A German Philosopher Sees the World

A Review Essay of Josef Pieper’s Not Yet the Twilight: An Autobiography

“The almost lethal crisis of American Catholicism after the second Vatican Council, I was convinced, consisted mainly in the absence of a living theology in the universities. Again and again, the guest (i.e., Pieper) from Europe, the old country, was the cause of more or less tempestuous debates (at Notre Dame). There was, for example, the notion of a catastrophic end-of-time within history, about which I did not hold back in my history of philosophy lecture. This attack on the belief in progress, of course, hit especially a sensitive American nerve.”—Josef Pieper, Not Yet the Twilight: An Autobiography, 1945-1965, 2017.

“My days have seldom been as full as in Taiwan. The time for sleeping was short… Only long after midnight could I release myself from the fascination with Chinese opera, which I had looked for in vain in Hong Kong. Admittedly, without a companion, I would never have understood the wonderfully alienating symbolic language of the gestures, nor have been able to interpret the faces of the actors which were made up almost unrecognizable—not by masks, but by wild painted-on, ornaments. A highly political, if also understandably fruitless night discussion followed the sumptuous exotic meal in the house of the son of Chiang Kai Shek…”—Josef Pieper, Not Yet the Twilight.

The German philosopher, Josef Pieper (1904-1997), left his autobiography in three volumes. The first volume was entitled in English, No One Could Have Known (Ignatius Press 1987). It dealt with Pieper’s youth, his early education, and the troubled war years. The present volume, entitled, Not Yet the Twilight, concerns the years immediately after World War II, up to the end of the Vatican Council II in 1965. The import of the title is not wholly clear to me. It could be contrasted with “Not Yet the Dawn.” Thus, it might refer to the approaching twilight of our civilization. We are not yet there, though we are getting there. One of Pieper’s recurring themes in the book has to do with the “end of time,” with a catastrophic, inner-worldly ending that is pictured in Scripture. Or perhaps, Pieper refers to the twilight of his own life, though the period is his full maturity. In 1965, Pieper was sixty-one years old, so there was still time for him to complete his work.

The text is presented in the form of a chronology that basically follows his academic career, his dealings with various German universities from his own home and position in Münster, which he stubbornly refused to leave. In the course of his career, Pieper is invited to lecture in many places in America, Europe, and Asia. He is in Saigon, for example, the day President Diem is assassinated. His narrative is matter-of-fact. He records whom he meets. He gives the subject of the lectures and circumstances of the occasion. He does not give much about their content. But most of his lectures have been published in one form or another. He is curious about the things that he encounters. He notes the beauty of Mt. Fugi as he passes it in a train. In this, he practices what he preaches. He wants to know precisely what other religions and philosophies hold. He is willing to examine them on their own terms. And he is prepared to judge what he sees and hears in the light of its plausibility and truth. He does not see philosophy as a collection of various opinions or teachings of sundry philosophers. To philosophize does not simply mean to know the teachings of Epicurus or Hegel or both.

Anyone familiar with Pieper’s books will be aware that he is one of the most readable of the German (or any other kind of) thinkers. German philosophers are often notorious because of their thick volumes, their obscurity and complexity, both of expression, and of the thought behind it. Pieper, by contrast, is nothing if not readable. Yet the whole of philosophy is often reflected in one of his short academic essays. Almost everywhere he went in his travels, he was met with large audiences, eager to hear him. He was mostly on the university circuit. At least, a few of his books are available in almost any language. A good part of his work is translated into English where it finds a large readership. Pieper has the uncanny ability of making things lucid, of putting things in their historical and intellectual context.

We also have some continued insight into his own family, with his parents and brother, his wife and children. The book, in fact, ends with the account of the death of his eldest son, Thomas. Pieper had just returned from his trip to the Far East. He has a call from his niece in England who has heard that Thomas, his son, was in serious condition after a climb on Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Thomas was at the time a graduate student in physics at Berkeley. He had no known medical issues when he and some friends decided to see the Pacific Northwest. On the mountain, Thomas collapsed, and died soon after in a hospital in Seattle. The body was returned to Germany for burial. The last words in the book are poignant: “Things would never be the same again. Meanwhile, the world continued on its course. Which course—no one knows.” Yet, on thinking of these ultimate things, probably no one gives us more illumination on the course and meaning of the world than Josef Pieper.

The best way to appreciate this book is, I think, to give three or four “interludes” in which Pieper, during his travels, is explaining something from literature, theology, philosophy, or ethics. Pieper is, first of all, an academic, a German professor. But he is one who is obviously concerned with passing on to his students and readers a love of learning for its own sake, for the sake of the truth. He wants to know how to begin and go about learning. He loved to gather students and colleagues about him. He was not concerned with the techniques or mechanical devices that are said to make us learn better. Rather, he wanted to get down to the matter at hand, actually to learn something that is true. Pieper is obviously a lover of Plato, who comes up almost everywhere in his works.

In Münster in his early years, Pieper recalls gathering a few students together. “Whole evenings were filled up with reading a single work. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Sartre’s Flies, Wilder’s Small City, single chapters from Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus novel. But again and again, we ended up by actually philosophizing; and far from engaging in technical terminology, all were confronted with the impenetrability of the world” (14). It is easy to imagine such an evening.

But this “impenetrability” of things is not skepticism. It is the reflection of a recurrent theme found in this book, and in Pieper’s other works. He is but following Aquinas. We cannot know the essence of things. But is not this what knowledge and education are about, to know things, what they are? Pieper’s point is not that we cannot know anything about reality. It is rather that, after we know everything we can about it, we still do not fully understand it. Why not?

This is the famous “negative theology” of Aquinas. All existing things are bound by the nothingness from whence they arose, and by their relation to the cause of existence Itself, by which they are, rather than are not. In this understanding, we do not know the full essence of each existing thing until we see it in its relation to its divine origins. These continuing origins are not known to us. But that does not mean that what we do know is thereby false. It only means that we do not know everything about anything. Our intellect is intellect indeed, but not divine intellect.

Pieper visited both London and Berlin; the latter was still an isolated enclave behind the Iron Curtain at the time. At Oxford, he visited Campion Hall, the Jesuit residence. “In Oxford I stayed at the Jesuit College, Campion Hall, a clubhouse of exceedingly nice individuals.” Though I am not sure of its German original, how amusing it is to hear a Jesuit residence described by a perceptive German professor as “a clubhouse”! “Frederick Copleston, the philosophy historian, already known to me through his lectures in Germany, showed me around this remarkable city (London)…” (49).

In Berlin, Pieper is consulted about the editorial policies of the academic journal, “Frankfurter Hefte.” Pieper was asked about the “direction” in which he thought the journal was headed. He minced no words: “Too little identification with the German people, basically too much distrust of tradition; a romantic over-estimation of labor; a frivolous involvement with radical ideas; a fascination with the merely ‘finely expressed’” (73). In 1953, Pieper records a conversation with Jean Daniélou along the same lines.

The familiar Marxist and Nietzschean accusation was made that it was Christianity’s concern with the four last things that prevented a full concentration on the problems of this world. While it is true we should do what we can, still “it was un-Christian to think that no hope remained if there was nothing more we could do” (104). Pieper’s point was, again, that Christian eschatology is not primarily a theory about world improvement, but one that concerns the eternal destiny of each person who lives in the world, for however long.

In 1962, Pieper had been thinking of festivity. His famous book, In Tune with the World, is probably unmatched on the topic. Everywhere he went, especially in the Orient, Pieper paid attention to the festivals. He also wanted to know what the university was. He was much concerned that it has come to be defined only as a place of physical science activity (260). In Bochum, he “tried to explain the Western idea of the university.” A university without genuine philosophizing was no university. Philosophy is “openness to the totality of things.”

This view meant that the “only the philosophical view (that mattered took) the whole of reality into account, and that, furthermore, in the words of John Henry Newman, it would be simply unphilosophical to shut theology out of the university” (260). Needless to point out, theology, and largely philosophy, have been cut out of universities on the grounds that what is not known by the scientific method does not exist. Such a view excludes most of what is humanly worthwhile from serious consideration. The one thing most universities are not open to is “the totality of things.” This view was also the import of the first citation at the beginning of these reflections.

This book, in conclusion, is an intellectual travelogue, a reminder of how to look at what we see and say when we are in climes not our own. While at Stanford in 1958, Pieper flew up to Seattle one weekend. There was a world’s fair going on there. He entered the display of the American Library Association on the future of computes. The theme of the exhibition was: “Nothing will be forgotten anymore” (197). Normally, I would not have given this passage a second thought. I am all for remembering things. It is a theme that is found everywhere in Augustine’s Confessions. Thomas says the quality of our intelligence, in large part, has to do with our ability to remember things.

But Pieper has the uncanny ability of seeing the other side of things. Pieper asked the model computer about a favorite theme of his, namely “festivals”. Up came several hundred listings of articles on festivals. The technicians were pleased. But Pieper replied that these articles would all have to be examined. As such, they were only about festivals. At this point, he recalled a phrase of Goethe that the “river of forgetfulness” (Plato) was the “high gift of the gods”. “Forgetfulness” is a “simple” life function.

That is to say, some things we should forget. We cannot remember everything. It is all right. “If ‘nothing were ever forgotten,’ we would, of necessity, suffocate.” We cannot live our lives either in complete forgetfulness or in eagerly awaiting tomorrow. Many have taught us to remember. It is Pieper who tells us also that many other things we need to forget. It is worth a trip to Seattle, where Pieper’s son was later to die, to learn this bit of wisdom that we can easily, yes, forget.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ, is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, is retired, and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California.


  1. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    Of the many samples I have eagerly consumed, of Father Schall’s writing, I can only affirm
    that he has never written a dull sentence. That’s a retired English professor’s most heartfelt
    Fond Regards, Father, and continued blessings!

  2. Jim Enright says:

    Where would we be without Fr.Schall’s clear , concise thinking and writing?

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