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Pulling Thomas Aquinas Kicking and Screaming into the Twentieth Century

Photo by Iga Palacz / Unsplash

There are some authors who make you think, “I could read this guy, and just this guy, for the rest of my life. He'd bring me to greater and greater levels of wisdom and understanding.”

For me, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) is such a writer. He wrote in the Scholastic vein and was squarely within the Catholic neo-Thomistic movement of the mid-twentieth century.

A modernist might think, “How can a person steeped in Thomas Aquinas be relevant? Aquinas lived in the thirteenth-century, which was at least 50 years before Netflix.”

Pieper wrote for that kind of person.

Pieper, like Aquinas, was concerned about the truth: statements that correspond as closely as possible to reality. Truth is relevant to every age, including the modern one, contrary claims of our postmodernist friends notwithstanding.

Granted, it's necessary for the reader to take those truths and apply them to her life, to put them into the current cultural milieu. That's not always easy, but the truths themselves are always relevant.

Fortunately, Pieper himself often put those truths into a modern context for his readers.

In his late twenties, he was fascinated by social problems and began to pursue studies in law and sociology, but it was the era of Nazi Germany. Such studies were, ahem, frowned upon.

So in 1934, he returned to his pursuit of Thomistic philosophy, but with the goal to make it comprehensible (relevant) to the modern person and social problems.

“Thick little books.” That's how Hans Urs von Balthasar described Pieper's works.

You can't get through a Pieper book quickly any more than you can fly through poetry, or run through an art museum, or gulp fine wine. All such things are possible, sure, but they're all acts of desecration: violations of a thing's goodness.

But if you're the desecrating type (and aren't we all, at least a little?), Pieper is ready for you.

He put together the Anthology, choosing from his papers (including one previously unpublished) and books (including, fittingly for this piece, ample selections from Problems of Modern Faith, which had been out of print until last year).

Some people make sure they read a particular book every year. I knew a guy who reads Boswell's Life of Johnson every year, and I heard about another guy who reads Shakespeare's plays every year.

Those are two guys blessed with ample reading time.

I'd be lying if I said I'd do the same thing if I had more reading time. Such dedication takes a certain mojo. But if I could re-read the same book every year, it might be Pieper's Anthology.

Or I might choose The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas, which is a stunning collection of Aquinas quotes. It's very short, even by Pieper standards, but each quote is thick with thought. If you read every one of them carefully, thoughtfully, the 87 short pages of quotes will take you a long time to read.

And if you want to master the truth behind those quotes? That, I fear, could take a lifetime.

Pieper Taught us What's Wrong With our Work World

Obsessed with efficiency? I am. At least I used to be.

I'm a recovering efficiency-holic. It was so bad that my time and energy spent on being efficient far exceeded the time and energy I saved through my efficiency. I didn't even realize it until I sat back and reflected on what had been become of my mental world.

Pieper could've diagnosed it. In fact, he did, in Leisure, the Basis of Culture, where he pointed out that we live in a world of “total work.”

Total work: no time wasted, no time that isn't dedicated to something. Even relaxation today is intended primarily as a way to rejuvenate ourselves for more work.

I know a few people who seem to have caught onto this existential problem. They enjoy themselves at every opportunity, and they don't care if the enjoyment leaves themselves exhausted on Monday morning. These people are more blessed than the rest of us slaves to the world of total work.

But even they wouldn't make it on Pieper's blessed list. Yes, they're not prostituting leisure to work, but neither is their leisure true leisure.

Leisure is leisure, Pieper says, because it intends nothing and accomplishes nothing.

It's not on a bucket list crusade. It's not on a drunken crusade. It's not on a squeeze-every-moment-out-of-life crusade.

Leisure is blessed because it does nothing. When we do nothing, we become receptive because we can listen. And the things we hear? Those are the things that make leisure blessed.

The Value and Necessity of Silence

The Silence of St. Thomas

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas became silent. It was 1273 and he had just returned from Mass. He put aside his unfinished Summa Theologica, right in the middle of his treatment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and stopped writing.

His friend Reginald asked him why. Aquinas simply said, “I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.”

Straw? Aquinas? A man consistently ranked in the top ten of history's best thinkers? What happened? Nobody knows for sure, but most think he had a mystical experience.

Pieper said it was because Aquinas had been “allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery that is not reached by any human thought or speech.” After that awesome glimpse, Aquinas figured there was nothing to say.

Few things slap a person in the face like St. Thomas's silence. It's a stunning rebuke to everyone, everywhere.

Do you, writer, hope to create something as great as The Summa? Do you, reader, think you'll gain an insight that Thomas didn't glean? Do you, newspaper reader, think that stuff isn't straw? Do you, modern man, think all this ephemeral stuff is real, much less important?

Do you, dude typing right now, think this has any relevance anywhere?

They say John Fisher kept a picture of a dead man in front of him while he ate. I hear Theophan the Recluse kept a picture of a man in a coffin in his room. Both reminded them of death. Good practice.

I'd like to keep a picture of Thomas's silence in front of me. But there were no Polaroids back then, and even if there were, you can't capture silence in pictures. For that reason alone, his silence doesn't speak to us in today's world.

But it ought to.

Ours is a noisy world because everyone thinks they have something to say, to contribute. And, of course, they do: in their little world of the family and household and, if they're really great, in their community. But in the grand scheme of things, they have nothing to contribute.

All is straw.

Piper: In The Middle of Modern Extremes

If you still doubt that Pieper is relevant to our days, I'd suggest you consider this biographical anecdote.

In October of 1943, when Pieper was temporarily on leave from military service and at home with his family in Munster, he and his wife decided to take their three young children to the zoo on a lovely, almost summery, afternoon. He took along his camera and had taken pictures of the children just a few hundred yards from the house when they heard the air raid sirens begin to sound.

As they got down into a trench, he recalled that he had not closed the garden door of the house. Running the short distance back to do that, he saw the American planes over the center of Munster, and in a matter of moments, the heart of the city was ablaze. He ran to the attic and took pictures of the city in flames.

This short anecdote reveals a man with more modern experience than most of us will ever have. That single camera roll captured modernity at its extremes: children at the zoo; pictures of war-time Munster aflame.

Pieper understood the modern world. He knew it was one in which, in the words of Gilbert Meilaender, “justice is hard to discern, courage not easy to come by, and hope difficult to sustain.”

He then wrote his books to help the rest of us see justice, gather courage, and hold onto hope.

A Philosopher of Virtue | Gilbert Meilaender
On November 6, 1997, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper died at the age of ninety-three. . . . .