The philosopher admired by Pope John and TS Eliot

Essen, the place of Josef Pieper's home university (Wikimedia)

Interesting lives are generally not to be expected of philosophers. But Josef Pieper, who died 20 years ago this November, was an exception. He lived a life across four continents, among persons of great fame and those of none, that is as exciting and instructive as any of the academic books with which his name was made.

This second volume of Pieper’s autobiography begins with the moments immediately after World War II. Pieper is returning from his wartime captivity to his home in Germany, not yet knowing whether his house has survived. The years described – from 1945 to 1964 – contain nearly the whole of Pieper’s academic career, beginning with his efforts to finish a PhD in the ruins of his home city.

His colloquium lecture in front of the faculty was on the concept of truth in Heidegger, whose definition of truth – “the language of truth is freedom” – provoked in our author the response: “What kind of ‘definition’ is that, in which the definition is less known and clear than what is being defined?”

He spent the majority of his career in what his colleagues viewed as unimportant teaching roles, and seems to decline a new invitation to become chair of philosophy at this or that prestigious university on every other page. When Pieper was first invited to teach at Notre Dame in the United States, he attempted to explain that he had not yet reached his desired familiarity with the language – the young professor sent to interview him reported that he was “very nice”, but “knows no English”.

Still, Pieper’s fame continually grew, and to his delight he found sympathetic readers across Europe, Asia and the Americas, among them Pope John XXIII, who was reportedly a fan of Pieper’s book on the theological virtues.

TS Eliot, whom Pieper admired, gave the English name to Pieper’s most famous book, on whose substance the two men were in complete agreement: Leisure, the Basis of Culture.

His constant travels, justified when possible by lectures at foreign universities (nearly all about St Thomas), brought Pieper into contact with an enormous cast of eminent characters: lecture invitations from Horkheimer and Adorno; friendships with Cardinal Hermann Volk and Cardinal Jean Daniélou; and, in response to one of his lectures on holy martyrs, the ire of Teilhard de Chardin.

Pieper’s most enduring work is undoubtedly the pair of essays that comprise the book Leisure. Though he died only 20 years ago, his other works have fallen into undeserved obscurity. A follower of St Thomas who, he claimed, had little use for “Thomists”, his books are distinguished by their accessibility, brevity and lack of academic jargon. He would compress his manuscripts by more than half after their first writing.

His abiding influence, as TS Eliot saw it, would be “the direction of restoring philosophy to a place of importance for every educated person who thinks, instead of confining it to esoteric activities which can affect the public only indirectly, insidiously and often in a distorted form”.

In the midst of his increasingly adventurous life, Pieper continued to teach at his home university in Essen, and to lecture during his frequent and wide-ranging travels. One of the most memorable was to India, where he missed the chance to meet a certain “southern Slavonic nun” in Calcutta who had set up a hospital for the dying, and whose careful attention to patients with even the most horrific illnesses was already a thing of fame. Pieper called 1963 the “year of the dead”. It included the loss of his publisher Kurt Wolff, John F Kennedy, John XXIII and, finally, of his son Thomas, who collapsed with a brain haemorrhage that began suddenly during a hiking trip in Seattle. A friend of the boy called just afterwards, distraught, to tell the parents that their son had begun attending Mass again that Easter, and had been receiving the sacraments, from which he had long been away. Here the book ends, in the summer of 1964: “Meanwhile the world continued on its course. Which course? – no one knew.”

Pieper’s life is related to the reader not in the order that it happened, but in the order that memory makes sense of it. The whole book is overshadowed by the death of his son. And so we begin to understand the sort of man that Pieper was: clever, witty, modest, but aware of his gifts, a man who experienced great sorrow, seemingly impervious to fame or grandeur, and to his colleagues, aggravatingly unenthusiastic about the normally strict path of academic succession.

His view of life seldom changed. He did not shrink from debate and even relished it, without ever losing his posture of charity towards his opponents. Pieper lived in the same plain, direct way that he wrote and, in life as in his writing, his great and irresistible charm was, by doing many things simply, doing them well.

William Borman writes from New York