Near the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Captain Wentworth realizes how foolish he has been and how little deserving he is of Anne Elliot’s love. It is a painful realization:
“I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added with a smile, “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.”
This is the heart of Pieper’s second chapter. “Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.”
According to Pieper, the philosophers of Greece and the Middle Ages saw knowledge as two elements that work together: ratio, and intellectus. Ratio, the Reason, is active. It searches and examines, defines and draws conclusions. Reason is hard work. But intellectus is passive. It is contemplative and meditative. “Intuition” seems to be the English word that is closest to its meaning. There is a strong element of grace in human knowledge, since the intellectus is, according Aquinas, “not really human but superhuman.”
But modern philosophy has come down to us through Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who held that “knowing and philosophizing… must be regarded and understood as work,” since for Kant, knowledge “is realized in the act of comparing, examining, relating, distinguishing, abstracting, deducing, demonstrating – all of which are forms of active intellectual effort.” In this view, knowledge is Herculean labor, therefore:
[I]f to know is to work, then knowledge is the fruit of our own unaided effort and activity; then knowledge includes nothing which is not due to the effort of man, and there is nothing gratuitous about it, nothing ‘in-spired’, nothing ‘given’ about it.
Kant’s idea is that the effort involved in philosophizing was its justification, and intellectual contemplation, intellectus, is worthless because it is effortless. Pieper says this leads to the idea that the effort of acquiring knowledge is a reasonable assurance of the truth of that knowledge.
And here, in turn, we are not so very far from the ethical notion that everything man does naturally and without effort is a falsification of true morality – for what we do by nature is done without effort.
Even moral good is judged by the standard of effort: “the more difficult a thing, the higher it is in the order of goodness.” But, to quote Aquinas, “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult,” or, as Pieper says, “The highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness – because it springs from love.”
This is not to deny the importance of hard work in acquiring knowledge or in pursuing virtue.
The highest forms of knowledge… may well be preceded by a great effort of thought…; but in any case, the effort is the cause; it is not the condition. It is equally true that the effects so effortlessly produced by love presuppose no doubt an heroic moral struggle of the will. But the decisive thing is that virtue means the realization of the good; it may imply a previous moral effort, but it cannot be equated with moral effort.
Think of our faith, how rooted it is in Grace. “In the beginning,” says Pieper, “there is always a gift.”