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: Should we read the Bible? How should we read the Bible?

FR. SCHALL: An advantage of being a priest is that reading some small selection of the Bible is part of his everyday routine. It is amazing how one can read it again and again and always find something that he did not see before. This is true of Plato also, of course. Indeed, reading Plato is not a bad way to learn to read the Bible. Basically, we read the Bible to know what it teaches and says. We also read it to learn how to know and worship God. The Bible is a book addressed to our souls. It is not just a tract or treatise but an account of God’s teaching us what we need to know. Part of what it teaches us we could figure out by ourselves, if we are lucky. But most of it is what we could not know by our own powers. Yet, it is clearly the answer for many of the most basic questions that we have about life: why do I exist? What is my destiny? Why do we suffer? What is the purpose of existence? What about death and sin? Can we be forgiven? How ought I to live?

LOPEZ: Why are you not an advocate of the Great Books?

FR. SCHALL: As Msgr. Sokolowski of your Catholic University says, the first step in philosophy is to make “distinctions.” We should read books, great and otherwise. The so-called Great Books programs have received much attention and controversy over the question “What makes a book great?” The Great Books programs, as I understand them, grew out of a rejection of firsthand philosophical study and examination. Philosophy was replaced by the history of philosophy. They are not the same thing, though there is absolutely nothing wrong with knowing what a famous great book contains, even if you think it idiotic or dangerous.

If you simply read through the ten or 20 “great books,” chances are you will end up a skeptic. The Great Books, as Strauss said, contradict each other. One of course must make a coherent effort to see how ideas relate to each other in different thinkers. This “seeing” is why Gilson’s Unity of Philosophic Experience or David Walsh’s Modern Philosophical Revolution are important. But unless we have some sense that we can philosophize, and that philosophizing is not just tossing off our own nutty opinions about whatever comes into our heads, we will not be able properly to see why many of the Great Books are great, because, as Strauss also said, they contain “brilliant errors.” It takes some original philosophizing to know why and how an error can be “brilliant.”

LOPEZ: You had websites long before the pope started tweeting. Do you worry about the attention spans of your students? Are we ruining our minds and our ability to think and to write?

FR. SCHALL: I do not worry so much about the attention spans of my students as about my own! My basic view of students is that they are always 20 years old when I see them. They can usually read and write and use all known electronic devices that do everything from taking photos to looking up baseball statistics to popping corn. The era of not knowing facts is over. Half the fun of life is gone.

But seriously (or un-seriously, as the case may be), it has been my experience that if you know and give good books to students, if you read along with them, if you are alert to the wonder in them, their minds will become alert. They will “turn around,” to use Plato’s phrase. This is almost the only transcendent task of a college professor. He cannot “make” a student read. He can require; he can cajole; he can humor; he can urge; but ultimately it must come from within the student himself. He must wake up one morning and say to himself: “I want to know that.” When that happens, the professor’s task is basically over. From then on, his relation with his students is a pleasure. And as Aristotle said, we must, at the risk of missing it all, experience the pleasures of simply thinking for its own sake, because what we now know is true and we know it.

LOPEZ: Is there anything more that you wish that you could have included in your “last lecture”?

FR. SCHALL: I asked one of my former students, a perceptive young lady, how long this lecture should be. She responded: “If it is anything longer than forty-five minutes, it had better be a barn-burner.” That was good advice. The problem with most lectures and lecturers is that they are too long, not too short. Just what is exactly right is a question of prudence and insight. Students who have had me in several classes over the years know what I have to say. When one comes to his last class, he hopes that he has done what a professor should do — namely, take them to what is true, to what makes sense, to what is, as I like to put it.