The Lust for Seeing: from Josef Pieper

Josef PieperThis quotation from philosopher and theologian Josef Pieper captured my attention over a year ago when I was preparing a series of messages for students on distraction and attention. Themes of distraction and attentiveness have become increasingly important to me as the information economy takes hold of our culture and shapes our lives more than we realize. I saved this quotation on my desktop for further consideration, and I continue to return to it again and again. While Pieper wrote these words just shy of eighty years ago, I feel they are just as relevant today as ever. Maybe you will agree.

There is a lust for seeing that perverts the original meaning of sight and casts a person into disorder. The meaning of sight is the perception of reality. However, the “concupiscence of the eyes” does not seek to perceive reality but rather just to see. Augustine notes that the “lust of the palate” does not attain satisfaction but only results in eating and drinking; the same holds true for curiositas (curiosity) and the “concupiscence of the eyes”. In his book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), Martin Heidegger says, “The concern of this kind of sight is not about grasping the truth and knowingly living within it but is about chances for abandoning oneself to the world.” The degradation into curiositas of the natural desire to see can thus be substantially more than a harmless confusion on the surface. It can be the sign of one’s fatal uprooting. It can signify that a person has lost the capacity to dwell in his own self; that he, fleeing from himself, disgusted and bored with the waste of an interior that is burnt out by despair, seeks in a thousand futile ways with selfish anxiety that which is accessible only to the high-minded calm of a heart disposed to self-sacrifice and thus in mastery over itself: the fullness of being. Since such a person does not truly live out of the wellspring of his being, he accordingly seeks, as again Heidegger says, in the “curiosity to which nothing is closed off”, “the security of a would-be genuine ‘living life’.”

The “concupiscence of the eyes” reaches its utmost destructive and extirpative power at the point where it has constructed for itself a world in its own image and likeness, where it has surrounded itself with the restlessness of a ceaseless film of meaningless objects for show and with a literally deafening noise of nothing more than impressions and sensations that roar in an uninterrupted chase around every window of the senses. Behind their papery façade of ostentatious lies absolute nothingness, a “world” of at most one-day constructs that often become insipid after just one-quarter of an hour and are thrown out like a newspaper that has been read or a magazine that has been paged through; a world which, before the revealing gaze of a sound spirit uninfected by its contagion, shows itself to be like a metropolitan entertainment district in the harsh clarity of a winter morning: barren, bleak, and ghostly to the point of pushing one to despair.

Still, the destructive element of this disorder, born out of and shaped by illness, is found in the fact that this disorder obstructs the original power of man to perceive reality, that it renders a person unable not only to attain his own self but also to attain reality and truth.

If, therefore, a fraudulent world of this kind threatens to overrun and conceal the world of reality, then the cultivation of the natural desire to see assumes the character of a measure of self-preservation and self-defense. And then studiositas (diligence) means especially this: that a person resists the nearly inescapable temptation to indiscipline with all the power of selfless self-protection, that he radically closes off the inner space of his life against the pressingly unruly pseudoreality of empty sights and sounds-in order that, through and only through this asceticism of perception, he might safeguard or recoup that which truly constitutes man’s living existence: to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape himself and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence.

[From Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1991), 39-41.]