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From the September/October, 1999 issue of Touchstone


Philosophy Seeking Virtue by John B. Davenport

Philosophy Seeking Virtue

Faith, Hope, Love
by Josef Pieper
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997
(299 pages; $17.95, paper)

reviewed by John B. Davenport

Ignatius Press has done the Christian world a considerable service by publishing Faith, Hope, Love—three essays on the theological virtues by the Thomist philosopher Joseph Pieper (1904–1997), originally produced as separate works in 1935, 1962, and 1964. This book has current relevance to all Christians, given Pope John Paul’s three-year program of preparation for the Third Millennium. The themes in the Catholic Church for the first year of this preparation (1997) were Christ, Mary, and the virtue of Faith; those of the second year (1998) the Holy Spirit and Hope; and those of the third year (1999) are God the Father and Charity.

The considerable strengths of these texts lie in their being the work of a Christian scholar who has long considered the topics at hand. Their primary limitation lies in their philosophical bent, in that how and why each topic is discussed sometimes seems at least as important to the author as the subjects themselves. Pieper’s audience is the ubiquitous “intelligent reader,” whether student, scholar, or layman.

The first essay, “Faith,” begins with a critique of philosophical nominalism and a survey of how it is that we can accept with assurance what we believe but cannot absolutely know. How we believe is Pieper’s particular focus. As human beings, our belief cannot be coerced and must have as an object a person of innate fidelity and credibility, the ultimate example of whom is the person of God himself. While Pieper acknowledges a nonrational element in the achievement of belief, the sometimes grating idea of faith resulting primarily from “sight and reason” rather than from the sovereign activity of God is much emphasized. Evangelical (and, I suspect non-Westernized Orthodox) Christians probably will be put off somewhat by Pieper’s unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of miraculous encounters with God as elements in achieving faith. His sympathetic quoting of Karl Rahner exemplifies this inclination away from the miraculous: “We can no longer experience God as operating in our world with the same naive trust as was possible in earlier times.”

The essay on hope is the least philosophical and most personal (or “mystical” in the Eastern Christian sense) of these essays, and to this reader the most instructive. According to Pieper, we hope because, as Christians, we know God’s magnanimity (his hearty, consistent benevolence) both personally (through prayer and experience) and through examples drawn from the Bible.

Pieper is particularly good in discussing the sins against hope (i.e., despair and sloth). Despair is defined as the “anticipation of the nonfulfillment of hope,” the result of a considered negative action of the will. Despair is accompanied by sloth (acedia)—perhaps the least understood of the major sins. Sloth is not simply “the opposite of diligence and industry”; indeed, common experience shows that some of the most despairing and slothful people are the most “busy.” Sloth rather consists of a curious sadness about life “in view of the divine good in [redeemed, baptized, regenerated] man,” a sadness that results in inactivity, depression, and discouragement in the afflicted individual. “One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is” in Christ, because of the imagined effort required to follow God’s will for his life. Sloth “will not accept supernatural goods because they are, by their very nature, linked to a claim on him who receives them,” a claim to activity that can appear painful and unfulfilling. However, this appearance is a deception of Satan’s, since following God’s perfect will for one’s life can offer nothing other than ultimate fulfillment. Pieper’s essay is of significant value to those who struggle to accept the ultimate goodness of God.

Pieper’s aside concerning the Bible in his discussion of sloth should be taken seriously by all Christians: “How does it happen that we are so prone to understand Holy Scripture in a vague approximation rather than in the precise meaning of its passages? It is due in part, perhaps, to a decline in the proper dogmatic interpretation of Scripture.” Certainly no “perhaps” is any longer required to qualify this sentence.

Pieper’s consideration of what traditionally is described as caritas (charity, the love of God) is perhaps the most uneven of the three essays. Pieper essentially defines caritas as the love of God for man and the responsive love of man for the things of God. According to Pieper, this disinterested love must originate in men through a conscious act of the will, since for men, love that is not exclusively self-directed (Eros) is “unnatural.” Pieper, in defending Aquinas from the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren, posits that caritas and Eros are in a sense “merged” in their manifestations among Christians. Since no fallen man’s motivation ever can be entirely disinterested, our Christian longing after God includes elements both of caritas (the love of the regenerated man for God and his things) and a redeemed Eros, which loves God through a rapturous and passionate desire to please the beloved, indeed to merge with him (per the mystics).

Some readers undoubtedly will find Pieper’s presentation unnecessarily philosophical (i.e., they possibly would find a consideration of these topics from a biblical or theological perspective more compelling and useful). Pieper notes that the “theologian’s eye is fixed upon the documents of sacred tradition, which it is his office to interpret. The philosopher’s eye, on the contrary, is, ideally speaking, fixed upon the reality that is empirically encountered.” Unfortunately (for an orthodox Christian thinker), Pieper seems unwilling to admit the most compelling empirical source of attaining faith—miracles—into his paradigm. At one point he notes, patronizingly, in discussing a work of Harvey Cox, that Cox “actually brings up the obsolescent concept of exorcising demons and driving out devils.”

In all of these essays Pieper gives thorough consideration to the philosophical issues. So thorough is he, in fact, that some readers may find these portions of his exposition tedious. The cumulative effect of this book, however, is admirable, and it can be recommended to anyone interested in these topics.  

John B. Davenport, a North Dakota native, received his doctorate in church history from the University of Minnesota. He has served as Head of Special Collections in the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minn.) for twenty-two years.

“Philosophy Seeking Virtue” first appeared in the September/October 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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