Sunday, February 03, 2008
Q: In paragraph 15 of "Spe Salvi," there is a rich comparison of a monastery and a soul. What is the Holy Father trying to illustrate through the use of this imagery?"
Father Schall: A passage of Josef Pieper, originally based in Aquinas, if not in Aristotle and Plato, addresses this same question. The passage is found in "Josef Pieper -- an Anthology," called "The Purpose of Politics." It is only a couple of paragraphs long. I always point students to it as the most central of all passages about politics and political philosophy. It basically says both that you cannot understand politics without understanding the transcendent order, and that you cannot have a healthy society in which there is only politics.
Pieper writes, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: "'It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.' For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end insight, gives meaning to every practical act of life" ("An Anthology," 123). This passage is also behind much of what the Pope writes on natural law as the yardstick and measure of human actions.
One can state the issue succinctly: No political order can be itself healthy unless it has within it those who are not devoted to politics. This is not in any way a denial that politics are important, but it is a denial that they are the most important things in a society. Indeed, a society that makes politics the most important thing is already a totalitarian society, as Aristotle had already implied.
When the Pope treats this issue in "Spe Salvi," he refers to the monastic tradition and to Augustine. The Pope is careful to relate how this contemplative life is not opposed to any proper understanding of the temporal life of this world. He is even attentive to the relation of work to contemplation. Indeed, the elevation of work to a dignity and not a slavery or oppression had to do with the Benedictine notion of "pray and work."
The Pope cites a certain pseudo-Rufinus who says basically what Pieper did: "The human race lives thanks to a few: Were it not for them the world would perish." This is a remarkable statement indeed. It not only shows the absolute need of someone who constantly within society shows others that there is something more than this world, but it shows the importance of contemplation itself in keeping our mind straight.
The delicate relation of will and mind is a central drama of philosophy and revelation. This is why it has always been said that the great disorders of soul, as well as the great movements for good, begin in the heart of the dons, academic and religious, long before they appear in the public order. Again this is what "immenantize the eschaton" means.