While caring for my mother in her final days I re-read Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality (New York: Herder and Herder, c. 1969). Since I first began studying philosophy I have admired and relied on his works—models of clear, Christian thinking. I think my initial introduction to him came when I read his Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In the “Introduction” to this book, T.S. Eliot (who had studied philosophy at Harvard) noted that whereas academic philosophers had little impact upon the 20th century public Pieper managed to do so. He did this by “restoring philosophy to a place of importance for every educated person who thinks, instead of confining it to esoteric activities which can affect the public only indirectly, insidiously and often in a distorted form. He restores to their position in philosophy what common sense obstinately tells us ought to be found there: insight and wisdom” (p. 14). Equally laudatory regarding Pieper was one of the greatest 20th century theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar, who said he was a “philosopher, who in Goethe’s words contemplates the ‘holy and manifest mystery’ of Being and its meaning” and effectively employs the “language which always grows out of the wisdom of man as he philosophizes unconsciously” (“Foreword” to Josef Pieper: An Anthology, p. ix).
Pieper begins his discussion in Death and Immortality by noting that the subject is “an especially philosophical subject.” He contrasts the radically dissimilar declarations of two eminent 20th century thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pope John XXIII. The former, an atheistic existentialist, said: “It is absurd that we are born; it is absurd that we die.” On the contrary, said the pope, “Every day is a good day to be born; every day is a good day to die” (p. 8). It’s neither the times nor the places that shape our attitudes—it’s what we take to be true regarding Reality. And, importantly, as Kierkegaard declared: “’Honour to learning, and honour to one who can treat the learned question of immortality in a learned way. But the question of immortality is no learned question. It is a question of the inner existence, a question which the individual must confront by looking into his own soul’” (p. 130).
For us mortals, pondering our own death cannot but prompt the most serious of all inquiries. Thus St Augustine, following the death of a close friend when he was 19 years old, noted: “I had become a great question to myself.” His study of Cicero no doubt deepened this concern, for to Cicero, Pieper says, “philosophizing is nothing else but consideration of death, commentatio mortis” (p. 10). But while we witness others dying and wonder at the prospects of our own death, we cannot experience it as we do eating and drinking, laughing and crying. It eludes the kind of analysis we give other human activities. It is the most certain thing in the world—but precisely what it is remains bewilderingly uncertain. Nevertheless, “in the shock that is inflicted upon us by the death of a beloved person” we come closest to personally experiencing it. The great Christian dramatist (and existential philosopher) Gabriel Marcel said, “To love a being is to say, ‘Thou, thou shalt not die!’” (p. 20). When we profess our love, something in us prompts us to declare its everlasting dimensions. And if our love is eternal, surely the one we love is equally eternal. So as a loved one dies we know (inasmuch as one may know) what death means.
We have also developed remarkable euphemisms, designed to evade the harsh reality of death, to “not name the reality of the thing, rather to obscure it, make it unrecognizable and divert our attention to something else” (p. 23). So we say the person “passed away” or “expired” or “fell asleep.” An even deeper evasion is “the sophism of not encountering death, which Epicurus seems to have been the first to formulate; ‘Death is nothing to us; for as long as we are, death is not here; and when death is here, we no longer are. Therefore it is nothing to the loving or the dead’” (p. 29). Skeptics and atheists ever since have repeated this refrain, but something about it always rings hollow. So to live honestly, Pieper insists, we must consider all the aspects “of the human experience embodied in living speech,” of reality itself, embracing the many paradoxes posed by end-of-life experiences (p. 30).
We do, instinctively it seems, follow Socrates in his final hours and speak frequently of the “separation of body and soul.” Thus Thomas Aquinas said “that the ratio mortis, the ‘concept’ of death, implies that the soul separates from the body” (p. 33). Precisely what that means, however, defies easy explanation. It’s obvious, to most of us, that there’s an inner “self” which gives “orders” to the body. I “tell” my hand to move, my legs to run, my jaw to chew. Still more, it is obvious that losing a limb—or even most of my limbs—doesn’t really change the nature of my inner self, my soul. So, as Plato insisted in Alcibiades, “the soul is the man” (p. 34).
But by nature we are both soul and body. To be finally separated from the body is inescapably tragic. Here “the great tradition of Christian theology” speaking through Aquinas, “is unequivocal: ’Of all human evils, death is the worst’; it is ‘the most extreme of all human suffering’; by it man is ‘robbed of what is most lovable: life and being’” (p. 51). In a perfect world, soul and body would never sever. So we cannot but wonder if death is a “natural event or a punishment.” Atheists and Naturalists, of course, deny the reality of the soul and thus see death as a purely natural event, like a leaf falling from a tree. But Christians, while believing that God made a perfectly good world, take seriously the ramifications of original sin and conclude that as a consequence man became “something different” from our original design. Thus death, the separation of body and soul, comes with the separation from God initiated by Adam. It is, indeed, a punishment—but a punishment graciously annulled on Christ’s Cross.
This leaves us, however, as pilgrims rather than permanent residents on planet earth. Death’s reality constantly reminds us, as Pascal said, that “We are not, we hope to be” (p. 85). Throughout life’s journey, we make decisions that prepare us for the final moment, the point of transition, the end (meaning both the termination and the purpose) of our endeavors. “The tradition,” Pieper says, “has coined a formula for this personal sealing of earthly existence. It is described as the termination of the status viatoris” (p. 84). A viator is a pilgrim. The great question, at the end, is what will be his status, his standing, his readiness for what’s to come. “In death the last decision is passed, for good or ill, upon the life as a whole; henceforth nothing in that life can ever again be undone” (p. 86). So Soren Kierkegaard confided to his diary: “’In the moment of death a man is helped by the situation to become as true as he can be’” (p. 93).
Thoughts of death necessarily arouse questions regarding immortality. While philosophical materialists have always denied the immortality of the soul, Pieper was astounded by some “modern Protestant” theologians who shared their view! He argues, reiterating the classic stance Thomas Aquinas, that: “Innumerable (infinitae) are the testimonies of Holy Scripture which witness the immortality of the soul” (p. 107; citing Summa contra Gentes, 2, 79). He finds further support in the oft-misrepresented Plato, who posited immortality mainly in the light of divine judgment and its fearful punishments. To Plato, only the good, who are right with God, will enjoy the “true bliss” of life everlasting. In one of his final works, Phaedrus, “when he launches on what seems a wholly fresh approach to the question of ‘in what sense a living being is termed mortal or immortal’, he suddenly ceases to speak of the soul alone. ‘We think,’ he says, ‘of a living being, spiritual and physical at once, but both, soul and body, united for all time.’ Moreover, he goes on, immortality is not to be regarded as a mere rational concept susceptible of demonstration; rather, we think of it with our minds on ‘the god whom we have never seen, nor fully conceived’” (p. 116). Plato, Pieper says, “seems to be suggesting: If ever immortality is conferred upon us, not just the soul but the entire physical human being will in some inconceivable manner participate in the life of the gods; for in them alone is it made real in its original perfection” (p. 116). Thus for Plato, persons are better termed indestructible or imperishable rather than immortal. As Aquinas, commenting on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, put it: “’That is perishable which possibly cannot be; that is imperishable, incorruptible, which cannot possibly not be’” (p. 117).
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Re-reading Pieper’s treatise on death and immortality prompted me to take up and re-read his No One Could Have Known: An Autobiography: The Early Years (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1987). He began his life in 1904 in a small northwestern German village where his father was the school teacher and his mother’s staunchly Catholic family formed the locus for his development. Though his world “was by no means idyllic and free from harm, [it] had a certain completeness, constituted a visible whole. The basic elements of life were not obscured by the noisy chatter of media curiosity and boredom; they were one and all tangibly accessible to one’s own senses: garden, field, river and wood; both the ripening and the failure of crops” (p. 24). It was the right place for a philosopher to begin—face to face with reality.
In time his father secured a better position in Munster, which became the center of Pieper’s life thereafter. He did well in school, moving quite easily through university coursework, but the truly formative influence came when a teacher suggested he read Thomas Aquinas. Thus began a lifelong effort to grasp and explain the rich philosophical ideas of the Angelic Doctor, fueled by his example of the fact “that the truly wise man is he to whom all things taste as they really are: Cui sapiunt omnia prout sint, hic est vere sapiens” (p. 62). Subsequently the words of St. Anselm became axiomatic for him: “’Few consider the truth that resides in the being of things’” (p. 138). To see things as they really are, to rightly discern their nature as revealed to the contemplative mind, became his passion. Consequently, he ultimately “was able to put my confused intimations into clear words: ‘Every ought is grounded in an is; the good is what corresponds to reality. If anyone wants to know and do the good, he must direct his gaze to the objective world of being; not to his own mind, not to his own conscience, not to values, nor to ideals or paradigms he has himself drawn up. He must look away from his own act and toward reality” (p. 63).
Though he’d earned a Ph.D., Pieper didn’t enter the university establishment. Rather, he worked for a few years in a research institute and then became a “freelance writer.” He’d written a brief treatise on fortitude that was published by one of the finest German publishers. Thereafter he had the connections—as well as the talent—to make a living with his pen. He mastered the art of writing short, trenchant philosophical works (rooted in the thought of Aquinas) that appealed to both popular and scholarly readers. He worked intensely, noting that “there is hardly a single one of my books that I did not entirely rewrite two or three times, and by hand. For the most part this process resulted in more conciseness, illustrating the truth of the old saying that a small book takes more work than a folio volume” (p. 116). Though he had opportunities to do other work, for more money, he felt called to the philosophical “vocation.”
When WWII erupted, Pieper was conscripted into military service, which for him meant work in a “military psychology” unit that allowed him to remain near his home in Munster. Though his brother-in-law had married a Jewess and fled to England (thus tainting all his relatives), and though some of his writings elicited censure from the Nazis, he had some personal contacts that enabled him to survive the war without much difficulty. Though never sympathetic with the Nazis, they seemed to have minimal impact on his world. Indeed, apart from his official duties and while Allied bombers flew overhead on their way toward Berlin, Pieper continued to read and ponder the works of Aquinas. For me, one of the lessons from this book is how apolitical Germans such as Pieper had little awareness of much that transpired under Hitler, even while the war was waging. Though not a “classic” autobiography, interesting in its own light, the book provides insight into the author for those of us who have relished Pieper’s thought.
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St. Anselm’s call to contemplate “the truth that dwells in the core of all things” led Josef Pieper to write The Truth of All Things: An Inquiry into the Anthropology of the High Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1989). In a world filled with folks who say “that’s just your opinion,” following the subjectivist skepticism of thinkers such as Nietzsche, who declared, in The Will To Power, that there is “no true world,” only “a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us,” it’s refreshing to find an elegant and persuasive defense of our ability to know what things are, to discern what it is that makes something what it is. Pieper proposes to explain and defend the position of great thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that “to be” and “to be true” state the same thing. Similarly they held that “all that is, is good.” Though simply stated, these positions form the foundation for the perennial philosophy needed to live well.
Just as philosophy began with the Greeks, so too the truth Pieper seeks was first probed by Plato, who said: “’what is most noble (ariston) in all existing things, is truth’” (p. 14). This insight has been ignored, however, by modern philosophers who, beginning with Renaissance humanists “despised and eliminated the principle of ontological truth” (p. 14). To Thomas Hobbes, such thinking was “inane and childish;” for Rene Descartes “there is no truth in things” (p. 16). Such thinkers located “truth” singularly in the human mind, in the words we use to describe a world that is wordless. All this culminated in the thought of Immanuel Kant, who radically denied any knowledge of the inner essence of anything—we can know nothing but our own ideas.
To Pieper, however, the perennial common sense of Thomas Aquinas rings true: “’All existing things, namely, all real objects outside the soul, possess something intrinsic that allows us to call them true.’ ‘In created things there is truth on two levels: in the things themselves, and in the perceiving mind’” (p. 29). That which makes a thing what it is, its being, is its structure or truth. On this Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas all agree. “A thing cannot have being without equally having truth” (p. 30). “The ‘form’ of a thing is its intrinsic identifying imprint, so that every thing is what it is through the ‘form’ it ‘has’” (p. 37). When we read that profound passage in Genesis where Adam “gave names” to all the animals, we see that man has a mind capable of seeing the truth of God disclosed in the forms of created beings. “A being’s ability to know, therefore, is its ability to transcend its own delimitations, the ability to step out of its own identity and to have ‘also the form of the other being’, which means: to be the other being. ‘Knowing’ constitutes and establishes the most intimate relationship conceivable between two beings (a fact that is expressed and confirmed through the age-old usage of ‘knowing’ to indicate sexual intercourse)” (p. 37).
When we mentally behold the inner essence of a thing it’s much like fully mapping the genetic code of a particular species. When we allow DNA evidence to identify (often years after the crime) rapists or murderers, we follow this ancient philosophical insight: a thing is knowable insofar as we rightly read its form, its essential structure. Conversely, when we make something, such as a chocolate cake or gun cabinet, we fully understand its essence because we have brought it into being. When we create a thing we know why we do so and what it is. As Aquinas put it: “’Reality compares differently to either the active way of knowing or the receptive way of knowing. The mind in its active intellection is the cause of things, and therefore is the “measure” of those things it produces. The mind in its receptive intellection, on the other hand, is the receiver of things, and is in some sense activated by them; those things, therefore, are then the “measure” of the mind’” (p. 39).
Still more, says Aquinas: “’we call all manufactured things “true” because of their orientation toward our knowing mind. We can call a house “true” insamuch as it conforms to the original idea in the mind of the architect. And a speech can be called “true” insofar as it reveals a true thought. And similarly are the things of nature called “true” as they mirror their primordial forms, which dwell in the mind of God’” (p. 42). Here we come to the heart of Pieper’s treatise. “The truth of all things” is the truth of God, the evidence of His artistry in making all that is. What we see, when we see the truth, is what God sees. As T.S. Eliot wrote, in Murder in the Cathedral: “For all things exist only as seen by Thee, / Only as known by Thee, all things exist / Only in Thy light.” The inner essence, the “intrinsic forms of all things are ‘nothing else but God’s knowledge somehow imprinted (sigilatio) in those things’” (p. 44). It’s almost superfluous to note that Aquinas is taking seriously the Prologue of St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:1-3).
Consequently: “the truth inherent in all things in view of God’s mind is the foundation and the root of their truth in view of the knowing human mind” (p. 52). All things are what they are because God designed them thusly. He knows them perfectly. His knowledge is their truth. When we understand them we see His truth. All truth is God’s truth, to repeat a maxim often cited to justify higher education in Christian circles. “The lucidity which from the creative knowledge of the divine Logos flows into things, together with their very being—yes even as their very being—this lucidity alone makes all things knowable for the human mind” (p. 52). “Consequently, all reality, as reality, will essentially be intelligible for the human mind; and this intelligibility will be so inherent in reality’s very being that ‘to be’ and ‘to be intelligible for the human mind’ become equivalent expressions” (p. 54).
To be intelligible to the human mind does not, however, mean “equally intelligible” with God’s knowledge of His handiwork! “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” as Paul noted. In his writings, Aquinas often referred to a remark of Aristotle, who compared our ability to see truth with the difficulties nocturnal birds have detecting objects in daylight. He also said that “’Our cognitive power is so imperfect that not even the nature of one single gnat was ever entirely understood by any philosopher’” (p. 93). So, he insisted, “’There are many things that our mind actually does not know; and yet, there is nothing . . . that the human mind could not perceive, at least potentially’” (p. 56).
However finite, the human mind has incredible potential! As immaterial, our mind, our rational soul, is not limited by material boundaries and thus possesses almost infinite power to understand things. “’The mind by its nature,’ said Aquinas, “is oriented to conform to all that has being’” (p. 78). Still more: “’All things are knowable insofar as they have being. For this reason is it said that the soul in a certain sense is all in all’” (p. 78). Part of what it means to be created in the image of God is that we can know and love all things—there are literally no limits to our divinely-imprinted capacities. “The mind, and the mind alone, is capax universi [capable of grasping the universe]” (p. 80).
So as astronomers probe ever more remote sections of the universe, and as geneticists dig into the mysteries of the DNA, and as computer designers construct smaller and more powerful laptops, we realize what Aquinas taught centuries ago: we know not how much we can know. Mere material mortals could never do what we do! Only spiritual beings could possibly “comprehend all there is” (p. 84). Graciously given a spiritual soul, capable of knowing the inner essence of things, able to make infinite varieties of things, a single person stands as the noblest creature in the world. And we persons are placed in a wonderful world, designed by God’s artistry, knowable to us inasmuch as we grasp the primordial ideas that take shape in all He’s made.