Happiness, Contemplation, and Josef Pieper’s “Uncomfortable Consent to the World”

a paper by
BILL HASSELBERGER | Investment Banker + Writer


“The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness, but it is founded upon sorrow.”
-Joseph Pieper, 
Happiness and Contemplation

Photo by Joshua Ness

SOME 60 YEARS AGO, the German philosopher and theologian, Josef Pieper, wrote a thin, scholarly work on Saint Thomas Aquinas, entitled, Happiness and Contemplation (HC). Pieper was a leading figure in what came to be known as the neo-Thomastic movement of the last century, and a number of his works, especially Leisure: The Basis of Culture and The Four Cardinal Virtues, became key texts in that revival of the thinking of Saint Thomas…but not HC. That is a mistake, as Pieper’s little, rather unassuming work harbors a brilliant discussion of Saint Thomas’s thinking on a subject perhaps more important today than 60 years ago: happiness. In fact, that discussion seems doubly significant as we encounter in it not just the wisdom of Saint Thomas, but also that of Josef Pieper. To be sure, his work takes on these days a radical “against the grain” gloss, as we shall see below, as Pieper unapologetically holds that “the ultimate gratification of human nature, the ultimate satiation of man’s deepest thirst, takes place in contemplation,” and not in our physicality (18). For that reason alone, Pieper’s little book may serve us well today as a much needed, if somewhat anachronistic, corrective to the “feel good” hedonism of our self-help/happiness industry. However, there is also another reason, namely that Pieper is much better known in Europe than in American. Fortunately, for us here in America, HC may also serve us well as a short introduction to Piper’s thought. There is, thus, much to be gained today by our taking even a brief look at Pieper’s oft neglected, little book.

As is evident in his texts, Pieper was both a philosopher and a theologian, and we often encounter in his works, including HC, the methodological rigor typical of Aristotle, the deep faith of St Thomas, and the ontological approach of Martin Heidegger. Thus, argumentation, faith, and what we can call Heideggerian “thinking” all figure importantly in Pieper’s writing, where he regularly uses articles of faith, carefully deduced corollaries, and ontology all to great effect. HC has twelve short sections, ranging in length from just 3 to 10 pages. The text (the St. Augustine Press edition) is less than 100 pages long (though there are also about 10 pages of pre-text material). As its title indicates, Pieper’s general thesis in HC is that “man’s ultimate happiness consists in contemplation,” and in all but the very last section of the work (section XIII), Pieper proceeds either by defining its key terms, thereby honing his thesis, or by defending it, usually with clarifications, from likely criticism (13). However, in that last section, Pieper ends HC by offering his simple but nonetheless powerful, ontology-based prescription for happiness: “Neither happiness nor contemplation is possible except of the basis of consent to the world as a whole” (106).

As Pieper’s Creation metaphysics in HC is wholly consistent with Catholic orthodoxy, we can leave that aside focus instead on his more original ontological analysis of the Being of God a of man. HC begins with a powerful examination of our Being, which we may see as, borrowing from Heidegger, a “Being towards God.” Pieper starts by putting forth the following three ontological claims about our Being. First, he writes, “part of the definition of the created soul, therefore, is that it has received its essence—and along with that its assignment for life […] from the shaping and life giving act of creation” (22). Pieper continues, “‘happiness is the name for the ultimate goal of human life” (20). Thus, in what Pieper says “flows out of the primal impulse of the act of creation,” God endowed our Being with a powerful life goal, an existential raison d’etre, one we may see in terms of a defining, Aristotelian teleos, namely ultimate happiness, by which Pieper means “beatitude” (an other worldly spiritual union with God) (22).

Second, in the same act of creation, God charged our Being with a powerful natural force or, as Pieper sometimes puts it, an unquenchable inner “thirst” for ultimate happiness, a drive so strong that it literally compels us to seek our teleos. Thus, Pieper writes, “man, as a reasoning being, desires his own happiness just as a falling stone ‘seeks’ the depths, as a flower turns to the light and the beast hunts its prey” (21). Indeed, this natural drive towards happiness, Pieper suggests, we should think of as a “gravitational impulse whose axis is entirely within our own hearts, ” which charges our Being in such a way that not just the energy of our entire Being, but our Being itself is reducible to it (23-4). He writes, “we have no power over it—because we ourselves are this gravitational impulse” (24). In other words, we may conceive of our Being as a powerful, natural pulse or vector that continuously pushes us outwards towards our goal of happiness. In short, that internal push towards happiness is our Being towards God.

Third, this natural drive towards happiness plays out in one of two forms of contemplation or, as Pieper prefers, “intuition” (74). While we are alive, it takes the form of earthly contemplation or earthly intuition. Its real objects are, however, not the created beings with which we directly interact but the mysterious divine element contained in them. Pieper writes, “earthly contemplation means to the Christian […] that behind all the we directly encounter the Face of the incarnate Logos becomes visible” (108). Thus, we can think of earthly contemplation as a God-given faculty that allows us to “read off” of created beings the divine presence therein. Such an act is akin to the “instressing of an inscape” posited by a poet whose work Pieper knew well (and quoted in HC), Gerard Manley Hopkins (85-88). It is, in other words, our principal means in this life of seeing God. After death, however, our natural, contemplative drive can assume its more mysterious, pure form, one we can know only by analogy, namely Heavenly contemplation, a spiritual act in which our souls directly intuit God, and, in the process, come to participate in His perfect happiness and, thereby, fulfill our Godly assignment.  

From the above mode of Being, our Being-towards-God, Pieper then deduces the following two axioms about our Being’s main existential structures. The first such structure is our Being’s profound neediness. Pieper claims, “the thirst of man’s spirit for happiness reveals the inadequacy and the neediness of man as a creature far more plainly and poignantly than the needs of the body” (14). In other words, ours is a dependent or needy Being because we lack ontological self-sufficiency. Existentially, we cannot stand on our own. That is because our teleos charges our Being with a fundamental orientation towards an external object, namely, ultimate happiness. Such an orientation, or as we described it above, a vector means that, as its base, we ourselves cannot also be its endpoint (which is, of course, God). Rather, our Being requires that we look outside of ourselves, in order to satisfy our teleos, in order to be happy, and that for which we are looking, that of which we are most in need is God. The second existential structure to which Pieper turns is our Being’s essential, on-going incompleteness. In other words, our being is an open-ended, perpetually unfinished projection. As Pieper puts it, “to exist as a man means to be ‘on the way’” (17). Given the earthly impossibility of our teleos, our Being can only pursue its completion, but will never find it. Thus, in life, earthly life, we constantly seek our ultimate happiness, seek our God, but our Earthly Being is such that we never truly find either one. Existentially, we are, thus, an incomplete, fragmentary project. In that ontological sense, ours is a Being that is always “on the way” (17).

Before we turn to Section XIII of HC and Pieper’s prescription for happiness, we need to examine briefly Pieper’s ontology of God. That is because his prescription, an uncomfortable consent to the whole world, rests on Pieper’s ontological analysis of God’s unique Being. Pieper holds that, literally, “God is his happiness,” that “for God […] being and being happy are the same (29). In other words, God is happy solely in virtue of who He is, in virtue of the perfection of His Being. Thus, God’s happiness is not contingent on anything else and cannot, therefore, be shaken by the horrors in the created world, even by “the historical Gethsemane” (108). Rather, God’s happiness is “unassailable” and “indestructible” (30). Quoting from St. Thomas, Pieper states, “He enjoys himself, needing not the Creation” (30). In other words, God’s Being is such that His happiness is self-caused and, therefore, self-sufficient. For those ontological reasons, God’s Being is such that He can never be unhappy about anything, including his Creation.

That last point prepares us for the real key to earthly happiness, what Pieper calls in HC, “the consent to the world as a whole” (106). Such consent follows from our earthly contemplation of God’s presence in the world and from our belief in God, specifically, that He created the world out of His perfect love. Moreover, as perfect happiness, God’s Being is such that He must be perfectly happy with his Creation, and that means with all of his Creation. In other words, if we can accept that God’s Being is happiness, then we can fully and unconditionally embrace the world as it is—in the certain knowledge that God must be happy with His Creation. To be so is simply one aspect of His perfect Being. However, in so embracing the world, we are not committed to what Pieper calls “unrealistic idyllicism” or blind, Panglossian optimism (105). Rather, there is real evil in the world, real pain and suffering, and real sin. Pieper states, “Contemplation does not ignore the historical Gethsemane, does not ignore the mystery of evil and its bloody atonement” (108). Thus, he writes, “the happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness, but it is founded upon sorrow” (108). For that reason, Pieper insists, “the happiness of contemplation is not a comfortable happiness” (107). Rather, its sorrowful “dark night” reminds us of what “the Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila, claimed, namely “that more courage is required to lead a life of contemplation than to elect martyrdom” (107-8).

It is in this complicated concept of what we can now call an uncomfortable consent to the world, one granted “amid tears and the extremes of horror,” that we find Pieper’s most powerful conclusion in HC: a rare necessary and sufficient condition for happiness (106). For according to Pieper, we shall find true happiness if, and only if, we recognize that there is the evil in the world, especially the evil we witness, the evil we do, and the evil that is done to us—without diminishing our belief that “all is right with the world, that everything created is loved by God, that there is Eternal Life, and that happiness is aliquid divinissimum, ‘something utterly divine’” (106-7). We can do that because in the mystery of contemplation, we come to see not just the evil in front of us, but also the goodness at the mysterious core of all things, namely the presence of God. Then, and only then, do we see not just to the bad, not just to the good, but, as Pieper insists, “the whole world” and thereby find happiness. Thus, for Pieper the secret of real happiness lies not in hedonistic “feel good” physicality or in the “ego-enhancing” mantras of today’s self-help/happiness industries, but in contemplation, or rather, in a contemplative consent to the whole world, that is in the ability to see God everywhere and in the strength to embrace joyfully everything that happens, including everything that happens to us. To fail to see God’s presence in the world, to refuse to accept with serenity everything that happens, especially everything that happiness to us, is to be neither contemplative nor happy. Of course, it is also not to be Christian. For those reasons, Pieper can claim unapologetically: “contemplation is the supreme happiness of man” (106).              

Work Cited

Pieper, Josef. Happiness and Contemplation. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. St. Augustine’s Press, 1979.                  


Bill Hasselberger

Bill Hasselberger

Investment Banker + Writer

Bill Hasselberger recently lost his beloved wife of almost 35 years, Mary Dunham. Together they have 3 children. Bill has been a professor, diplomat, lobbyist, PR executive, real estate developer, financial advisor, stock broker, and investment banker. Bill has advised three Governors of Central Banks, and, with his family, has spent most of the past 30 years working in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He speaks fluent Portuguese and German, and has a PhD in Philosophy.