An Especially Philosophical Subject

This is the title of the opening chapter of Josef Pieper’s monograph Death and Immortality (1969). It suffices here to quote at length the opening passages:

There is absolutely nothing between heaven and earth that cannot set us to philosophizing, that is to say to considering the whole of the universe and the whole of existence. This is as true for a tiny grain of matter as for a casual gesture of the human hand. We need not hunt for some object of philosophy which is distinguished by special “sublimity,” let alone abstractness. This sort of object is always present; it lies squarely before everyone’s eyes.

Nevertheless, there are subjects which must called “philosophical” in a stronger sense—because it is in their very nature to compel us to consider the whole of existence. Among these specifically philosophical subjects that of “death” holds an incomparable place.

For me, this sort of introduction evinces the captivating qualities of intellectual reflection that few writers other than Pieper manage to convey. While I am interested in philosophy as a topic, Pieper renders it a pleasure to read and not just a subject “to be studied.” Death and Immortality is a meditation that is beautifully written, and seemingly tranquil on the surface, but full of profound depths.

I was likewise struck with the concluding lines of the same chapter. Pieper speaks of the fact that through love we experience the “subjectivity” of the death of another in a way that we are typically are unable to in the “objective” encounter with death in the lives of so many people. By contrast with this, there is the persistent temptation to think of death as something that only happens to “someone else.” Though we cannot logically deny the fact of our own mortality we often run into individuals who really give it no thought at all.  And in a way, says Pieper, the two attitudes are often closely linked.

The refusal of empathy and the impossibility of experiencing one’s own death are obviously two sides of the same coin. To hold aloof from death is to cheat oneself of the profoundest insight into one’s own personal reality. To be sure, there is also the other aspect of the matter: No one experiences the pain and dreadfulness of death and dying so thoroughly as one who loves.

See related posts on the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. I have also written an essay, published by Homiletic & Pastoral Review, which discusses some of his works in greater detail.

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