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Chesterton, Sports, and Politics: Interview with
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3 | Carl E. Olson | August 16, 2005
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
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 3 of the interview.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Youve written numerous essays on
G. K. Chesterton. What is your debt to Chesterton and why does he continue to be so relevant
Fr. Schall: Back in June, I gave a paper at the annual conference of
the American Chesterton Society at the University of St. Thomas, in St.
Paul. It was called "Chesterton: The Real Heretic," and will be
published later in Logos. The title of the essay rather says what
I have in mind when I read Chesterton. He had an uncanny capacity to see
where ideas led. I can sit down and read an essay he wrote in 1905 and suddenly
realize that he is talking about something that happened yesterday afternoon,
or when he talks of Islam, what probably will happen tomorrow afternoon.
No one is more delightful or more insightful than Chesterton. He is the
great mind of the 20th Century simply because he saw it before
it unfolded pretty much as he saw it would. You cannot read Whats
Wrong with the World without realizing that the kinds of family aberrations
that he saw on the horizon are in place almost everywhere we look. His book
on Eugenics and Other Evils was on target. Orthodoxy remains
the single most important book to read. It is short, pithy, amusing, delightful,
profound. He tells us that he almost discovered Christianity by himself,
but looked around and found that it was already invented. He was glad of
this, as befits a humble man.
I find it impossible to read a couple of pages of almost anything in Chesterton,
even Father Brown, and not shake my head in amazement at the insight it
provides. I have been doing the column "Schall on Chesterton"
every month since the 1980's and have barely scratched the surface of his
wit and wisdom. He is the man of sanity. I did a Crisis, "Sense
and Nonsense" column the very title comes from Chesterton
not too long ago entitled "The Right to Be Obese." The government
is now caught in yet another social justice crusade of making us thin.
In any case, four of my heroes are Aristotle, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, and
Chesterton, each of whom, with the exception of Aristotle, was probably
obese, by current government standards. So I consider this anti-obese movement
to be a direct attack on sanity and the huge bodies that proclaimed it!
Chesterton always laughed at his size and probably died relatively young
as did Aquinas. But how he or Aquinas could have done more than he did is
Chesterton has in fact produced a "city in the mind." Once we
come to see that it exists, we see that it is more "real" than
our actual cities and judges them. This is why he is relevant. Relevance
in any case can only mean what is related to the truth. Relevance related
to what is disordered is simply a furtherance of disorder. Ignatiusinsight.com
recently published by "Chesterton and the Delight of Truth," which
pretty much tells us what he is about.
One of my favorite teacher stories of Chesterton has to do with a course
I was doing on Aquinas in which I had assigned his biography of Aquinas,
but as the last book to be read. A student after the course was over came
up to me to tell me that he had the slim Chesterton book on his shelf from
the beginning of the semester. He did not know what it was or who this Chesterton
was. He never heard of him. But, out of curiosity, he began to read here
and there in the book. He said to me, "how come no one ever told me
of this man? Who is he?" I did not bother to remind him that at least
I had told him because I had assigned the book. But the point is that he
was simply taken with Chesterton.
This is the book, St. Thomas Aquinas, that Gilson said that he despaired
writing as it was so good. And Chesterton seemed simply to understand Aquinas
as if they both were always talking about the same things. This book contains
his amazing description of Aquinas defense of ordinary things a topic
that I used in a lecture that I gave several years age at the University
of St. Thomas at Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada (published in Fellowship
of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 27 [Winter, 2004]). This is the book
in which Chesterton reminds of the extraordinary fact that "eggs is
eggs," that none of could have imagined them were they not already
there for us to wonder about.
Chesterton could see the way things are. I have always loved his apology
for writing Orthodoxy somebody challenged him to tell us what
he held. He loved such a challenge. But he tells that he did not discover
"orthodoxy" by reading what the Catholics said of themselves.
He never touched such documents. What he read was the heretics his
book Heretics is one hundred years old this very year that
is to say, he read the advocates of modern thought in various forms, only
to find that they said the strangest and most contradictory things both
about reality and about Catholicism. He found that what was disordered was
not Catholicism but the modern mind in its explanation of why it rejected
orthodoxy. This is when he was tempted to invent his own "heresy,"
namely Christianity, only to find it was already invented.
Speaking of original sin, Chesterton remarked that it is the one Christian
doctrine about which we need no proof all we have to do is go out
in the streets and open our eyes. He recalls that a London journalist once
requested answers to the question, "Whats Wrong with the World?"
On reading it, he immediately sat down and wrote a one line reply that the
paper, much to its credit, printed verbatim: "Sir: Whats
wrong with the world? I am. Signed, G. K. Chesterton." That is
to say, contrary to so many social justice theories, Chesterton knew, with
Plato, that the locus of all disorder is not external to us, but is found
in our own souls. If we do not begin there, we cannot begin."
IgnatiusInsight.com: A theme that youve written about often including
in your recent book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching,
Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing
(ISI Books, 2001), is that of play, sport, and leisure. How does a proper
view of leisure and sports differ from what we see in the world of recreation
and sports today?
Fr. Schall: About the only thing I read carefully each day after breakfast
is the sports page. That is almost the only place left in which you can
still come to grips with the drama of life as most people live it. On sports
pages we still find cheating to be cheating, we find glory in what is earned,
we find corruption and repentance, honor and competence, vanity and genuine
In this mornings sports page, for instance, (Post, 26 July),
there was an article about the two coaches, Frank Robinson and Eddie Rodriquez,
of the new Washington Nationals baseball team, a surprising success. Robinson,
the veteran, is the boss. The two have different styles but get along. They
discussed the sequence of left- and right-handed pitchers, a topic on which
they differed. Then they came to the ideal batting order, which the Florida
Marlins are said to have. Rodriquez, a sort of Latino Platonist, thought
it important to think about this ideal. Robinson, the Aristotelian, replied
that "I dont waste my time thinking about what I havent
got." Now, of a morning, that is a great response, but so is Rodriquezs
worry about finding a better batting order.
I did a book years ago called Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play,
Contemplation, and Festivity in which I tried to spell these things
out. There is a chapter in Another Sort of Learning called "On
the Seriousness of Sports." This essay often brings comments
from students who never thought that there was anything to be said for sports
but a kind of goofing off. They are delighted to learn that what fascinated
them about sports is not so frivolous but brings them to the heart of the
highest things, something they always suspected but did not know how to
In fact, it all begins with Plato and Aristotle. The seminal modern books
in all of this field are Piepers Leisure: The Basis of Culture,
his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Huizingas
Homo Ludens, and Hugo Rahners Men at Play. None of these
books are to be missed. I should have mention sooner the importance of Josef
Pieper to all branches of knowledge, including this one. He is the clearest
mind of our time in so many ways and by himself (the same is true of Chesterton)
can give us almost all we need to see how things are, to see, what is.
But it all goes back to Plato and Aristotle, as I said, and some passages
in Scripture. They are the ones who discovered the delight in things to
which we respond, as Chesterton said, by being grateful. Plato said in the
Laws that we should spend our lives "singing, dancing, and sacrificing."
How remarkable! And Aristotle, in an idea that I often state in my own words,
implies that the closest the average man comes to pure contemplation
something to which we are ordered by our very being is to watch,
not play, a good game. This does not mean that there is anything wrong also
with playing it.
Students wonder why games fascinate them because they do. It is because
they behold there something that need not exist, that could be otherwise,
but which exists according to the rules, according to the drama of the game.
We do not know how it will turn out. Our lives themselves are exactly like
this if we think about it.
So play is both an introduction to ethics play fairly and
to metaphysics, to the fascination of the things that are but need
not be. Msgr. Sokolowski often makes the point, as does Pieper, and Aquinas
for that matter, that the world need not exist, but does. Games need not
exist but do. Life cannot be properly lived and games cannot be properly
played unless we know their order, how they proceed. As spectators we behold
something unfold before us, how things will turn out, according to the rules
of play that need not be, but are.
Drama itself is like this unfolding also. Bloom in his Shakespeares
Politics, another fine book, observes, speaking of Greek and English
drama, that while watching a drama before us, we actually live a higher
life than we do ordinarily, when we are mainly brushing our teeth or figuring
out taxes. It is there in the unfolding plot that we see what is the human
condition played out before us. We are struck by awe and pity and even fear
as we see our lot. Aristotle says that games are not so exalted as drama,
but none the less they are like unto it. They take place in freedom. We
can see in them that there really are things that are worthy for their
own sakes," we suspect that there might be other things even more
IgnatiusInsight.com: As a professor of political science, what do you think
is the current health of the American republic today? What changes need
to take place if the United States is going to be around in centuries to
Fr. Schall: This country is engaged in a war that it is only barely
willing to understand. It is a world war, declared against us, and it is
possible to lose it. It does not come from within anything in our own society
and is in fact alien to it. However, what appeared as our internal moral
weakness, and that of Europe, did attempt radical Islam to see its world
historic opportunity. But with Belloc, I think what we are witnessing is
a revival of something that has always been present in Islam, a mission
literally to conquer the world for religious purposes. The problem with
us is a fear or reluctance to face what we deal with. The question within
Islam is who are the real heretics, the terrorists or those
who deny this methodology.
But in the United States and Europe, the real problem is connected with
population decline and a lack of confidence in the future that comes from
a society that sees the future only in terms of present life. Humanae
Vitae, as I have said all along, is a prophetic document and almost
every problem leads back to the essence of what it stood for. The most invisible
manifestation is the widespread destruction of children and the most visible
the replacement of this loss is the growing presence Muslims in Europe and
Latinos in the United States. We are most fortunate in this regard. Much
is to be said on this score in terms of statistics, but the more interesting
aspect is the broader metaphysical background.
Behind this issue of population decline is the proper understanding of what
is meant by social justice and human rights, both of which terms are, at
best, highly ambiguous in modern philosophy. The Churchs widespread
use of both of these terms has, in my view, been a cause of serious concern
since both have a double meaning, one of which, what I call the modern one,
simply undermines the other.
Social justice is used as an alternative to personal autonomy and dignity
so that our virtue becomes what movement we belong to. Human rights have
origins in Hobbes and mean whatever we want them to mean. Their content
is provided by will alone. Unraveling the confusions such concepts cause
is mind-boggling. But there is little doubt in my mind that the usage of
both of these terms is the primary avenue for undermining any Christian
concept of the person and a common good. It is all well and good to say
that there are defensible meanings to these terms, but they are not the
dominant ones or the operative terms in the public order.
On the other hand, I sometimes marvel at the Republic on which we stand.
We are expected to be generous. We fight in effect everyones wars
and receive little credit. We at least have some sense of the limits of
the bureaucratic and socialist state. But I do believe that there are two
cultures among us now that more and more are not simply diverse ways of
doing the right thing. They two different understandings of what is right,
one of which is, by Christian standards, definitely not right. Little about
Europe and Canada even seems overly reassuring. Many nations are simply
It is not difficult to understand why Muslim activists see us to be easy
prey or see how easy it is to undermine our public confidence. They were
not prepared for Mr. Bush, but they are prepared to influence our nightly
media. The present wars main battlefield is the nightly television.
And the war it fights is over minds that will or will not see a real threat.
This issue, of course, goes back to the central Platonic issue of the relation
between the soul and the city. Nothing less, I suspect, is at stake in how
we choose to live, in how we choose to kill our infants and elderly, in
how we choose to decide if we are going to make the effort to see what we
There is such a thing as a democracy that has evaporated any sense of right
order from its center. James Hitchcocks book on the Supreme Court
has pretty well explained how we got here. It is not surprising in these
days, when seemingly everyone goes to law school, that the path of our decline
was often via the law imposing what was disordered onto our lives with little
effective resistence from the churches. One has to confess that the Catholic
Church in this country has been largely practically silenced because of
its own internal problems in this country, problems not unrelated the condition
of the culture. I can see why themes of "decline and fall" are
However, changes in human affairs begin in individual souls, no doubt under
grace, in out of the way places like Bethlehem or in the small German town
in which Benedict XVI was born. We are getting extraordinary popes for some
reason. In Pope Ratzinger we easily have the most acute mind in public life
in the world today. But the world and the country are dramas of acceptance
and rejection. Nothing is automatic. In the end, this is a blessing and
Previous installments of this interview:
The rest of the interview:
On Learning and Education | Part 1 of 3
On Reading and Writing | Part 2 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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