Josef Pieper was one of the twentieth century’s most popular Catholic philosophers and Thomists. While he was famous well known for leading the neo-Thomist movement during his life, it seems that his popularity has waned in recent years. This is a shame Josef Pieper was an excellent philosopher that wrote in a way that was easy to understand.
He makes Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas approachable. And makes some good points doing it.
Josef Pieper’s Life and Career
He was born in the small town of Elte, Germany, in 1904. It wasn’t even really Germany yet. Technically he was born in the German Empire. Piper lived to the ripe old at of 93, passing away in 1997.
Growing up, he studied philosophy, law, and sociology. Piper was a professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Munster in Germany, where he taught from 1950 to 1976. And continued to lecture there until 1996.
Throughout his career, he wrote many books and published many essays. Among his most popular are The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance; Leisure, the Basis of Culture; and Guide to Thomas Aquinas. My personal favorite of his essays is Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. You can listen to the audio version on YouTube here.
He also has the claim to fame that during the 1930s in Germany, he was banned from publishing because of his ongoing criticism of Nazism. His writings would go on to influence many of the opposition to the Nazis in Germany and the world.
On Philosophy – Thomism
Josef Pieper was a philosopher who primarily dealt with society and culture. While many philosophers in this time period focused on politics, He was concerned with the great tradition of Western Culture.
As a lover of Scholasticism, he marks Thomas Aquinas as “[T]he person who for the first time clearly enunciated” “the principle which expresses the essence of the Christian West” to Josef Pieper Thomas Aquinas is “something exemplary, a paradigm and model, standard which really ought to be met.”
In an attempt to push back on the idea that Catholicism is a list of rules, which is something immature readers of Aquinas often do. He wrote a treatise on virtue ethics on the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues(Found here).
Piper agreed with Aristotle. Ethics is the foundation of the political. And thus, you should start with virtues since ethics is primarily about virtue.
On Society – Leisure
Leisure, the basis of culture, is probably Josef Pieper’s most famous work(found here). It was written out of concern for the totalitarian tendencies of modern society. Modern society likes to elevate work over leisure. This was a reversal of the Aristotelian maxim that we work in order to have leisure.
In this work, he argued that modernity should work to recover the most basic of human activities: leisure and, more importantly, contemplation. According to Aristotle, the contemplative life is the highest life of virtue for a rational being.
In the totalitarian state—and in modern society as a whole—the principle idea of what it means to be human is lost. But not only lost but it’s also forbidden. It is not possible for being to disclose itself to humans when we are constantly in the act of trying to manipulate and control being.
He did not write a lot on politics directly, or at least not political science.
His essay The Abuse of Language and the Abuse of Power (Found here) is about as close as you get to political writing from Pieper. Or at the very least, a popular political essay.
This short essay is a fantastic description of sophistry. going back to Plato’s dialogues and then comparing them to modernity. The essay is focused on a simple point when you speak or write things that are false, it is always for the purpose of power.
Language is one of the most important things to society and politics. By corrupting language, you can corrupt society. And what follows is disorder.
What makes Josef Pieper one of my favorite philosophers is how approachable and relevant he is. He writes bout God, Catholicism, and philosophy in a way that makes sense and in a way that always seems to tie it back to our current time.
I would encourage anyone to read Pieper. If you’re in search of a new philosophical rabbit hole to go down, I would consider this one. I’ve included several links to pdfs to help you in that pursuit.
Josef Pieper, Guide to Thomas Aquinas