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Not long ago, I was sent a review copy of the Bodley Head-Ignatius Press collection, A Chesterton Anthology. [1] The first thing I read in the wonderful book was a 1910 Chesterton essay entitled "What Is Right with the World?" some of which I read aloud in a medieval theory class I was teaching at the time. The passage I read began, "It is at the beginning that things are good, and not (as the more pallid progressives say) only at the end."

But there was a passage in that same remarkable essay that I did not somehow read to that class. Let me site it here:
Sincerely speaking, there are no uneducated men. They may escape the trivial examinations, but not the tremendous examination of existence. The dependency of infancy, the enjoyment of animals, the love of woman, and the fear of death–these are more frightful and more fixed than all conceivable forms of the cultivation of the mind. It is idle to complain of schools and colleges being trivial. Schools and colleges must always be trivial. In no case will a college ever teach the important things. For before a man is twenty, he has always learned the important things. He has learned them right or wrong, and he has learned them all alone. [2]
This is not, of course, common doctrine in our academia, where we like to think the highest things are our private preserves.

And yet it is a sober testimony to the fact that what is of ultimate importance is often disclosed to us through our parents, our localities, our churches, and our rooted openness to the being, to the what is that stands before us wherever we are. Perhaps the most satisfying doctrine in Aquinas, in this sense, is his bold affirmation that each of us has his own intellect, complete in itself, looking out on a world none of us made, so that each of us first begins to know what is not himself. Only having thus begun can we reflect on the famous Socratic admonition to "know thyself".

Leo Strauss often talked about the care with which we must talk earnestly about the highest things–because there are so few who seem willing to listen. Sooner or later we must come to realize that most of the important things we do not in fact learn are not learned because we choose not to learn them. At some point we must recognize that our own natural capacities are not the real causes of our personal status before the highest things. And we cannot, at times, but be conscious of the fact that we do not, often dare not, talk about the important things.

In 1770, Boswell recorded this passage from Samuel Johnson on the occasion of the death of Johnson's mother:

He [Johnson] lamented that all serious and religious conversation was banished from the society of men, and yet great advantage might be derived from it. All acknowledged, he said, what hardly anybody practiced, the obligation we were under of making the concerns of eternity the governing principles of our lives. Every man, he observed, at least wishes for retreat: he sees his expectations frustrated in the world, and begins to wean himself from it, and to prepare for everlasting separation. [3]

Such are solemn words, fit for pubs and walks and other places where we engage in serious conversation.

Universities, to be sure, are places where we can hear some questions formalized, refined in a way we could never encounter otherwise. Yet modern universities seem more like Socrates' "democracy", where every possible opinion can be heard and no one, in principle, is able to tell the outlandish from the commonplace, the odd from the sane. Such universities where all opinion is created equal and departmentalized have gotten the "think tank", as it is called, a newer institution where more and more of real thought in our societies seems to be taking place. When we are unable to take a stand because, in theory, no stand can be taken, it is logical and inevitable that vital thought surfaces elsewhere. Some, like Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of his famous After Virtue, even seem to hint that we need to refound the monasteries. [4]

In a touching essay, Professor Ralph McInerny recalled listening as a young man to the last lecture the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain gave one autumn night in 1958 at the Moreau Seminary on the South Bend campus. Here is what McInerny–whose book St. Thomas Aquinas is a must (see Chapter 7), and whose novel The Noonday Devil a delight–said, reflecting on the event:
He [Maritain] was a saintly man. That is what I sensed as I scuffled through the leaves on my way back from Maritain's last lecture at Moreau (later published as The Uses of Philosophy). He loved the truth, but his purpose in life was not to win arguments. He wanted to be wise. Such an odd ambition for a philosopher! He succeeded because he prayed as well as he studied. [5]
This sort of experience is why we go to a university as young men and women; the chance to find there, once or twice if we are lucky, a wise man to teach us, or at least to teach us about the wise men and women who lived before our own lifetimes.

Many people no doubt, will talk to us, and the sum total of a year's worth of courses at the average university campus may come closer to the Tower of Babel than to the Seat of Wisdom. This is why we must somehow be rightly oriented to reality even before we arrive at ivy-covered colleges and mega-universities, as Chesterton told us. Plato, in The Republic, said much the same thing before him: "...when it comes to good things, no one is satisfied with what is opined to be so but each seeks the things that are ..."(505d).

In 1985, the philosopher Eric Voegelin died at Stanford University in California. Voegelin was one of the most important thinkers of our time. In 1980, in Montreal, a book of his conversations was published, as I have previously mentioned. In one of the lectures in this book, he told his audience at the Thomas More Institute, speaking of his own students and following Aristotle:
One should be aware that we always act as if we had an ultimate purpose in fact, as if our life made some sort of sense. I find students frequently flabbergasted, especially those who are agnostics, when I tell them that they all act, whether agnostics or not, as if they were immortal! Only under the assumption of immortality, of fulfillment beyond life, is the seriousness of action intelligible, which they actually put in their work and which has a fulfillment nowhere in this life however long they may live. [6]
Rarely, I think, are we spoken to so seriously. Often we do not want to be addressed because we sense where such conversation might lead us. And that brings us back to the original discussion of "beginnings" found in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.

As I shall mention often, I think that the most remarkable scenes in pure philosophy, those in Plato, have to do with young students instinctively gathering around Socrates, the philosopher, hardly knowing why, to listen to penetrating philosophical doctrines spoken and lived. Most young philosophers began in the curiosity and delight caused by hearing their old professors and parents made fun of, little suspecting that each himself must confront the issue of which Socrates and Voegelin spoke.

And this brings me back to Chesterton–to the idea that before we are twenty we have learned the important things. We have learned them right or wrong, and we have learned them alone. "The tremendous examination of existence", as Chesterton called it, will not be based on whether we have been to college, but on whether we seriously, yet in good humor, confronted in our lives the highest things. St. Paul intimated, in a famous passage, that learning could easily deflect us into "foolishness", even if we be, perhaps especially if we be, professional philosophers (I Cor 1:18-24).

Our purpose in life is indeed "not to win arguments", but to be wise. For this latter, we cannot neglect study or prayer, or especially that openness to existence about which we must learn even if we learn nothing else, or even if we learn all else. We must seek out where the important things are taught if the "seriousness of action" is to be intelligible, however long we may live.

My last words here are again those of Chesterton: "The ordinary modern progressive position is that this is a bad universe, but it will certainly get better. I say it is certainly a good universe, even if it gets worse... We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure... The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive."

Living is "dangerous", I might add, not because we have been given the chance to fail, but because we have been given the chance to see that in the beginning, all things were good and we did not notice.

[This Ignatius Press Classic selection is chapter five of Another Sort of Learning (1988).]


[1] G.K. Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology, ed. P.J. Kavanaugh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1985). Another new collection of Chesterton is As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Anthology, ed. Robert Knille (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985). Another useful collection of G.K.C. quotations is The Quotable Chesterton, ed. George Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

[2] Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology, p. 344.

[3] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, vol. I (London: Oxford, 1931), p. 418.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 245.

[5] Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame Magazine, summer 1985.

[6] Voegelin, Conversations, p. 6.

Three Books on Education
1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University.
2. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education.
3. Jacques Maritain, The Education of Man: The Educational Philosophy of Jacques Maritain.

Four Books on Philosophy and Literature by Marion Montgomery
1. Reflective Journey toward Order: Essays on Dante, Wordsworth, Eliot, and Others.
2. Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home.
3. Why Poe Drank Liquor.
4. Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy.

Eight Books on Christianity and Political Thought
1. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State.
2. Charles N.R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought.
3. Heinrich Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought.
4. Rodger Charles, The Social Teaching of Vatican II.
5. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths.
6. Thomas Molnar, Politics and the State.
7. Yves Simon, The Philosophy of Democratic Government.
8. Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.




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