Category: Philosophy

Are You Trapped in the World of Total Work?

Josef Pieper (with a G.K. Chesterton kicker) teaches us the importance of leisure

It’s commonplace knowledge that many of our best ideas hit us in the middle of the night or in our first waking moments. While we are completely at rest, not obsessed with ourselves or our work, ideas come to us like a gift.

The twentieth-century Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper explains this phenomenon in his work, Leisure, The Basis of Culture.

Like most of Pieper’s books, Leisure is short but thick (don’t be deceived and think you’ll finish it in two sittings). True to Pieper’s approach, Leisure tends to be filled with sweeping statements that compress ten pages of truth into one sentence. This makes his books short, but also makes it necessary to read them slowly and deliberately, with many pauses and breaks.

Two parts

Leisure consists of two essays: “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” and “The Philosophical Act.”

The first essay pushes the main thrust of his argument: Leisure, properly understood, is stillness — absence of pre-occupation and an ability to let things go. Leisure is also the end of all effort: We should work to leave time for leisure, not engage in leisure to refresh us for work.

As we cultivate leisure, we increasingly hear the rustling of reality (“only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear”). This ability to hear produces a sense of wonder, and this then leads us to engage in the act of philosophy, which is the thrust of the second essay.

As he proceeds with his analysis, he makes startling observations about leisure, the type of observations that … Read the rest

Why Weak Fools Can Dominate

Exploring the fool in Christ and the fool in Antichrist

Ivan the Terrible

Czar Ivan IV was a psychologically unbalanced and cruel man: ambitious, unpredictable, frightening to be around.

In the sixteenth century, Ivan strove furiously to expand Russia’s borders, bring her into modern commerce, and unify her under the authority of the Czar.

He waged ceaseless and unjust wars against neighbors. He endorsed the aggressive merchant/Cossack conquest of sleeping Serbia. He instituted a ten-year reign of terror throughout his realm in an intense effort to crush opposition to his domestic policies. He mercilessly executed opponents, including their wives and children. He confiscated lands, forcing families to relocate to different countries.

His ferocity climaxed against the city of Novgorod in 1570. When he heard that a document was discovered in Novgorod which pledged the city’s cooperation with Poland to overthrow him, he immediately pounced on the entire city (without even waiting to determine whether the questionable document was authentic).

He racked vengeance on all, attacking even the innocent. The monasteries were sacked. Clerics were arrested and held for fifty rubles’ ransom — those who couldn’t pay were flogged to death. Thousands were massacred. All the shops were burned; merchants’ homes in the suburbs were torn down; farmhouses in the countryside were destroyed.

No Russian dared oppose Ivan. No one rebuked him.

You’d be a fool.

And a fool did.

Nicholas of Pskov walked up to Ivan and rebuked him by slapping a piece of bloody raw meat in Ivan’s hands, vividly symbolizing Ivan’s bloody sins.

The Yourodivyje

Nicholas of Pskov was one of those men known by the Russians as the yourodivyje, the fools in … Read the rest

Three Lesser-Known Figures in the Zen Tradition

All three emphasized the Tao side of Zen

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone has heard of Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha) and Lao-Tzu, the semi-historical founders of Buddhism and Taoism.

A lot of people have probably also heard of Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch of Buddhism (and first patriarch of Zen Buddhism) who brought Indian metaphysics to China in 520 AD, where it started to mix with Taoism, leading to the entirely new phenomenon that we call “Zen.” See D. T. Suzuki, “History of Zen,” in Essays in Zen Buddhism.

But most of us in the West haven’t heard of the hundreds of other philosophers and monks in the Zen tradition whose insights and lives deserve attention.

Now, as a Catholic, I don’t believe these men merit the attention of the saints, but they do merit attention. They represent the highest attainment of natural philosophy.(FN)

By “natural philosophy,” I primarily mean “philosophy without any revelation.”

The Zen tradition is almost entirely deprived of Christian revelation. More troubling, its ontology is monistic, meaning that it presumes there is not even a transcendent being (God) that could impart revelation.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call Zen “atheistic,” but it wouldn’t be inaccurate either.

As far as philosophical traditions go, you could argue that Zen is the one tradition that, through its premises and practices, has done everything possible to deprive itself of grace. I’m not saying it is deprived of grace (and I’m inclined to think that, despite its unknowing attempts to eliminate grace, it has received it in spades nonetheless), but any grace it receives is applied solely on the natural plane.… Read the rest

How to Live Like a Zen Master

Lessons from spiritual adepts from various traditions tell us the same thing: Cultivate the eyes of a child

In the seventh century, Hung Jen, the fifth patriarch of Chinese Zen Buddhism, neared death. In order to choose a successor, he asked each monk to compose a verse that testified to the monk’s Zen insight and post it on the wall. Shen Hsiu, the illustrious heir apparent, composed the following:

The body is the Bodhi-tree,

The mind is like a clear mirror standing.

Take care to wipe it all the time,

Allow no grain of dust to cling to it.

An uneducated kitchen worker named Hui Neng disagreed with the verse, and wrote beside it:

The Bodhi is not like a tree,

The clear mirror is nowhere standing.

Fundamentally not one thing exists:

Where then is a grain of dust to cling?

The Patriarch favored Hui Neng’s verse and appointed him successor. Zen at this point split into two schools, the Northern School (under Shen Hsiu) and the Southern School (under Hui Neng). The Southern School became the dominant school and the doctrines now associated with Zen are from the Southern School. Although this popular account of a famous split in early Zen is often disputed the key lesson remains: don’t wipe the mirror.

Pure Self is Still Self

Zen as it developed in the Southern School has always disdained mirror wiping because, by emphasizing the mirror, the “mirror wiper” asserts that he or she is renouncing the self in order to create a pure self — with the result that either way he or she is focused on him or herself. His or her … Read the rest

Five Dispositions that Can Make Your Life More Productive and Happy

The philosophy of focusing on a slow and loving existence in the quiet now

You can make resolutions. You can set goals.

The problem is, they don’t tend to last. Resolutions are forgotten. Goalposts move.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to make resolutions and strive for goals, but they’re subject to a fundamental problem: they change.

More troubling, they change for no apparent reason. Everything might be the same in your life, but in July, that New Year Resolution doesn’t seem important. And that goal you set at age 25? It might need a lot of tweaking, or even look downright foolish, by age 30.

You might want to focus on something sturdier than goals and resolutions. Maybe things that are a part of your personality, what it means “to be you.”


Although the term has been used in different ways, for our purposes here, dispositions are inherent qualities of your mind or character. They are to your personality what height, weight, skin tone, and hair are to your body: features that more or less can change, but don’t, unless a lot of time passes or significant events or efforts take place.

They are to your mental world what habits are to your physical. Perhaps they’re best described as “habits of the mind.”

We all have dispositions. They might be genetic; they might develop from environment; they might be a hybrid. We all have dispositions that guide our existence, whether we think about them or not. They’re just there.

You might want to try breaking down major areas of your life and asking, “What disposition is proper to each area?”

Below are five … Read the rest

Pulling Thomas Aquinas Kicking and Screaming into the Twentieth Century

Josef Pieper’s views during the neo-Thomistic movement.

empty street in old town
Photo by Dids on

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 … Read the rest

The Reality of Fr. Damien

Last summer, the future of the Catholic Church AOC said a statue of Fr. Damien of Molokai at the Capitol building is an example of “patriarchy and white supremacist culture.”

She quickly realized that she picked a bad example and backpedaled faster than Deion Sanders in his prime, but yes, she said such an astounding thing.

The folks at First Things are still buzzing with it, recently running this excellent piece about the saint: The Real Damien of Molokai.

Its description of what Fr. Damien did for the lepers of Hawaii made me want to cry, revealing the leprosy in my own soul by comparison.

The conclusion itself is worthy of philosophical meditation:

Hansen’s Disease slowly ravaged his body, and the lepers saw their own suffering united to Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass in a new way. By the time Fr. Damien died in 1889, more than 600 of Molokai’s 1,000 lepers were Catholics devoted to the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary. 

When the Church beatified Fr. Damien in 2009, President Barack Obama, who was raised in Honolulu, praised him as “a voice for the voiceless.” But he was more than that. Fr. Damien was a witness to God’s presence among the forsaken, and he died a priest of Jesus Christ surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. 

In the eyes of many, Fr. Damien is merely “a white man.” But the flattened image that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says honors “colonialism,” “patriarchy,” and “white supremacist culture” is not the real Damien. The congresswoman’s narrative, filled with its own curious form of hate, dehumanizes the man who exemplifies what it means to cherish

Read the rest

Is the New Left the Old Occult?

The supernatural and paranormal. Postmodernism and critical theory. What could be the connection?

Over 40 years ago, Norman Cohn, author of that masterpiece about countercultural movements in the Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium, wrote a review about a little-known book by a young genius who would commit suicide at age 34.

The author: James Webb, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, a man who Colin Wilson considered “one of the most brilliant minds of his generation.”

The book: The Occult Establishment (1976).

Cohn said:

[T]his book performs an important task. It offers the most vivid portrayal yet given of that hydra, irrationalism; and leaves one waiting, with curiosity if not with trepidation, to see what the next head will look like. 

“In Pursuit of the Irrational,” The Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1977

The Occult Establishment is now out of print. Amazon says my copy is worth $100, if only I hadn’t beat the hell out of it with my underlinings and side notes.

But I didn’t know it would go out of print, and I didn’t know Webb was a genius of the first order.

Besides, I probably couldn’t have helped myself anyway.

The book is packed with fascinating (underline-worthy) facts about the 20th-century occult.

What is the Occult?

The “occult” is an umbrella term. It means anything pertaining to the mystical, supernatural, magical, and paranormal that falls outside religion or science.

Both religion and science use reason and logic to construct their “systems.”

The occult, on the other hand, embraces the irrational.

Religion and science seek to explain, but the occult revels in the unexplainable.

The occult, in fact, could … Read the rest