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Book Review: “In Defense of Philosophy” by Josef Pieper

In Book Review on September 24, 2012 at 1:24 am

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Some of the most interesting points of this small but powerful book, In Defense of Philosophy by Josef Pieper (Trans. Lothar Krauth. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1992) include a defense of the wisdom of a variety of classical and medieval philosophers as their ideas apply to the modern person.  Naturally, as the title alludes, Pieper defends philosophy’s paradoxical purpose, he quotes Martin Heidegger who said, “It is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use” (p.41).  Pieper’s book answers why philosophy exists at all.

Firstly, Pieper points out that it was Aristotle in his Metaphysics who provided insight into the different types of knowledge.  Pieper says that Aristotle uses the word ”…’free’ there [to] mean the same as ‘non-practical.’  Practical is everything that serves a purpose…Philosophy, rather, is an endeavor containing its own meaning and requires no justification from a purpose “served.”(p.43)  In other words, philosophy is sovereign to seek the truth of reality as such, for what it is, as it is, where and how it is, being as being.  Pieper says, “Man indeed makes his home in this world, as is his task and his nature.  And yet, it is incumbent on him, and he himself must embrace this responsibility, to actualize, every so often and in every unregimented way, the inborn potency of his spirit…”(p.65)  One may understand Pieper here to be saying that philosophy really is for everyone, and everyone in some way or another should make philosophy his own in order to understand the reality of the world.  This is what makes philosophy good to know by itself.  It is philosophy that will unleash his spirit from a materialist outlook of the world toward a transcendental understanding of the world and Pieper quotes Anaxagoras who asked, “Why are you here on this earth? His reply: to behold in contemplation…the sky and the order of the universe.”(p.59)  As a Pres0cratic philosopher, Anaxagoras was close to answering very well the broad questions about the meaning of life, but his mechanistic explanations frustrated Socrates which caused Socrates to turn philosophy toward spiritual wisdom, virtue, and the soul.

Pieper discusses some of the differences between a philosopher and a scientist in the book.  He says, “Alfred North Whitehead…asserted that the true problem facing the philosopher is ‘to conceive a complete fact.'”(p.68)  But Pieper himself disagrees with the framing of Whitehead regarding the problems for the modern day philosopher.  Pieper retorts that “I contend he is no longer concerned with this specifice event but rather—he is concerned with the universal interwovenness of all human existence, therefore witht the totality of all that is, with ‘God and the world.'”(p.68) He goes on to say that this limitless perspective of the philosopher is what makes him a philosopher, everything that exists is before him a possibility for truth, this  breadth of perspective is not the aim of the scientist.  The interwovenness of human existence bespeaks of interrelations between things and their properties and that it is the job of the philosopher to make sense of it all, to search and to find.  Pieper says, “Only then will he behold, in wonder, the true dimension of ‘his’ world , which indeed is nothing less than everything.  This precisely makes the philosophical endeavor necessary and noble and “meaningful in itself.”(p.65)  Pieper points to the beauty of philosophy, there is no-thing it will not consider, everything is a subject of inquiry and that process of inquiry, of discovery and of awe at the meaning of all things, the philosopher is motivated to continue his inquiry.

So the philosopher always falls back on the question, “Why is there anything at all?”(p.114)  The philosopher is the one who can and should ask, “From where did this come?” “Where is it now and where is it going?”  Pieper says that “…all things in themselves are entirely knowable because they originate in the infinite lucidity of the divine Logos, and that they are, nevertheless, inexhaustible for us…”(p.79)  In other words, the essence of a thing is intelligible through the operation of our mind in apprehension and because the thing’s origin is God and God is infinite, the possibilities for apprehension are inexhaustible for a philosopher.

Pieper ends the book saying, “A believer neither ‘knows’ nor ‘sees’ with his own eyes; he accepts the testimony of someone else…Socrates was never embarrassed to admit that the ultimate, the ontologically decisive truths were known to him not by his own accomplishments but…’because he heard them.'”(p.116) It was this very philosopher who changed all of Western civilization because he had the humility to believe the truth of someone else’s testimony.


Why is Virtue So Unpopular? (Part 1)

In Friendship on September 17, 2012 at 7:12 am


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It would seem that virtue is not a very popular topic for the Modern or Postmodern person, why is this?  Max Scheler, brings up this topic in his essay “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue,” (Trans. Eugene Kelly. 2005, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 79, No.1) mentioning how strange this is historically because the whole idea of virtue was “center stage” for the Greeks, the Romans and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.  So many of the most important philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Cicero, Boethius, Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas, all had works on virtue and even in literature, morality plays of the Middle Ages tended to center around some virtue.  So, why is this the case now in philosophy and modern society?  Well, Scheler offers several answers to this question and then gives reasons for its renaissance.

Put quite simply, in the Modern Age many people tend to see virtue as just plain: difficult.  According to Scheler, “We understand it rather as a mere dark unfathomable ‘disposition’ and as a natural ability to act according to some perceived rules.  And it has become so unattractive because not only the achievement of virtue, but virtue itself is considered by us to be so difficult.”(p.22)  In one sense, there are so many barriers in the Modern mind, so bent on getting things done quickly, efficiently, and with immediate gratification, and with ever shortening attention spans it seems, to stay focused on developing a virtue over a lifetime just seems way out of reach for people bustling about in the world.  Additionally, as a consequence of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, the Modern person has become accustomed to thinking and behaving very independently, both privately and publicly and thus very skeptically, even cynically, about perceived “rules of behavior” suggested by anyone besides himself or herself.  And, who doesn’t want to do things according to whatever is “convenient for me”?  Scheler alludes to Kantian deontology as a source of the modern man’s discontent with virtue as something that always has to be done independent of the individual’s desire to do so, the Categorical Imperative.  However, Scheler says that nothing can be further from the truth, “…in fact only the lack of virtue, or vice, makes goodness a difficult and bloody affair, while its possession gives to every good action the free and spontaneous appearance of a graceful bird.”(p.22)  In other words, it is the virtuous person who is the most free!  The virtuous person lacks the predictable faults that make life boring and instead, the virtuous person has the power to be genuinely spontaneous and creative in each and every moment of life to achieve the good.  Scheler says that virtue “is the extreme opposite of all habit, and only the measure of virtue’s inward nobility can oblige us at all.”  The Greeks saw virtue as attractive as beauty, and that it was a skill of one’s inner character as a person, a quality to be sought after, not belittled like in the Modern Age.  Scheler says, “Its inward weight impelled one to an ever widening extension of responsibility, so the person who possessed it to its highest degree, that of holiness, quietly felt himself responsible for everything that happened in the entire world.”(p.23)  The very virtuous person becomes very holy because his or her entire life is oriented around Divine Service, service to God, according to Aquinas (Summa Theologica II:II:81.8) and a noble self-emptying to the service of others.  One might say that a virtuous, holy person has a genuine personal concern for each and every person he or she serves or could have served better.

Another curious thing about virtue today is that people seem to have forgotten that it is actually a power, a quintessentially human power.  Scheler says, “virtue…is a living consciousness of the power to do what is good, quite personal and individual.”  That said, it would seem that such a power would be extremely attractive to the Modern person.  Machiavelli was transfixed by power, but Machiavelli was only interested in the appearance of virtue, and when it was used for the sake of power, then that appearance was a “virtue” for him.

Fortunately, Scheler seems to be saying something very different, that virtue is a personal power unique to the individual person, not for anyone else or possible by anyone else.  He says, “Duties are transferable; virtues never are.”(p.23)  Other persons can do our duty for us, for example, when you call in sick to work, someone else may be able to do your job at work.  However, how well that person does his or her duty in your place is dependent upon his or her virtue ultimately, not simply their knowledge and experience.  Virtue is the power to do the good in each and every situation in life that you find yourself.  Scheler continues, “With the growth of virtue the effort becomes less, and with that it loses the ugliness lying in all strenuous effort.  Goodness becomes beautiful by becoming easy.”(p.23) People in the Modern or Postmodern Age are still interested in beauty, and arguably, beauty is more popular than ever, thus Aesthetics.  So, it seems that a solution might just be to just help people see that a beautiful soul never ages; and, if we just grow in patience, becoming virtuous gets easier and then the beauty of our goodness will endure into Eternity, where virtue is very very popular.

Can Happiness Be Lost?

In Friendship on September 10, 2012 at 6:53 am



It would seem that happiness cannot be lost.  It seems that if you just make a lot of effort to keep a positive attitude, perhaps you can avoid losing happiness in life.  However, it seems kind of hard to always keep a positive attitude no matter what happens in life, so maybe one can even lose happiness when one stops maintaining a positive attitude? Well, indeed, there are a number of ways one can lose happiness according to Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Firstly, Aquinas says, that a person “…will no longer be truly happy if some evil exists in him.”(Treatise on Happiness, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Trans. John A. Oesterle. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. P.59 from Summa Theologiae Question V. Art. 4)  That seems easy enough, no one wants to be unhappy, so the extrication of evil in oneself seems possible and everyone working on maintaining a positive attitude probably already realizes that they have their own faults which cause themselves or others to be negative around them.  So, that seems kind of evil, personal faults are negative and negativity can sure wreck a positive attitude so maybe happiness can be lost by the negativity brought on by faults, alone?  Well, not really.  According to Aquinas, in order to have true happiness, a person needs “an assured belief that he will never lose the good which he has.”(p.59)  In other words, a positive attitude is not sufficient, because a positive attitude rests upon “an assured belief.”  So, how can one lose happiness? According to Aquinas, happiness can be lost through a false belief.  He says, “…it is evil to have a false belief, for what is false is an evil for the intellect just as what is true is good for it.”(p. 59)  Well, this seems easy enough, nobody likes to be fooled by some false belief, and as Aquinas says, a false belief is evil for one’s mind, then it makes sense that in order to attain true happiness, all of our beliefs need to be true in order for us to be truly happy in life.  This seems true and not true at the same time, because true happiness is not found in this life alone.  Aquinas says, “The present life is subject to many evils which cannot be avoided:  the evil of ignorance on the part of the intellect, the evil of inordinate affection on the part of desire, and the evil of much suffering on the part of the body…”(p.57)  So, as “assured belief” pertains to our question of happiness being lost, so too we should be assured that just as this life is constantly changing, this constant change is an indicator of this life not being the perfect life which is not subject to time and change, which means that, as such, happiness can be lost in this life by false beliefs, excessive desires and lots of bodily pain.  He says, “A man’s will can change so as to fall into vice from virtue, in the act of which happiness principally consists.  Even if virtue remains untouched, external changes can disturb such happiness insofar as they hinder many acts of virtue; yet they cannot wholly take away virtue, so long as there still remain that act of virtue whereby man bears such adversities nobly.”(p.58)   Here, Aquinas makes it clear that virtue is key to all happiness and the total loss of virtue into vice assures us of unhappiness, lost happiness .  So, since everyone wants to be happy, it seems important that we should have assured belief and virtues to sustain us.  However, Aquinas adds to this and says, “All things seek to be conformed to God, as to an ultimate end and first principle”(p. 19) and that “…God cannot be in error…”(p.18), therefore, we can say that seeking God as a person’s unchanging ultimate end is the assured belief we would need in order for us to be truly happy. Well, what about this life?  Can we be truly happy now?  Aquinas says, “…what is good in the present life is transitory; for life itself, which we naturally desire, passes away, and we would like to hold on to it for ever, since man naturally shrinks from death.”(p.57)  The fact that the things of this life are fleeting is ever evident, wealth, health, joy, sorrows, loss of family members and friends in death, but Aquinas says “Some participation in happiness can be had in this life, but true and perfect happiness cannot be had in this life.”(p.57) Another big problem with true happiness in this life is that everyone is naturally scared to death of death which can be a huge distraction to maintaining happiness and a positive attitude.  However, the point of life is not to get hung up on the certain truth of our own personal death, which really is only a brief part of the experience of life, (and even Socrates made peace with his own death and with God before he died and he died basically peacefully even though he was poisoned to death).  Aquinas says “…the desires for good cannot be fully satisfied in this life, for man naturally desires the good he has to be permanent.” (p.57) This makes all kinds of sense, no one wants to lose happiness and the reality of death assures us of the reality that happiness in this life has a definite end point.  As Aquinas says, “…man naturally desires to hold on to the good which he has and to have the assurance of keeping it, otherwise he will be distressed by the fear of losing it or by sorrow in the certainty of losing it.”(p. 59) However, when we have assured belief, death is not a problem, merely a transition to, if we earn it, eternal happiness, a happiness that can never be lost, this is what Heaven is.   Aquinas says “the vision of the divine essence fills the soul with every good, since the soul is united with the source of all goodness.”(p.59)  Since the soul is filled with the very source of all goodness, this contemplation of the wisdom of God is what makes a person permanently happy, then we have to be free of every error in our character and every false belief in our mind in order to be intentionally united to the ineffable wisdom of God.  When we have this unity, it cannot  “…be taken away by another agent, for the mind united to God is raised above all other things and no other agent can separate the mind from that union.”(p.59)  Well, as we were speaking of earlier, it seems that it is the evil in us which makes us lose our happiness and as a consequence, we could be stung by the fear of losing the things we prefer to have in this life and then we are struck by sorrow with the definite loss of those things because of our attachment to them and not God.  But fortunately, no one else can take away our happiness if we are intentionally united with God’s will, only our attachment to our own will can cause us to have a false belief which is an evil that will make us unhappy.  So, assured belief is attachment to God’s will and, therefore, it is our own personal assured belief that is a necessary basis for our positive attitude in the first place because of the hopeful possibility of the total fulfillment of happiness in the next.  This is great news, assured belief in this life prevents us from losing imperfect happiness in this life and leads to happiness forever in the next life because of the union of our mind with the will of the omniscient God, now and forever.