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

Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.


Christianity added the notion that all men, whatever their worldly condition, even that of slavery, could reach the highest things through belief and works. In a sense, this is but a perfection of the Greek notion. So when we say that we are “unserious,” this is a compliment if understood correctly. We tend to say that something “useless” or “unserious” is not worth much. But in another way, the best thing about us is that we are “useless” or “unserious” — that is we need not exist, but we do. And we exist to discover precisely what is serious, which is not ourselves or our works, but God.

: In your
Another Sort of Learning, you write that: “Anyone with some diligence and some good fortune can find his way to the highest things.” How?

FR. SCHALL: This book arose out of an experience of my own as a young man in the Army. I was 18 years old, had done a semester in college, and had time on my hands in the barracks. I recall going into the post library one day looking over the stacks of books, only suddenly to realize that I did not know what to read. In later years, I became aware that it was quite possible to go to college, even have a doctorate, and still have read nothing of real transcendent significance.

So, I began to make lists of books, not just any books, but those that, as I like to put it, “tell the truth,” those that “turn us around.” Initially, these are not the so-called classics. As Leo Strauss said, the great writers contradict each other; reading great books is more likely to produce skeptics. So the book is a guide through books that have this effect on us. We can be overwhelmed by erudition or scholarship, but it all may be dubious unless we have some kind of sense, of metaphysics, that enables us to judge reality. Often the beginnings of wisdom are made too complicated. Yet, I think every mind is capable of knowing, and knowing the truth. Every person must find a guide that takes him to the truth. These guides may not live in our lifetime. The trouble with most young men and women is that that they do not know where to turn to straighten their minds out about reality. The first step is the Platonic step, that one that causes us to turn around and wonder about something we never encountered before.

LOPEZ: Why is friendship so important?

FR. SCHALL: In practice, for most of us, its presence in our lives comes close to defining our happiness or lack of it. This is the great theme we find already in Plato and Aristotle. Indeed it is doubtful if anyone has explained to us what friendship is better than these two have. All else is a commentary on them or an explanation of the same experience they explained. In one sense, friendship is what college life is about — understanding what it is, what it means to betray it, what it means ultimately. It is the greatest of our external goods.

Yet, we must be worthy of it. A culture of self-sufficiency makes friendship almost impossible if it is combined with a theory of relativism and denial of virtue. The study of friendship is also the topic that takes us to the highest things more quickly than anything else. Aristotle wondered if God was lonely, as he did not seem to have any friends. When Christian revelation came to address this topic, we are astonished to read that Christ says to His apostles “I no longer call you servants but friends.” Behind this affirmation stands the Trinity, the teaching of the inner life of the Godhead as containing an otherness that makes it both social and sufficient to itself in a manner that it does not “need” the world. In fact, that is precisely the reason the world itself is not necessary, but the product of a gift and freedom.

LOPEZ: Leaving out the Bible, what is the book that everyone needs to read?

FR. SCHALL: You ask easy questions! Not everyone would list the Bible. I have a new book coming out called Reading Belloc. I love the story that someone told me. Belloc, in his old age, there in Kings Land in Sussex, read but three books: P. G. Wodehouse, The Diary of a Nobody, and his own works. Yet, I do think that some books are more important than others, provided that, in another sense, my doubt about whether there is such a thing as an “unimportant” book is not forgotten. I am used to giving short lists of books. In talking to a student or someone by chance, you realize that he has not really read anything important in the sense of bringing him out of himself. Books that do this best, I think, and there are others, are Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and, of course, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante. Most folks need some help to begin these things. C. S. Lewis is always a good place to begin. Yet, if you ask me tomorrow, I will have some others.