On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 26, 2005

On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 26, 2005

"For praise is given to virtue, since it makes us do fine actions, but celebrations are for successful achievement, either of body or of soul."
— Aristotle (Ethics, 1101b32-33)


We can, if we so choose, reasonably approach what Catholicism is about from the angle of the Fall, of original sin, of the dire consequences of both natural and human disasters. Such things abide and repeat themselves over the centuries. They recur in most times and places, even under the best regimes, certainly under the worst.

Any careful reading of Scripture, moreover, can be a sobering exercise, making us aware of the dark side of human existence. We recall the chastisements of the Hebrews, the "Woe to you, Capernaum" of the New Testament. We are not spared God’s warnings and His wrath, however much these are downplayed or not even mentioned these days. No doubt, we must ask questions about the prevalence of evil in the world, about God’s, at times, seeing indifference to human fate, indeed about His anger over the deviant deeds of men. On the other hand, we do not want a universe in which our deeds, good or bad, mean absolutely nothing and cannot be properly attributed to us.

We can also read in Thucydides, or Augustine, or Machiavelli, or even in Aristotle and Aquinas for that matter, just how disordered human life can be, not only at a personal level but also at a social and corporate level. Any reading of almost any major newspaper anywhere in the world during any day of the whole modern era would reveal, in spite of "enlightenment," a steady diet of wars and rumors of war, of economic and natural disaster, of corruption, inefficiency, and downright degradation. There are no doubt glimmers of light, but no sober reading of the history of our race can ignore the more puzzling pessimistic side.

The first point I want to emphasize here is that it is not any part of the Catholic tradition to deny or minimize this depressing reality. We are warned to prepare for it, to expect it, to suffer under it. A naive utopianism that refuses to see these possibilities, that thinks that they can be totally eliminated by some rearrangement of property, family, or state is probably the most dangerous ideological background we can imagine, one that causes more grief and sorrow than any other single view.

Secondly, it is also part of the Catholic tradition to insist that this bleak picture is not the only side of reality – far from it. But this contrasting, more positive affirmation is not to be seen, in any sense, as obscuring what happens in the history of our kind. The other side of this realistic approach, however, is to wonder about the happier aspect of things, about, as I like to say, "what is to be done when all else is done?" Aristotle, in using a medical analogy, noted that the purpose of a doctor is defined by health, which the doctor does not himself create or define, but only restores or serves, according to what health already is. The last person we want to see when we are healthy is the doctor, qua doctor.

The more important question is not what is it to be healthy when we are sick, however admittedly important this question is. But, we want to know, once we are healthy, what are the "activities" of health? of normalcy? Indeed, I would suggest, that it is perhaps more important to get it right about what are these higher activities than it is to have an adequate understanding of evil and disaster and pain, or even of what it is to be physically and mentally healthy. We are a people obsessed with health rather than what to do with it when we have it. Both sides are necessary in a complete picture, but we are more likely to miss the activities of well-being and what that means than we are to miss considering the suffering and disorder of soul that occur all about us. I have long contended that it is much more difficult in theory to explain joy than sadness, more difficult to understand delight than pain. And it is to this latter observation that I want to extend these remarks on praise and celebration.


On Monday, March 30, 1778, James Boswell was at Streatham, at Samuel Johnson’s friends, the Thrales. It was a Monday. Boswell was down at breakfast before Johnson. There he chanced to encounter the lady of the house, Mrs. Thrale, a woman of some literary repute in her own right. Hannah Thrale remarked to Boswell, "I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise anything, even what he likes, extravagantly."

This remark was obviously meant to compliment, yes, to praise of Dr. Johnson. But it also contained a philosophic insight into the very conditions of our well-being, a reminder of Aristotle’s mean in finding the norm or standard of any virtue. There can be a too much and a too little, both of which were inappropriate. Aristotle said that there could be a too much or a too little, but not too much of the mean. Not even the things we like are to be praised too much, out of proportion, though they are indeed to be highly praised in proportion. We conclude that Johnson did not object to due praise, but delighted in it when he knew that it was deserved, right time, right place.

As in the case of flattery, we do not want too much of a good thing. But we should want good things. Good things exist to be wanted, to be desired. We are constituted with appetitive powers to achieve this purpose – to possess as ours what is good. We should want what is worth wanting. We want what is appropriate, neither too much nor too little. Oftentimes we think that another virtue, humility, means that we never acknowledge anything good, especially in ourselves, especially when noticed by others. But humility, in fact, means giving and receiving proper acknowledgment to what is, in its own order. Humility is founded on truth. We are to praise what is to be praised, and this generously. Nothing gets us outside of ourselves more than our genuine notice, appreciation, and praise of what is not ourselves. We are beings who know ourselves first by knowing what is not ourselves.

The vice of envy, a most subtle vice whose consequences are too often neglected, arises precisely from our willing refusal to acknowledge what is good in something, particularly in another human person. This very vice suggests the too little noticed existence of a spiritual world, as it were, beyond the surface of the visible world, something with its own order and exigencies. This spiritual world, in which praise and envy are elemental functions, indicates that the world and the things in it require for their completion their own existence, their own standing outside of nothingness. But they also demand, somehow, the proper acknowledgment of their existence by us, almost as if to say that we are challenged at every turn to say of what is that existence is worthy. We are to know and acknowledge the relative and absolute worth of things. We are to live and know that we live in an ultimately ordered world.

Catholicism is a religion whose essence directly concerns praise and celebration – not too much praise, not inappropriate praise, but still praise. Indeed, the very structure of our lives concerns our capacity to praise what is to be praised. And, as Aristotle has indicated, there is curiously something beyond praise. Praise is given for virtue accomplished, whereas celebration is in a way beyond praise, an acknowledgment of something already in existence beyond ourselves or given to ourselves. It is no accident, for example, that Catholics say of the Mass that the priest "celebrates" it, that it contains within itself both a call to praise on our part and a call to celebration, a rejoicing in what is. Let us see if we can make sense of these remarks as something worthy of consideration for what we are about both in this world and in the next.


We tend to look upon religion and philosophy as if they were merely aids for our living, whereas more properly our living, at its deepest meaning, is that we may worship, praise, philosophize, and celebrate. We can find descriptions of heaven that limit themselves to the dark-eyed virgins, to eating, drinking, and being merry. But without denying the reality of our corporeal being, even in the Resurrection, we suspect that the activities of praise and celebration are nearer to what it is all about, to what C. S. Lewis in Perelandra described as the "Great Dance." The "Great Dance" is before and within creation not primarily as something originating from our own making, but as responding to the discovery and beholding of what is the glory of God in Himself and in all things, including things fallen and redeemed.

Praises are considered "valuable" in so far as they incite us to do something worthy. Aristotle himself noted that praise "makes us do fine actions." By the word "make" here, however, he did not mean that it "forces" us to do fine actions. An action that is performed out of strict necessity is not really even a human action. A human action requires our doing the action because of knowing, of choice, and in freedom. Aristotle means praise "inspires" us to fine actions; it encourages us to know that they are fine. It is true that we praise certain apparently necessary things — a sunset, for instance, or the beauty of a rainbow trout freshly out of the clear water. Yet it is quite possible, as Chesterton remarked, for such things not to exist. At the same time, it is quite possible for us to observe before our very eyes beautiful or noble things and be totally unaffected by them. "Tell me what you praise, and I will tell you what you are" might be an apt formula for what I am trying to get at. Education and culture in part consist not only in learning what is worthy to be praised but to acquire the discipline or virtue that actually enables or incites to do so.


In a Peanuts cartoon for April, 23, 1994, we see Charlie Brown in bed at night lying on his back under his thick, stripped comforter. Snoopy is sleeping contentedly on Charlie’s stomach. Charlie, however, is wide awake, pondering the ultimate questions. "Sometimes I lay awake at night," he says out loud to himself and the sleeping Snoopy, "and I ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ‘Does my life have any meaning?’" Sober, ultimate questions indeed, questions found in many a great mind from Leibniz to Eric Voegelin to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

But in the second scene, with a frown on his face, Charlie continues, "Then a voice comes to me that says, ‘Forget it! I hate questions like that.’" But when we laugh at Charlie’s predicament, we realize that the questions he asks himself in the night are pretty fundamental ones that we all should address at one time or another. Why are we here, indeed? What is the purpose of it all? Does our life have any meaning? The reason we "hate" questions like that is that they imply that we are here for a purpose, that meaning can be found if we look and are ready to live according to this purpose and meaning. We are not free simply to ignore such questions and remain the kind of beings we are made to be.

What I want to contend here is that, if we are Catholic, we can expect the answers to these questions to be more likely to be rejected when they tell us that we are made for joy than when they tell us that we walk here in a valley of tears, which we obviously do. The great temptation to the faith is not that it promises too little but that is promises too much. Paradoxically, Catholicism is rejected in all likelihood because it is too plausible, not because it is insufficiently intellectual. Catholics act at times almost as if they are afraid of what the faith implies. The claim to truth is a very counter-cultural position. Modern "dialogue Catholicism," as I call it, has taken the non-confrontational tack of insisting on exchange but not in insisting in conclusions to dialogues. Dialogue seems to go on forever with everyone afraid to conclude anything that would "offend" any position. The world seems to be filled with people afraid to discover the truth of things.

We are ever busy finding what is true, or at least plausible, in other religions and philosophies, but we seldom find or speak what is wrong in them. No one is to be "offended," in a world in which, contrary to its own heritage, we dare not admit some things are wrong, some things are not good. Little urgency is found in the pursuit of dialogue. Yet, dialogue in the classical sense had something pressing about it, something demanding a resolution to asked questions about ultimate things. Plato’s dialogues and Augustine’s dialogues all reach conclusions. It is not as if erroneous positions are not lived out in practice. Philosophies and religions produce their own culture in which their subtle theoretical positions are embedded in practice. Dialogue is not merely theoretical, but cultural. If we hold in theory that all is relative, that no position can claim any truth, that we can pursue our own "values" whatever they are, that we have a "right" to do as we think, whatever it is, then we live in a world of lethal chaos. Theory justifies action and action flows from theory.


Modernity has sought to replace theology with anthropology. That is, everywhere we look, we see not God but man. Human works and ideas are embodied not merely in personal lives but in society and even in nature. The human mind, no longer dependent on a theory of nature and nature’s God, depends on itself alone. What it makes or conceives, simply is, with nothing to which to compare it. No alternative exists except a change of mind, which is always possible and contains the same justification as any other the original effort to make a man-made world.

The question we ask here then is not merely one of a praise of fine actions, but whether there is anything to celebrate, anything not made by us. Catholicism is a religion of Incarnation. Most of the historical heresies of our faith have arisen around the truth of whether God became man, or better, over a rejection of this possibility. There is a curious irony in the fact that the Incarnation meant that the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, became man. In one sweeping act, as it were, God, man, and world were united in one being within the universe. This meant that while searching the universe, we did somehow encounter man, but not merely human man, but Word, eventually Word made flesh.

It has been the belief of modern atheism that if we eradicate God from man and the world, we will keep everything for ourselves. And when we have succeeded in this effort, what we have left is ourselves, only now it is an ourselves deliberately functioning minus those reaches within ourselves that take us beyond ourselves, with neither grace nor acknowledged being. For there is now nothing beyond ourselves. Catholicism says of the world that it need not exist, but it does exist. The reason it can affirm this truth is because it has a theory of God that allows it, a theory of the super-abundant inner life of the Godhead, what we call the Trinity. Catholicism argues that God would be God even if the world did not exist. Thus it logically argues that the world would not be the world if God did not exist. If we think God out of existence, we think ourselves and the world out of existence. Yet, we cannot and do not give ourselves existence.

Catholicism does not hold, however, that the divine creation of man and the world means that man has nothing meaningful to do within the world. It holds in fact the opposite, teaching that what is to be done in the world is a free imitation of what is the inner essence of the Godhead out of which the world was created. And at the peak of this world stands the free human creature whose inner purpose in his very creation was beyond himself. He was created for something more than, beyond the world, beyond even the natural capacities of his own rational being. And this is why man is not really at home in the world, even though it is his natural habitat.

If this paradox is the case, any effort to pretend that the world is sufficient for man is bound to distort his very essence or purpose by implying that some other end is available to him. Well, there is another end available to him, that is, himself, forever. This is the essential definition of hell, that there is only himself. This alternative of the self is deliberately chosen in preference to an end that man did not create or give himself but one to which he is invited, even though he cannot by himself quite know what he is invited to until he accepts the invitation.

The essential search of man in this world has been for an explanation of what he is and why he is. It has been an effort to find out the meaning of his existence, the giving of which he is not the cause. His essential temptation is to choose too lowly, to prescribe for himself an end that is not worthy of the one to which he is properly invited. Marx said, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, that everywhere we look we want to see only man, in nature, in society, in culture. All marks of God are to be replaced by human rational that would indicate that man does not have a transcendent origin beyond himself. The principal and perhaps the only alternative to this view today is that of classical Catholicism, though there is Islam, which denies both Incarnation and Trinity and sees man as only subject to Allah. What is under fire is not the Catholicism that is in agreement with a world evaporated of both nature and Incarnation, but the Catholicism that is not.

And the essence of this struggle concerns whether there is something worth celebrating, some proper form of celebration that sums up, at the same time, why there is so much evil in the world and why there is something worth having simply because it is. In the end, man cannot give himself what is worth celebrating and rejoicing about. The sacrifice of the Cross has to be united to the Resurrection of the body in order that the final purpose of the actual creation outside of God that we were given may be made manifest. This celebration is what the Mass is ultimately about, why it is not something that we concoct for ourselves but something that is given to us as the primary contact that we have to the Godhead that sums up the purpose of creation. God associates other free beings in their very intelligence to Himself in that response of delight and wonder that alone is something for its own sake, something that redeems the time and restores the effects of the Fall.

"Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation," Chesterton said in his famous essay, "In Defence of Nonsense," "but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off or hatshttp://ignatiusinsight.comhttp://ignatiusinsight.com" It is in this background alone, I think, that we can begin to wonder what it is that there is to celebrate. Something exists that need not be, a something that includes ourselves, something so wondrous that we can only behold it in awe, in both silence and in dance, which is really in a solemn way what our liturgy is about. But it is about this world too for it is the Sacrifice of the Cross in which all that could be saved, would be saved. What would not choose to be saved, not even God could save.

We "praise God from whom all blessings flow," as the hymn goes. But we celebrate what is because we did not create it, because it is something that is not ours to make but only to behold and in which to rejoice after the manner in which human, finite things rejoice. And it is through the Word made flesh that we discover the purpose of why we exist in the first place. We exist, briefly, to worship God, to celebrate in what is given to us as the only proper way to worship God, something all men have been seeking to discover from the beginning, even when they think they are only seeing themselves in all that is. Dialogues that do not proceed to the end of the argument are dangerous enterprises. The questions that Charlie Brown asked during the night, "Why am I here?" "Does my life have any meaning?" "What is the purpose of it all?" – these are proper questions of our kind.

Samuel Johnson rightly warned us not to praise something "too extravagantly." Yet, when we come down to the central given meaning of "celebration" in contrast to praise, we are to spend our lives, as Plato in his Laws said, almost prophetically, in "singing, dancing, and sacrificing." The extravagance of God in creating what is out of precisely nothing bears all the marks of a divine madness or wisdom. It leaves us in an awed silence that such things should be, that we are taken seriously in our freedom so that we could be "unserious" also in our glory.

It is no accident that the Mass is a "Eucharist," a thanksgiving. But it is a thanksgiving achieved at great cost, for it is a thanksgiving that includes the redemption of our sins, even of those who choose not to be redeemed. We are, ultimately, created to participate in the inner life of God, something that transcends what we are. We are made for praise and celebration. No lesser gift did God choose to give us. The heart of the rejection of God is thus the claim that He gave us too much. We are not prepared to accept that we are not sufficient to ourselves, that our glory is more than what we can give ourselves.

The heart of the acceptance of God is simply the praise and celebration by which we are to worship God not in the way we give ourselves, but in the way He gave us, the way that includes the Cross on the road to Glory. "Praise is given to virtue http://ignatiusinsight.com. but celebrations are for successful achievements." The worship by which we praise is at the same time already a "successful achievement."

We are not to attempt to create for ourselves what is already given to us, and that superabundantly. But we are to celebrate what is in the only manner worthy of its celebration, something that we do not and cannot give to ourselves. Ultimately, we receive glory if we are free enough to accept it.

Other recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Making Sense of Disasters
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers
On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3
On Writing and Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3
Chesterton, Sports, and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3
Wars Without Violence?
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is 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.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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