Helping Us ‘Turn Around’
A great master teacher discusses the pope, friendship, and why we still need Plato.

Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.


LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say, as you did in a recent reflection on Pope Benedict that “we are about producing a death, life, hell, and purgatory in this world considerably worse than the worst descriptions of the four last things?” In what way do we do such things?

FR. SCHALL: This is but a summary of the pope’s greatest encyclical, Spe Salvi, and also of his book Death and Eternal Life, among a thousand other works. I have tried to spell it out in my book The Modern Age. Basically, the modern world is an attempt to achieve what are in effect Christian purposes, but it attempts this by rejecting the means of reason and grace that are in fact necessary to achieve them. We now propose an inner-worldly immortality as a goal of science. This is what is behind many of the efforts to lengthen human life. We want to “save the earth” so that we can live on it as long as possible. We end up with a new hell on earth. We postpone death and deny birth. Death is both a liberation and a punishment. If we never die, we are condemned to a useless, ongoing life in this world that is meaningless. The reason we do this is that we deny our transcendent purpose. Once we do that, we have to reinvent ourselves.

This is what has happened in the modern era. One ideology or movement or explanation followed logically from the previous one when it proved untenable. We make past generations to be tools of some utopian vision down the ages in which none of us will appear. But if we understand that each of us is himself created with a personal destiny to live with God, if we choose, we see the world put back in a place of order where it is in effect an arena wherein this ultimate choice for each one of us is played out. We do such things because logically we must, once we insist that there is no transcendent order or that our actions are themselves not judged according to a standard that we do not ourselves create. Our hearts become doubly “restless,” to use Augustine’s term, when we have only ourselves in the cosmos. It is a despair, not a hope.

LOPEZ: Is most of what we occupy ourselves with as a culture unserious?

FR. SCHALL: You refer to the title of my book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. This title comes from Plato who said in his Laws that there is only one “serious” thing in the universe, and that is God or the Good. All else by comparison is “unserious.” That does not mean it is nothing, only that it is not the most important thing about us or the cosmos.

Likewise, your question refers to the classical notion of leisure, to the question, as I like to ask it: “What do we ‘do’ when all else is done?” As Pieper pointed out in his famous book, the Greek word for leisure, skole, is the origin of our word for school. The denial of leisure becomes the classical word for “business,” both in Greek and Latin. Thus, the time we devote to keeping alive, to making a living, while necessary and important, is not primarily time for its own sake.” This latter time is the time beyond business. It is in this latter time that we should be “free” to think of the highest things. Not to have such time is to be a kind of slave to this world.