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On Writing and Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3 | Carl E. Olson | August 9, 2005

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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. Information about Fr. Schall's books, classes, and essays are available on his website.

In this three-part interview, Fr. Schall talks at length about learning and education (Part 1), writing and reading (Part 2), and Chesterton, sports, and politics (Part 3). Here is Part 2 of the interview.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve written two dozen books and hundreds of essays and articles. How have you managed to be so prolific as an author? What is the relationship between Schall the Author and Schall the Professor?"

Fr. Schall:
I have sometimes been humorously diagnosed as having what is called, with all due respect to its namesake, ‘the Andrew Greeley Syndrome,’ namely, of ‘never having an unpublished thought.’ I deny it, of course, claiming that I have oodles of unpublished thoughts that erstwhile publishers are not dying to bring out. One has to say, however, in my case, that he has been around a good while. So I have had a good deal of time in an academic world that allows the leisure to think and write. There is the famous "publish or perish" aspect of it all, so I have published enough evidently not to perish. Besides, I never have to travel to work, so I save two hours a day easily on most good men bound to their duties.

Actually, what I like to write best are short essays. I do three or four different sets of columns. I am an admirer of Belloc who, I think, is the best essayist in the English language. Several books are collections of these essays, Idylls and Rambles, Schall on Chesterton, and, one of my great titles, The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men, my ‘English’ book, as it was first published there. The series that I do in University Bookman is called ‘On Letters and Essays.’ The series has the purpose of suggesting that letters and essays are fundamental in our culture and literature.

Recently, a lady I did not know gave me forty-three books she had collected over the years of Chesterton and Belloc. Among these was Chesterton’s Tremendous Trifles, which somehow I had not read before. In the first essay in this collection, which bears the title’s name, Chesterton concludes, ‘I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. "There are plenty of them, I assure you. The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.’ This book was just given to me. Splendid things come from nowhere. I could not ever buy it, for it came by chance. The world is starved because we lack wonder. This sentiment, of course, is already in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. It is the basic lesson of being a human being, that we are sent on an adventure amidst the marvels of things. We are such, as Augustine said, that we suspect that we are sent into this world. We look for who sent us.

The relation of Schall as Author and Professor? I had long thought that writing was more important than teaching. And as a student, I always looked for professors who were writing something. I suspected that they were more alert and lively. It turned out in experience though that a couple of men who wrote very little were in fact my best teachers, and one famous writer was the worst teacher I ever had. My friend, Fr. Robert Spitzer, at Gonzaga University, himself a man of blazing intellect and eloquence, once remarked to me that teaching is more important than writing. ‘Chances are that you will actually teach more students than will ever read what you write.’ This was a sobering thought, but as I thought about it, it is really true. But writing enables you to get out of the classroom into minds, somewhere, you never know where.

In recent years, I will have maybe one hundred and fifty students, more or less, a semester in two classes. That means in twenty years, you have had something like six thousand students, an amazing number when you think of it. They are always young men and women you would like to know better. But they are about their lives. You have them for the briefest period and they are gone. I try to know each of them by name, talk to them in class, converse with them. But this on the basis of what they are to know. I assume a blank slate when they first come to class, that is, I think a student should walk into a class already having put something in his head, namely, what I have assigned him to read.

I never expect full comprehension, say of Aristotle. Heavens, I still read Aristotle almost as if I never read him before each time I read him, he is so full of insight. I am more amazed at Aristotle or Plato or Aquinas than any student ever could be. But that is the point. The student is not to rely on Schall’s reading. He is not in class to figure out what Schall thinks about Nietzsche or Augustine, but what they think. I am there to give the student the freedom, even from himself, as Yves Simon says, to read what no one else probably will recommend to him or insist that he take the trouble at this time and this date to read.

I have a theory. What I call "the light in the eye" theory. I mean by that the experience of watching a class of students. I usually have forty classes a semester. You assign something say Cicero or Schumacher’s great book, A Guide for the Perplexed, or Locke In the beginning, the students are subdued, skeptical perhaps. But one day, midway through the semester, you will look at the class. Suddenly a young man or woman in the back row, who seemed at first clueless, is sitting there with eyes wide open. You know that suddenly the student has woken up in that sense for which the classical university was supposed to exist for its pupils, to let them know that there was light. They were supposed to, made to, see it.

Before finishing this section on books, I should add that I have two books coming out, one this fall by St. Augustine Press, entitled The Sum Total of Human Happiness, the second next year from ISI Books, entitled, The Life of the Mind. The first title comes from Samuel Johnson. The second is probably from Aristotle and Aquinas, though Hannah Arendt used this title I realized after I has selected it. Fortunately, you cannot copyright titles and this one says what I want it to say."

IgnatiusInsight.com: In Another Sort of Learning, one of your most popular books, you provide several lists of books, including lists such as "Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By," "Books You’ll Never Be Graded on Except by Reality," and "Five Books Addressed to the Heart of Things." What are ten books (after the Bible) that every Catholic should read — and why?"

Fr. Schall:
Well, I keep wrestling with this question. First of all, I consider the long subtitle to Another Sort of Learning, which I will not reproduce here [Editor: I will: "How To Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found"], to be my masterpiece in the field of titles. The short-form of this title I use informally, ‘How to Get an Education Even When in College.’ What I had in mind in this book was the concern that someone could go to a university today and learn nothing of the important things, the ultimate things. But if he went to the "best" universities and paid the highest tuition, how would he know that what he was getting was not the best?

I was much taken with Bloom’s other remark in the Closing of the American Mind that students in the best and most expensive universities are the unhappiest people in our society, something they may not quite know themselves. He took this view because he suspected that a bright student would, after much foundational relativism, suddenly wake up, especially if his moral life were also disordered, and say to himself, ‘is this all there is?’ He would have nowhere else to go if he did not know of an alternate view of reality.

I sometimes call this list ‘Books that Tell the Truth.’ And I have even published articles called "Ten Books Every Catholic Should Read." The list is, of course, variable. I have my own enthusiasms, I know. It is not unheard of that a book I will think is soul-stirring will leave someone else flat. But that brings up another problem — ‘the flat-souled people.’ This is somewhat analogous to C. S. Lewis’ "Men without Chests." Our souls ought not to be flat, we should be brave. I am suspicious of someone, particularly a Catholic, or a student, who can get excited about nothing of the important things. But it has to happen. You cannot force it. Some people will be moved by Augustine, others by Bonaventure, others by Aquinas, some by all three. And as Chesterton says, it is quite possible just to be moved by the wonder of things, even by tragedy, and more unsettlingly, by joy.

So I would not be so rash as to give a list of ten books every Catholic should read since even I can give ten lists of ten books none of which are the same. We have to remember that we deal mostly in English language books. The French and the Germans and the Japanese have their lists about which I probably am ignorant, though certainly the best filters out. We Catholics are one religion. I gave a lecture at Rockhurst University in Kansas City several years ago entitled, "What Must I Read to Be Saved?" I do not think it was ever published — so I do have unpublished thoughts! But there is a connection between the two, I think, reading and salvation.

I do hold the following thesis, developed in a number of places, that argues that Catholicism is an intellectual religion. It does not and cannot ignore the mind. I am fond of citing Cardinal von Schönbrun’s remark that Aquinas was the only saint ever to be canonized only for thinking, perhaps because no one else has thought quite like him. How could one say, however, that the four thousand pages Aquinas’ Summa constitute one of the ten books? Today about the only place you can seriously read these vital and exciting pages is to join the Dominicans or to enroll in the great Philosophy Department at Catholic University. Then there is the further caveat, noted in the above Rockhurst lecture, that reading by itself won’t save us either.

We have to live and pray and do our duties. But still, the remote origins of disorder are in the mind. The Catholic tradition is well aware of this. We are not surprised that Lucifer was the most intelligent of the angels, just as we are not surprised that most of our civil and religious aberrations come from what I call the "dons," intellectual and clerical, perhaps for the same reason they came to Lucifer.

But this being said, I will here suggest ten short books that I think will make my point about intelligence and revelation, that they do belong together and that their separation is what constitutes the origins of most of our disorders, when patiently spelled out. I often get emails or letters or requests from students and adults about what to read. So today I will give you this brief list that, I think, on reading, will alert any free soul to the fact that there is order and that we should both know and pursue it. John Paul II, following Aristotle really, remarked that every person is something of a philosopher. He did not mean that everyone was a Kant or a Heidegger, but that most people have common sense enough to see when something makes sense and when it does not, at least if spelled out a bit.

So, I would say, simply, try the following books, not all by Catholics, if you have nothing else to do, to see what happens to your mind:

1) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
2) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
3) Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
4) Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority
5) Bochenski, Philosophy — An Introduction
6) Josef Pieper, An Anthology
7) Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason
8) G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas
9) Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome
10) Cardinal Ratzinger, The Salt of the Earth

Try them, they cannot hurt you. All are short, but you need to pay attention, even enjoy them."

The rest of the interview:
On Learning and Education
| Part 1 of 3
On Chesterton, Sports, & Politics | Part 3 of 3

Recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

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

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