St. Thomas: Now More Than Ever—An Interview with Josef Pieper

Editor’s note: Josef Pieper is the noted author of such works as Leisure: The Basis of Culture and The Four Cardinal Virtues. He has been a member of the faculty of the University of Munster since 1946. Thomas D. D’Andrea, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, interviewed Pieper at his home in Munster with the cooperation of the International Institute for Culture.

I know many Americans who are curious: What is your secret? You turned 85 on May 4, You teach three hours a week at the University of Munster. You continue to travel throughout Germany giving lectures. What keeps you going? How are you able to keep teaching, to keep thinking seriously about difficult, abstract questions?

It is God’s secret. I don’t understand it better than anyone else. I’ve always been more or less healthy. Walking. Walking, not jogging, around the neighborhood and in the garden. And I’ve always had the ability to sleep well.

You’ve written many books in your lifetime. Somewhere over 60. In your career as a free-lance writer, as a philosopher, as a teacher, have you ever had a specific technique for your writing? Have you followed any definite pattern, writing at a certain time of the day, or forcing yourself to write a certain number of pages each day?

First of all, I write by hand. Everything. I’ve never been able to dictate, for instance. I must write everything myself and by hand. I write everything maybe three or four times, always making corrections.

Do you write a certain number of pages each day?

No. I write and I work very slowly. I am a slow worker and a slow writer. For instance, when I prepare a 45-minute lecture, I need about two days to write down what I will say.

You’ve spent most of your life studying St. Thomas Aquinas. Some people claim that St. Thomas is the apostle for our era. They say he is the person we must turn to in order to solve the problems of contemporary culture. Others claim that St. Thomas was meant to be an important voice in the Church prior to Vatican II and that the neo-Thomistic revival brought with it some good things, but now there is a new era in the Church and we don’t need to rely on St. Thomas as much as before. What do you think?

It depends on what you want to learn from St. Thomas. What I have always been interested in is what idea of man he has: not what he thinks a man should do, but what a man should be.

I started my work on St. Thomas with a treatise on fortitude because of the Nazis and their wrong idea of fortitude and heroism. For them the symbolic figure of fortitude was the conqueror and the muscleman. I said no, the proper symbolic figure is the martyr—the man who is ready to die if necessary for his faith.

You have said in a number of your writings that St. Thomas lived in a different era and did not ask many of the questions that are being asked today in contemporary philosophy and culture. How much can we rely on him still? How timely is his thought?

Certainly he has not an answer, or a valid answer, for every question being asked today. But I would say that his theory about the four cardinal virtues, for example, could be used in any era. He is not so much a creative personality, or at least that is not my interest in him, as much as he is a mouth of the tradition of philosophy in the Occident. I have on some occasions spoken of his creative selflessness: he was not interested in being original; he quotes Augustine, or Chrysostom, or Aristotle only because he thinks that what they have to say expresses the truth of the matter on some particular issue.

But you mention that St. Thomas’s theory about the four cardinal virtues is and always will be valid. What about in metaphysics and epistemology? Can we still turn to St. Thomas for many of our answers there?

I myself have never been interested in those divisions in philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. There is always everything. Personality means being responsible for one’s own deeds because one is a spiritual being, because one is a creature, because one is responsible to one’s neighbor. And justice, fortitude, and so on are implicated in all this: everything belongs together.

But if St. Thomas’s moral theory is closely bound to his metaphysics, can we still rely on his moral theory if we have doubts about the truth of his metaphysics? In short, can we still accept St. Thomas’s metaphysics?

Ah, yes. What he says, for example, about the transcendentalia, the transcendental concepts: omne ens est verum; omne ens est bonum, omne ens est unum (“all being is true, all being is good, all being is one”). These claims have I think an eternal validity. Even today I teach these and try to make them intelligible.

So in that respect you think his metaphysics is still a helpful guide?


Let me switch to theology for a minute. A number of individuals have complained recently, and there seems to be a general consensus among many members of the Church today, that theology has become a kind of soft science where there is not much rigor and often not much depth. First of all, do you think this is true, and secondly, if it is, what needs to happen for theology to be restored to its former glory? What will it take for theology once again to be regarded as the highest science and for the most talented minds to aspire once again to its study?

One must first make clear what theology is. I would say that theology is the attempt to interpret revelation, and so theology must be primarily concerned with the meaning of revelation. Theology is a human enterprise. There can, of course, be an interpretation of revelation which is not merely human. When the Church itself attempts to interpret revelation ex cathedra then the Author of revelation is inspiring the interpretation of revelation. That I think is the highest form of theology. When, then, is theology deep? When it teaches me that I have to love my neighbor, that I have to serve God, that I have an obligation to attend Mass and to believe in the real presence. It is deep if I learn from it that the center of all religion is the reception, though we are all unworthy, of the true body of Christ. Certainly for St. Thomas, his favorite treatise, and the last one he wrote, is on the Eucharist and is an interpretation of the Mass and what happens in the Mass. And some of the main concepts of St. Thomas’s theology were liturgy, sacrament, and sacrificium. If theology would be again deep it must investigate the meaning of these notions.

Are you satisfied then with the way theology is practiced today, in theology departments in the United States? In theology faculties in Germany and in France? Is contemporary theology at the level of depth that it was in St. Thomas?

No, it is not at that level. The subject of theology has simply changed. Today it is approached more like history. Theology students in Germany don’t even hear the name of St. Thomas Aquinas. I am probably the only professor in the University of Munster that teaches St. Thomas at all.

Do you think that it is necessary for theology today to take a less historical approach? Would this make it less of a soft discipline and more the kind of deep, demanding, and rigorous pursuit it was in the middle ages and for St. Thomas? Would this help to restore it to its place as the queen of the sciences?

Yes, it is all a matter of what kinds of topics are preferred and what is taught. One of my students wrote me that he had been studying theology for ten years and never heard one lecture on what a priest is. The priesthood, the nature of the sacraments, what happens in the Mass—these are the things that must be taught.

I asked one of my female students if she knew what a sacrament is. She said no. I asked her what kind of theology book she had in the Catholic school run by nuns that she attended. It turned out that in that book there was no definition of sacrament. I went to my bishop and pointed this out, and he told me to look at the curriculum of the theology faculty in the University of Munster. There are not any lectures on the sacraments. How are students supposed to learn this?

Today, there is feminist theology and liberation theology, but there is nothing said about what happens in the consecration of the Eucharist, what happens in baptism, what occurs in the absolution from sin, or for that matter, what sin is and why one should and even must go to the sacrament of penance. Today, I have little affinity with what my colleagues in theology are doing.

Etienne Gilson and others have proposed that for theology to rediscover its true object, there must be much closer cooperation between theology and philosophy. In the light of the philosophic shallowness of much of today’s theology it has been suggested that the pursuits of theological and philosophical wisdom must be more closely united, as they were in the middle ages. Have you been encouraging this in your writings when you speak of the need for “theologically-based worldliness”?

I would say that philosophy without a theological aspect is not really philosophy. How can you speak about death and what happens when a man dies if you have no idea what happens beyond physiological events, what really happens au fin when a man dies? Theology on the other hand always needs certain philosophically-based concepts: sacrament, mysterium, and even salvation—these are really philosophic concepts as well. When one employs them, one is in the theological and the philosophical field at the same time. You have, of course, to distinguish philosophy and theology, but you cannot separate them. In the past I have often quoted Jacques Maritain’s motto: Distinguer pour unir. Not Distinguer pour separer: we must distinguish, not separate, philosophy and theology if we are to unite them.

Is the old idea of sapientia Christiana—philosophy and theology in joint cooperation as the great medievals often employed them—what philosophy and theology both need to regain?

Yes. They are both wisdoms and wisdom must necessarily treat of the ultimate purpose of human existence. Sapientis est ordinare: “the characteristic of wisdom is to infuse order.” Both philosophy and theology must cooperate in putting order into the different sciences and into one’s different insights.

Let me shift to a slightly different subject. The pope has been speaking much lately about the need to re-evangelize culture in Europe and in the West. What strikes you as something that needs to be done in this regard?

The answer, I think, lies in communities. I once asked Cardinal Jean Danielou about this and he agreed. Small communities: they, not full churches on Sunday, will be the salvation of the Church. Groups like Schonstaat, Opus Dei, Focolare, and Communione e Liberazione. Cardinal Danielou also thought that groups like these were the hope of the Church, and, as I understand what the pope is doing, he is encouraging the growth and development of smaller and very dedicated communities of men and women like these.

From your perspective as a university professor do you see anything in particular that needs to be done, say with students, in the work of re-evangelizing culture? How do you work at this goal in your own sphere of action?

Yes, given a subject matter that would help students come to a better knowledge of their faith, I pursue a unique approach to instructing students. Instead of teaching systematic philosophy in the courses I offer—for example, a course on the notion of sin philosophically considered, or courses on various topics in the thought of St. Thomas—I tell lots of stories. Storytelling, I think, is an excellent way to convey philosophic insights. My students joke with me that I am continually telling stories, but they encourage me to continue because they, too, find it a good form of instruction.

Do you have any sense what students entering a university today need most?

What they need most is community with a teacher who tells stories—not any kind of stories, but the right stories pertinent to the subject at hand. I usually teach whatever subject my students ask me to, in small classes where everyone knows everyone else. I also make an effort to relate abstract philosophic speculation, say about the nature of love, to concrete, normal situations of day-to-day life.

If I should make a proposal for the reformation of the university today, I would reinstitute the old medieval disputatio as an obligatory element of university life. By disputatio I mean disputation between different faculties, different departments, and different individuals in those departments and faculties. For a short time we had something like this in the University of Munich. A Catholic youth club organized a symposium for several hundred students on the topic “Liberty or Determinism?” I participated in this seminar with a neurologist, a neo-Darwinist, and others, and we were not fighting but discussing through free argumentation. I think something like this should take place within the university and be organized by it. Then somewhat spontaneously a kind of universalism will come about where the whole of reality will come into sight. So disputatio is my suggestion for the renovation of the university, but, of course, no one has accepted my suggestion yet. Every department now speaks its own language, and even within departments this restricting specialization has become a problem.

A friend of mine was recently at a seminary down in Guadalajara, Mexico, where there were over 2,000 seminarians. In the U.S., though, and in Western Europe, there is a serious shortage of vocations to the priesthood. To what would you attribute this, and what do you think is necessary for this situation to change?

No one knows for certain. Family life, I think, is the answer: prayer at meals, going to Mass together (when my children were young we had five bicycles and we would all ride together to Church) reading together aloud stories of the saints. I feel that these are some of the fundamentals.

Is this, then, what is missing in countries in the West that have so few vocations?

It has at least very much to do with this. When you ask a priest how he entered the priesthood, every second one, I think, will tell you, his mother or his father, or some other human being—not books.

A final question: Are you hopeful for the future of sapientia Christiana?

Yes, of course, or I would have stopped teaching. But the future of Thomism and of Christian wisdom lies not in the boring literature that has often been used to communicate it, and which has turned away many, but in the living person of the teacher and the legacy he leaves behind in his students.


  • Thomas D. D'Andrea

    At the time this article was published, Thomas D. D'Andrea was a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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