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Catholic Review of: The Concept of Sin

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Author:  Josef Pieper

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This item received 5 stars overall. (09/16/2009)

Orthodoxy: Completely orthodox.
Reading Level: Advanced

 Tiber RiverBy Tiber River (CO) - See all my reviews


Shocking Claims About Sin that Reveal Subtle Truths

Evaluator Comments

In A Nutshell

In The Concept of Sin, Josef Pieper argues that sin permeates man's self-knowledge and for this reason, its consideration has a place in philosophical inquiry. Pieper cites philosophers Nicholi Hartmann, Martin Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who see no place for sin in philosophical ethics as the concept necessarily recognizes a divine command, which notion pertains to faith and not to human reason. Pieper concedes this point, but manifests the irony of his opponents' argument; namely, that the assertion "philosophical ethics is entirely oriented to affairs of this world below" is on its own terms a dogmatic statement of faith ascertained, not by human reason, but by a desire to drive sin out of philosophy precisely because of its theological character as "a matter of faith." Since no one can discuss sin without presuppositions derived outside the realm of human reason, Pieper presents in The Concept of Sin a clearly formulated philosophical consideration of sin that openly declares his presuppositions at the outset. In this unique work, Pieper explores the nature of sin, its effects within the soul, and the need for repentance. 


The Concept of Sin operates under two fundamental presuppositions. Pieper lays hese out in the first chapter. First, it is presupposed that there is a believed truth beyond the realm of known truth. Secondly, that a philosophical questioner, from the light of that divine truth, may be better able to understand moral failure.
Next, Pieper sets out to define his subject. He highlights the etymological history of the concept of sin and considers its classical usage. Then, with insights from such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, and Plato, Pieper lays out the distinctive character and qualities of sin.

In the following chapters Pieper considers the nature and qualities of sin more carefully. He discusses how every sin is contrary to nature, contrary to human reason, and an offense against God. Then, drawing from the works of both ancient and modern thinkers, Pieper wonderfully manifests the paradox of sin, its origins, and its effect within the soul. All the while, Pieper answers both actual and possible objections.

As is often the case with an exposition of paradox, Pieper makes several claims that shock at first, but reveal subtle and important truths as the reader considers them. For example, Pieper quotes St. Thomas to support an argument, "Evil deeds are good and from God, insofar as we are speaking about what pertains to being" (pg. 59).

The book concludes with a consideration of the stain of sin and stops just short of the theological answer to the problem of sin.


Edward T. Oakes, S.J., translated The Concept of Sin from the German. In his preface, Oakes explains some of his difficulties translating the work: "[Pieper] exploits a feature of German academic style to the full that could never be literally transferred to English" (pg. ix). The book is rather complex at times, but as it is an academic work it is difficult to determine what confusion, if any, arises from translation.

Pieper's writing is academic in that he quotes other thinkers extensively and assumes the reader has familiarity with basic philosophical ideas and expression. As an academic piece of writing, however, The Concept of Sin is more casual than most, and almost personal. The idea of the work is itself unconventional and Pieper approaches it with openness and honesty.

Evaluator Comments

This book is suitable to the Catholic reader.   You can purchase this title here.

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