LEARNING HOW TO SEE AGAIN
By Josef Pieper (translated by Lothar Krauk)
from Only The Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation
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
the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality
as it truly is.
To be sure, no human being has ever really seen
everything that lies visibly in front of his eyes.
The world, including its tangible side, is unfathomable.
Who. would ever have perfectly perceived
the countless shapes and shades of just one
wave swelling and ebbing in the ocean! And yet,
there are degrees of perception. Going below a
certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger
the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems
that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom
I am writing this on my return from Canada,
aboard a ship sailing from New York to Rotterdam.
Most of the other passengers have spent
quite some time in the United States, many for
one reason only: to visit and see the New World
with their own eyes. With their own eyes: in this lies
During the various conversations on deck and
at the dinner table I am always amazed at hearing
almost without exception rather generalized statements
and pronouncements that are plainly the
common fare of travel guides. It turns out that
hardly anybody has noticed those frequent small
signs in the streets of New York that indicate
public fallout shelters. And visiting New York
University, who would have noticed those stonehewn
chess tables in front of it, placed in Washington
Square by a caring city administration for
the Italian chess enthusiasts of that area?!
Or again, at table I had mentioned those magnificent
fluorescent sea creatures whirled up to the
surface by the hundreds in our ship’s bow wake.
The next day it was casually mentioned that “last
night there was nothing to be seen”. Indeed, for
nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to
the darkness. To repeat, then: man’s ability to see
is in decline.
Searching for the reasons, we could point to
various things: modern man’s restlessness and
stress, quite sufficiently denounced by now, or his
total absorption and enslavement by practical
goals and purposes. Yet one reason must not be
overlooked either: the average person of our time
loses the ability to see because there is too much to
There does exist something like “visual noise”,
which just like the acoustical counterpart, makes
clear perception impossible. One might perhaps
presume that TV watchers, tabloid readers, and
movie goers exercise and sharpen their eyes. But
the opposite is true. The ancient sages knew exactly
why they called the “concupiscence of the
eyes” a “destroyer”. The restoration of man’s inner
eyes can hardly be expected in this day and
age-unless, first of all, one were willing and determined
simply to exclude from one’s realm of
life all those inane and contrived but titillating illusions
incessantly generated by the entertainment
You may argue, perhaps: true, our capacity to
see has diminished, but such loss is merely the
price all higher cultures have to pay. We have lost,
no doubt, the American Indian’s keen sense of
smell, but we also no longer need it since we have
binoculars, compass, and radar. Let me repeat: in
this obviously continuing process there exists a
limit below which human nature itself is threatened,
and the very integrity of human existence is
directly endangered. Therefore, such ultimate
danger can no longer be averted with technology
alone. At stake here is this: How can man be saved
from becoming a totally passive consumer of
mass-produced goods and a subservient follower
beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim?
The question really is: How can man preserve
and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual
dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality?
The capacity to perceive the visible world
“with our own eyes” is indeed an essential constituent
of human nature. We are talking here about
man’s essential inner richness-or, should the
threat prevail, man’s most abject inner poverty.
And why so? To see things is the first step toward
that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality,
which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual
I am well aware that there are realities we can
come to know through “hearing” alone. All the
same, it remains a fact that only through seeing,
indeed through seeing with our own eyes, is our
inner autonomy established. Those no longer able
to see reality with their own eyes are equally unable
to hear correctly. It is specifically the man
thus impoverished who inevitably falls prey to the
demagogical spells of any powers that be. “Inevitably”,
because such a person is utterly deprived
even of the potential to keep a critical distance
(and here we recognize the direct political relevance
of our topic).
The diagnosis is indispensable yet only a first
step. What, then, may be proposed; what can be
We already mentioned simple abstention, a regimen
of fasting and abstinence, by which we
would try to keep the visual noise of daily inanities
at a distance. Such an approach seems to me
indeed an indispensable first step but, all the same,
no more than the removal, say, of a roadblock.
A better and more immediately effective remedy
is this: to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing
shapes and forms for the eye to see.
Nobody has to observe and study the visible
mystery of a human face more than the one who
sets out to sculpt it in a tangible medium. And this
holds true not only for a manually formed image.
The verbal “image” as well can thrive only when
it springs from a higher level of visual perception.
We sense the intensity of observation required
simply to say, “The girl’s eyes were gleaming like
wet currants” (Tolstoy).
Before you can express anything in tangible
form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt,
therefore, to create an artistic form compels
the artist to take a fresh look at the visible
reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.
Long before a creation is completed, the artO
ist has gained for himself another and more intimate
achievement: a deeper and more receptive
vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and
more discerning understanding, a more patient
openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous,
an eye for things previously overlooked. In short:
the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the
abundant wealth of all visible reality, and, thus
challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity
to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly
rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.