Summary of Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation.
Ralph McInerry once said of the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper that he “speaks out of the abundance of his heart and mind where knowledge has become wisdom.” I think that captures what I wanted to express about Pieper’s writing but couldn’t find the words for. Pieper is one of those writers whose work is full of choice phrases culled reflectively from the classical texts of philosophy with a practical and applicational soundness generally. He is an excellent communicator of the ideas of philosophy similar to C.S. Lewis. Only the Lover Sings is the second volume I have read by him. (The first was In Defense of Philosophy: The Power of the Mind for Good and Evil, Consists in Argumentation). He is most well-known for his book is Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which Br. Dunstan has recommended to me.
Only the Lover Sings is a short, 76 page collection of essays on art and contemplation, originally published in German in 1988. The first essay entitled “Work, Spare Time and Leisure” in which Pieper discusses the ancient conception of leisure held by those such as Aristotle, which is a substantially different concept than one might think of when hearing the term today. Pieper argues that avoiding idolization of labor today cannot be achieved except by an objection based on some ultimate truth about human nature (which is therefore to be taken as of lasting relevance, he assumes). He notes how there are still vague notions about the seventh day of the week being special and about holidays and quitting time (in Germany), but that we are ignorant of how the accumulated wisdom of our Western cultural and existential tradition “as expressed, say, by Plato, and Aristotle, or the great teachers of Christianity” viewed leisure.
“The most important element in this teaching declares: the ultimate fulfillment, the absolutely meaningful activity, the most perfect expression of being alive, the deepest satisfaction, and the fullest achievement of human existence must needs happen in an instance of beholding, namely in the contemplating awareness of the world’s ultimate and intrinsic foundations.” P. 22. He asks the question what constitutes here and now an activity that is meaningful in itself, in contrast to an activity that is meaningful for what it produces, and he answers that it is whenever in contemplation we touch, however remotely, the core of all things. As Matthew Arnold once wrote, “The touch of truth is the touch of life.”
He says that in feast days (he glancingly mentions the Sabbath, focused more on the Greek heritage rather than the Jewish) man has traditionally expressed his being in harmony and awareness of being surrounded by such fundamental realities, in nonordinary ways.
He says, indeed, that wherever there is lacking the attitude of heart and mind recognizing and seeking to live in harmony with this fundamental truth of human nature (“even if beheld through a veil of tears”), all endeavors to organize relaxation techniques turn hectic and, indeed, become an “outright desperate, form of work”.
Pieper has in mind some of the Communist materialists’ notions of work and of the human. Although Communism has receded, materialism has not, and the erosion of the spiritual conceptions of man and work and rest still remains. Piepr mentions five-year plans which were apparently rigid impersonal plans by which the Communist countries attempted to idealistically pursue science in a scientific way. Michael Polanyi also mentions these plans in The Tacit Dimension and in Science, Faith and Society. Polanyi was a ground-breaking chemist who turned to philosophy in the later part of his life in order to defend science as he understood it against the materialist conceptions of science exemplified by the Communists at the time, of which the Five-Year plans were an example. Pieper and he seem to share the same impulse here. They are defending a view of man against a rival, materialist anthropology. This battle still rages in a different form today.
What Pieper is arguing is that we must acknowledge that man is created with a telos, with a purpose and a design which he does not operate well without conforming to, and that leisure that allows for contemplative wholeness is part of that design. However, acknowledgment of a telos is something disputed by the broader public. In some ways it seems that acknowledgment of a telos is systematically excluded by a secular milieu. I believe it was in Roe vs. Wade that there was a famous mystical paragraph asserting a kind of right of people to forge for themselves their own good and evil. Maybe I am parodying that a little. But the idea was certainly the rejection of a telos, of responsibility, of a right and a wrong to one’s actions. (This reminds me of the book of Amos where justice is disgraced in the courts. I hope Blackwater does not in the end end up being another such a disgrace in American courts! Let justice roll down like a river and don’t let legal loopholes prevent it!)
The great Medievalist scholar Etienne Gilson wrote a book entitled From Aristotle to Darwin and Back which by many accounts I have been coming across is an excellent treatment of telos and the view of human nature. Darwinism tends to convert human nature into a liquid thing, to create static for notions of telos. (Unfortunately the book is out of print and the only copy on Amazon sells for $300! Publishers of the world, what is wrong with you?)
The question Pieper raises is significant and touches on the question of Sabbath observance and similar wistful hopes of Christians today. Does such a high view of leisure, one which sees it as essential to fulfilling the existential purpose of man, have a basis only in a belief in there being a telos of man? Well, if I put it that way… But I mean to say, is there no securable place in our hearts for rest and contemplation which ascend to the highest of human experience without such a recognition of our nature? This may be a tricky question. How much did Pieper for instance consider the Buddhist positions which hold that there is no self. Without a self, what telos can there be? One can say that without regarding leisure of this contemplative kind as to be aimed for there can be no pursuit of it, and without a cogent reason for its pursuit the pursuit will deteriorate in half-heartedness or be a desperate asceticism for asceticism’s sake. But how is one to counter Darwin? How is one to extract telos from a supposed sea of chance and natural selection? It seems Pieper’s point is that there will be no leisure and no Sabbath without this understanding of human nature, or telos. The Jews rested on the seventh day because that is when God rested and they are created in God’s image. I think that is at least a theologically sound way of putting. Pagans had cultic feast days in which they recognized something more than is sold in the secularist bill of goods perhaps.
In the second essay, “Learning How To See Again”, Pieper asks the excellent question “How can we be saved from becoming a totally passive consumer of mass-produced goods and a subservient follower beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim? The question really is: How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality? He suggests that more and more we tend to see with less detailed grasp, to hear with less detail (in contrast for example to the Indians) and to remember with less capacity (he didn’t mention that but I was thinking of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death which cogently points out the loss of memory skills with the advent of writing).
He says that fasting and abstention from the “noise” is a valuable first step but hardly sufficient. “A better and more immediately effective remedy is this: to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.
Nobody has to observe and study the visible mystery of the human face more than the one who sets out to sculpt in a tangible medium. And this holds true not only for the manually formed medium.”
I think his recommendation is excellent and true. There is a sense too in which familiarizing with works of art can also train the eye and awaken to reality. I think Emerson was not all wrong when he said works of art depicting people train the eye to look at actual people. A while ago I took a day off and spent half of it at the National Museum of Art, and it was for me very revivifying. The stimulation from contemplating the works of art I saw there noticeably to me opened my eye to the perception of the world around me after I had left. An afterglow lingered with me for a day or two. There was a kind of generative stimulation that suggested I do the same. (Note to myself an interesting parallel that occurs between the notion of generativity from the male side in The Skies of Babylon and from the feminine side in Elaine Scary’s On Beauty). If this could be incorporated in my life into a better rhythm of work and rest much could be accomplished! But on the other hand, let this not be strumming on David’s harp and improvisation of musical instruments while the poor are crushed (see Amos 6:5), aristocratic complacency at the expense of others.
The third essay, entitled “Thoughts About Music”, argues that music by its nature is very close to the fundamentals of human existence. He asks “What indeed do we perceive when we listen to music?” He quotes Schopenhauer in answering this question: Music “does not speak of things but tells of weal and woe”.
“To repeat: thus has the nature of music variously been understood in the Western philosophical tradition- as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe; as wordless expression of man's intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man's journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man's will in all aspects, as love. This, for instance, is the meaning of Plato's statement that 'music imitates the impulses of the soul', or as Aristotle puts it: music is similar to ethics and related to it. The same tradition continues in remarks by Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche when they say that music 'invariably is the expression of an immediacy as no interfering medium is involved'; or (Schopenhauer) that of all the arts it is music that represents the will itself; or (Nietzsche in his interpretation of Wagner) that music lets us hear 'nature transformed into love'.””
Pieper argues that since music is an expression of individual’s inner dynamic, and that, as the process of ethical growth is one faced with innumerable dangers and interferences, “a thousand different expressions of pretense error, and confusion can also appear. "
“Thus the musical articulation may include a shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest 'goods', the rejection of any ordered structure, the despairing denial that man's existential becoming has a goal at all or that such a goal could be reached. There can also be, as in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, the music of nihilism, which lives on parody and comes about through the 'devil's help and hellish fire under the cauldron'.”
Pieper obviously accepts Plato’s and others of the Western traditions’ view that music can be a force for good or evil and that it is not wise to merely regard it as an indifferent matter. This is an open question for me. We are told to think about whatever is lovely, etc. but some argue that beauty is a purely subjective, an personal matter. Here is an expression of a counter view to Pieper’s which suggests the indifference of musical medium:
"The apostolic tradition is a tradition of words, not music. It’s the words that are important and not their method of delivery. In the few times where singing is specifically mentioned in the New Testament, I think it’s reasonable to think that if the music were important, some sort of musical instruction would have been preserved in the texts. This is particularly important when we consider the Greek “Doctrine of Ethos,” which held that certain musical devices influenced character. In regards to that widespread belief, if it had carried any weight in the circles in which the New Testament documents were formed it would be reasonable to see it reflected in those documents (“and when they had sung a hymn in the Dorian mode, they went out to the Mount of Olives” or something like that). There isn’t even a hint of that kind of notion in the New Testament. There isn’t even a hint because music, the business of high and low notes, half steps and whole steps (and how big the half steps are, because the size changes), loud and soft,—is a mater of adiaphora, or indifference. That doesn’t mean that music is unimportant, it just means that it’s not particularly privileged and the specifics of what is or isn’t appropriate decided on an ad hoc basis." from Michael Litton, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=858
If it is true that music is indifferent, then an arbitrary standard may simply cause divisions. But then one might ask whether knowledge of the beautiful and that which heeds the depths in musical composition versus that which is on a more incognizant level is really a baseless distinction. Perhaps there is difference and it rides on the nature of reality. But it doesn’t seem like something to fight about, but something to heed.
“Music and Silence” is a short contemplation of the middle place music occupies between noise and absolute silence. The two antipodes both destroy the any possibility of mutual understanding but
The final essay, “Three Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio” is reflection on memory in relation to the muses. This follows the other essays in perceiving the realist foundation of art. Memory of the actual the window on the foundations of existence. Contrast this with the point made in a Far Eastern proverb, “Those who only look at themselves do ever radiate nothing.” There is included a reflection also on a piece of art on t the conversation of those crucified beside Christ Jesus and a poem. An association is made between the arts and times of festivity, between dark times and heaven. Lastly there is the point made that art should neither be merely depiction of the real, like a photograph, nor ‘absolute’ art which is indifferent to the forms of the world.