Archbishop Viganò: Restore Christianity with Good Literature

Note: this essay has first been published at and is re-printed here with kind permission.

by Dr. Maike Hickson

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has recently written a preface for a book, Gratitude, Contemplation, and the Sacramental Worth of Catholic Literature, a collection of essays written by my husband Dr. Robert Hickson over the course of several decades. Being a distillation of his life work, this new book aims at presenting to the readers a whole set of inspiring books – most of them Catholic – that can help us restore a Catholic memory. That is to say, these books can help us revive a sense of Catholicity that comes to us from time periods and regions where the Catholic faith was an integral part of the state and society, from a lived faith.

We are very grateful to Archbishop Viganò for his preface, which highlights the importance of culture – and importantly, literature – for the revival of Christianity, and therefore we decided to publish it here (see full text below). His comments aim at turning our minds to the future, preparing the ground for a time where Christ again will reign in the heart and minds of man. His preface is therefore a sort of manifesto of faith and hope, and a wonderful instruction for us on how to go about preparing the ground for Christ.

The Italian prelate and courageous defender of the faith points to the importance of having a memory of our Catholic culture. “Memory,” he writes, “is a fundamental element of a people’s identity, civilization and culture: a society without memory, whose patrimony consists solely of a present without a past, is condemned to have no future. It is alarming that this loss of collective memory affects not only Christian nations but also seriously afflicts the Catholic Church herself and, consequently, Catholics.” The lack of culture among Catholics today, he adds, is “not the result of chance, but of systematic work on the part of those who, as enemies of the True, Good and Beautiful, must erase any ray of these divine attributes from even the most marginal aspects of social life, from our idioms, from memories of our childhood and from the stories of our grandparents.”

Describing this cultural tabula rasa that has taken place among Catholics, Archbishop Viganò goes on to say that “Reading the pages of Dante, Manzoni or one of the great Christian writers of the past, many Catholics can no longer grasp the moral and transcendent sense of a culture that is no longer their common heritage, a jealously guarded legacy, the deep root of a robust plant full of fruit.”

On the contrary, he explains, “in its place we have a bundle of the confused rubbish of the myths of the Revolution, the dusty Masonic ideological repertoire, and the iconography of a supposed freedom won by the guillotine, along with the persecution of the Church, the martyrdom of Catholics in Mexico and Spain, the end of the tyranny of Kings and Popes and the triumph of bankers and usurers.”

Archbishop Viganò clearly shows us that he understands the concept of a “cultural revolution” as developed by the Communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who aimed at winning the minds of the people by influencing and dominating their culture.

This cultural – and with it spiritual – empoverishment among Catholics, according to the prelate, “has found significant encouragement also among those who, within the Catholic Church, have erased 2,000 years of the inestimable patrimony of faith, spirituality and art, beginning with a wretched sense of inferiority instilled in the faithful even by the hierarchy since Vatican II.” It was the very hierarchy of the Church – together with many simpler clergymen – who helped promote such a devastation of the art within the realm of the Catholic Church. Let us only think of the modern churches, altars, and of modern church music!

With powerful words, Archbishop Viganò describes how this destruction is ultimately aimed at God Himself: “Certainly, behind this induced amnesia, there is a Trinitarian heresy. And where the Deceiver lurks, the eternal Truth of God must be obscured in order to make room for the lie, the betrayal of reality, the denial of the past.” In light of this analysis, it nearly seems to be a counter-revolutionary act to revive Catholic literature, Catholic music, Catholic architecture.

Explains the prelate: “Rediscovering memory, even in literature, is a meritorious and necessary work for the restoration of Christianity, a restoration that is needed today more than ever if we want to entrust to our children a legacy to be preserved and handed down as a tangible sign of God’s intervention in the history of the human race.”

It is in this context that he kindly mentions the “meritorious work” of this new book, praising its “noble purpose of restoring Catholic memory, bringing it back to its ancient splendor, that is, the substance of a harmonious and organic past that has grown and still lives today.” He adds that “Robert Hickson rightly shows us, in the restoration of memory, the way to rediscover the shared faith that shapes the traits of a shared Catholic culture.”

Dr. Hickson’s new book was published last month and contains 25 essays on many different Catholic authors, such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Maurice Baring, Evelyn Waugh, Josef Pieper, George Bernanos, Ernest Psichari, Father John Hardon, S.J., L. Brent Bozell Jr., and, last but not least, the Orthodox Christian authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The themes of this book are war and peace, justice, the Catholic vow, saints, friendship, chivalry, martyrdom and sacrifice, just to name a few. The essays of the book were written from 1982 until 2017, the first being an essay where Hickson developed the concept of “sacramental literature” and the importance of “restoring a Catholic memory.” Anthony S. Fraser, the son of the famous Catholic convert and traditionalist, Hamish Fraser, kindly had edited the essays for his friend, before he so suddenly died on August 28, 2014, the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo. May his soul rest in peace. We thank you, Tony!

Here is the full preface written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò:

Memory is a fundamental element of a people’s identity, civilization and culture: a society without memory, whose patrimony consists solely of a present without a past, is condemned to have no future. It is alarming that this loss of collective memory affects not only Christian nations, but also seriously afflicts the Catholic Church herself and, consequently, Catholics.

This amnesia affects all social classes and is not the result of chance, but of systematic work on the part of those who, as enemies of the True, Good and Beautiful, must erase any ray of these divine attributes from even the most marginal aspects of social life, from our idioms, from memories of our childhood and from the stories of our grandparents. The Orwellian action of artificially remodeling the past has become commonplace in the contemporary world, to the point that a class of high school students are unable to recognize an altarpiece depicting a scene from the life of Christ or a bas-relief with one of the most revered saints of the past. Dr. Robert Hickson calls this inability “deficiency of dogmatic understanding”, “Catholic illiteracy of pestilential proportions”.

Tabula rasa: millions of souls who only twenty or thirty years ago would have immediately identified the Baptism of the Lord in the Jordan or Saint Jerome or Saint Mary Magdalene are capable of seeing only two men along a river, an old man with a lion and a woman with a vase. Reading the pages of Dante, Manzoni or one of the great Christian writers of the past, many Catholics can no longer grasp the moral and transcendent sense of a culture that is no longer their common heritage, a jealously guarded legacy, the deep root of a robust plant full of fruit.

In its place we have a bundle of the confused rubbish of the myths of the Revolution, the dusty Masonic ideological repertoire, and the iconography of a supposed freedom won by the guillotine, along with the persecution of the Church, the martyrdom of Catholics in Mexico and Spain, the end of the tyranny of Kings and Popes and the triumph of bankers and usurers. A lineage of kings, saints, and heroes is ignored by its heirs, who stoop to boasting about their ancestors who were criminals, usurpers, and seditious traitors: never has falsification reached the point of such incomprehensible perversion, and it is evident that the desire to artificially create such ancestry is the necessary premise for the barbarization of the offspring, which is now practically accomplished.

We must also recognize that this removal has found significant encouragement also among those who, within the Catholic Church, have erased two thousand years of the inestimable patrimony of faith, spirituality and art, beginning with a wretched sense of inferiority instilled in the faithful even by the Hierarchy since Vatican II. The ancient apostolic liturgy, on which centuries of poetic compositions, mosaics, frescoes, paintings, sculptures, chiseled vases, illuminated chorales, embroidered vestments, plainchants and polyphony have been shaped, has been proscribed. In its place we now have a squalid rite without roots, born from the pen of conspirators dipped in the inkwell of Protestantism; music that is no longer sacred but profane; tasteless liturgical vestments and sacred vessels made of common material. And as a grey counterpoint to the hymns of St. Ambrose and St. Thomas, we now have poor paraphrases without metrics and without soul, grotesque paintings and disturbing sculptures. The removal of the admirable writings of the Fathers of the Church, the works of the mystics, the erudite dissertations of theologians and philosophers and, in the final analysis, of Sacred Scripture itself – whose divine inspiration is sometimes denied, sacrilegiously affirming that it is merely of human origin – have all constituted necessary steps of being able to boast of the credit of worldly novelties, which before those monuments of human ingenuity enlightened by Grace appear as miserable forgeries.

This absence of beauty is the necessary counterpart to an absence of holiness, for where the Lord of all things is forgotten and banished, not even the appearance of Beauty survives. It is not only Beauty that has been banished: Catholic Truth has been banished along with it, in all its crystalline splendor, in all its dazzling consistency, in all its irrepressible capacity to permeate every sphere of civilized living. Because the Truth is eternal, immutable and divisive: it existed yesterday, it exists today and it will exist tomorrow, as eternal and immutable and divisive as the Word of God.

Certainly, behind this induced amnesia, there is a Trinitarian heresy. And where the Deceiver lurks, the eternal Truth of God must be obscured in order to make room for the lie, the betrayal of reality, the denial of the past. In a forgery that is truly criminal forgery, even the very custodians of the depositum fidei ask forgiveness from the world for sins never committed by our fathers – in the name of God, Religion or the Fatherland – supporting the widest and most articulated historical forgery carried out by the enemies of God. And this betrays not only the ignorance of History which is already culpable, but also culpable bad faith and the malicious will to deceive the simple ones.

Rediscovering memory, even in literature, is a meritorious and necessary work for the restoration of Christianity, a restoration that is needed today more than ever if we want to entrust to our children a legacy to be preserved and handed down as a tangible sign of God’s intervention in the history of the human race: how much Providence has accomplished over the centuries – and that art has immortalized by depicting miracles, the victories of the Christians over the Turk, sovereigns kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, patron saints of famous universities and prosperous corporations – can be renewed today and especially tomorrow, only if we can rediscover our past and understand it in the light of the mystery of the Redemption.

This book proposes the noble purpose of restoring Catholic memory, bringing it back to its ancient splendor, that is, the substance of a harmonious and organic past that has grown and still lives today, just as the hereditary traits of a child are found developed in the adult man, or as the vital principle of the seed is found in the sap of the tree and in the pulp of the fruit. Robert Hickson rightly shows us, in the restoration of memory, the way to rediscover the shared faith that shapes the traits of a shared Catholic culture.

In this sense it is significant – I would say extremely appropriate, even if only by analogy – to have also included Christian literature among the Sacramentals, applying to it the  same as action as that of blessed water, the glow of the candles, the ringing of bells, the liturgical chant: the invocation of the Virgin in the thirty-third canto of Dante’s Paradiso, the dialogue of Cardinal Borromeo with the Innominato, and a passage by Chesterton all make Catholic truths present in our minds and, in some way, they realize what they mean and can influence the spiritual life, expanding and completing it. Because of this mystery of God’s unfathomable mercy we are touched in our souls, moved to tears, inspired by Good, spurred to conversion. But this is also what happens when we contemplate an altarpiece or listen to a composition of sacred music, in which a ray of divine perfection bursts into the greyness of everyday life and shows us the splendor of the Kingdom that awaits us.

The author writes: “We are called to the commitment to recover the life and full memory of the Body of Christ, even if in our eyes we cannot do much to rebuild that Body”. But the Lord does not ask us to perform miracles: He invites us to make them possible, to create the conditions in our souls and in our social bodies so that the wonders of divine omnipotence may be manifested. To open ourselves to the past, to the memory of God’s great actions in history, is an essential condition for making it possible for us to become aware of our identity and our destiny today so that we may restore the Kingdom of Christ tomorrow.

+ Carlo Maria Viganò
Titular Archbishop of Ulpiana
Apostolic Nuncio

28 August 2020
Saint Augustine
Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church

The Psycho-Cultural Effects of Biological Terrorism And Warfare: A 1998 Strategic Perspective

Author’s Note: This essay is the third essay in a sequence of strategic studies on biological and psychological warfare (see footnote 1 below). The earlier articles were written on 15 November 1997 and 8 July 1998, this third one being dated 22 August 1998. We plan to re-publish these studies in light of the current situation in the world with the Coronavirus and the psychological effects on mankind.

22 August 1998




Unprecedented Risks In The Defense Of The Common Good And

The Need For Heroic Virtue

Where does one find his hope in a culture of broken trust? How does one abidingly form a well-rooted and sustaining culture of hope amidst a political and financial or religious milieu of deceit and sophistry? Even more specifically, in a medical and military culture of broken trust and deception, how should one form a homeland defense-in-depth against short-range or long-range biological warfare and terrorism?i Given their needed protection against even graver biological agents (in light of the still mysterious “Gulf War Syndromes”), what does it mean and portend, for example, when American military and naval officers and men refuse to take even the newly required, but, in their perception, untrustworthy vaccines, which are, moreover, purportedly effective only against anthrax? It appears to be the case, and not otherwise, that fear and mistrust abound. Gravely consequential and certainly true it is that the greatest social effect of the lie – deliberate falsehood, and even apparently deliberate falsehood – is the breaking of trust.

But, even before resolute corrective action, how should one think and speak about intimately insidious, immediate as well as indirect (and longer-range) forms of biological warfare and strategic bio-terrorism, without thereby inducing what we are attempting to prevent, namely: paralyzing mistrust, apathy, futility, and despair? The eloquent and wise, ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, also faced this challenge, but with respect to a purely natural calamity, namely: how to speak the stark truth without breaking people down into despair, or without numbing them into cold callousness and slothful indifference; or how to discern the proper poise and relation between fear and hope, between true knowledge and despair. Speaking of the plague in Athens during the crowded summer of 430 BC, Thucydides, who himself had been actually present and had contracted the disease, said:

Indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things [i.e., prayer or the consultation of divine prophecy]…. The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realized they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in this way, would lose their powers of resistance. (The Peloponnesian War: 431-404 BC, Book II, 47-54) ii

A modern epidemic of virulent and disfiguring smallpox (which can even leave a survivor permanently blind!) or a more intimate outburst of pestilential venereal disease, even if it were not maliciously introduced or manipulated, would also likely produce terror and maybe also despair. Moreover, under the increasingly demoralizing conditions of modern cultural fragmentation and oligarchically manipulated “mass democracy” (or “people’s democracy”), and especially under the self-dramatizing mass media’s deceptive “perception management” and more subtly infectious sophistry, many good and sensitively intelligent people might also be “overwhelmed by the weight of their calamities” and by the cumulative effects of intimately broken trust. And they, too, could, in their vulnerability, so easily lose their powers of moral resistance, and give up. This is truly a terrible thing to think upon. The subject matter – the concept and the reality of biological warfare and pestilence – is intrinsically fearsome, intractably elusive, and subversively (often deliberately) ambiguous. One may not know what the truth is, what to trust, or whom to trust. Thus, one will be drawn, or more forcibly taken, to the foundations of his strength – his fortitude and his hope. The ambiance of biological warfare will be a test and measure of his intimate and ultimate world-view, and of our own intelligently responsive, but now often equivocal, strategic culture.

Therefore, in dealing with this intimidating topic, we must ourselves also embody and resolutely live, from the outset, the virtue of prudenceiii – the first of the four cardinal virtues, all of which (i.e., prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) are voluntarily perfected human capacities and prompt human dispositions: objective perfections of deeply human, intellectual and moral faculties, and not mere “values,” nor preferentially subjective “tastes.” We must, of consequence, be truly prudent in this matter of biological warfare and not overwhelm people who are already overburdened and perhaps even feverishly expectant of further, altogether intractable catastrophes in our disordered world. Such sadness or moroseness can also be cruelly and destructively manipulated by an adversary, as a part of psychological warfare. The realm of biological warfare is itself so easily productive of fear and panic, both of which can be resentfully and maliciously – and strategically – manipulated, as an unmistakably diabolical instrumentality making use of deception and conducing to despair.

Nevertheless, although we may impulsively, and delusively, try to run, we cannot finally hide from the risks of biological warfare, nor from the more encompassingly contagious, circumambient culture of death. Nor can we hide from the unprecedented risks of defending the common good (bonum commune) against such intimate dangers. We shall need, and we shall need to cultivate, truly heroic virtue – especially the virtues of fortitude and hope – or we shall soon ourselves fail to implement even the most far-sighted strategic prudence or winsome practical wisdom, or the other, higher, intellectual virtues. Without robust fortitude and hope-full perseverance, even the slow fruitfulness of true wisdom, strategic wisdom, will be in vain. Thus, I shall return to this topic at the very end of my reflections on the concept and reality of strategic psycho-biological warfare, both in its indirect forms and its direct forms, to include “selective” as well as “mass-scale” bio-terrorism.

Moreover, it should be remembered and freshly considered that the more indirect, and at least initially non-lethal, forms of “bio-weapons” and “high-tech weaponization,” which could use biological toxins and subtler bio-agents, may be even more disruptive and destructive and psychologically shattering than the more obvious and direct “mass-scale” uses of biological agents like bubonic plague, inhalational (pulmonary) anthrax, or smallpox (whether it be genetically engineered or in more virulently unmodified and “purer” strains). If the targeted minds are only partly and gradually modified – poisoned, deformed, demented – the effects are likely to be more cumulatively dislocating and, when recognized, also more suddenly shocking and paralyzing or numbing. It must suffice, for this paper, not to be more specific or explicit; but some of the technologies may be usefully imagined in light of the modern scientific revolution in molecular biology, genetic engineering, and other forms of bio-technology.

An analogy with modern “absurdist” literature and drama might be helpful, in this context, to bring out my meaning more vividly and forcefully. In contrast to the more blatantly absurdist of the modern nihilist dramatists, the subtlety of the English dramatist, Harold Pinter, for example, in his play, The Homecoming, is much more disorienting, demoralizing, and dislocatingly subversive of order, meaning, and purpose. In this mentally unsettling play, Pinter takes a deeply resonant archetypal theme, a homecoming – as with Homer’s Odysseus or the other “nostoi” (returns) of the Greek heroes, like Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – and artfully makes things seem “almost right,” almost human, but subtly modifies and gradually reveals bizarre and inappropriate expressions of language and conduct. Given that the deep vibrational and emotional intensity of a homecoming touches upon many intimate and ultimate matters – to include matters of trust and possible betrayal – the subtle “absurdist” manipulations of such a theme and of such a touching scene are even more psychologically devastating, and abidingly staining. So, too, would be the case, if a person were gradually and but partly modified by bio-agents that affected his endocrine system or the neuro-physiology of his brain, or by subtly destructive “psycho-tropic” drugs which slightly modified a spouse’s intimate behavior or emotions. The sudden or gradual recognition of such malicious insidiousness would be very destructive indeed. Consider also, as treacherous forms of “biological warfare,” the gradual or partial contamination of food or medicine and other “soft targets,” or the insidious and deliberate introduction of “sterility serums” or “population-control agents” into a broader class of ostensibly humane and merciful “public health inoculations” against real infectious diseases (as distinct from neo-Malthusian or Manichaean views of “pregnancy” and “managed reproductive health”). Given the increasingly controversial issues of “forced sterilizations” in Peru and “forced abortions” in China (especially against female babies), and the controversy of making foreign “developmental aid” to a country contingent upon that country’s “population-control measures,” to what extent, therefore, are these indirect manipulations and deceptions not also a form of biological warfare, and even a form of biological terrorism, at least from the point of view of the “target country” or the mind of the “target mother”?

How does one properly, prudently, and courageously discuss such explosive topics? How does one honestly examine such explosive strategic topics, which have deep and long-term consequences that are not easily altered or corrected, even if one – or his “progressive country” – is willing to make the humble “course correction”? If the “lesser developed countries” perceive that a country like the United States is deceitfully mixing into its vaccination programs certain perverse agents that sterilize a woman, either temporarily or permanently, what might be the range of repercussions? What might be the desperate reprisals and the terrible vengeance? When other countries, moreover, see the further deceits and effects of the American state of Oregon’s now “legal” and purportedly “public” and “open” lethal actions to “assist the suicide” or “euthanasia” of its own citizens, persons old or young, and especially the poor, what will they fittingly expect from us? What will they suspect of us – and how will they react or take strategic counter-initiatives of self-protection? Moreover, against such frankly intimate evils of deception and broken trust, how will we deliberately, if at all, make a true “course correction”? Or, will we, rather, then be unable or unwilling to do so. Or, have we come to such a point, like the ancient Romans, where we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies? Would not that moral condition of paralysis also be a “provocative weakness” to others? Is it not the case that, sunk in such sloth, we may also thereby help bring about the very things we are purportedly trying to insure against: the unjust and insidious culture of death and craven terrorism? Or, do we subtly and willfully (and shamelessly) promote, at home and abroad, the despairing and increasingly desperate “culture of death” against children?

Moreover, how does one not inattentively or unwittingly bring about the very thing that we were, once at least, trying to insure against: the destruction of physical, moral, and spiritual life? Such is our new vulnerability, such is the added risk. That is the meaning of “moral hazard.” That is our moral risk, especially when countries like America are increasingly perceived (and resented) as a hubristic culture of “engagement and enlargement” or a tumescence of self-aggrandizement and corruption.iv

There is also the moral risk of having any such rational discourse about such a sensitive and precarious topic, namely the often subtly ignored or denied forms of our own indirect and deceptive biological warfare against others, and their grave psychological effects, also on ourselves. By speaking too much disingenuously about it, or even unwisely, we may actually provide further incentives to others to perpetrate and perpetuate the evils of biological warfare or vengeful bio-terrorism – if only by way of reprisal and the embittered rage that comes from broken trust.

Let us now consider further the concept and reality of “moral hazard.” What happens, for example, when, in its generous arson insurance against the risks of fire-damage, an insurance company over-remunerates an owner (and policyholder) for a loss due to accidental fire or malicious arson? Such “over-insurance” may provide an incentive or temptation for the insured person himself to burn down his own building, under certain conditions of personal difficulty or desperation. Hence, an imprudent insurance company, insufficiently attentive to certain aspects of human nature, could thereby help bring about the very situation it was purportedly trying to insure against! The proper proportion and inter-relation between risk and insurance, fear and hope, danger and trust, must always be wisely considered, not only in “actuarial” or “fiducial” structures of insurance companies and legal bequeathals or trust funds, but within the entire moral realm and long-range strategic arena, as well. As it were, when one is either over-insured or under-insured (either over-assured or under-assured) against risks, one is vulnerable and often dangerously tempted. Wise leadership, however, understands this inherent fragility of the human condition and human nature’s selfish propensities to disorder; and it also understands the need for the proper proportion between risk and insurance (or assurance) – hence the proper poise of alacrity and “regenerative equilibrium” – lest man, or his uprooted and unsustaining culture of broken trust, fearfully despair or too comfortably de-compose by way of complacency and sloth.

This essay, as proposed, has designedly concentrated on the psychological and intimately cultural – hence spiritual – aspects and consequences of biological warfare and bio-terrorism, especially as they may effect, along with natural, not man-made, epidemics, various human cultures of broken trust. Over the last several years, my thought has often focused more broadly on the immediate and long-term consequences of broken trust. For, it is a sad fact of the human condition and the vulnerable human heart that trust, once broken, is so hard to repair. It is so difficult to restore an intimately betrayed and broken trust, even for the most magnanimous and forgiving of men, and even with the help of grace (which, some people believe, actually heals and elevates our wounded nature). This psychological fact, of course, is one of the most vivid and poignant themes of world literature. And to the extent that one’s larger circumambient culture, or essential way of life, is also characterized by deception and broken trust, a man under the threat of bio-weapons is very vulnerable, indeed, especially under the actuality of metastasizing biological warfare, or under the psychological shock-traumas of subtle and ambiguous bio-terrorism.

Moreover, to the extent that our nominal Western democracies themselves have increasingly become “narco-democracies” or more deeply permeated by various kinds of “narco-cultures,” to include those forms of entertainment and advertising, or “mass education” and the pampered “cult of athletics” (and steroids) that “narcoticize” the mind and “dull, dim, and dumb it down,” we shall be even more vulnerable to the varieties of biological warfare, such as genetic engineering, eugenics, and other forms of bio-technology which propose to “develop” a “superman” and “superwoman.” Even to have adequate diagnostics to detect naturally occurring, or maliciously manipulated, biological agents, one must have a very discerning intellect, an unbenumbed intelligence, and much intellectual and moral discipline, lest panic or futility overwhelm one or one’s “tribal sub-culture.” Would our “mass media” or our “Internet Culture” have such discipline or restraint? Under hostile “bio-weaponized” attack or amidst a mutable public health crisis, to what extent are we spiritually prepared or morally ready to live by even the most foundational elements of chivalry as an ethos of honor, namely the principle that “the more defenseless someone is – women, children, the elderly, the broken and despairing – the more that person calls out for our defense. Chivalry was essentially the code of the Christian soldier (miles Christi). For Christian soldiers, Christ Himself was the Good Samaritan – a despised man himself reaching out to the misery of another, even to a Jew, to alleviate and to heal. Christian chivalry was formed to imitate their Founder, to sacrifice oneself out of love. For, love is the willingness to suffer for the beloved, with the beloved, and – most painfully – from the beloved, and even a neighbor who might infect you with a virulent disease. Chapters 34 and 35 of Alessandro Manzoni’s, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), like the conclusion of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, memorably depicts such an ethos in action, embodied in actuality, not merely in idealistic fantasy.

Furthermore, according to the testimonies and the lives of those most widely considered to be men and women of great, if not heroic, virtue, the imagination, though not a cognitive faculty, is the hardest thing to discipline, much less to mortify, especially under the press and stress of the passions – the passions of erotic pleasure, protective anger, and fear. Imagine how human imaginations could be strategically manipulated in view of their tremulous expectations or actual subjection to unmistakably repulsive biological warfare or to the diabolical cravenness of the bio-terrorist themselves. Only a deep culture of virtue – of strategic and heroic virtue, to include the virtue of trust – is likely to resist, much less alleviate or overcome, such intimately destructive forms of warfare which could even be able to alter the genes of one’s own progeny, irreparably. And, this, too, is a terrible thing to think upon! Even to think about it, much less to face it. When, in our growing moral and cultural relativism and cynicism (or frigidity of heart and the congealment of lovelessness), we trivialize evil and deny even the reality of temptation (i.e., attractive incentives to evil), we may more easily be overcome by sloth and hopelessness. Is this not so? Do we not need the virtue of fortitude and fiducia spei (the trust – the confidence – that comes from hope). Is this not also to be considered in our realistic counter-strategy and integrated defense-in-depth? Our homeland – our home – is likely to be the future battlefield.

But what is the way of life we are defending? What is the true homeland we are protecting – and transmitting?

Even when we discount the over-fevered imaginings about the “Y2K” (Year 2000) Problem involving our cyberspace computers, and even when we rationally mitigate the forecasts of chaos to come in “cyberculture” and to our national and international life, the predicted disruptions of essential services will likely also be exploited by the malevolent, to include bio-terrorists, who might thereby have more anonymity and maneuverable undetectability – or less accountability. Concerning “information warfare” itself, especially strategic information warfare, it is very difficult to know even whether you are actually under attack, especially if you are under a subtly and gradually prepared information-warfare attack.

What, for example, are the “indications and warnings”? Since “information warfare” is essentially defined as inflicting “disruption, destruction, and [most difficultly] deception in information systems,” it can also be fittingly understood as a form of psychological warfare, as well as a more technical form of “command-and-control warfare,” which targets an adversary’s leadership cadre, his “command-and–control apparatus.” Consider how such “information warfare” could be combined with actual (or feigned) bio-terrorism or longer-range biological warfare, in order to attack and dislocate the mind, and to paralyze the will. If, therefore, we do not have – and continually cultivate – a public culture of trust (and of the fiducia spei), we shall be even more vulnerable to these fearsome effects upon the human soul, especially despair, to include what Sören Kierkegaard called “the despair of the weak,” or “sloth.”

Given their own premises and operative principles, can the Western liberal democracies themselves sufficiently resist their own internally growing and spreading “cultures of broken trust”? What will be the prerequisites for such a strategic “course correction” against the culture of sophistry, sloth, and broken trust – for such a moral, spiritual, and innermost cultural transformation?

Or, are such questions themselves properly to be considered chimerical, and not only by the cynical and worldly wise and the decadent? Moreover, do we have enough love – hence animating desire for real virtue – to sacrifice for the common good (bonum commune)? Or, will we resort to various “flights from reality” – to include flights into drugs, or into “Chaos and Cyberculture” (the title of one of the last two books of Timothy Leary, who was apparently discovering in “electrons” and “electronic culture,” and the whole electro-magnetic spectrum, many more “psychedelic” (mind-expanding) possibilities than in “drugs”; Leary’s last book is significantly entitled Surfing the Conscious Net).

Along with the above-mentioned possibilities and psycho-effects of deception (or self-deception) in information warfare, we must remember that those countries and groups which themselves have worked elaborately on biological weapons (to include the proximate Cubans) have also been masters of masking their own programs – employing those techniques and capacities that are known as “D and D” (Denial and Deception). Such capacities and manipulations add to our unsettling uncertainties and “psychological mystification and dislocation.”

What is so potentially and inwardly devastating about these various forms of “psycho-biological warfare” is that “false alarms” and “hoaxes” themselves can also be effectively manipulated – and very strategically – to attack the mind and the will of an adversary, not only the leadership, but also the larger citizenry or amorphous immigrant (and “Balkanized”) populace. In a culture of broken trust, moreover, people will naturally act more selfishly and less sacrificially on behalf of the common good. And the common good (bonum commune) is much deeper and more abiding than the mere “common utility” or “public interest”  and a very demanding or arduous good (a bonum arduum).

For example, guerrilla warfare, as strategically promoted by Winston Churchill in World War II, was very effective in the short term, but in the long term very destructive – very destructive upon civilization, seen in the longer-view of the war’s aftermath, i.e., its effects on the subsequent “peace” or “deceitful peace” (the “Cold War”). Speaking candidly of the long-range evil consequences of the over-enamored, promiscuous resort to guerrilla warfare, the great strategic-minded military historian, B. H. Liddell Hart, has the following to say:

The material damage that the guerrillas produced directly, and indirectly in the course of reprisals, caused much suffering among their own people and ultimately became a handicap to recovery after liberation. But the heaviest handicap of all, and the most lasting one, was of a moral kind. The armed resistance movement [like the terrorist networks and trans-national criminal syndicates today] attracted many “bad hats.” It gave them license to indulge their vices and work off their grudges under the cloak of patriotism, thus giving fresh point to Dr. [Samuel] Johnson’s historic remark that “patriotism [like certain distorted forms of contemptuous and haughty, cultural or religious or racial “nationalism”] is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Worse still was its wider effect on the younger generation as a whole. It taught them to defy authority and break the rules of civic morality in the fight against the occupying [or usurping] forces. This left disrespect for “law and order” that inevitably continued after the invaders [or “dispossessors”] had gone. Violence takes much deeper root in irregular warfare than it does in regular warfare. In the latter it [i.e., deeply rooted violence] is counteracted by obedience to a constituted authority, whereas the former makes a virtue of defying authority and violating rules. It becomes very difficult to rebuild a country, and a stable state, on a foundation undermined by such experience. (B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd revised edition, pp. 368-369 – emphasis added)

In Liddell Hart’s profound understanding, therefore, the inordinate and imprudently promiscuous resort to guerrilla warfare violated the proper poise and proportion of the “moral hazard,” and thereby helped bring about what the leaders of the West were purportedly trying to insure against: the spread of lawlessness and immoral cruelty (while also seemingly blind, despite fair warning, to the Soviet Gulag System).

Even moreso is it a danger today that we, too, shall over-react to the threat and the actuality of bio-terrorism and biological warfare, both by resorting to them ourselves, or by implementing the extreme “Continuity-of-Government (C.O.G.)” “emergency measures,” and at least some, seemingly dubious, presidential “executive orders,” even to the point of creating Martial Law and its more permanent institutions (and “Praetorian Guard”) of enforcement. Such an over-reaction, however, is exactly what our intelligently strategic adversaries would seek to provoke in us, further to dislocate us mentally and morally, and to sap us spiritually. The more undisciplined and un-virtuous our citizens and imiscible immigrant populace are, and the more that our way of life and public order are perceived by our own members and others as an unlovely and cynical “culture of broken trust,” then the more likely it will be that extreme measures of rule will be needed and, perhaps, tragically, resorted to, even promiscuously. As cinema character, “Dirty Harry” (Clint Eastwood) once said, or implied, “if you can’t have law and order, you’ve got to have order without law!” – even if it is an eventually subversive “pseudo-order.” People will often prefer tyranny to open anarchy. (However, when the spiritual and moral anarchy are more concealed, and even deliberately concealed from themselves by themselves, the people often then seem to prefer sloth or enervating decadence.)

These deep matters being said, what are, if any, the stark epidemiological possibilities and realities which we must also soberly face, independent of the deliberate tactical operations of bio-terrorism or more subtle forms of strategic biological warfare? For example, what are some of “the realities of epidemic smallpox,” in the forceful (yet calm) words of the world-renowned epidemiologist, Dr. Donald A. Henderson, of Johns Hopkins University, who has himself personally dealt with this infectious and disfiguring virus – in Pakistan (in the 1960’s), in the USA (in 1962), in Yugoslavia (February 1972), and in Germany (1972)? I encourage you to read and deeply consider his sobering, eight-page paper presented at our 4 December 1997 Conference of “Bio-Defense and Urban Terrorism,” which was inspired and organized by Dr. Thomas Frazier, a modest and selfless man. Dr. Henderson’s paper – as well as his very effective oral presentation – is acutely entitled: “Biological Terrorism – Epidemiological Realities.” After your reading and deep savor of Dr. Henderson’s trenchant words and “reports from reality” – to include ineluctable historical reality – then my own special considerations in this essay will be, I believe, more cogent and forceful – and, perhaps, also a more inspiring summons to help defend the common good.

Dr. Henderson, by his own account, was also present at a meeting at the U. S. National Academy of Sciences in 1994, when Dr. Vorobyev, “a Russian bioweapons expert, presented to the Working Group on Biological Weapons Control a paper summarizing the Russian conclusions as to the most likely biological agents to be used. The top three were, in order, smallpox, plague, and anthrax” (p. 1). But, Dr. Henderson continues: “Based on experiences with inhalation anthrax at Sverdlovsk [to include their earlier deadly accident in 1979, which became a lethal (but dishonestly misrepresented) epidemic], I think that anthrax would now be rated more highly than plague” (p.1). Dr. Henderson’s interpretive views are independently supported by the testimony of the 1992 Soviet-Russian defector, Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov (now Anglicized as “Ken Alibek”), who was himself the deputy-director (second in command) of Moscow’s massive biological warfare development program, BIOPREPARAT.

Thus, throughout our reflections on man-made bio-terrorism and other forms of biological warfare, we must never forget the impact of unmistakably natural (much less ambiguous) epidemics. Furthermore, before concluding this essay with a deeper examination of the third cardinal virtue of fortitude, as a form of truly heroic virtue needed today in the face of subtly strategic forms of psycho-biological warfare, I wish to pose some potentially sensitive, but suggestive and directive questions for your further inquiry, and maybe also your illumination and consequently resolute prudential action:

  1. What are the implications of the spreading presence of the neuro-toxin, pfisteria, in the coastal waters of North Carolina, and now also in the Chesapeake Bay, an issue which is now being belatedly studied by the University of Virginia’s Medical School, among others, after much denial or trivialization?
  2. What are the implications of the Israeli Mossad’s clandestine use of the bio-toxin, ricin, in their attempted assassination, last year, of a hostile foreign leader resident in and operating out of the sovereign country of Jordan?
  3. Are the earlier and current diseases in Taiwan’s pigs and soybeans man-made or natural, and, in any event, do they not have the consequence (if not also the deliberate intention) of economic warfare? And, what are the causes and implications of the recent virus which has sadly taken a significant death toll of Taiwanese newborn babies? Were these grave afflictions only an accidental collocation of natural misfortunes?
  4. What is the nature of the various diseases that are ambiguously (or equivocally) associated with “the Gulf War Syndromes”? Who first discovered these problems honestly (and some of their causes), and then took them very seriously? And, what will be the longer-term psychological aftermath for those (military and civilian) who may have to go back into such ambiguous milieus of combat, either in the Middle East or elsewhere?
  5. To what extent do certain countries still have highly secure and “masked” “underground programs” for research and development of bio-weapons, and related chemical devices, such as powerful, psycho-tropic “synthetic drugs”?
  6. What, if any, is the “new face of terrorism” (and their deeper motivations), and to what extent might bio-terrorists now make use of trans-national criminal syndicates and dubious international “conglomerates” (e.g., Nordex); drug cartels and their cosmopolitan financial support apparatus; new “private security” and intelligence organizations (e.g., Executive Outcomes in South Africa, and elsewhere); and, finally, perhaps most demandingly, those older, “multi-purpose,” traditional Asiatic “secret societies” (e.g., the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakusa) operating at home and abroad, sometimes as strategic assets of foreign powers, and maybe, also, of international oligarchies?
  7. If smallpox virus is readily grown on the “chorioallantoic membrane of embryonated hens’ eggs” (in Dr. D. A. Henderson’s words, p. 4), then how difficult would it be to prepare a smallpox weapon?
  8. To what extent do we have strategic medical intelligence on such matters, or even a sufficient “Epidemic Intelligence Service,” to help us defend the common good and the public health of nations? To what extent are our new vaccines contaminated or defective, and to what extent can they be manipulated and contaminated by others?
  9. To what extent, if at all, is there a pattern or tendency for certain countries (e.g., Cuba, the USA, or other medically “progressive” countries) to export, through their research labs, very dangerous vaccine-resistant strains of diseases like resurgent tuberculosis (the greatest killer of the nineteenth century), especially among hitherto unexposed, “virgin” populations?

Such a sampling of questions, especially in light of what I have earlier presented in this paper, might further help focus thoughtful minds. Do we agree? And we may also come to discuss many other related issues and implications, should there be the interest, perspicacity, and pertinacity.

But, now for some implications – and elucidations – of the life of real virtue (not mere values), and some traits of heroic virtue, especially fortitude and the type of world-view that deeply sustains it in persevering hope.

What, after all, is “true” heroism? Do we “conceive of this mainly, or exclusively, as exceptional ability, developed through extraordinary effort in any sphere”?v Similarly, do we “demand of the ‘hero’ exceptional success, the brilliant fortune of a general, the surgeon, and the politician that captures the popular imagination” (p. 194)? My beloved mentor, Josef Pieper, will himself now help us, I believe, to think through this important matter more deeply. He says, by way of further clarification and challenge:

But what if we conceive it [i.e., heroism] otherwise? What if we recognize and accept the fact that the essence of true heroism is the virtue of fortitude – that it is through this virtue, indeed, that the hero differs from the average man?…. And if we concede that this is so, we shall understand better than we are otherwise likely to do how it is that the image of the hero in the great literature of the world (which is based to a large extent upon the idea of fortitude) is instead bewilderingly ambiguous (p. 194 – emphasis added).

As mentioned earlier, fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and “for more than two thousand years these virtues have been looked upon, in the tradition of Western thought, as a kind of four-color spectrum in which the concept of the good person fans out” (p. 194). Moreover, says Josef Pieper:

The concept of fortitude will be misunderstood if the world-view that underlies it is not clearly comprehended. Fortitude, Augustine says in The City of God [c. 430 AD], is a testimony to the existence of evil – by which he means that fortitude is necessary because, in the world, evil is powerful, is even at times a superior force. In view of this, to be brave can be taken to mean that something must be risked whenever the obviously weak offers resistance to evil. And nobody who wishes to be a good human being and is unwilling to commit an injustice, can avoid this risk (p. 195 – emphasis added).

What does he then say about the nature of this necessary risk? His clarifications may also present us with a surprise, for he says:

What is risked, if the occasion arises, may be something less than life itself. It may instead be a question of immediate well-being, of daily tranquillity, possessions, honor, or face-saving. On the other hand, what is required may be the surrender of life, or more exactly, the acceptance of death at another’s hands. The martyr is the ultimate symbol of fortitude (p. 196 – emphasis added).

That is to say, in this conception, “fortitude is both a virtue fundamentally required of everyone and the essence of heroism” (p. 196 – emphasis added). The underlying world-view that supports the robust (and resilient) orientation of fortitude says, in part, as follows:

The world, along with existence itself, has lost the primordial order; but, like existence, it still remains capable of good [capax boni] and is directed toward it [toward the good, hence also to the bonum commune – the common good, which is also a “steep good” (bonum arduum)]. At the same time, the good is not realized by itself, but requires for that end the effort of an individual who is willing to struggle and if necessary to sacrifice on its behalf (p. 195).

By way of clarifying contrast, Josef Pieper adds:

It is simply a liberalistic illusion to believe that one can be consistently just, for example, without having to risk something for it. That is why fortitude is necessary (pp. 195-196 – emphasis added).

However, it must also be said that:

Fortitude is not an absolute ideal, nor is it even foremost among the cardinal virtues. Its realization is linked to several requirements. A brief adage of Saint Ambrose states: “Fortitude must not trust itself.” It matters little that we “live dangerously,” according to Nietzsche’s maxim, but rather that we live a good life. For this the virtue of prudence is the first necessity…. Sigmund Freud’s assertion that most heroism stems from an instinctive [sic] conviction that “Nothing can happen to me” is true in a sense that possibly he did not perceive – the deep sense in which it is seen that for one who loves good, death cannot be entirely evil (as Socrates, along with Saint Paul, realized and affirmed). Another requirement of true fortitude is justice. The fortitude of a criminal is a misconception; there are no criminal heroes. Our generation is aware that the fruits of fortitude can be corrupted by injustice, chiefly by the injustice of political power. We have come to know firsthand the truth of the old adage: “The praise of fortitude is contingent upon justice” (pp. 196-197 – emphasis added).

But, it is in the treatment of war that “the complexity of the relationship between heroism and fortitude comes to the fore most dramatically,” since fortitude “manifests itself in combat, though combat does not necessarily mean war” (p. 197). Moreover, says Dr. Pieper:

The surrender of one’s life, which can be demanded of a soldier in the just defense of the community, can scarcely be expected without the moral virtue of fortitude. On the other hand, we are more apt to perceive and honor the hero in the figure of conqueror than in one who merely suffers [or, even endures with nobility an injustice he cannot apparently then overcome]. And since fortitude means precisely to endure wounds incurred on behalf of justice (from loss of reputation or well-being to imprisonment or bodily harm), we are really looking, when we contemplate someone who has manifested this virtue, at the antithesis of the “conqueror.” Such a person [of fortitude] does not vanquish, he sacrifices (pp. 197-198 – emphasis added).

Then, by way of further surprise, Josef Pieper says:

In the ultimate test of fortitude, which is martyrdom, there is absolutely nothing of the victorious, though this characteristic is essential to our more usual conception of the hero as conqueror. Nor is there any [usual] supposition that fortitude or heroism will be spoken of in true cases of martyrdom (p. 198 – emphasis added).

Again, on the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, Pieper offers us a contemporary example:

When it comes to a pornographic novel, which may be hailed as “daring” or “bold,” the author in reality risks nothing. Far more courage and perhaps genuine fortitude is required to call such a product repugnant, or to say in public that purity is a fundamental element of human dignity (p. 198 – emphasis added).

Again, to the roots or heart of the matter, he adds:

In the act of fortitude itself, such a person [i.e., the apparently helpless sufferer] does not appear to be a martyr but is rather the accused, the prisoner, the crank, or the lone wolf, abandoned and ridiculed; above all, he proves himself to be mute…. Thus fortitude is, according to its very nature, not the virtue of the stronger but instead of the seemingly vanquished…. It should be remembered that in the eyes of the ancients the decisive criterion for fortitude consisted primarily in steadfastness and not in attacking…. To be sure, the…mortal steadfastness of the martyr has always been understood as a victory and celebrated as such, not only from the Christian standpoint but from that of Plato’s Socrates (pp. 198-199).

And, to bring it closer to home, we may further consider another insight of truth:

In spite of everything the martyr is truly a hero, and so is every unimposing or unknown individual who risks his life for the sake of truth and good, whether in the pointedly dramatic act of martyrdom or in lifelong devotion – in acquiescence to the absolute will of God at the cost of one’s worldly comfort (p. 199 – emphasis added).

Near the end of his discerning reflections, Josef Pieper presents a few more surprises:

Strangely enough, the great teachers of Christianity have regarded the virtue of fortitude in much the same way [i.e., “as inseparable from honor and glory”], designating as one of its fundamental elements magnanimitas [i.e., magnanimity], which seeks high honor before all else and makes itself worthy of it. [But] is this in keeping with the conception of that virtue [of fortitude], the highest act of which is supposed to be martyrdom before the triumphant force of evil? (p. 200)

Pieper answers his own question:

It is consistent with that conception, under one condition, that one is capable of realizing the idea of gloria…or “becoming acknowledged publicly,” the attainment of recognition through God Himself [thus, through the mediated ecclesiastical declaration of sainthood]…. I fear that whoever, for whatever reason, is incapable of accepting this dimension of reality – the life beyond death – will have to be on his guard against the danger of being fascinated by a pseudo-hero borne on the acclaim of the entire world…. [Perhaps] his almost irresistible allure and universal fame will overshadow all other false heroes of history, while his global tyranny will force true fortitude into the most merciless of trials. It will further render totally unrecognizable this fortitude, the essence of all genuine heroism – the virtue of martyrs (p. 200).

And such fortitude can only be sustained by the higher virtue of hope – the hope of martyrs. For, such martyrs, though apparently helpless before disfiguring evil, do not despair. They do not fall into devouring self-pity, nor cynically embrace the corrosion of hopelessness. And, despite the overwhelming evil, they never blaspheme the goodness of God or the fundamental goodness of His Creation or of His temporal world. This virtue of hope and final perseverance is itself a great gift (magnum donum), under grace (sub gratia), and also a steep good, a “demanding arduous good” (bonum arduum) which is difficult, but possible of attainment and which calls for profound gratitude, as well as magnanimous fortitude. Such hope always requires an oblation of gratitude – in life, and at the moment of death.

I believe that only by the further cultivation of such heroic virtues of fortitude and hope, wherever they may be found, will we be promptly (and strategically) ready to defend our children and the larger common good (bonum commune) against the threat and actuality of bio-terrorism and longer-range psycho-biological warfare which will incite us to despair, especially within a deep and spreading culture of broken trust, sloth, unrooted hope, and sophistry.

In this context, and by way of conclusion, the words of Hilaire Belloc may now also have deeper and decisive meaning for us:

The corroboration by experience of a truth emphatically told, but at first not believed, has a powerful effect upon the mind. I suppose that of all the instruments of conviction it is the most powerful. It is an example of the fundamental doctrine that truth confirms truth. If you say to a man a thing which he thinks nonsensical, impossible, a mere jingle of words, although you yourself know it very well by experience to be true; when later he finds this thing by his own experience to be actual and living, then is truth confirmed in his mind: it stands out much more strongly than it would had he never doubted. On this account, it is always worth while, I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense. For though you may die under the imputation of being a man without a sense of proportion, or even a madman, yet reality will in time confirm your effort. And even though that confirmation of your effort, the triumph of the truth, should never be associated with your own name, yet is it worth making for the sake of the truth, to which I am sure we owe a sort of allegiance: not because it is the truth – one can have no allegiance to an abstraction – but because whenever we insist upon a truth we are witnessing to Almighty God. (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the “Nona” (1925, republished in 1956 by The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, p.51))


© 1998 Robert Hickson

i This essay, though standing on its own insights and argumentation, builds upon two earlier studies, which were delivered at academic and strategic conferences soon after they were written. The first study, written on 15 November 1997, and twenty-two pages in length, is entitled: The Indirect Grand-Strategic Approach and Context of Biological Warfare (and Bio-Terrorism) in the Likely Near Future: A Trenchant Strategic Challenge to American Special Operations Forces and to Our Incipient Strategic Culture. The second study, written 8 July 1998, and seven pages in length, is entitled SOF [Special Operations Forces] Strategic Education and “The Indirect War”: Psycho-Biological Warfare (and Terrorism) in a Grand-Strategic Context. This third and current essay proposes to accentuate the psychological and cultural effects of biological warfare (and bio-terrorism) when it is strategically employed, both in the short-term and over the long-term and more indirectly (and often more deceitfully). This essay also proposes to consider the analogous psychological effects of natural as well as malicious and ambiguous epidemics.

iiTwo other vivid ancient depictions of plague or pestilence, both of which drew upon Thucydides’ Greek prose account, are to be found in the Latin poetry of Lucretius (c100 – c55 BC) and Virgil (70-19 BC). Lucretius concludes his elevated, epic-metered poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Reality, On the Nature of the Universe) with an explanation of the nature of epidemics (Book VI: lines 1090-1138) and then a highly colored and intensely charged depiction of the same 430 BC plague in Athens, to include the manifestations of fear, reckless abandon, lawlessness, and despair (Book VI: lines 1138-1286). The purpose of Lucretius’ climactic passage on the plague is to reinforce one of his own major themes as an materialist philosopher (and follower of Epicurus) who denied the immortality of the soul and of human personhood, and who saw everything in terms of “matter in motion” (to include “swerving motion,” or the “clinamen,” his metaphor for “free will” as a moral indispensability). Lucretius was compassionately trying to remove from man both the fear of death and the fear of despair, or spiritual death. Virgil, who deeply admired Lucretius and whose poem, The Georgics, has often been called by scholars “a submerged dialogue with Lucretius,” also made a vivid poetic depiction of a plague and its effects. Virgil describes the Noric animal plague at the very end of his Book 3 – on Animals, lines 475-566. The basic framework of the Georgics consists of four poetic books (Book I – Field Crops; Book II – Trees; Book III – Animals; and Book IV – Bees). In dealing with the plague, Virgil’s subject involved him in dealing chiefly with animals as “victims of contagion,” but man was also affected. In this context of the literary depiction of plague and its consequences, the reader should also consider and contrast the powerful presentation of the plague in Milan, Italy in the early seventeenth–century, as shown in Alessandro Manzoni’s great historical novel, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), the greatest novel in Italian literature. Rather than showing mere desolation and cruelty and despair, Manzoni uses the plague as an occasion to draw out healing mercy and human forgiveness and other forms of reconciliation, and to manifest human virtue through his characters’ various and vivid acts of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, selfless generosity and self-sacrificial charity. Manzoni affirmed a deeply Christian world-view and hence the reality of grace and gift of trustful hope as a virtue (not just a yearning passion) of the soul. Moreover, Sigrid Undset’s great historical novel of the fourteenth–century medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter (a trilogy), shows another example of how a strong and willful character is transfigured by humble suffering. Helping the victims of the Black Plague which had reached Norway, Kristin, grown more selfless as a nun after the death of her husband and several of her eight children, finally shows the flowering of generous charity without self-pity or any bitter pride. The depiction is of great spiritual beauty. (See the end of the trilogy, Vol. III – entitled The Cross.)

iii Josef Pieper, the recently deceased (6 November 1997) German philosopher who spent his long life (of 93 years) illuminating the meaning and the life of the virtues, said that, in order to live a good life, “the virtue of prudence is the first necessity,” for one must move decisively and resolutely from “the knowledge of reality” to “the realization of the good,” embodied in actuality:

That is to say, we must be able to recognize the elements of life as they really are and to translate this recognition into resolution and action [unto “the realization of the good”]. Otherwise, because the fearful [or the fearsome] is encountered as a stark reality in the world, we may be fearless in a manner that should not be confused with true fortitude [the third cardinal virtue] – as, for example when we make a false evaluation of danger, or when we are reckless from an inability to love anything or anyone. (See Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith – Title of the German original Über die Schwierigkeit Heute zu Glauben – Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985, p. 196.)

Manzoni, in his above-mentioned great novel, had the following to say:

Ignorance often inspires courage at a time for caution, and caution at a time for courage. Now it [ignorance] added distress to distress, and filled men’s hearts with unfounded terrors as a poor compensation for the sensible and beneficial alertness to danger of which it had robbed them at the beginning of the pestilence. (See Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), Penguin Classics translation, chapter 34, pp. 637-638.)

iv Sun Tzu might say that we are strategically weak, and gravely so, because our moral leadership has lost the Tao (the Way – the way of spiritual wisdom and integrity). And there is the old saying, “a fish begins to stink from the head down” or “a fish begins at the head to stink” (“Der Fisch beginnt am Kopf zu stinken”). This malodorousness is also a “provocative weakness” – provocative to others, who would use not only our vices but also our virtues against us in the exploitation of a biological weapon (“the Judo Principle”).

v Josef Pieper, The Problems of Modern Faith: Essays and Addresses (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985, pp. 193-194). All subsequent quotes will be from his little essay entitled “Heroism and Fortitude” (pp. 193-201).

Josef Pieper on the Sophist Phenomenon and Its Recurring Temptations

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                2 August 2020

Our Lady of the Angels

Saint Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787)

Saint Peter Julian Eymard (d. 1868)


“What indeed did Plato have against the sophists? His objection could tentatively be summed up in these brief terms: corruption of the word—you are corrupting the language! Still the core of the matter is not yet identified with this. The specific threat, for Plato, comes from the sophists’ way of cultivating the word with exceptional awareness of linguistic nuances and utmost formal intelligence, from their way of pushing and perfecting the employment of verbal constructions to crafty limits, thereby—and precisely in this—corrupting the meaning and the dignity of the very same words.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 14-15.)


“This timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age, prompted certain important, indeed disturbing, comments by Hegel….He called the sophists of Socrates’ time ‘extremely refined and learned people’; but such praise…sounds somewhat ambiguous. It is precisely such learned refinement and unmoored questioning that plucks apart any object and dialectically discredits everything; it is such ‘refined reasoning’…—an expression repeatedly used by Hegel [“gebildetes Raisonnement”]–that poses the true danger. It almost inevitably leads us, says Hegel, to the conviction that everything can be justified if we look hard enough for reasons. To quote Hegel: ‘You need not have advanced very far in your learning in order to find good reasons even for the most evil of things. All the evil deeds in this world since Adam and Eve have been justified with good reasons.’ Hegel, therefore, sees here a danger clearly intrinsic to the human mind, being part of its nature, a danger that can perhaps be overcome but never entirely avoided.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pages 8-9—my bold emphasis added)


“It is one of my favorite questions in tests…: Can a lie be taken as communication? I tend to deny it. A lie is the opposite of communication. It means specifically to withhold the others’ share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality. And so: corruption of the relationship to reality, and corruption of communication—these evidently are the two possible forms in which the corruption of the word manifests itself.” (Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, page 16—my emphasis added)


Josef Pieper published a short book in English in 1992 that is subtly entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power.1 Because of its timelines, as well as its timelessness, I propose to consider the first section of that profoundly insightful book, which was first published in German in 1974 and which will now be found on pages seven to thirty-nine of the 1992 English translation, almost twenty years later.

The first page of Dr. Pieper’s 32-page enquiry clearly discloses his thesis and its motivation:

The topic of this essay can also be stated as “the abuse of language in its relation to the abuse of power.” I intend to approach this subject from two different directions: though they are two distinct considerations, I shall nonetheless try to show their intrinsic connection.

One of these considerations is a phenomenon of classical antiquity [Socrates, Plato, Gorgias, Protagoas, Aristotle and such]….To be sure, historicity…is not my concern in this. It is rather Plato’s position—and this indeed is the other [second] consideration—which shall be taken as a paradigm showing, I believe, something directly relevant for us and our own situation today [also in 2020 A.D.]. The case can be made that Plato recognized, identified, and battled in the sophistry of his time a danger and a threat besetting the pursuits of the human mind and the life of society in any era….

Anything that may at first sound like a mere critique of the present, aimed at our own situation, should also be taken as pointing to a timeless temptation that since the beginning of history has always required mankind’s resistance and will require it forever. This [is the] timeless character of the sophistic phenomenon, transcending any particular age…. (7-8—my emphasis added)

In their own respective meditations, both Plato and Josef Pieper are persistently attentive to “the art of twisting words” (7) and “the sophistry of [our own] day” (7) and the concealed disguises of some “such learned refinement” (8) and “such a deceptive illusion” (19) as is characteristically hidden as part of “the sophist mentality” (10).

Pieper’s meditation of thirty-two pages deserves to be slowly and carefully read so as to savor his multiple interrelations and enduring substance. For example: “the incommensurability” (11) of money and spirit (or of money and mind); “the sophists’ way of cultivating the word” (14); “to know reality with the aim of communication” (16); “the sophists’ rhetoric, that artistry with words” (16-17); “verbal artistry and linguistic form” (18) which are “nevertheless sham and foul” (19)—that is to say, “unless the linguistic artist [is also] a speaker of truth” (19). Pieper raises good questions such as the recurrent “by what standard?” (12) and comes even to ask: “To what purpose are you in this world?” (48—my emphasis added). Therefore, in this context: “What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous?” (34—my emphasis added).

And we wonder: “what is a well-ordered language?” (36) Dare we say in response that: “a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible”? (36—my emphasis added)

Continuing his fresh perceptions and keen discernments, Pieper says such additionally challenging things as: he who “explicitly disregards reality ceases to have communication” (20-21) and thus one must fittingly be “explicitly committed to the truth” (20-21); by way of contrast,“flattery intends not to communicate, but to manipulate” (22-23) while often “having an ulterior motive” (23) such as “domination” and especially by deftly flattering our pride. Moreover, as Pieper then properly counter-argues and contends: “Academic must mean anti-sophistic” (38) and we must be found “taking an anti-sophistic stance” (35). Moreover, as others also say: “The lingo of the revolution is a form of modern sophistry.” (32—my emphasis added) And Pieper even later refers to “the jargon of the revolution” (39) as a form of “bondage,” as well. That is to say, the jargon-lingo of the revolution itself appears to be the cramped and stifling product of self-deluded, fevered opinions and “mind-forged manacles.”

After such a selective summary of Josef Pieper’s variety and compactness—and of his multiple challenges to us—it is fitting that we now return to an examination of some of Dr. Pieper’s longer passages. For example:

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form a medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such….And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted.

What, however, does “corrupting the word” mean?….Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose….Since this accomplishment is twofold, we may already here suspect that the word’s degeneration and corruption can also be twofold. First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it [something] for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (15—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After some further observations about Socrates and Gorgias the Sophist, Dr. Pieper says:

And with this we have identified the other [the second] aspect of the corruption of the word: the destruction of its nature as communication….The very moment, as I have stated, that someone in full awareness employs words yet explicitly disregards reality, he in fact ceases to communicate anything to the other. This the reader may more or less have accepted. But an instrument of power? Is this not too strong and too overbearing an expression? It really implies that from one moment to the next the human relationship between the speaker and the listener changes….From that moment on, to be precise, all conversation ceases; all dialogue and all communication comes to an end. But what, then, is taking place? The very question is answered by Socrates with an old-fashioned term: flattery….

What, then, is flattery?….The decisive element is this: having an ulterior motive [not the truth]….What I say to him is designed to get something from him!….He [the seeming conversational partner] has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled….I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes….The word is perverted and debased [i.e., such “sophisticated language, disconnected from the roots of truth” (20)] to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered. Instrument of power may still seem a somewhat strong term; still, it does not seem so farfetched any longer. (20-23—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

Moving forth some seven illuminating pages, Pieper resumes some of his earlier thoughts:

Be that as it may—this much remains true: wherever the main purpose of speech is flattery, there the word becomes corrupted, and necessarily so. And instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term; more appropriately we should speak of tyranny, of despotism. On the one side there will be sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other a state of dependency, which again is too benign a term. Bondage would be more correct….[That is,] a pseudoauthority [in combination with]…a state of mental bondage.

Plato evidently knew what he was talking about when he declared the sophists’ accomplished art of flattery to be the deceptive mirage of the political process, that is, the counterfeit usurpation of power. (29-30—italics; my bold emphasis added)

Moreover, a few pages later, Pieper chooses to make a clarifying interim summary once again;

The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape. It does contain violence, albeit in latent form….This lesson, in a nutshell, says: the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language….The relationship based on mere power, and thus the most miserable decay of human interaction, stands in direct proportion to the most devastating breakdown in orientation toward reality.

I spoke [earlier] of public discourse becoming “detached from the notions of truth and reality.” This brief characterization may still be too mild; it does not yet express the full measure of devastation breeding within the sophistic corruption of the word. (32-33—my bold emphasis added)

With a glance to contemporary societies in the twentieth century, Josef Pieper adds a note or so:

It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight. This is a phenomenon in itself already quite astonishing and disturbing….“a fundamental ignorance [said Arnold Gehlen], created by technology and nourished by information.” But, I wanted to say, something more discouraging is readily conceivable as well: the place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality;…a pseudoreality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth.

Plato’s literary activity extended over fifty years, and time and again he asked himself anew: What is it that makes the sophists so dangerous? Toward the end he wrote one more dialogue, the Sophist, in which he added a new element to his answer: “The sophists,” he says, “fabricate a fictitious reality.”….This Platonic nightmare, I hold, possesses an alarming contemporary relevance. For the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with the fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language. This, says Plato, is the worst that the sophists are capable of wreaking upon mankind by their corruption of the word.

There is now the ancient saying, corruptio optimi pessima, “the best, corrupted, becomes the worst”….Plato is not simply taking an anti-sophist stance….his unwavering strong opposition…[is] in view of this own position regarding the overriding importance of the good that is endangered and threatened by the sophists. With this, indeed, we touch on those most basic convictions relative to the value and meaning of human existence as such. (33-34—italics; my bold emphasis added)

With his characteristic politeness, Josef Pieper inserts his further good words near the end of his essay: “the well-ordered human existence…is essentially based on the well-ordered language….when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.” (36—my emphasis added)


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abusive of Power (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992). The German text was first published in 1974, and then again in 1988; and the original German title was: Mißbrauch der Sprache, Mißbrauch der Macht. The second portion of Josef Pieper’s longer 47-page book in its entirety is entitled “Knowledge and Freedom” and is to be found on pages 41-54, although it will not be discussed in this essay. With one exception (48), all future references will be to the pages 7-39, and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay.

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                    5 June 2020

Saint Boniface (d. 755)


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                      5 May 2020

Pope Saint Pius V (d. 1572)


“Leisure…is a form of silence. Leisure amounts to that precise way of being silent which is a prerequisite for listening in order to hear; for only the listener is able to hear. Leisure implies an attitude of total receptivity toward, and willing immersion in, reality; an openness of the soul, through which alone may come about those great and blessed insights that no amount of ‘mental labor’ can ever achieve.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology-Lesebuch (1985), page 140—my emphasis added)


“I wonder whether, in his relationship to the Church, the contemporary intellectual has not been offered a unique opportunity [as of 1985, and under the reflective Pope John Paul II] to employ and to give full play to all his potentialities, his special propensities, and liberties and even weaknesses?

“For example, could not the intellectual manifest his nonconformity by expressing his disagreement with those criticisms of the Church [such as her resisting permissive marital issues and disallowing artificial forms of birth-prevention] which are now being shouted from every roof-top? By the way, the source of the word ‘nonconformity’ is Scripture: nolite conformari huic saeculo, “And be not conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2)!….But how would it be, for a change, if an intellectual chose to defend publicly, with imagination and verbal skill, the thesis that purity is integral to the proper functioning of a human being?….

“But above all, has there ever existed such a challenging opportunity for the intellectual to exercise his noblest office, truly his nobile officium, as this: To take up the lance of the provocative word and to fight to defend her who is despised by all the world—namely the Church?” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), pages 132-133—my emphasis added)


“Nothing else can confront us with one indispensable challenge, the challenge contained in the following question:

“After we have accomplished, with an admirable amount of intelligence and hard work, all that is necessary, after we have provided for the basic needs of life, produced the essential foodstuff, protected the realm of life itself—after all this, what is the meaning of the life itself that we have made possible? How do we define a truly human life?

To ask this challenging question in the midst of all our accomplishments as [they] establish ourselves in the world, to keep this question alive through honest and precise reasoning: this is the fundamental task of philosophy, its specific contribution to the common good—even though, by itself, it is unable to provide the complete answer.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), page 111—my emphasis added)


“The time has come to speak of the contemplative mode of seeing the things of the Creation. I am referring to things which are perceptible to the senses, and to the kind of seeing we do with our eyes. It would be impossible to exaggerate the concreteness of this vision. If a person has been terribly thirsty for a long time and then finally drinks, feels the refreshment deep down inside and says, ‘What a glorious thing fresh, cold water is!’—then whether he knows it or not, he may have taken one step toward that beholding of the beloved wherein contemplation consists.” (Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (1985), pages 145-146—my emphasis added)


When one reads anew his refreshing, often-challenging, 1985 authorial-selected anthology, Josef Pieper’s incisive, unexpected citation of the French writer André Gide will also lead us to consider afresh the distinctions and interrelations between the active life and the contemplative life, as well as the purpose of politics and the nature of earthly contemplation itself.

Such reflections, for which we are again especially grateful to Dr. Pieper, might also be helpfully illuminating and consoling for us now, amidst the current constrictions and imponderables in society, to include religious societies and their forms of public worship and indispensable penance during a pestilence which is both patent and latent and of uncertain protractedness.

We may see now how Josef Pieper approaches Gide’s own candid insights:

But practice [such as the phenomenon of “politics”] does become meaningless the moment it sees itself as an end in itself. For this means converting what is by nature a servant into a master—with the inevitable result that it no longer serves any useful purpose. The absurdity and the profound dangers of this procedure cannot, in the long run, remain hidden. André Gide writes in his Journals: “The truth is that as soon as we are no longer obliged to earn our living, we no longer know what to do with our life and recklessly squander it.” Here, with his usual acuteness, Gide has described the deadly emptiness and endless ennui which bounds the realm of the exclusively practical like a belt of lunar landscape. This is the destruction which results from destruction of the vita contemplativa [the contemplative life]. In light of such a recognition, we suddenly see new and forceful validity in the old principle [as expressed by a young Thomas Aquinas]: “It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.” For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of society the truth that is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick [or standard] of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life. (122—123—my emphasis added)1

To understand better the hierarchy and proper subordinations between the active and contemplative lives, Josef Pieper offers a clarification about the traditional notion of hierarchy, lest it be misunderstood, as is often the case:

We do not mean…to scorn or decry practical life [the vita activa]….And here it seems proper to put in a word about the nature of hierarchical thinking. The hierarchical point of view admits no doubt about difference in levels and their location; but it also never despises lower levels [of subsidiarity or subordination] in the hierarchy. Thus the inherent dignity of practice (as opposed to theoria [i.e.,contemplatio” in Latin]) is in no way denied. It is taken for granted that practice is not only meaningful but indispensable; that it rightly fills out man’s weekday life; that without it a truly human existence is inconceivable. Without it [the realm of varied active practice], indeed, the vita contemplativa [the contemplative life] is unthinkable. (122—my emphasis added)

In a three-page section of his anthology entitled “The Purpose of Politics” (121-123), Dr. Pieper begins his reflections with the following elucidating paragraph about the nature, limits, and inherent disposition of the active life:

All practical activity, from practice of the ethical virtues to gaining the means of livelihood, serves something other than itself. And this other thing is not practical activity. It is having what is sought after, while we rest content in the results of our active efforts. Precisely that is the meaning of the old adage that the vita activa is fulfilled in the vita contemplativa. To be sure, the active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Thomas [Aquinas], principally in the practice of prudence [the first cardinal virtue], in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity. Vita activa est dispositio ad contemplativam; the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation [especially unto “contemplation of the truth” (122)]. (121—my emphasis added)

For the rest of this essay, we shall attempt to present Josef Pieper’s essential understanding of “Earthly Contemplation” (143-148) and its deep nourishment, also as a foretaste (praegustatum) of a possible, but not yet a certain and indefectible, final fulfillment in Vita Aeterna.

Over the years—lest there be sinful presumption (one of the two sins against hope, and thus also one form of hopelessness), and yet being very aware of the scope and mystery of human liberty— Dr. Pieper would frequently, but modestly say: “Up until the moment of our death, we retain the permanent possibility of voluntary defection.” (He also knowingly spoke of our supportive need for the Donum Timoris: the Gift of Fear.)

We turn now to his other connected insights coming from Tradition, indeed from a long-tested and much-challenged Catholic Sacred Tradition:

The great thinkers of the Western tradition regard as a self-evident and inviolable truth the idea that the ultimate satiation of our desires awaits us only on the other side of death, and that this beatitude will take the form of seeing. However, this eschatological assertion concerning the perfection which ultimately lies in store for us has always, at the same time, been interpreted as a commentary on the earthly existence of man in the world. It has in fact been interpreted to mean: not only in the life to come, but also in his material existence in history, man is, to the very roots of his being, a creature designed for and desiring vision; and this is true to such a degree that the extent of a man’s happiness is only as great as his capacity for contemplation. (143—my emphasis added)

Dr. Pieper quite assuredly knows and shows us that this above-expressed theory of contemplation “appears so remote from the contemporary view of man” (144), so remote that it seems to be even “absurd” (144). However, he says that responding to this set of insufficient perceptions will be, in part “the subject of my discourse,” for, he adds:

The concept of contemplation which I have just outlined implies and presupposes several things which are not immediately apparent. For example, in the first place that man in this world is capable of visionary knowledge, that this means of ascertaining the nature of reality are not exclusively mental, i.e., do not consist solely of working with concepts and of intellectual exertion. It implies and presupposes the celebration of the simple act of looking at things. Anyone who disputes the possibility of such a celebration [as conveyed in a “loving gaze”] cannot accept the thesis of the joy of contemplation….

Our theory of contemplation also presupposes something else: namely, the fact that not only does the act of vision beyond death exist in a rudimentary, inchoate, premonitory form in this life, but also that the object of the beatific vision can be glimpsed, however imperfectly, by means of earthly contemplation….

Only the vision of something we love makes us happy, and thus it is integral to the concept of contemplation that it represents a vision kindled by the act of turning towards something [or someone!] in love and affirmation. (144—my emphasis)

After his varied preparation, only a part of which I have introduced, Dr. Pieper modestly says:

It is now possible for us to formulate a more complete definition of the essential meaning of contemplation. If we direct our power of affirmation, i.e., our love toward the infinite and divine source of satiation which flows through all reality from its ultimate fount, and if this beloved source reveals itself to the gaze of the soul in a totally unmediated and utterly serene visioneven if the vision persists for no more than a split second—then and only then does there occur what can, in an absolute sense, be called contemplation.

But perhaps it is more important to express this thought in positive terms and to say when the aforementioned conditions are fulfilled, contemplation always occurs. For what seems to me particularly significant in the traditional theory of contemplation is the fact that this blessed awareness of the divine satiation of all desire can be kindled by any event, by the most trivial cause. Contemplation is by no means confined to the cloister and the monastic cell. The element crucial to contemplation [as with poets and other artists] can be attained by someone who [like Hilaire Belloc afoot in the Alps or upon the sea!] does not even know the name for what is happening to him. Thus in all likelihood, contemplation occurs far more frequently than one would be led to believe by the prevailing image of modern man.

Not only do these inconspicuous forms of contemplation deserve more attention, more thought; they also deserve to be encouraged….We also need corroboration and confirmation of the fact that we are right to interpret and accept the beatitude of such experiences for what it truly is: the foretaste [“praegustatum”] and beginning of perfect joy. (145—my emphasis added)

Later in Josef Pieper’s essay, after his worthy and hopefully still to-be-savored discussion of the arts, he concludes with the following words of refreshment:

The indispensable nature of art [poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture and the like], its status as a basic necessity of human life, results above all from the fact that it prevents the contemplation of the Creation [or, gazing with love, Our Contemplation of the Passion of the Lord] from sinking into oblivion, and ensures [even under a grave, protracted quarantine and isolation] that it [contemplation] remains a living force in our lives. (146-147—my emphasis added)


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985—first published in German in 1981 and then in a second edition in 1984), pages 122-123—my emphasis added. All future page references are to this English edition, and will be placed above henceforth in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                20 April 2020

Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1313)


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moreover, says Pieper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  12 April 2020

Easter Sunday 2020

Saint Sabbas the Goth (d. 372)


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

Saint Longinus (1st century A.D)


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was born in Alcalá, Your Excellency.”

“I know it well. Where in Alcalá?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more Colonna cleared his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

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

Josef Pieper’s 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)


“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)


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


© 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)



“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)


© 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.