Friday, August 13, 2010

Josef Pieper: The Other’s Right (V)


And to conclude Josef Pieper Week here on the Guild Review...continued from Part IV:


Our topic, however, as we said, is not man’s relationship to God, but justice in men’s relationships to each other. Here there are also debts which by their very nature cannot be paid. For example, I cannot one moment say to my mother: Now we’re even! A mother, parents, or whoever is in their place—they also cannot be perfectly compensated and paid back. Once again, because justice, strictly speaking, is not achieved in this case, another attitude appears to take its place, if things proceed correctly, as a replacement and makeshift aid, so to speak. The ancients called this attitude pietas—for which the word “piety” is not at all a precise translation. Yet the main concern is that what is meant by pietas is clear; what is meant is the inward acceptance and the outward recognition of the fact that every man owes certain people a debt he is not capable of paying. Now, I think I could dare make the assertion that in the currently prevailing idea of justice among men, the concept of pietas is not to be found, and that the attempt to rehabilitate this virtue would be connected to very far-reaching prerequisites. Pietas, for example, can develop as an element of communal life only when the devastated region of “authority” can regain its proper place. Everyone knows that this is a barely manageable task.

This task could appear nearly hopeless when one takes into consideration a third concept, which according to the ancient doctrine of justice also aims at an attitude that is proper to man and should be demanded of him, and which is another response to an unpayable debt. Even the name used to designate this concept is now lost. The Latin term is observantia; dictionaries translate it as Ehrerbietigkeit [roughly “deference” or “reverence”], a term which nobody uses in real life. But, what is meant by it?

The following is meant: The individual, in his private existence, is always dependent on the meaningful, or just, administration of public offices, such as that of a judge or of a teacher, as well as of any other; it is only then that the individual lives in an ordered community (which by no means happens automatically). But the individual then contracts a debt, which he cannot actually pay to those holders of public office.

So, to repeat, when justice cannot be achieved, another attitude must make take its place: that of observantia, i.e., respect which is consciously accepted and expressed, which says: I owe you something which I can’t properly pay back, and I am letting you know that I know that! But of course, it goes without saying that the findings described here extend well beyond the circle of holders of public office; in almost all human services there is something for which the person who profits from them cannot, strictly speaking, pay. Neither the friendliness of a waiter nor the reliability of a housemaid can be compensated fully, so that as a result what is strictly due has been rendered. And that is where observantia must take the place of justice which cannot be fully achieved, which lets the other person know: I am indebted to you; I know it and I recognize it.

This is the point at which to close our remarks with a question. The question is as follows: Must not life among men necessarily become inhuman when the individual, for whatever reason, does not come to understand himself as someone who is in debt to and has been given gifts by God and man? This might sound a little Romantic and even “bizzare.” But what is meant is something very realistic.

To make my point clear, I would like to remind you of an episode from Helmut Gollwitzer’s account of his imprisonment “...And lead you where you do not want,” a true story. It deals with a work squad made up of German POWs who are supposed to carry out a certain task in the primeval forest of Siberia and may expect bonus rations if they carry out the task on or ahead of schedule. It so happens that they really do receive the extra rations, but that a part of the group (Gollwitzer calls them the “old prisoners,” which means those who were already inwardly acclimatized)—that the “old prisoners” want to deny a share of the bonus to the sick, who could not work at all or only in part. They could no longer, says Gollwitzer, understand our appeal to our common humanity and comradeship; but we, the “new prisoners,” could not yet understand their merciless calculation of what was due to them.

So, to repeat the question: Must not life among men necessarily become inhuman once you try to understand and especially construct and live it based on one point of view: What is my due?
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