The time was 1941, the war then raging across Europe had entered its third terrible year, and a young Catholic philosopher by the name of Josef Pieper had just brought out a book, a lovely little thing of less than sixty pages, called A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. Amazingly enough, it survived the Nazi censors, who seemed determined on suppressing anything even remotely hostile to the Third Reich. Was it the thinness of the volume that allowed it to escape the book burners? We’ll never know. But its relentless insistence upon goodness as the norm of reality, and that whoever wishes “to know and do the good must direct his gaze toward the objective world of being,” could scarcely have been more subversive of the ideology of the Reich, which was at that moment busily engaged in tyrannizing half the world.
“The luminous domain of free human action,” he announced on page one, was the subject he had in mind. Within that hallowed setting, he declared, the life of the human being annealed to the good would find its natural footing. “Virtue,” he told us—on which the happy outcome of the human enterprise crucially depends—“is the utmost of what a man can be; it is the realization of the human capacity for being.”
Nowhere was that realization in greater or more immediate need than in those nations overrun by the armies of Adolph Hitler; whose depredations threatened not just the peace of Europe, but the survival of all that was good and decent in the civilization of the West. Certainly by 1941, everyone knew that. Knew also that here was an evil against which great courage would be required. And what is courage but the form that every virtue must take at the point of testing. In a fallen world, in which both the weak and the wicked predominate, being brave is not an option. And Pieper clearly understood the total context in which the embattled soul needs to awaken to the urgency of giving it expression. “Fortitude,” he explains, “presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous.”
Yes, even in the face of death it is possible to demonstrate real courage. In fact, the least of the wounds inflicted by life in a fallen and broken world remind us of death, prefiguring a presence that is never distant. Even the merest scratch serves as an intimation, a hint of that final and ineluctable fall into dissolution. “Thus every brave deed,” he tells us, “draws sustenance from preparedness for death as from its deepest roots…. A fortitude that does not extend to the depth of readiness to fall is rotten in its root and lacking in effective power.”
Of course, as Pieper is quick to point out, there can be no true value in being brave unless the reason that summons us to show courage is a just and prudent one. That is because all virtue is of a piece and thus one cannot evince examples of this or that virtue of the human heart without implicating all the others. How can the domain of human action remain both free and luminous if the heart is divided, torn to pieces by its own devices and desires? While we may be forced to suffer any number of assaults from without, there can be no merit in a misery arising from a heart willfully rent from within.
Nor would any courageous man want to suffer merely for the sake of having suffered. Pleasuring oneself with pain? There is nothing good to be gained from that. “The courageous person,” he flatly tells us, “is not willing to sustain a wound for its own sake.” What that means, therefore, is that the brave man is never without fear. Nor is he to be reproached when fear comes his way; fear, after all, is not a state of sin of which we need feel ashamed. Complete fearlessness, in fact, points to a level of insensibility that is hardly human. Instead, the truly brave man will try and master his fear, which he endeavors to overcome for the sake of something—or someone—greater. And for that he is prepared not only to acknowledge the threat posed by death, but to go forward to meet it with a strong and steadfast will—almost as if he were to go forth unto death in search of an old and trusted friend.
However, it is only when the courage needed to do the good takes place in the apparent absence of any prospect of security or success that real courage is shown. “Whoever in such a situation of unqualified seriousness,” comments Pieper,
in the face of which any glorious soldier falls mute and every heroic gesture becomes crippled, nonetheless advances toward the horror and does not allow himself to be prevented from doing the good, specifically for the sake of the good and thus finally for the sake of God, not out of ambition or out of fear of being taken for a coward: that person is truly courageous.
Examples of those who, despite every horror, stand tall in the saddle, holding aloft the flag of honor and courage, riding with brave resolution into the furnace of death, are obviously not the stuff of which mediocrity is made. (The mediocre, as some wag once put it, are always at their best.) But they will very often appear quite ordinary to others. Until, that is, circumstance compels them to give way and, athwart the expectations of those others, they simply refuse. The young Austrian farmer, Franz Jagerstatter, for instance, whose opposition to German annexation of his country quite baffled everyone in his village, where his was the only vote against an Anschluss that all of Austria appeared to welcome. And while the nation would come bitterly to regret the terms of unification (like a handshake with the hound of hell), at the time Jagerstatter’s refusal greatly annoyed his neighbors. Even more so would his refusal to serve in the Army—concerning which, however, he was not unmindful of the consequences. “Everyone tells me, of course, that I should not do what I am doing because of the danger of death. I believe it is better to sacrifice one’s life right away than to place oneself in the grave danger of committing sin and then dying”
Is it possible that he had read Josef Pieper’s book? Especially the passage where, taking note of “the fundamental capacity of the moral person,” Pieper extols the courage of one who is actually willing “to hearken in silence to the call of the real and out of this recollected silence within oneself to make the decision appropriate to the concrete situation of concrete action.” Like a young man’s refusal to become complicit in an unjust war just because it is being waged beneath the banner of one’s own flag. As someone once wisely put it, there can be no flag large enough to cover the infamy of killing innocent people.
Young Franz Jagerstatter would pay dearly for his principles. The instant it became clear that he would not allow himself to be conscripted to fight a war he knew to be wicked, he was arrested and sent to prison where, on August 9, 1943, he was guillotined, thus consummating his witness to the good. His heroism, unlike so much of a life lost in obscurity, did not go unnoticed either. The chaplain who ministered to him in the last days and weeks of his life, Fr. Jochmann, was so moved by his holiness and courage that he declared: “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime”
A final, triumphant vindication would come, some sixty or so years later when, in 2007, Pope Benedict declared him to be among the Blessed in heaven. Someone, in other words, whose life of virtue we are encouraged to imitate and so, like the saints and martyrs who light up the night sky, we become the very “utmost of what a man can be … the realization of the human capacity for being.”