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: “For many of us, we no longer have a vocation or sense of reality that enables us by our devotion or mediation to transcend how our politics defines us,” you wrote in Another Sort of Learning. Has that only gotten worse?

FR. SCHALL: I had forgotten that sentence. But certainly it has gotten worse. This is because the political order is no longer limited to politics. With the rejection of revelation and natural law, all that is really left is politics, or, as Charles N. R. McCoy used to put it, a “substitute metaphysics.” It is an elevation of mindless action to the center of human life. Human action is a noble thing, as Hannah Arendt said in her great book, but it cannot replace the order of leisure. This is why we have to escape from the inbuilt philosophical assumptions that are present in the culture itself, as Tracey Rowland put it. I have always been impressed with a comment that Eric Voegelin made in Montreal in 1976 to the effect that “no one needs to participate in the aberrations of his time.” Solzhenitzyn found in the Gulag itself a final freedom where they could no longer take anything away from him — namely his real freedom to state the truth. But they could still kill him. That is still why the deaths of Socrates and Christ stand at the heart of political philosophy. The state can take, and the democratic state seems more and more inclined to take, the direction of killing Socrates and Christ, killing anything that stands in the way of its imposing its own order on the souls of men, men too often willing to let it happen.

LOPEZ: How can we do the work of telling the truth and waking the world up, in a world that isn’t always sure that there even is such a thing as truth?

FR. SCHALL: My initial answer is: “Read Plato!” The next is: “Read Aristotle!” We have not transcended Plato and Aristotle. In fact, what we have done is carry out in our lives the trends and aberrations that they described. The best description of the American polity today, at its core, is found in the Politics of Aristotle and the Republic of Plato when they tell us the sequence of disorder or deviations from the good. As I read them, we follow almost exactly what they saw because they understood the principles at work in a human soul that, one step at a time, rejects the good.

But I am a follower of Socrates. The reform of all social life begins in the soul of one person, and then another. This is why great things always begin in small, out-of-the-way places. The picture of our society is not pretty. But if we hold to the Socratic principle that no harm can come to a good man, and that we realize that death is not the worst evil, then we shall rest content and “all will be well.”

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.