Maria Cristina where we also met him for the first time in person; but he and I were later kneeling beside one another together at the High Mass sung up at the Valley of the Fallen, which was “under the protection of the Benedictine monks” (86).

Here was one set of Dr. Pieper’s surprising (though partly inaccurate) notes and comments about us (even about my red-headed wife) while also then imagining that I was still on Military Active Duty:

I have seldom found myself so suddenly put into a group of such colorful people. While swimming [after also often playing “pelota” or even a sort of tennis] we constantly encountered a particularly charming couple: a young Vietnam War veteran [a retired captain from U.S. Army Special Forces] with his beautiful red-haired wife Sharon. It was the first time I had heard this name, but he insisted that it came from the Old Testament [as in “the Rose of Sharon”]. The “veteran” seemed more like an active officer on leave from the front. We quickly became engaged in a lively conversation, and naturally I could not hear enough from this “leather-neck” [sic] with the “green beret.” In the newspapers at the time there was talk of a massacre committed in a village by American soldiers on women and children. “Did such things really happen?” My “veteran” answered [in part] by telling a story followed by a question which left me bewildered. “In a village in the middle of the jungle a young woman carrying a child approached my group [another group of three men, not mine own!] smiling and apparently about to ask for something. But suddenly she pulled a pistol [tossed an explosive] from under her child and shot [killed] one of the group [all three of the small group, one of them being my 1964 West Point classmate!]. What do you do when, a second time, a young woman approaches you smiling?” (87)

It should be known, moreover, that so much more could be discussed here, although the current English translation of the Pieper Memoir omits and thereby partly distorts Dr. Pieper’s own reflective words and subtle but gracious meaning.

For example, the following sentences or portions from the original German text are omitted and even somewhat slanted in part: “The ‘veteran’ seemed rather to be an active-duty officer on military leave. We quickly entered into a lively conversation and, of course, I could not tire of hearing stories from this ‘leatherneck’ with the famous ‘green beret’ who had many times [apparently] led his combat team into the jungle.” (“Der ‘Veteran’ wirkte eher wie ein aktiver Frontoffizier im Urlaub. Wir kamen rasch in ein lebhaftes Gespräch; und natürlich konnte ich von dem ‘Ledernacken’ mit dem berühmten ‘grünen Barett’, der viele Male seinen Kampftrupp in den Dschungel geführt hatte, gar nicht genug erzählt bekommen.” (106—the 1988 German text2)

There is one final image of Josef Pieper, at 70 years of age, at the sung High Mass at the Valley of the Fallen that I wish to share with the reader. For, we two were kneeling beside each other at that July 1974 sacrifice of the Mass, ten years after the death of his son Thomas in July of 1964.

At the first elevation of the Host at the Consecration, all of a sudden all the lights in the Benedictine crypt church went out—except for a beam of light that shone on the larger-than-life and manly Crucifix behind the Altar. All of the choir chants (children and monks) were silent and the torch lights on the wall of the large cavern were all at once shut off. Only the Crucifix of the Lord was in the beam of light.

At that sight and light Josef Pieper immediately emitted a wondrous “ah, ahhhhh!” of gratitude and of loyal love. After the Mass, when we were together outside, he kept repeating the fervent words: “that was truly an Actio Sacra of the Mass”—and this Sacred Action “was so fittingly supported by all of the sensory enhancements within the range of the human senses: sound, silence, incense, chants of children, and the sudden light.” (Which he also conveyed in his later-published 1987 words: “welches aber für uns ein, so lange wir leben, unergründliches Mysterium bleibt.3 For us it remains—as long as we live–an Unfathomable Mystery.) Once again there is both the “Ordo” and the “Mysterium.”

Would that you could have seen his grateful eyes then, during and after Mass in July of 1974!

It was an unforgettable Actio Sacra along with an intimate “Memoria Corporis,” a memory of the fuller “Body of Things” as in the humility of the Incarnation and the Sacramental Sacred Tradition.

Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl: A Story like a Beam of Light

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, A Journey to Point Omega (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press), pages 171-172—my emphasis added). Henceforth, unless specifically noted as otherwise, all further references to this edition will be place above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1988), page 106.

3See Josef Pieper, Eine Geschichte wie ein Strahl (1988), page 8.

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                              28 January 2020

Saint Peter Nolasco (d. 1256)

Saint Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Second Feast of Saint Agnes (d. 304)

Epigraphs

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

So, too, today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Finis–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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

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)

Epigraphs

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)

CODA

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.

–Finis–

© 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.

The Decline of a State and Power without Grace: Reflections of Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                        23 April 2019 Saint George (d. 303)

Saint Adalbert of Prague (d. 997)

Epigraphs

***

“’I know I am human. In fact I often feel [as the Emperor and still “an unbaptized convert” (138)] that I am the only real human….And that’s not pleasant at all, I can assure you. Do you understand at all, mother?’

‘Oh, yes, perfectly.’

‘What is it, then?’

Power without Grace,’ said Helena [the future Saint Helena].

‘Now you are going to start nagging about baptism again.’

‘Sometimes,’ Helena continued, ‘I have a terrible dream of the future. Not now, but presently, people may forget their loyalty to their kings and emperors and take power for themselves. Instead of letting one victim bear this frightful curse [of sustained ruling] they will take it all on themselves each one of them. Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.’…

‘We talked of it years ago….I have always remembered your words [,Constantine]. You said: ‘If I wish to live, I must determine to rule.’ ‘

‘And that is true today.’ [said Emperor Constantine]

‘But, not without Grace, Constantine.’

‘Baptism. It always comes back to that in the end. Well, I’m going to be baptized, never fear. But not yet. In my own time. I’ve got other things to do before that…. [even though he was still “one indeed who was not yet formally admitted as a catechumen”! (138)]….’”

(Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950), pages 185-186—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)

***

In the inmost cell of the foetid termitary of power, Diocletian [Emperor Diocletian] was consumed by huge boredom and sickly turned towards his childhood’s home. He ordained a house of refuge on the [Dalmatian coast] shores of the Adriatic.” (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 100—my emphasis added)

***

“Everywhere Constantine prospered until he became blandly [and presumptuously or delusively?] aware that he was invincible….There were glimpses of [his son,] a nobler figure; young Crispus, all dash and fidelity, last warrior of the high Roman tradition on whose shield the fanciful might descry the fading blazon of Hector [of Troy]. Reports of him came to Helena….His name was remembered always at her palace Mass. For Helena had been baptized.

“None knows when or where. No record was made. Nothing was built or founded. There was no public holiday. Privately and humbly, like thousands of others, she stepped down into the font and emerged a new woman. Were there regrets for her earlier loyalty? Was she persuaded point by point? Did she merely conform to the prevailing fashion, lie open unresisting to Divine Grace and so without design become its brimming vehicle? We do not know. She was one seed in a vast germination. (Evelyn Waugh, Helena, page 132—my emphasis added)

***

“’I’m only teasing, Lactantius [said Helena, but before she herself became a Christian]. Of course I know why you are all so excited. I confess I am a little uneasy myself. It’s this story that is going around that my boy has turned Christian. Has he?’

‘Not exactly, ma’am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ.’

‘Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one….All I want is the simple truth. Why don’t you answer me?’

After a pause Lactantius said: ‘Perhaps because I have read too much. I’m not the person to come to with straight and simple questions, ma’am. I don’t know the answers [to your several questions]….We all have the chance to choose the Truth….As you know he [Constantine] has brought the Church into the open.’

‘Beside Jupiter and Isis and the Phrygian Venus.’ [said Helena]

Christianity is not that sort of religion, ma’am. It cannot share anything [of the sort] with anybody. Whenever it is free, it will conquer.’

‘Perhaps there was some point in the persecutions then.’

‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.‘ [said Evelyn Waugh’s Lactantius to an attentive and receptive Helena, though as yet unbaptized; Helena, pages 127-128]

***

Three years before World War I began, Hilare Belloc first published an essay entitled “The Decline of a State.”1 And this compact essay, full of fresh insights, unexpectedly concluded with a memorable and challenging sentence:

Those who have least power in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the lovers of one woman, and saints. (242)

After further reflecting upon Belloc’s selection of especially vulnerable persons in a time of decline and disorder, I recalled some passages from Evelyn Waugh’s historical novel, Helena (1950), especially two of Waugh’s formulations about the insufficiency of “Power”: Emperor Diocletian’s “foetid termitary of power”; and Emperor Constantine’s “Power without Grace” as also envisioned by his mother Helena in a future ochlocracy that is likewise trying to rule “without Grace”).

In this context, we may even slightly expand Belloc’s original phrase concerning the vulnerable: “Those who have least power [“Power without Grace”] in the decline of a State.”

With this slight amendment in mind, we now propose to examine Belloc’s essay more closely. It will be conducted “on the premise that sustained power without Grace is inherently selfsabotaging as presented by a ‘foetid termitary.’” (Waugh’s malodorous termite analogy is a vivid one, for sure.)

One of Belloc’s main contributions is his examination of the influence and destructive consequences of “two vices” (240)– “Avarice” and “Fear”– in the decline of a State, especially as practiced in “an oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called.” (237) For example, he says:

In the decline of a State, of whatever nature that State be [democratic, despotic, oligarchic, or aristocratic], two vices will immediately appear and grow: these are Avarice and Fear; and men will more readily accept the imputation of Avarice than of Fear, for Avarice is the less despicable of the two—yet in fact Fear will be by far the strongest passion of the time [i.e., during the time of a growing decline]. (240—my bold emphasis and italics added)

By way of clarifying contrast, Belloc elsewhere in his writings often accents the perilous combination of “insecurity and insufficiency” both of which all too often tend to increase the passions and the vices of Avarice and Fear.

Let us now consider some of Belloc’s framing introductory words to his analysis:

The decline of a State is not equivalent to a mortal sickness therein. States are organisms subject to diseases and to decay…; but they are not subject to a rhythmic rise and fall…. A State in decline is never a State doomed or a State dying. States perish slowly or by violence, but never without remedy and rarely without violence. (237—my emphasis added)

Belloc then refers to the “texture” (237) of a State and its decline, namely whether or not it is mostly democratic, despotic, oligarchic or aristocratic—or some combination of them. For example, and also promptly recalling his own England as of 1911, he says:

An oligarchic State, or aristocracy as it is called, will decline principally through two agencies which are, first, illusion, and secondarily, lack of civic aptitude. For an oligarchic State tends very readily to illusion, being conducted by men who live at leisure, satisfy their passions, are immune from the laws, and prefer to shelter themselves from reality. Their capacity or appetite for illusion will rapidly pervade those below them, for in an aristocracy the rulers are subjected to a sort of worship from the rest of the community, and thus it comes about that aristocracies in their decline accept fantastic histories of their own past, conceive victory possible without armies, wealth to be an indication of ability, and national security to be a natural gift rather that a [disciplined and virtuous] product of the [informed] will.(237-238—my emphasis added)

Now he passes on to the second factor (or “agency”) of a growing “lack of civic aptitude” in the decline of a State:

Such [oligarchic-aristocratic] communities further fail from a lack of civic aptitude…,which means that they deliberately elect to leave the mass of citizens incompetent and irresponsible for generations, so that, when any more strain is upon them, they look at once for some men other than themselves to relieve them, and [they] are incapable of corporate action upon their own account. (238—my emphasis added)

Belloc then touches upon real differences between “a great State or a small one” (238) and factors of “indifference, faction, ignorance, and private spite” (238). And States “rooted originally in commerce, in arms, or in production” whether…artisan or peasant-agricultural. He weighs and differentiates “the basis of the State” (239) more specifically and more concretely. These candid observations we recommend to the attention of the reader, that he may better savor the diversities.

It is fitting that we now further consider Belloc’s focused insights and his illustrations of “Avarice” and “Fear” and their sabotaging influences in a growing decline of a State.

First, Avarice, as a passion and vice, thus an habitual deadly sin, under conditions of decline:

Avarice will show itself not indeed in a mere greed of gain (for this is common to all societies whether flourishing or failing), but rather in a sort of taking for granted and permeation of the mere love of money, so that history will be explained by it, wars judged by their booty or begun in order to enrich a few, love between men and women wholly subordinated to it [money], especially among the rich: wealth made a test for responsibility and great salaries invented and paid to those who serve the State [a declining State, moreover]. This vice will also be apparent in the easy acquaintance of all who are possessed of wealth and their segregation from the less fortunate, for avarice cleaves society flatways, keeping the scum of it quite clear of the middle, the middle of it [society] quite clear of the dregs, and so forth. It is a further mark of avarice in its last stages that the rich are surrounded with lies in which they themselves believe. Thus, in the last phase [of avarice’s illusion], there are no parasites but only friends, no gifts but only loans, which are more esteemed favours than gifts once were. No one [is] vicious but only tedious, and no one a poltroon but only slack. (240-241—my emphasis added)

Although Belloc’s analysis is largely a secular analysis, Waugh’s Saint Helena—if not her son—would have detected new and crippling forms of Fear and of Cunning Carnal Prudence and Weakness without Grace. We may also consider the broken trust and increasing fears in our own society and decomposing civilization, at least as of April 2019:

Of Fear in the decline of a State it may be said that it is so much the master passion of such decline as to eat up all others. Coming by travel from a healthy State to one diseased, Fear is the first point you take. Men dare not print or say what they feel of the judges, the public governors, the action of the police, [of] the controllers of fortunes and of news….Under the influence of Fear, to tell the least little truth about him [“a powerful minister”] will put a whole assembly into a sort of blankness.

This vice [of Fear] has for its most laughable effects the raising of a whole host of phantoms [subtle deceptions, or sensate “fake news,” perhaps?], and when a State is so far gone that civic Fear is quite normal to the citizens, then you will find them blenching with terror at a piece of print, a whispered accusation [e.g., about the immunities of International High Finance or the Money-Laundering of International Drug-Money Networks]. (241-242—my emphasis added)

By way of concluding his selectively nuanced essay, Belloc gives a glimpse of those who darkly and dubiously flourish in times of a State’s disorder and decline, as well as those who preserve some kind of independence or a deeply suffering vulnerability:

Moneylenders under this influence [of Fear] have the greatest power, next after them, blackmailers of all kinds, and next after these [two manipulative niche-operatives] eccentrics who may [“but, not without Grace”] blurt or break out [from under the vicious influence and atmosphere of Fear].

Those who have least power [under these secular and graceless and debilitating conditions] in the decline of a State are priests, soldiers, the mothers of many children, the [loyal] lovers of one woman, and saints. (142—my emphasis added)

It was a wise man who said that “those who are themselves uprooted tend to uproot others.”

Hilaire Belloc’s 1911-1912 essay on “The Decline of the State” is certainly resonantly enhanced in its complemetarity and counterpoise with Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 vivid historical novel, Helena—a novel about the times of Emperor Diocletian and Emperor Constantine and a newly germinating and spreading Christianity that Waugh himself so deeply cherished. (It was the only one he ever read aloud to his own beloved children.) Would that we knew whether Hilaire Belloc, who died in July of 1953, read Waugh’s moving 1950 novel with its supernatural perspectives on the indispensability of Grace.

In the 1960s, while a military officer in Southeast Asia, I one day somehow formulated to myself a principle about the mysteriously Permissive Acts of Divine Providence that was especially then consoling to me. It was a correlative relative proposition that went like this:

The greater the evil that God allows, the greater the good He intends to bring out of it.”

The faithful Practical Application of that Principle and Correlative Proposition goes like this:

Therefore, here and now, I (we) must promptly collaborate with the Divine Intention and thus resourcefully and loyally try to bring about a GREATER good out of what God, and sometimes so mysteriously, has allowed to happen—also in combat and other forms of warfare!

These are difficult principles and codes to live by. But “we are only as courageous as we are convinced,” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. himself once solemnly and very supportively said to me.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, First and Last (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1912—the second edition; 1911 was the first edition), pages 237-242. All further page references will be to the text of the Second Edition, and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton on the Need for Intellectual Magnanimity

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            14 April 2019

Palm Sunday

Saint Justin Martyr (d. 165)

Epigraphs

***

“Political and social satire is a lost art [i.e.,“the great and civilised art of satire” (47)], like pottery and stained glass. It may be worth while to make some attempt to point out a reason for it.

“It may seem a singular observation to say that we are not generous enough to write great satire. This, however, is approximately a very accurate way of describing the case. To write a great satire, to attack a man so that he feels the attack and half acknowledges its justice, it is necessary to have a certain intellectual magnanimity which realises the merits of the opponent as well as his defects. This is, indeed, only another way of putting the simple truth that in order to attack an army we must know not only its weak points, but also its strong points.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), pages 47-48 my emphasis added.)

***

“For a man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” (G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types, 1905, page 53)

***

“Nevertheless I will maintain that [as of 1929] this very powerful, distorted simplification of Catholic doctrine (for that is what Mahommedanism is) may be of high effect in the near future upon Christendom; and that, acting as a competitive religion, it is not to be despised.” (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929), page 193—my emphasis added.

***

The granite permanence [of Islam]– [“and its apparently invincible resistance to conversion”]— is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all those who meditate upon the spiritual, and, consequently, the social, future of the world. (Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (1929), page 192—my emphasis added.

***

In 1900, during the contentious imperial Boer War in South Africa, G.K. Chesterton memorably first met Hilaire Belloc. It was in London at a little restaurant in Soho, and Chesterton manifoldly and greatly admired Belloc and his glowing goodness and vivid magnanimity. Less than five years later, moreover, Chesterton even published in his new anthology, called Varied Types,1 an essay entitled “Pope and the Art of Satire” which addressed some of the trenchant themes that both of them had wholeheartedly and robustly discussed through the night in 1900.

For example, Chesterton wrote:

England in the present season and spirit [circa 1903-1905] fails in satire for the simple reason that it fails in war: it despises the enemy. In matters of battle and conquest we have got firmly rooted in our minds the idea (an idea fit for the philosophers of Bedlam) that we can best trample on a people by ignoring all the particular merits which give them a chance of trampling upon us. It has become a breach of etiquette to praise the enemy; whereas, when the enemy is strong, every honest scout ought to praise the enemy. It is impossible to vanquish an army without having a full account of its strength. It is impossible to satirise a man without having a full account of his virtues. (48-49—my emphasis added)

After we consider some further insights in Chesterton’s 1905 essay on satire and virtue and various forms of warfare, we shall then present Hilaire Belloc’s own 1929 understanding of both “Explicit Materialism” and the challenging religion of Islam. The latter shows a patient and magnanimous and differentiated understanding of Islam as of 1929. Belloc will also clearly convey his insights on the deeper potential revival of Islam and on the character of its anticipated future challenge to the Catholic Faith and Catholic Church at large.

To give us a glimpse of Belloc’s glowing good of heart as Chesterton first saw it, we shall in a brief excursus first consider the sincere and honorable way—sometimes even an affectionate way—in which Hilaire Belloc magnanimously presents the “Explicit Materialists” of his boyhood and their yet surviving errors which could still come to constitute a peril to Catholicism. For it is so that Belloc magnanimously admired those candid materialists in their own “half truths,” and in part he admired them because of their own personal virtues of “simplicity and sincerity.”

Chesterton’s 1905 essay itself should certainly prompt us in 2019 to examine the public and private language of our own earnest, sometimes wanton, disputes—indeed as seen in the “decomposition of discourse” often found even in our Church and surrounding, self-sabotaging civil society. For, to what extent do we not also tend to “despise the enemy”?

Back in 1905 in the English society of the growing Empire, Chesterton already discerned some unwholesome decomposition of discourse, and he forthrightly, but generously, said:

It is too much the custom in politics to describe a political opponent as utterly inhuman, as utterly careless of his country, as utterly cynical, which no man ever was since the beginning of the world. This kind of invective may often have a great superficial success: it may hit the mood of the moment; it may raise excitement and applause; it may impress millions. But there is one man [at least] among all those millions whom it does not impress, whom it hardly ever touches; that is the man against whom it is directed. The one person [in this case] for whom the whole satire has been written in vain is the man whom it is the whole object of the institution of satire to reach….But behind all this he [the intended target] has his real weaknesses, the real ironies of the soul: behind all these ordinary merits lie the mean compromises, the craven silences, the sullen vanities, the secret brutalities, the unmanly visions of vengeance. It is to these that the satire should reach if it is to touch the man at whom it is aimed. And to reach these it must pass and salute a whole army of virtues. (49-50—my emphasis added)

Then, after citing some well known figures in British society and politics—such as Lord Randolph Churchill—who have all unjustly been the target of swollen invective, Chesterton says:

And here we have the cause of the failure of contemporary satire, that it has no magnanimity, that is to say, no patience. It cannot endure to be told that its opponent has his strong points, just as Mr. Chamberlain could not endure to be told that the Boers [of South Africa] had a regular army [and were thus menacingly disciplined and a threat]. It can be [delusively] content with nothing except persuading itself that its opponent is utterly bad or utterly stupid….This is the point in which all party invective fails. (51-52—my emphasis added)

In his conclusion, Chesterton will have us consider the variously gifted poet, Alexander Pope, and thus “how a great satirist approaches a great enemy” (53). After giving us some lines from Pope’s poem “Atticus”—a reference to the character of Joseph Addison himself—Chesterton comments:

This is the kind of thing [the “satire”] which really goes to the mark at which it aims. It is penetrated with sorrow and a kind of reverence, and it is addressed directly to a man. This is no mock-tournament to gain the applause of the crowd. It is a deadly duel by the lonely seashore.

In the current political materialism [however] there is [as of 1905] the assumption that, without understanding anything of his case or his merits, we can benefit [perhaps chasten] a man practically. Without understanding his case and his merits [moreover] we cannot even hurt him. (54-55—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s Own Later 1929 Consideration of Explicit and Implicit Materialism2

Belloc begins his section on Materialism with these clarifying words:

As things now are [as of 1929] the survival of the Materialist cannot be long maintained.

Explicit Materialism—that is, the frankly stated philosophy that there are none save material causes, and that all phenomena called spiritual or moral are functions of matter—is now hardly heard.

But Implicit Materialism—that is, an underlying, unexpressed, conception that material causes explain all things—survives….

That Materialism as an explicit, openly affirmed philosophy is—for the moment—vanishing. (56-57—my emphasis added)

Amidst his thorough examination of varieties of Materialism, we suddenly find him presenting a personal note:

Let me digress to confess a personal weakness, at heart, for that old-fashioned Explicit Materialism. My leaning to it lies in this—that it was full of common sense and sincerity.

It was eminently right as far as it went….It was a half truth, squat and solid, but human and, in its exceedingly limited way, rational.

The Materialist of my boyhood [Belloc having been born in 1870] went his little way along that open road which we all must follow when we begin to philosophise. Day in and day out, from moment to moment, we are concerned with a patent chain of material cause and effect.

Of things not material we have knowledge in subtle ways [as with “the living principle” of “a soul” (62)]. (59—my emphasis added)

Our modest author will continue yet a little with his confession and humane words:

All around us and all around the Materialist areinnumerable examples—visible, tangible, real—of material causes apparently preceding every effect. The Materialist is the man who stops there, at a half truth which is a truth after all, and he grows no further. All that appeals to me. It reposes upon two great virtues: simplicity and sincerity. (60—my emphasis added).

Belloc characteristically thinks of the hospitality of inns as he tries to express his own cherished rootedness and deep affection:

I would rather pass an evening with a Materialist at an inn than with any of these sophists [i.e., those who are vaguely dialectical “grandiloquence” (60)] in a common room. Moreover, the Materialist fills me with that pity which is akin to love.

I mark him, in the chaos of our day, with a protective affection I want to shelter him from the shocks of his enemies and to tell him that, weak as they [these grandiloquent sophists] are, he is even weaker than they. I also want to tell him all the time what an honest little fellow he is [though still “my sturdy little dwarf”(60)]. For he is at least in touch with reality, as are we also of the Faith in a grander fashion. He tells the truth as far as he can see it, whereas most of those who sneer at him care nothing for the truth at all but only for their systems or their notoriety.

I have noticed this about such Explicit Materialists as are left—they are nearly always honest men, full of illogical indignation against evil, and especially against injustice. They are a generous lot, and they have a side to them which is allied to innocence.

Among the Survivals [those still abiding Opponents of the Faith], they now take a very small place. They feel themselves to be out of the running. Their hearts have been broken with abuse and insult and with base desertion by their friends….Therefore have most of them become apologetic. They commonly talk as an uneducated man among scholars….

Now I like that….

He will not have wholly disappeared before my death I hope—though I fear he will—for when he has I shall feel very lonely. (60-62—my emphasis added)

What an open-hearted and respectful friend and man our Belloc was.

And he imparts his final words with his inimitable nuances and elegiac tones:

Should he [the Explicit Materialist] die in my own time, which is likely enough, I will follow piously at his funeral, which is more than I will do for any of them [such as “The Pantheist” (62)].

But when he dies his works will live after him and in due time he will return. He [“the Explicit Materialist”] is irrepressible. He lurks in the stuff of mankind [i.e., as a permanent and recurrent temptation to man!]. (62—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc’s 1929 Insights Concerning Islam:

In one portion of his section called “New Arrivals,”3 from pages 188-195, Belloc compactly presents his historical knowledge and special insights about the understandable challenge of Islam; and we therefore now propose to present some reality-revealing selections from Belloc’s unmistakably brilliant analyses and anticipations.

Belloc first gives us a framing context for his comments on Islam, having just spoken himself of the disordered nature and special peril of “Neo-Paganism”:

There remains, apart from the old Paganism of Asia and Africa, another indirect supporter of Neo-Paganism: a supporter which indeed hates all Paganism but hates the Catholic Church much more: a factor of whose now increasing importance [as of 1929] the masses of Europe are not as yet aware: I mean the Mahommedan religion: Islam.

Islam presents a totally different problem from that attached to any other religious body [including Judaism] opposed to Catholicism. To understand it we must appreciate its origins, character and recent fate [as of 1929]. Only then can we further appreciate its possible or probable future relations with enemies of the Catholic effort throughout the world. (188-189—my emphasis added)

After asking the question “How did Islam arise?” (189), Belloc proceeds to give us some trustworthy history:

It was not, as our popular historical text-books would have it, a “new religion.” It was a direct derivative from the Catholic Church [and also partly from Judaism]. It was essentially, in its origin, a heresy: like Arianism [or Nestorianism] or Albigensians….

The Arabs of whom he [“Mahomet”] came and among whom he lived were Pagan; but such higher religious influence as could touch them, and as they came into contact with through commerce and raiding, was Catholic [largely Nestorian]–with a certain mixture of Jewish [often syncretistic] communities. Catholicism had thus distinctly affected these few Pagans living upon fringes of the [Eastern Byzantine] Empire.

Now what Mahomet did was this. He took over the principal doctrines of the Catholic Church—one personal God, Creator of all things; the immortality of the soul; and eternity of misery or blessedness—and no small part of Christian morals as well. All that was the atmosphere of the only civilisation [until Persia later?] which had influence upon him and his. But at the same time he attempted an extreme simplification.

Many another heresiarch has done this, throwing overboard such and such too profound doctrines, and appealing to the less intelligent by getting rid of mysteries through a crude denial of them. But Mahomet simplified much more than did, say, Pelagius or even Arius. [For example:] He turned Our Lord into a mere prophet…; Our Lady, he turned into not more than the mother of so great a prophet; he cut out the Eucharist altogether, and what was most difficult in the matter of the Resurrection. He abolished the idea of priesthood: most important of all [in the “burning enthusiasm” of energetic practice], he declared for social equality among all those who should be “true believers” after his fashion. (189-190—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

We should now have a good idea about the irreconcilable doctrinal differences, and highly recommend a close, repeated and savored reading of all of Belloc’s pages on Islam (188-195).

After supplying more history and strategic geography and the like, Belloc offers another perspective:

For centuries the struggle between Islam and the Catholic Church continued. It had varying fortunes, but for something like a thousand years the issue still remained doubtful. It was not until nearly the year 1700 (the great conquests of Islam having begun long before 700) that Christian culture seemed—for a time—to be definitely the master.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Mahommedan world fell under a kind of palsy. It could not catch up with our rapidly advancing physical science….under the Government of nominally Christian nations, especially of England and France.

On this account our generation came to think of Islam as something naturally subject to ourselves….That was almost certainly a mistake. We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will arise.

For after this subjugation of the Islamic culture by the nominally Christian had already been achieved, the political conquerors of that [Moslem] culture began to notice two disquieting features about it. The first was that its spiritual foundation proved immovable; the second that its [Islam’s own] area of occupation did not recede, but on the contrary slowly expanded. Islam would not look at any Christian missionary effort….

I think it true to say that Islam is the only spiritual force on earth which Catholicism has found an impregnable fortress. Its votaries are the one religious body conversions from which are insignificant. (190-192—my emphasis added)

To reinforce his last point, Belloc says: “This granite permanence is a most striking thing, and worthy of serious consideration by all who meditate upon the spiritual, and consequently, the social, future of the world.” (192—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to a few other fresh insights and revelations of reality, especially the challenging examples of the “practice” of Islam:

The spiritual independence of Islam (upon which everything depends) is as strong as, or stronger than, ever. What affinities or support does this threat of Islam promise to the new enemies of Catholic tradition [such as the extension of “Neo-Paganism”(188)]….

Even those who are directly in contact with the great Mahommedan civilisation…are impressed…by its strength and apparently invincible resistance to conversion….

No considerable number of conversions to Mahommedanism from Christendom is probable. I do not say that such a movement would not be possible, for anything is possible in the near future, seeing the welter into which Christian civilisation has fallen. But I think it improbable, and even highly improbable, because Mahommedans advances in herd or mob fashion. It does not proceed, as the Catholic religion does, by individual conversions, but by colonisation and group movement.

But there are other effects which a great anti-Catholic force [like Islam] and the culture based upon it can have upon anti-Catholic forces within our own [geographis and cultural] boundaries.

In the first place it can act by example. To every man attempting to defend the old Christian culture by prophesying disaster if its [Christianity’s] main tenets be abandoned, Mahommedanism can be presented as a practical answer. (192-193—my emphasis added)

With his aptly concrete and representative specificity, Belloc will now vividly illustrate his challenging meaning concerning an effective act by example:

“You say monogamy is necessary to happy human life, and that the practice of polygamy, or of divorce (which is but a modified form of polygamy) is fatal to the State? You are proved wrong by the example of Mahommedanism.”

Or again “You say that without priests and without sacraments and without all the apparatus of your religion, down to the use of visible images, religion may not survive? Islam is there to give you the lie. Its religion is intense, its spiritual life permanent. Yet it has constantly repudiated all these things. It is violently anti-sacramental; it has no priesthood; it wages fierce war on all symbols in the use of worship.”

This example may, in the near future [as of 1929], be of great effect. Remember that our Christian civilisation is in great peril of complete breakdown. An enemy would say that it is living upon its past. (193-194—my emphasis added)

The West’s temporary advantage over Islam for a few centuries after 1700 was “accomplished by…a superiority in weapons and mechanical invention.” (194) Belloc also reminds us: “And that this superiority dates from a very short time ago.” (194)

By way of his final illustrations and suggestive analogies, Hilaire Belloc admirably but all-too-forebodingly concludes his magnanimous discussion of Islam, especially as a combined “New Arrival” in opposition to the Catholic Church and Faith:

Old people with whom I have spoken as a child could remember the time when the Algerian pirates were seen in the Mediterranean and were still a danger along its southern shores. In my own youth the decaying power of Islam (for it was still decaying) in the Near East was a strong menace to the peace of Europe. Those old people of whom I speak had grandparents in whose times Islam was still able to menace the West. The Turks besieged Vienna [in 1683] and nearly took it, less than a century before the American Declaration of Independence. Islam was then our superior, especially in military art. There is no reason why its recent inferiority in mechanical construction, whether military or civilian, should continuing indefinitely. Even a slight accession of material power would make the further control of Islam by an alien culture difficult. A little more and there will cease that which our time has taken for granted, the physical domination of Islam by the disintegrated Christendom we know. (194-195—my emphasis added)

All things considered, and despite some grim “reports from reality,” G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc have so generously and effectively encouraged our “intellectual magnanimity,” that we preserve it respectfully and also strengthen it in our loyal and often difficult searches for the truth in proper proportion and fairness.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1G.K. Chesterton, Varied Types (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905). The essay on satire and magnanimity and the gifted Catholic poet, Alexander Pope, is to be found on pages 43-55 of Chesterton’s anthology. All further references to “Pope and the Art of Satire” will now be from this edition and placed above in parentheses.

2Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). As a “Survival,” Materialism will be examined on pages 56-62. As a “New Arrival,” Islam will then be examined on pages 188-195. All further references to Survivals and New Arrivals will be to this 1929 text and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

3Hilaire Belloc, Survivals and New Arrivals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929). See especially pages 188-195 on the likely arrivals of “Neo-Paganism” and “Islam”and their possible (but limited and expedient) “alliance” against a common enemy: the Catholic Church. Quotations will henceforth be from this 1929 book and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.