Josef Pieper: Prophet of Pietas - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Josef Pieper: Prophet of Pietas

Conservatism has no shortage of indictments—both accurate and insightful—against the contemporary West. Our elevation of individual rights to the detriment of social obligations has vitiated our pursuit of the common good. Shallow emotivism, sophistry, and manipulative rhetoric are undermining our tradition of disinterested intellectual inquiry, and are silencing all those who oppose the new order. Global technological totalitarianism is profiting the secularist, technocratic elite at the expense of everyone else.

Between 1965 and 1973, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a remarkably prescient set of essays—recently republished together as The Weight of Beliefthat identified these threats to the West’s survival. To confront these challenges, Pieper calls us to return to the virtue of pietas: the humble acceptance and performance of one’s obligations to society and to God.

Rights and Obligations

Pieper presents the classical understanding of pietas in opposition to the modern, libertarian conception of how individuals relate in society. Pre-modern philosophers, from Aristotle and Cicero to Augustine and Aquinas, understood justice first through the prism of obligations: the duties one has to othersrather than the rights that are one’s own. As Socrates asserts in Plato’s dialogues, “He who commits an injustice is worse off than he who suffers injustice.”

This is not to say that one ought not also to demand one’s own rights, but only that to assert one’s rights is essentially a defensive mode of human society, while to start from obligation is audacious, aggressive, and realistic. It is audacious and aggressive because it expects more of the individual; it is realistic because, if people first consider what they owe others, their neighbor’s well-being follows more reliably than in a society grounded only on rights.

This shift moves society’s conversation away from the divisive debate over individual rights to a much broader, unifying project of determining what is due to man. This dialogue must assume that man is created by God, the ultimate authority—a truth attested not only in the West, but also in the East. The Chinese Mandate of Heaven, for example, rested on the famous aphorism, “Heaven loves the people, and the rule must obey Heaven.” When man turns his eyes heavenward, he quickly recognizes his need to give the Creator His due. The ancients responded to this primal insight with sacrifice, a token attempt to level the score with Heaven.

Read the rest over at Public Discourse.

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