Reality and Good according to Josef Pieper

Publisher: Morcelliana
Pages: 128
Price: €12,00

This book by the great German Thomist philosopher  Joseph Pieper (“La realtà e il bene”, Morcelliana, Brescia 2011, first edition 1949) is a true gem, and its contents are felicitously summarized in the first three lines: each duty is based on being; reality is the foundation of ethics; good is what conforms to reality. (pg. 35). In a nutshell, here we have all and everything. The book itself is none other than an explanation of these three lines structured in an Introduction, an examination of conscience, and then, in chapter three, the analysis of action.

In this review I will not illustrate the book as a whole, but do intend to delve into one aspect alone, which while not really a central issue, is nonetheless interesting. It is a widespread yet somewhat superficial opinion that the philosophy of St. Thomas gives no space to the spontaneity of the subject. In several parts of this book, however, Pieper, shows how the subject has a prominent role in the thinking of St. Thomas.

According to St. Thomas, explains Pieper, the knowing spirit and the thing known become one in knowledge. The identity between the knowing spirit and the objective being is mediated by the immaterial and spiritual image of reality impressed in the selfsame spirit like a seal in wax. Now, in this does the intellect manifest its spontaneity (intellect acting) similar to that of God: extract from material determinations the essential core of realness which is superior to matter. Between knowing spirit and thing known there is essential identity and existential diversity: the thing remains in its material determinations, but its quidditas is in our knowing spirit. Each being has its own form, but the knowing spirit can be everything, and in a certain manner the soul is all things. The intellect is not just a passive receptacle, and its activity somehow spiritualises all things, re-creating them in its own spirit.

Knowledge is an activity both active and passive: active in extracting the intelligible core from matter, active in receiving it. Activeness and passiveness, however, only serve the purpose of knowledge, which consists in having the forms of the objective reality. This the knowing spirit’s being in relationship with reality is truth. Truth is the relationship of identity, which is posited and realized between the spirit and what is real, in which what is real is the measure of the knowing spirit. Determined regarding the mode by the subject and the contents by the object, knowing is the relationship between this selfsame subject and this selfsame object. In reality based knowledge there is more than passive receptivity. The very fact of adopting a position of passive receptivity requires an act of the will. In order to know in a reality based manner it is actually necessary to engage in an exercise of knowledge.

This subjective influence, however, is not addressed to content, but to its modality and orientation. Prevailing, therefore, is objectiveness, and proof of this resides in the subject knowing itself by knowing what is real: the knowing spirit of man first knows the objective being that appears before him, and hence the act of knowledge, the cognitive faculty and the subject himself insofar as subject.  St. Thomas says: no one knows he knows except through knowledge of something; in fact, it is because first there is something to know that man knows himself as knowing. Our spirit is not able to know itself instantly or instinctively; it is only because it perceives something different that it attains knowledge of self.

Therefore, the subject does have its spontaneity, truth is relatedness, and in order to be realists it is necessary to engage one’s will unto asceticism and becoming impassioned. As we see, the subject is neither annihilated nor humiliated.

Stefano Fontana

Joseph Pieper, La realtà e il bene, Morcelliana, Brescia 2011, pp128, euro 12,00