Josef Pieper on the Spiritual Life
Creation, Contemplation, and Human Flourishing
Warne’s original study provides an insightful analysis of the role of contemplation and creation in the thought of Josef Pieper, illustrating the importance of this practice to earthly happiness and human flourishing.
What is the relationship between creation, contemplation, human flourishing, and moral development? Nathaniel Warne’s Josef Pieper on the Spiritual Life offers a sophisticated answer to this question through a systematic analysis of philosopher Josef Pieper’s (1904–1997) thought. Warne’s examination centers on the role of contemplation and creation in Pieper’s thinking, arguing that contemplation of the created order is a key feature of earthly happiness. By emphasizing the importance of contemplation, Pieper illustrates the deep interconnections between ethics, creation, and spirituality. For Warne, to posit a binary between the contemplative life and active life creates a false dichotomy. Following Pieper, Warne claims that theology and spirituality cannot be bracketed from ethics and social action—indeed, our lived experience in the world blurs the lines between these practices. Contemplation and action are closer together than are typically assumed, and they have important implications for both our spiritual development and our engagement with the world around us. Ultimately, Warne’s emphasis on creation and contemplation represents an attempt to resist a view of ethics and the spiritual life that is divorced from our environment. In response to this view, Warne argues that we need a renewed sense that creation and place are important for self-understanding. Contemplation of creation is, fundamentally, a form of communion with God—we thus need a more robust sense of how ethics and politics are rooted in God’s creative action. Taking Pieper as a guide, Warne’s study helps to deepen our thinking about these connections.
1. Creation and Contemplation
2. Creation and the Divine Ideas
3. Happiness and the Human Person
4. Cardinal Virtues and the Active life
5. Hope, Love, and Faith
6. World, Leisure, and Festival
7. Philosophy and Teaching
8. Relearning to See
9. Where Do We Go from Here?
“The academic study of Pieper, combined with an intense focus on what it means for us to contemplate, gives this book a practical and urgent focus.” —Lewis Ayres, author of Augustine and the Trinity
How do we prevent ourselves from becoming tied to the work-a-day world? Pieper admits that he has no good answer, or at least no easy answer. We cannot have leisure without an overhaul of our current assumed culture and approach to the world. We simply no longer have a category for valuing things that are not useful; activities which have their ends in themselves. “If leisure is not conceived as meaningful in and by itself, then it is plainly impossible to achieve.” The best answer he can give is celebration of a feast, which offers repose, ease from drudgery and exertion, and rest from everyday work. But our celebrations fail because we fail to proclaim the goodness and approval of the world; of creation. We must learn to love ourselves and to love the world around us. “Leisure depends on the precondition that we find the world and our own selves agreeable.” But the next step is the important one. “The highest conceivable form of approving of the world as such is found in the worship of God, in the praise of the Creator, in the liturgy. With this we have finally identified the deepest root of leisure.” A secularization that does not see the world as sacred, diminishes the world’s importance for the spiritual life, or closes its eyes to the realities of climate change has robbed us of our ability to experience genuine self-love, celebration, and happiness.
There is no doubt that given our twenty-first century context creating the conditions for contemplation have become incredibly difficult. Our political, economic, and social surroundings are continuously working against our developing of habits that would lead to genuine theoria physike, and thus to earthly human flourishing.
Cornel West has poignantly noted that one of the major reasons America is “sick” is the “materialism which is really very much tied to corporate media in the various ways in which it produces its weapons of mass distraction that try to pacify and to render the citizens sleepwalking by means of stimulation and titillation.” Pieper has provided some thoughts on how we can generate a context suitable for this deep kind of spiritual growth and contentment. Through participation in arts like music and poetry, or in our worship and celebratory feasting; or through prayer, meditation, or simply just being out in and observing nature, we can engender a flow of life open to this spiritual and contemplative vision. These are all connected and provide a context on which genuine theoria physike can take place. At the festival we need the power of remembrance and the arts. Without these there is no true celebration. “A feast without song and music, without the visible form and structure of a ritual, without imagery and symbol—such a thing simply cannot even be conceived.” Art and festival start out as flowing from existence and are something out of the ordinary; they are not part of the work-a-day world. The praise of the world that is at the heart of the festival is made perceptible to the senses through the arts. Also, as briefly discussed in chapter 6, the festival is a stepping out of time and reaches the one who celebrates to their soul. In this way the festival is both “the remembrance of primordial bliss” and at the same time the anticipation of our happiness and fulfillment in the future. “The fine arts keep alive the memory of the true ritualistic, religious origins of the festivals when these begin to wither or be forgotten.”
Creating art and celebrating the festival is not necessarily about morality, and true art is not focused on making a livelihood. Rather the activity of the artist is a pursuit which finds its meaning through the perfection of the work itself. The process that does take place in the artist, also takes place in those who observe or hear the art itself. The one who truly looks, hears, smells, and tastes is kindled into the contemplation of creation. Art invites the person to truly and leisurely take in the presence of God in the art. We can think about this from two perspectives. On the one hand, the one creating a painting, and on the other, the one who is observing the painting. The artist, in painting the flower, or sculpting the human figure, perceives with new eyes a wealth of reality and acquires the capacity to be riveted and enthralled in the richness of the object. The artist, when really looking at the object of their study, deepens their gaze so that they have a fresh look at the phenomena being presented to their gaze and an openness to all things. On the other hand, the contemplative gaze does not stop with the artist, but also affects the viewer; the one who really and intensely engages with the work of art. An artist does not need to paint something that is a photographic imitation of reality in order for such description to help the viewer contemplate an archetypical pattern that firstly resides in the divine essence. It prompts the viewer to connect to the archetypical patterns of the ideas in the divine mind that are veiled within reality. The contemplative look of the simplex intuitus receives and perceives more than appearances. Art that springs from contemplation makes visible what not everyone sees. In seeing, our ability to see is amplified. Further, as the viewer of the painting, when we engage in contemplative looking at the rendering of the thing through the eyes of the artist, we can also be drawn into the divine life. This leads to another, but equally important, aspect that this painting brings to our attention when put in the context of the divine ideas, creation, and contemplative looking, “Art is a medium of what no tongue can utter.