Rob Rieman, Joseph Pieper, and the Existential Poverty of the West

Joseph Pieper knows what Rob Riemen has forgotten: the existential poverty of the West cannot be evaded or solved through humanism, for no ersatz god gives meaning to our poetry, song, dance, and drama. Absent God, it is all vapor, lacking the goodness to which we respond in wonder, delight, joy, and feasting.

As someone who loves the Western tradition, I have filial piety and affection for Europe. Consequently, the ongoing religious, political, and demographic malaise of the Old Continent grieves me. Further, while European civilization is rather more alive in the United States (and Israel, as Daniel Johnson has argued) than in Europe itself, we here face similar challenges, such as the loss of cultural confidence and love of what is our own.

So it was with glum recognition that I read the epigraph of Rob Riemen’s To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism. It is a quotation from Kierkegaard articulating the sense that many, including myself, have about our civilizational moment:

Our age reminds one very much of the disintegration of the Greek state; everything continues and yet, there is no one who believes in it. An invisible bond that gives it validity, had vanished, and the whole age is simultaneously comic and tragic, tragic because it is perishing, comic because it continues.

Well-read, cultured, somewhat predictable in his conclusions and allegiances, Riemen remains an ally to those of us who are devoted to the Western understanding of liberty and the quest for truth, believe in a responsibility to care for the soul, and dislike the technocratic boosterism of the Davos kind. Riemen longs for Europa, where big words like “soul, culture, philosophy,” and living in the truth still have a kind of sacred meaning, and he despises the “endless deluge of trivia, sensationalism, and baloney” of our mass society. He’s a humanist who loves Socrates, agreeing that courage is found most in the ability to conquer “yourself, the courage to be wise and just, the courage to cultivate your soul.” He values Judaism and Christianity insofar as they insist on “the responsibility of every man to be what he should be: a righteous man.” He is the sort of humanist who rejects aestheticism without truth as just so much “kitsch,” while still insisting that without poetry, music, fiction, theology, and philosophy we cannot hope to discover that truth, since science and technology are inadequate substitutes.

He is especially good at deflating the pretentions of techno-scientific optimism as merely a cheery nihilism reducing everything to power, articulated in terms of quantitative reasoning: “We have lost an awareness of quality and now believe only in quantity, just as Nietzsche predicted when he wrote of the power of ‘greatest number.’” In the authentically human world, on the other hand, accomplishment “refers to quality, not quantity. The fact that the true intellectual and artistic elites are now marginalized almost everywhere in the Western world, while power elites are more dominant than ever, is reflected in the values cultivated, values that are a perfect reflection of commerce, technology, and kitsch.” That’s a damning and, to my mind, an accurate puncturing of the shallow religions of Silicon Valley.

Europe was not born from its quantitative accomplishments, but from “care for the soul.” As Riemen articulates it, Europe is “first of all that quest for true humanity.… We have our souls to thank for our greatness, because our souls enable us to know the absolute, the eternal, that which is not transitory: truth, goodness, beauty, love, and justice. Ecce homo.” Consequently, insofar as our enervated institutions ignore the first and highest values they are not really European. For instance, “today’s universities, institutions traditionally intended to cultivate the European spirit, are now, in their obsession with economics and technology, focused mainly on the destruction of the European spirit and therefore only contribute to the deep crisis of civilization in which we find ourselves.”

Given his critique of the Davos mindset, with its “reverberations of empty words, grandiloquence, noise . . . obsession with money and technology,” and “cultural illiteracy,” one expects Riemen might alienate those on the “right side of history.” But he’s a tamed Socrates; his principal target is fascism, and the “step from conservatism to obscurantism and reactionary politics is far smaller than the adherents of conservatism would have us believe.” There it is: Davos-man may be shallow, but conservatives are motivated by resentment, and this criticism is welcome in the better salons and think-tanks. Even more reassuring, while Riemen offers some praise for the moral demands of religion, he’s quick to decry the “stupidity and tastelessness in equal measure” of those “learned” servants of the Church who are unaware that “big words” like “God, Christendom, faith, and redemption” have “become meaningless.” Apparently, religion is acceptable when enlightened, not when it clings to meaningless claptrap.

Martin Heidegger claimed that only a god could save Europe from nihilism, and Riemen has his god in “European humanist society” and its “cultural-moral consciousness.” Never mind that the “big words” of European humanism—“soul, culture, philosophy, and live in truth”—are “as impossible as a palm tree on the moon.” That is, his preferred big words are as meaningless as he supposes religion to be. Yet some gods are allowed: namely, those tamed and presenting no challenge or risk to anyone. Perhaps a defanged god cannot overcome nihilism, and only an actual God can save, a God so far beyond our mastery and convenience that before him we are silent, as Josef Pieper explained in the Silence of St. Thomas.

In fact, it turns out that Pieper is more helpful than Riemen in grappling with the nihilistic loss of meaning, for Pieper inhabits Europe in a far more robust way.

Many will know Pieper’s little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, in which he rejects the totalitarian impulse of “total work” that grants value only insofar as the person produces. Unlike Riemen’s vague cultural “quality,” however, Pieper’s account of leisure and festivity has a trajectory, pointing toward God.

Pieper knows what Riemen has forgotten: the existential poverty of the West cannot be evaded or solved through humanism, for no ersatz god gives meaning to our poetry, song, dance, and drama. Absent God, it is all vapor, lacking the goodness to which we respond in wonder, delight, joy, and feasting.

I’ve read Pieper for many years now, returning to his texts with some frequency. Yet, until St. Augustine’s Press released his Not Yet the Twilight: An Autobiography 1945-1964, I knew very little about his life. While the text sometimes reads like a diary, it also gives access to a thoroughly European soul, one educated with a rigor and expansiveness now hard to imagine, but also one dealing with domestic concerns, bills, and the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and its horrors. In this second of three volumes, available in English translation for the first time, Pieper tells of his remarkable life, work, travels, and thought. He seemed to have met everyone—a young Jack Kennedy, T. S. Eliot, Max Horkheimer, Jean Daniélou, François Mauriac, Henry Regnery—and to have travelled everywhere, even while maintaining a heavy teaching and writing load. This heavy load was almost voluntary, for he turned down promotions and positions interfering with his own “basic education.”

Pieper was capable of rigorous and deep scholarship while maintaining a lively circle of friendship and an enthusiastic following of students. Anyone familiar with his writing recognizes why students thronged to his lectures, for he integrated existential concern into intellectual exploration. For him, it was more interesting to ask about the meaning of life, the point of work, the experience of music, or the possibility of hope than to lose himself in the hypothetical game model now so endemic (and destructive) to genuine philosophy. Although he maintained intellectual heft, he cheerfully admitted that he “might not fully—if at all—fit the image of the ‘scholar.’”

Pieper maintained this concern for living philosophy because he worked within traditions—Catholic, Thomistic, Western, German—that could not avoid confronting hard questions of meaning given the recent war. Pieper had been noticed by the Nazis as an intractable opponent of National Socialism. He began his early studies on the cardinal and theological virtues—including fortitude—during the 1930s, setting them aside during the terrible days of the Reich since writing about love seemed impossible. After the war, he returned to a home undergoing restoration; “there was already glass in some windows,” although finding a stove and a typewriter remained a challenge. He attended lectures in the open air, wearing multiple coats, with a pile of rubble pushed together “to form a type of podium.” He commuted great distances to lecture, boarding in a “tiny ice-cold garret” before teaching in classrooms converted from former air-raid shelters. Still, he notes, he “never again experienced such an industrious intellectual curiosity as was shown by this generation of students who crowded into the lectures and seminars in their unsightly military uniforms, which the occupation force required to be re-dyed.”

Despite the destruction, he insisted that “at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist,” for “underlying all festive joy … there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself.” In contrast to the nihilistic despair and existential poverty of the world of total work—the tyranny of the quantitative—Pieper acknowledges “an existential concord of man with the world and with himself … for which no other term can be found than ‘love.’” He does not renounce, but instead affirms the goodness of the world, because for Pieper, like Plato and St. Thomas but unlike Riemen, something remains beyond the Sisyphean attempt to believe in sentimental humanism.

To read Pieper’s autobiography is to encounter a person alive with the lifeblood of Europe, one in whom care of the soul matters because the “big words” of religion maintain their density. One also finds a model for how to live with hope in our confused and fragmented time, for it is not yet the twilight. His was a life of study and thought, work and family, care for the soul and worship—all those things we so desperately need to keep Europe thriving in the United States. A few hours spent in Pieper’s company are hours spent well, and I recommend it.

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