Think Piece

“To Pierce the Dome”: Josef Pieper on Transcendence in Post-War Germany

by guest contributor Sean Haefner

By Sean Haefner

As Germany rushed to re-industrialize after World War II, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper looked upon his devastated country and called upon each person to… take a break and do philosophy? Although this is an oversimplified view of Pieper’s argument in his “Leisure the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act” (1947), presenting his approach in these terms can be beneficial. By doing so, I hope in fact to underscore the radical, seemingly absurd nature of the advice that Pieper offered to a Europe struggling to rebuild. Written “in the same summer, in a single breath” Pieper’s twin essays unmasked the danger of humanity’s temptation to trap itself in a world of “total work” and forget the dimension of human nature that is always more than merely human (15).

Pieper had written against the dangers of totalitarianism before the war (see Frank Töpfer, “Josef Pieper on the Intellectual Foundations of Totalitarianism”), but through these two essays he joined a postwar wave of German intellectuals who struggled to identify—and warn against—the mistakes that led to Nazism. Though his critique was similar to Hannah Arendt’s in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Pieper took a different approach, focusing not on the historical rise of National Socialism but rather on the philosophical-anthropological distortions that could create a totalitarian mentality under any form of government.  In method, then, his work resembles Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, published the same year, or even Arendt’s The Human Condition. Dissatisfied with merely political solutions, Pieper argued that individuals can resist totalitarian regimes only if they intentionally “pierce the dome of the workaday world” by acknowledging the transcendence which is inherent to human nature and necessary for the flourishing of life.  Transcendence—characterized by a fundamental openness to God and the world—is, for Pieper, humanity’s natural antidote to the spirit-crushing dominion of “the workaday world.”

            Germany’s industry had been decimated by the war, so it was not unreasonable that the German people should turn its energy towards reindustrialization. Pieper, however, recognized that his country’s all-encompassing thrust to rebuild materially came at the expense of repairing its spiritual foundations. Germany was quickly locking itself up in the sphere of the “workaday world,” which is Pieper’s term for the everyday world of selling and buying, of daily labor and quotas. The workaday world is the usual realm of human activity; it is the sphere of human existence in which everything is turned toward satisfying the common need and toward producing useful results. The workaday world values hard work, dismissing anything receptive or easily attained as useless. Every activity contributes to some set purpose. In the workaday world, human beings work hard to survive: they feed themselves, produce material goods, accomplish political purposes. They can take breaks, of course, pausing to enjoy “newspapers, a cinema, a cigarette” (“Philosophical Act,” 80). Rest, however, merely prepares one to reenter the world of work, refreshed and ready to produce results.

            As a result of World War II and the decisions of the Potsdam conference in 1945, Germany lost considerable territory and sovereignty. Furthermore, inflation and poverty were the order of the day. Later, in 1947, the Allies finally granted the defeated country the chance to reindustrialize and rebuild its political and economic institutions, initiating a process that led to the formation of West Germany in 1949. So, why was Pieper worried about what seemed to be a great opportunity to overcome wartime desolation? He had nothing against the workaday world as such; his fear was rather that postwar Germany ran the risk of losing itself to a world of total work, in which there would be no sphere left open to human beings except that of utilitarian production. Like Max Weber, Pieper found the motto of such a world expressed in terms such as: “one does not work to live; one lives to work” (“Leisure the Basis of Culture,” 20). Activities and ends would only have value insofar as they could contribute to the demands of the workaday world. Everything, even human beings, would be reduced to nothing more than a cog of the utilitarian machine. Everyone, no matter their social class or career, would live to work hard, to suffer, and would be “bound to this vast utilitarian process in which our needs are satisfied, and, what is more, tied to such an extent that the life of the working man is wholly consumed in it” (“Leisure the Basis of Culture,” 57). Even traditionally “free” disciplines, such as philosophy and art, would be employed solely in the service of practical needs.

            Pieper’s antidote to this imminent, self-imposed totalitarianism is the transcendence inherent to human nature. Against the dehumanizing utility of the workaday world, Pieper turned to Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas and their understandings of the individual as being created with the capacity for contemplation. In “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” he proposed his solution to the issues posed by the workday world in terms of leisure and divine worship; in “The Philosophical Act,” he focused on the act of philosophizing and its power to pierce “the dome of the workaday world.” For Pieper, the political danger posed by the world of total work descended from a deeper, metaphysical blindness. The world of work, in fact, takes over precisely when people cease to acknowledge and protect a sphere of activity that operates outside the logic of ends and means. There are activities and attitudes in which one transcends the workaday world. Paradigmatic for Pieper was the philosophical question, which cuts vertically across the world of practicality: asking why there is being—rather than nothing—makes no sense in a business meeting. Love, encounters with death, and other existential shocks push man to transcend the workaday world, and they are the sources of “philosophizing, genuine poetry, any aesthetic encounter… as well as prayer…. And when such a shock is experienced, man senses the non-finality of this world of daily care; he transcends it, takes a step beyond it” (“The Philosophical Act,” 81). Pieper considered divine worship to be the most transcending activity, since praise of God is never “useful,” and giving thanks invites acknowledgement of the world as a gift.

Pieper was well-aware of the “false forms” that transcending activities can take. Religion can be reduced to magic, the attempt to use the divine to satisfy earthly desires; love can be egoistic; and poetry and art can become effective means of propaganda, as Hitler knew all too well. Nazism exploited certain philosophical arguments to justify its ideology; Emmanuel Levinas in “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” for instance, warned against he philosophical evisceration of human freedom that undergirded National Socialism’s

conquest-oriented racism. Against “such imposters,” how can one identify and uphold true transcendence? According to Pieper, there are two characteristics that set true acts of transcendence apart: negatively, transcendent acts are always incommensurate with any direct practical utility; positively, transcendent acts are free and pursued for their own sake. While such acts or attitudes certainly may end up contributing to the common good, they cannot be pursued for that purpose alone. Such activities are proper to the liberal arts, of which philosophy is paradigmatic.

            Moving beyond particular examples of transcending acts, Pieper came to outline the structure of transcendence in terms of the “world” that is proper to the human being, for which he drew on a tradition of philosophical and theological anthropology rooted in the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. If it is true that human beings can transcend the world of total work, where do they go? Let us not be trapped by the metaphor: transcendence is different than escape or relocation. The sphere of transcendence is not a different realm into which philosophers and poets giddily leap. Pieper distinguished a hierarchy of worlds— that he describes as “fields of relation” (“Philosophical Act,” 101)—in which different types of living things exist. The world of plants is limited to nourishment and mere spatiality. The world of animals is constituted by the environment in which each type of animal lives; the ways an animal can interact with its world are predetermined by its needs, biological impulses, and sensory capacities. In contrast, the human world transcends its natural boundaries and is at once an environment and the whole world. The human spirit, Pieper argued, is related to the totality of being; its field of relations is in principle endless. Human beings are inherently oriented to know the universal essences of existing things. Of course, Pieper recognized that human beings are finite spirits and thus do not receive the world immediately and actually as a whole. He also held that humans are essentially embodied spirits, so we do not leave behind the need for our concrete, familiar environment of the workaday world. That environment, however, is incorporated into the total world of being.

            To transcend the workaday world involves a shift in horizons. No longer does one see the world from the standpoint of one’s environment of immediate needs. Instead, one encounters the human environment, the workaday world, in light of “God and the world” (“The Philosophical Act,” 106); in other words, one sees the ordinary things of everyday life in relation to the whole of reality. Almost ironically, to transcend the workaday world is to plunge into its depths and to ask what things really, essentially are. “To philosophize,” Pieper writes, “means to withdraw—not from the things of everyday life—but from the currently accepted meaning attached to them, or to question the value placed upon them” (“Philosophical Act,” 110). Acts of transcendence are characterized by this shift in how the world is received. Things unexpectedly reveal themselves differently than they did before. The heart of human transcendence is to wonder before the mystery of the previously familiar. Receptivity, for Pieper, is the key to transcendence.

            Transcendence is thus a response. Does this mean that human beings are doomed to a world of total work unless they are struck by a metaphorical lightning bolt? It is true that transcendence may be the fruit of an unexpected, existential shock. It is also true that no amount of hard work alone can “squeeze truth out of the workaday world.” Pieper did, however, strongly advocate cultivating an attitude of leisure characterized by effortless openness to the mystery of God and the world. With such an attitude, the individual or community sets apart time and space in life to celebrate the world precisely as given, as Creation. Pieper identifies the source of leisure as divine worship, the ultimate affirmation of reality as a gift. Every derivative affirmation of the depths of nature and humans is expressed in activities valuable in themselves; such activities, importantly, are by no means limited to the arts or to academia but include every act of love, every pause to appreciate the beauty of an autumn day, every game played for its own sake, and any other act that carries man outside the usual cycle of work and useful recovery.

As Germany rebuilt itself, Pieper recognized the spiritual impoverishment of his postwar people and warned against the fettering of human beings to the totalizing process of work. Human flourishing happens precisely in the attitude of leisure and in acts of transcendence, so Pieper calls upon his readers to make space for leisure as the basis of culture. Humans are by nature capable of and called to transcend their everyday world. Crushing the human spirit is bound to lead to dissatisfaction, misery, and the reduction of man to nothing more than a proletarian atom in the social organism. Pieper’s defense of human transcendence did not end with “Leisure the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act”; he penned dozens of books before his death in 1997, each aimed in its own way at recovering a deeper view of humanity, the world, and God that the political forces of his day were seemingly too quick to dismiss in the interest of progress. He never abandoned his belief in the human spirit, in the capacity of every person to “pierce the dome of the workaday world.”

Sean Haefner is a philosophy doctoral student at Boston College, where he studies the relationship between medieval philosophy and 20th century phenomenology. His current research centers on questions of human nature and understanding in the works of Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Husserl, Bernard Lonergan, and Josef Pieper.

Featured Image: Gustave Doré. Paradiso Canto 31. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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