Josef Pieper is truly one of the most wonderful (i.e., actually filled-with-wonder) philosophers of the twentieth century. Just when I thought that I had read most of his works, I discovered that he wrote a book entitled Death and Immortality. A huge thanks to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and publishing Pieper’s works and I especially look forward to reading the recently published parts two and three of Pieper’s three-part autobiography.
Today I want to share with you a marvelous section on Rembrandt in “The Vocabulary of Death” chapter of Pieper’s Death and Immortality book.
George Simmel, in his book on Rembrandt published in 1917, made the acute and instantly persuasive remark that Rembrandt’s great portraits represent people who already carry death within themselves as a character indelebilis of life. It is written on their faces that they will die, he says, whereas a good many of the portraits of Italian Renaissance painting suggest the deceptive idea that these people can be laid low only by violence, by the stroke of a dagger, say, or by poison. I would say that each of these two aspects contain one part of reality; but each also needs to be balanced by the other; neither one is right in itself. On the one hand, “natural death”, death purely from old age, is a rare occurrence (one in a hundred thousand cases, say the statisticians). But on the other hand, even in violent “non-natural” death, whose cause may be an accident, an infection, a proliferation of cells, or a crime – even then the death takes place simultaneously from within, as the result of life, as the last step of a way initiated at birth, as an act of the dying person himself. Evidently the fatal wound from which the lifeblood ebbs is not identical with dying. And even in suicide two entirely different things take place. One is firing the bullet into the temple, the drinking of poison, the leap from the bridge; the other is dying itself. And in that dying there is not only a blow from outside, but at the same time an action, an act proceeding from the personal center and terminating life from within, an act by which the life attains to the result intended from the start.
What an extraordinary discussion! Pieper goes on to explore how, seeing that we will one day die, we cannot evade the way in which our death will “take place from within.”
Death, then, is not something that happens to us, but in us.
It is a profound and existential matter of a person’s interiority and it is for this reason that Pieper begins his book by addressing death as “an especially philosophical subject.”
I am excited to continue reading this book and I’m sure it will provide more inspiration for future posts.