A short book by Pieper, which I read mostly because it was there (and I like Pieper). Not as impressive as some of his work, it struck me more like one of the notebook blogs – a bit unfinished, a bit WIP, scoring points against other philosophers and theologists who I don’t know or care about. Not worth the read unless you’re actively interested in a Christian take on virtues.
Moral philosophy and ethics tend to turn into rules and musings about human behaviour, when at heart they need to be about human nature („das Sein des Menschen“). The core of Christian moral philosophy is asking the Christian to be like Christ. But of course this invites all sorts of blasphemy, which we avert by quoting the IV Lateran Council and then practicing our exegesis and making up (well, cribbing from Thomas) the seven virtues – three theological ones and four cardinal ones: Faith/Hope/Charity + Prudence/Justice/Temperance/Courage.¹
Prudence is the first and foundational among the cardinal virtues; it means to make your will/desire respond to facts and reality, instead of following your desire heedless of facts. You cannot be good, says Josef says Thomas etc, unless you know reality. Doesn’t need to be intellectual knowledge (but he doesn’t really buy that part, which I find extremely disappointing). Every sin is in conflict with prudence. This means education is very important. It also means your rules are always grounded in reality – you have to see what’s really there first, then figure out the consequences. Think Tiffany Aching’s First Sight.
Justice means to live truly and honestly with our neighbours. Where prudence is our foundational condition for being good, justice is our primary and best way of being good. (He rails a bit against Sittlichkeit, bougie ethicality here.) Justice is interesting in that it is a communal work: sure, we need to be just on our own, but the real challenge is building structures and communities that are just – both between members, and between members and the group. Digs against individualists who don’t accord the group an important role in its own right. More digs against people equating group justice with state justice, but without a constructive attempt at the topic, sadly.
Courage is obviously required for justice (and arguably for prudence, says I). Courage is only possible with justice, says Pieper, then wastes precious paragraphs on justifying that stance. More interestingly, he talks about fear, and how especially after the war, people played at being unafraid. He calls out the New Stoics (eg Jünger) as having nightmares and just burying their fear (which is, he says, very justified in this world we live in). His fix is to have even more fear of god (and sin, and particularly severing the connection to god), which is the precondition for real courage. All this is very off-the-rails imo and not a good take on courage at all.
Temperance: Humans have lost their natural inner equilibrium, because original sin. (Yes, yes.) Our senses rebel against our spirit, and that’s where the last virtue kicks in. Temperance is the technically most private virtue (it’s about sex and food and general enjoyment, after all), but has been made into a defining part of Christianity as a response to liberalism. But traditionally, it’s the last and least of the virtues, because focusing on it too much leads to a dead and rule-based morality and a devaluation of sensuality. (This is where you notice that Pieper is Jesuit-adjacent, but no Jesuit himself). He’s very much in favour of sensuality – and quotes his Thomas, who recommends as cures for depressed moods: enjoyment, crying, sympathy from your friends, focusing on truth/prudence, or … sleeping and bathing. So yeah, no ascetic dour morality here.
Of course, the four cardinal virtues only work with the three theological ones, blah blah. This is what sets Christians apart, because their worldly (cardinal) virtues are grounded in supernatural ones. Basically, Christian prudence can contradict obvious worldly wisdom (same for courage), because you can always pull the God card.
¹ I’m pretty happy I read this in German, it evoked just the right amount of noble spirit to be interesting.