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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
Fr. James V.
Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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: Youve 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Syndrome, namely, of never having an unpublished thought.
I deny it, of course, claiming that I have oodles of unpublished thoughts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 Chestertons
Tremendous Trifles, which somehow I had not read before. In the
first essay in this collection, which bears the titles 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 Aristotles 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 Schalls 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 Schumachers
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,
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 "Schalls Unlikely
List of Books to Keep Sane By," "Books Youll 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
I was much taken with Blooms 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 Schönbruns
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 wont 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
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
7) Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason
8) G.K. Chesterton, St.
Path to Rome
10) Cardinal Ratzinger,
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:
the Delight of Truth
The One War, The
On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither
Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness
On Teaching the
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