“Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean here the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.”
Josef Pieper, “Learning How to See Again,” in Only the Lover Sings


There are of course different ways in which we humans see. While Pieper refers here to a ‘spiritual capacity,’ he still means the seeing we do with our eyes. Later he will assert that such seeing is the first step toward the mental or rational ‘seeing’ that most characterizes us as human.

We need to be concerned about the power of sight. The ‘physiological’ aspect of human seeing is not the point of concern; such would be addressed by nutrition, or glasses, or other things pertaining to the medical art.

At issue here is how much we really see in our field of vision. Consider the difference between two men looking at the same outdoor scene. One man might see—or we can say ‘perceive’ or ‘notice’—much more than the other; and this regardless of which one needs glasses or not!

Much goes into our ability to see, even just on the animal or sensory level. For instance, experience of looking with attention brings about a store of remembered images as well as a habit of noticing, both of which heighten our ability to see. On the other hand, Pieper remarks, “There does exist something like visual noise, which just like the acoustical counterpart, makes clear perception impossible.”

What makes for better seeing, and what works against it, are well worth our closer examination.

Such is the beauty and the challenge of being a rational animal. We must concern ourselves with sensory and sensible realities, as essential to the highest aspects of human life.

In the next two weeks we will look at two practical suggestions Pieper offers: the first is a negative discipline, of avoiding ‘visual noise,’ and the second is a positive discipline to develop our visual powers.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Many of his works have been translated into English and are still in print, including Leisure the Basis of Culture, Happiness and Contemplation, A Theory of Festivity, and The Four Cardinal Virtues, to name a few.


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