The Human Experience is One of Pilgrimage - The "Status Viatoris" - Ch. 1 of "On Hope" by Josef Pieper

On Hope - Chapter One

In this chapter, Pieper starts off his book on hope by providing the proper background situation in which to understand the virtue. One cannot understand the purpose of hope without understanding man's existential situation. We are born from nothingness, and in a physical sense are constantly being pulled back into nothingness. This does not mean that man's life is one of despair or meaninglessness. Rather, each person is given the same pilgrim's journey to attempt. It is a journey which has a clear horizon. On the one had there is the emptiness of nothingness, but on the other is the complete fulfillment of the Absolute. Man's life should have movement towards the Absolute horizon of God. Thus, we can call the human experience the "status viatoris." We are in a state of unfulfillment and desire. This should create within us the striving for the completion of our being in God, such that at death we attain that Heavenly state of beatitude, the "status comprehensoris." 

The Status Viatoris and Status Comprehensoris

Pieper begins his treatise on hope with the concept of the "status viatoris." This is Latin for, "the one on the way" like a pilgrim on his journey. It is a state of incompleteness and striving. The opposite of this is when one reaches their completed state, the "status comprehensoris." 1 But what is one striving for? Properly speaking, everyone is ultimately striving for the fulfillment of their human nature. This is to possess beatitude with God. Thus, everyone who is still alive is on this journey (whether they know it or not). 2 "The state of being on the way is not to be understood in a primary and literal sense as a designation of place. It refers rather to the innermost structure of created nature. It is the inherent 'not yet' of the finite being." 

This "not yet" is at the same time both a negative (lack of fulfillment) and yet a positive (a striving towards it). Pieper claims that to sin is to destroy one's being, and thus return part of it to nothingness. It is to retreat back towards the nothingness from which one was created. 3 And so there are two fundamental dispositions towards the status viatoris, a movement towards the Absolute being, or toward the nothingness of hollowing out one's existence. 4 When the journey of life has reached its end, both the lack of fulfillment and striving disappear because there exists only possession. Either a possession of the good, or a radical confirmation of one's rejection of it. 

"The status viatoris comes to an end at the moment when uncertainty comes to border on certainty. This moment puts its seal not only on fulfillment, but also on nonfulfillment. Even the decision in favor of nothingness becomes definitive at this time. The state of being on the way is dissolved in either case; even 'Satan immediately lost the status viatoris by his sin.' Eternal damnation is the irrevocable fixing of the will on nothingness, just as the status comprehensoris is the confirmatio in bono, the 'fastening' of the will on the highest being. In damnation, the positive side of the status viatoris, the orientation toward fulfillment, is definitively cut off and destroyed; thus isolated, the negative side becomes an absolute value. The inner 'not yet' that once characterized the creature's nature is changed into a characteristic inner 'not'. 5

The Horizon of Man's Pilgrimage

It is precisely our earthly existence that spreads our life out in time. With the death of the body, the soul enters into a different state of timelessness and the pilgrimage ends, we are no longer on the way. Those modern philosophies that see temporality as a essential part of the human condition are mistaken in that, instead of seeing life as a pilgrimage toward a state of completion or nothingness, they reject the idea of being on the way at all. 6 "Idealism fails to recognize the nature of human existence because it 'omits' the status viatoris; existentialism fails to recognize the true nature of human existence because it denies the 'pilgrimage' character of the status viatoris, its orientation toward fulfillment beyond time, and hence, in principle, the status viatoris itself." 7 

While God exists only in his eternal completion, our being is one that can only be fully understood as the unfolding process comes to an end. Any one moment is not to understand the nature of a man, but his whole life reveals the true nature. 8 Now existentialists like Heidegger would argue that man comes from nothingness and is thus ordered back to it. But Pieper rejects this, though we have come from nothingness, we are fundamentally something. We are held in being and oriented towards the ultimate being of God. "Despite every possibility of falling into nothingness, the proper orientation of the 'way' is toward being - to such an extent that, to be possible, even the decision in favor of nothingness would have to wear the mask of a decision for being." 9 

Man can then be described as the "homo viator," the "journeying man," who exists in front of a horizon. This horizon is a gradation from nothingness to absoluteness, and man's life is to exist in the middle. It is to choose which direction of the horizon to pursue, to move towards being itself, or towards nothingness again. Thus, man is neither called to a disposition of despair, as though he were hopeless, nor is he called to a presumption, as though he were finished in his work. Rather, man's proper disposition in the pilgrim's journey is that of hope. 10 To hope is to have the proper understanding of oneself on the human journey, in the human experience, faced with the fact of his existence. The hope is the possibility of the striving towards the Absolute. "The virtue of hope is preeminently the virtue of the status viatoris; it is the proper virtue of the 'not yet'. In the virtue of hope more than in any other, man understands and affirms that he is a creature, that he had been created by God." 11


1 - Pieper, Josef. On Hope. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, date). 11.

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