Politics & Policy

Helping Us ‘Turn Around’

Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
A great master teacher discusses the pope, friendship, and why we still need Plato.

Fr. James V. Schall, S. J., a longtime, legendary Georgetown political-science professor took leave of his role only a few months before Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with his news. Fr. Schall delivered his “last lecture” — “The Final Gladness” — at Georgetown in December. He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the retiring pontiff and his teaching, what books might help save your soul, and future and final things.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is retirement? Do you feel a kinship with Pope Benedict XVI because of his transition?

FR. SCHALL: “Retirement” is a funny word, isn’t it? You “withdraw” from something, but retirement is not life, though it is a phase of life. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am about six months younger than the pope, but I announced my retirement six months before he did. Actually, I gave pretty much the same reasons he did, except the “burden” of our respective offices cannot be at all compared. When Benedict XVI talks of “retirement,”  it means very little, in a way. He is a man of mind. Mind remains the same waiting to be thought, be it that of Plato, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, or Chesterton. Few in the world have really been willing to come to terms with the reordering of mind that this man has accomplished in his long and fruitful life. It is in this reordering that the real seeds of our future lie.

LOPEZ: How do you think history will remember Pope Benedict XVI?

#ad#FR. SCHALL: It will remember him as the greatest and most learned intellect ever to occupy the Chair of Peter. No public official in our time has been anywhere near his intellectual equal. This disparity is itself the cause of much disorder, if we grant, as we must, that truth is the essence of intellect and indeed order. In reading Benedict, I have always been struck by how familiar he is not just with the Old and New Testaments (in their original languages) but with his constant referring to the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine, and the intellectual popes like Gregory the Great and Leo the Great, and also Irenaeus, Basil, Maximius, Origen, Bonaventure, and I do not know them all. He knows German philosophy well, and always cites Plato. He is at home with all the Marxist philosophers. Indeed, in Spe Salvi, he cited two of the most famous ones as witness to the logical need of a resurrection of the body. Benedict is a member of one of the French academies. No one has really begun to do his homework on what this pope has thought his way through. The media and most universities are, basically, hopeless. I suspect his final opera omni in a critical German edition will equal in length that of Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure.

LOPEZ: Why is his Jesus of Nazareth significant?

FR. SCHALL: The three volumes of this book should not put us off, either because of its length or its erudition. First, the pope wrote much of this book and published it while he was pope but, as it were, not as pope. That is, it is not an “official” document of the magisterium. What it is, rather, is an account of what the man who sits on the Chair of Peter thinks about the key question: “Just who was this Jesus of Nazareth, anyhow?” We were asked simply, about Christ: what is the evidence on which you base your acceptance of His Divinity? The book clearly and forcefully lays it out. We can take it or leave it, but not without a nagging sense that we really have not looked at the evidence.

What Benedict did was to state, in brief, his considered opinion and research. He concluded that all the evidence available to us over a 2,000-year period, including the latest scientific evidence, indicates that Jesus Christ is who He said He was. That is, He was in fact the Son of God, sent into the world by the Father for the redemption of mankind from their sins. Benedict proceeds to examine all the evidence that this position is not true. Tome after tome has been written to try to prove that Christ never existed, that He was merely a man, that He was a political fanatic, that He was a prophet, that He was a spirit, that He was almost anything but who and what He said He was. Yet, once one’s evidence is set down, it can be examined for its coherence and logic. This examination is what Benedict has done. If some evidence that makes sense can be shown to disprove the fact, well and good. But it has not been produced yet. In fact, the evidence tends in the direction that the Church has always said it did.

Thus, Jesus of Nazareth stands there before us. We may want to do our best to ignore it, as we do not like what it portends if it is true. But if it is true, and the evidence that it is seems to be there, then we can no longer simply go about our business as if something momentous did not happen. If the Word was made flesh and did dwell among us, we want to know it, and acknowledge that it does make a difference to our lives, to how we live and how we think. 

#page#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.

#ad#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.

#page#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.

LOPEZ: 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.

#ad#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.

#page#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?

#ad#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.

#page#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?

#ad#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.

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