The Historical Road of Philosophy’s Suicide

Here’s a lengthy quotation from Josef’s Pieper’s essay “The Philosophical Act,” which is one of the two essays in his book Leisure, The Basis of Culture:

This assault upon philosophy’s theoretical character is the historical road of philosophy’s suicide. And that assault arises from the world’s being seen more and more as mere raw material for human activity. Once the world is no longer regarded as Creation, there cannot be ‘theoria’ in the full meaning of the word. The loss of ‘theoria’ means eo ipso the loss of the freedom of philosophy: philosophy then becomes a function within society, solely practical, and it must of course justify its existence and role among the functions of society; and finally, in spite of its name, it appears as a form of work or even of ‘labour.’ Whereas my thesis…is that the essence of ‘philosophizing’ is that it transcends the world of work. It is a thesis which comprehends the assertion of the theoretical character of philosophy and its freedom; it does not, of course, in any way deny or ignore the world of work (indeed it assumes its prior and necessary existence), but it does affirm that a real philosophy is grounded in belief, that man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature,’ but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capax universi [capable of understanding the whole of reality]. (81-82)

The same is true, I think, of all the liberal arts. Any attempt to justify the artes liberales on the basis of a utilitarian end—an end not contained within themselves—goes against their nature, and is an attempt to place them within the “world of total work,” that is, to make them artes serviles. Interestingly, Pieper thinks that we only feel the need to give such a justification when we view the world as “mere raw material for human activity” rather than as creation (81). The “historical road of philosophy’s suicide” is a road paved by a change in our social imaginary, and it leads to sophistry.

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