What Must I Read To Be Saved? On Reading and Salvation | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 4, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
What Must I Read To Be Saved? On Reading and Salvation | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 4, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
"It is this same disciple who attests what has here been
written. It is in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true.
There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I
suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written." -- John, 21:24-25.
"For this reason anyone who is seriously studying high
matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the
envy and criticism of men. What I have said comes, in short, to this: whenever
we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other
subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does
not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his
possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is
because men, not the gods, have taken his wits away." -- Plato, The Seventh Letter, 344c.
"Books of travels will be good in proportion to what a
man has previously in his mind; his knowing what to observe; his power of
contrasting one mode of life with another. As the Spanish proverb says, 'He,
who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry this wealth of the
Indies with him.' So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him,
if he would bring home knowledge." -- Samuel Johnson, Good Friday, April 17, 1778. 
We are familiar with the incident in the Gospel of the rich
young man who asked Christ what good he
must do to be saved. Christ responded to him that he must keep the
commandments. This the young man had done from his youth, a fact that Christ
recognized in him. Christ added, in words that still force us to distinguish
between "obligation" or "duty" and something more and different from it, that,
if he wanted to be perfect, what he should do was to sell what he had, give it
to the poor, and come follow Him. The Gospel records that the young man did not
follow this proposal, rather he "went away sad," for, as it says in striking
explanation, the young man "had many riches" (Matthew 19:16-23). We might
suggest that this rich young man was, as far as we can tell, one of Christ's
conspicuous failures along with, say, Judas, one of the thieves, the scribes,
Pontius Pilate, Herod, and several of His hometown relatives.
Notice that Christ did not tell the young man to become an
entrepreneur so that he could create wealth to help the poor, though there is
nothing wrong with this avenue. Nor did Christ "impose" a more perfect way on
him. It was up to what the young man himself "wanted" to do with his life. Yet,
even on reading this famous passage, a passage that John Paul II referred to
again and again when talking to youth from all countries, we have the distinct
impression that the rich young man, and perhaps the world itself, missed out on
something because of his refusal.
If "ideas have consequences," so, possibly more so, do
choices--even refusals, which are likewise choices. Choices always have
objects. There is no such thing as choice for choice's own sake. It's sophistry
to maintain it is. We can suspect that the young man's talents, without his
riches, or perhaps even with them, were needed elsewhere, perhaps later with
Paul or Silas. Indeed, Paul was subjected to pretty much the same process, but
he decided the other way, for which we can still be thankful as we read his
Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, to
Titus and Timothy. After all, when knocked to the ground on the way to
Damascus, he could, after his eyes cleared up, gotten back up and walked away.
This memorable account of the rich young man reminds us that
not only is the world less when we do evil, but even when we do less than we
are invited to do. It makes us wonder whether the world is founded in justice
at all, in only what we are to "render," in what we "ought" to do. Such a world
would be rather dull, I think. It would lack the "adventure" we now find in it.
While not denying their acknowledged worth, the highest things may be grounded
in something quite beyond justice. An utterly "just world" may in fact be a
world in which no one would really want to live. Justice is, as I call it, a
"terrible" virtue. The fact that God is not defeated by evil or even by a
lesser good helps us to realize, with some comfort, I confess, that we do not
find only justice at the heart of what is.
The great book that teaches this principle, above all, is C. S. Lewis' Till
We Have Faces, a book not to be missed.
My remarks obviously play on these words, "What must I do to be saved?" To be provocative, I ask, "What must I
read to be saved?" I do not
suggest that Christ had his priorities wrong. When I mentioned this question
"what must I read to be saved?" to a witty friend of mine, she immediately
wanted to know whether any of my own books were included in this category of
books "necessary-to-get-to-heaven?" I laughed and assured her that indeed the opera
omnia of Schall were essential to
The irony is not to be missed. We cannot point to any single
book, including the Bible, and say that absolutely everyone must actually read
it, line by line, before he can be "saved." If this were to be the case, few
would be called and even fewer chosen. Heaven would, alas, be very sparsely
populated. But I do think that between acting and reading, even in the highest
things, there is, in the ordinary course of things, some profound relationship.
Acting is not apart from knowing, and knowing usually depends on reading.
Concerning books and getting to heaven, however, let me note
in the beginning that, statistically, a good number of the people in the
history of mankind who have ever been in fact saved were mostly what we today
call "illiterate," or at least not well educated. They were good people who did
not know how to read, let alone write books. While Christianity does not at all
disdain intelligence--quite the opposite, it thrives on it--still it does not
simply identify what it means by "salvation" or "the gaining of eternal life"
with education or literacy, in whatever language or discipline. In the long
dispute over Socrates' aphorism that virtue is knowledge, Christians have
generally sided with Aristotle, that fault and sin are not simply ignorance.
Multiple doctorates, honorary or earned, will not necessarily get us to heaven,
nor, with any luck, will they prevent us from attaining this same happy goal
Just as there are saints and sinners among the
intelligentsia, so there are saints and sinners among those who cannot read and
write. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn remarked that Thomas Aquinas was the first
saint ever canonized for doing nothing else but thinking. Yet, within the
Christian tradition more than a suspicion exists that the more intelligent we
are and the more we consider ourselves to be "intellectuals," the more
difficult it is to save our souls. The sin of pride, of willfully making
ourselves the center of the universe and the definers of right and wrong, is, in
all likelihood, less tempting to those who do not read or who do not have
doctorates in philosophy or science than it is to those who read learnedly, if
not wisely. The fallen Lucifer was of the most intelligent of the angels. His
first sin was made possible by the order of his thought. No academic, I think,
should forget Lucifer's existence and his sobering story. It is not unrelated
to a modern academic scholar. The figure of Lucifer should, in some form,
appear on every campus as a reminder.
When we examine the infinitive, "to read," moreover, it
becomes clear that a difference is found between being able to read and
actually reading things of a certain seriousness, of a certain depth. Not that
there is anything wrong with "light" reading. Indeed, the subtitle of one of my
books, Idylls and Rambles--though again,
need I remind you, it is not a book necessary for salvation!--is precisely "Lighter
Christian Essays." The truth of
Christianity is not inimical to joy and laughter, but, as I think, it is
ultimately a defender and promoter of them, including their literary
expressions. I have always considered Peanuts and P. G. Wodehouse to be major theologians. In
truth, it is the essential mission of Christian revelation to define what joy
means and how it is possible for us to obtain it, that it is indeed not an
illusion. The first thing to realize is that joy is not "due" or "owed" to us.
J. R. R. Tolkien, in his famous essay, "On Fairy-Stories,"
even invented a special word to describe this essence of Christianity. We are
not, as it sometimes may seem, necessarily involved in a tragedy or a
"catastrophe" but precisely in a "Eucatastrophe." The Greek prefix "eu"--as in Eucharist--means happy or good. In the end, contrary to
every expectation, things do turn out all right, as God intended from the
beginning.  This is why in part the proper worship of God is our first, not
our last task, perhaps even in education. In Josef Pieper: An
Anthology, a book not to be missed, Pieper
remarks further that joy is a by-product; it is the result of doing what we
ought, not an object of our primary intention; ultimately, it is a gift.
"Faith," St. Paul told us, "comes from hearing," not evidently from "reading," though
this same Paul himself did a fair amount of writing. We presume that he
intended for us to read it all. It seems odd to imagine that he wrote those
letters to Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Ephesians with no expectation
of results. When Paul remarked that faith came by "hearing," he probably did
not mean to say that it could not come "by reading." We do hear of people who,
as they say, "read themselves into the Church." Chesterton, I think, was one of
these. In classic theology, it is to be remembered, however, that unless we
receive grace--itself not of our own fabrication--we will not have faith either
by hearing or by reading or, in modern times, by watching television or
internet, themselves perhaps the most difficult ways of all!
Many, no doubt, have heard but have not believed. Paul tells
of those, including himself, who, at the stoning of Stephen, put their hands
over their ears so they could not hear what he was saying. Alcibiades tells of
doing the same thing so that he would not hear the persuasive words of
Socrates. Christ said to St. Thomas the Twin, "Blessed are those who have not
seen but who have believed." Every time we read this passage, we are conscious
that we are among those blessed multitudes who have believed but who have not
seen. And even our hearing, say in preaching and in Sunday sermons, usually
comes from someone who has previously read, and hopefully read well.
The Apostle John affirms at the end of his Gospel, a
document itself full of the word, "Word,"--in the beginning was the "Word,"
"Word" made flesh--that he in fact wrote the words that we read and that his
testimony is true. As Benedict XVI says, "Deus Logos Est." John also intimates, reminiscent of Plato, that
many things are not recorded in books, even in all the books in the world. Yet,
as the Church teaches us, the things that the Lord taught and did that have in
fact been handed down to us are sufficient for us. Sometimes, it is sobering to
reflect that the entire corpus of the New Testament covers a mere 243 pages in
the English Revised Standard Edition. Those of us who are fortunate enough to
be literate do not have to be "speed readers" to finish the New Testament many
times over during our lives, even in the course of a few days, if we wish.
Whether all the books ever written in this world are contained
in today's libraries, or on the on-line facilities, I doubt. But a tremendous
number of them are. One of the main problems with these comments on reading has
to do with the sheer amount of books available to read, and yes, to re-read. I
am fond of citing C. S. Lewis' famous quip that if you have only read a great
book once, you have not read it at all. This pithy remark, of course, brings up
the problem of what is a great book and why great books are really "great."
Even more, it asks whether "great" books exist that are not officially called
great? Ought we to spend all our time, after all, on so-called "great" books?
Leo Strauss once remarked that, in the end, the famed great books contradict
each other. This fact led many a philosopher and many a student into relativism
under the aegis of philosophic greatness. There are, as I think, "great books"
that are not considered "great."
The website of the Library of Congress informs us that in
1992, the Library accessioned its 100 millionth item. The Library contains
books in about 450 languages. I have friends who can handle fifteen or twenty
languages. But I do not know anyone who can handle 450 different languages. No
doubt considerable numbers of books have been added since 1992, and I do not
mention the books in the British Museum or the Vatican Library, or the great
French, German, Spanish, American, and Italian libraries, as well as others
throughout the world.
When I was about eighteen in the army at Fort Belvoir in
Virginia, I went into the post library, with time on my hands. I looked at all
the stacks of books, but I realized that I did not know what to read or where
to begin to find out. It was a kind of revelation to me of that famous Socratic
dictum of "knowing what I did not know." Yet I knew, that, however logical, one
did not go to the first book under the letter "A" to begin to read
systematically all the books till one reached "Z." First of all, it could not
be done in one lifetime, even in a fairly small library, and secondly it would
have promoted a mental hodge-podge.
At the beginning of the Summa, St. Thomas tells the young student that an order of learning and
knowledge exists that makes it possible to distinguish the important and the
unimportant things. No library, I might add, is constructed on the order of St.
Thomas' Summa, which, I suspect,
might tell us something about the limits of libraries, however good they might
be. Again, we are not well advised to take some encyclopedia and begin with
articles under "A" and read to those under "Z." The order of knowing is crucial
A famous quip claims that "any man who says that he has read
all the writings of St. Augustine is a liar." Likewise, if we take St. Thomas,
remembering that he had no computer and that he had at most twenty-six or
twenty-seven years of life during which he could write anything before he died
in 1274, we still find it almost impossible to believe that he actually wrote
all he did write. What he wrote was clearly dependent on what he also had read.
I recommend students to go over to the library and look up
on the shelves the folio opera omnia of
St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Students need to consider what sort of life one
would have to lead in order to write, let alone understand, such a vast amount
of work. Too, the students should reflect on what different kinds of life from
each other that these two great intellectual saints lived. Moreover, we shudder
to think where we should be as a culture had, like the rich young man,
Augustine or Aquinas chosen some other form of life, which they no doubt could
The story of how the works of Aristotle or Augustine were
saved for posterity is itself another of the scary accounts of how, even though
they wrote what they did, we almost lost what they wrote after it was written.
Indeed, we did lose much of what Aristotle wrote, not to mention Cicero and
other important thinkers. The very dialogue of Cicero that changed the life of
the young Augustine, as he tells us in The Confessions, is now lost. We do not have it in the Library of
I was once on a division of the National Endowment for the
Humanities that considered grants to libraries for the physical preservation of
books and newspapers. It is astonishing over time how fragile our output of
books and papers is, even with great preservation efforts. Of course, all our
current "on-line" facilities, in which most of today's writing and publishing
first appears and, indeed, in which it is preserved, depend on a continuous
supply of electricity, not to mention computers. It also depends on whether the
barbarians get through the gate to destroy it. These latter technologies seem
to defy both time and space in enabling us to send our latest thoughts around
the world or across the street in an instant. But the question always remains
whether we have anything to say and whether what we say is true or not.
Each of my students is required to read what is said to be
the most "immoral" expository book in the history of political philosophy. It
is also a most famous and enticing book. Students are much attracted to it and
by it. Many students, indeed, I have noticed, are charmed by it. I am charmed
by it myself. We are naive if we think that the difference between good and
evil is always easily recognizable, let alone easy to choose between, even when
we do recognize it.
This book, of course, is Machiavelli's Prince. The book originally was given as a gift to the
ruler of Florence, almost as if he did not himself know how to rule. It
sketched how a prince would sometimes, perhaps often, have to do bad things in
order to keep in power. So long as we think it is a good thing to stay in power
no matter what, then Machiavelli's advice becomes a lesson in how to do it,
especially on the "no-matter-what" part of his advice. Evidently, in such a
view, what makes good men to be bad princes is the restriction on their actions
imposed on them by the classical distinctions of good and evil. The prince,
liberated from restriction, would presumably be a more "successful" ruler, if
not a better man.
In the course of his book, Machiavelli tells us, with some
paradox, that all armed prophets succeed and all unarmed prophets fail. At
first sight, this teaching will seem quite logical until we remember that
Machiavelli himself was neither a prophet nor a prince. If this is the case,
that he was a minor diplomat and not a prince, it seems paradoxical that he
thought his own unarmed life was worthwhile. Machiavelli hints that his real
foes are men who did not write books, namely, Socrates and Christ. Both
Socrates and Christ were, moreover, unarmed prophets, as was Machiavelli
himself. But Machiavelli did write a book. Neither Socrates nor Christ wrote
What, then, can Machiavelli mean when he says that Christ
and Socrates were "unsuccessful?" Socrates needed Plato to write about him.
Christ needed the Evangelists and Paul. Evidently, Machiavelli thought he had
to undermine, not the armed prophets, but the unarmed prophets. Who was
Machiavelli's audience, then? Was it Lorenzo, the prince? It hardly seems
likely. By writing a charming book, Machiavelli sought to entice generations of
students and students-become-rulers to his principles. These readers encounter
something that, if they follow its suggestions, will not save them. Machiavelli
wrote to turn the souls of potential philosophers away from Socrates and
Christ. Unless he could manage this "conversion," the world could not be built
on his "modern" political principles. To follow Machiavelli's tract, we must
cease to be interested, as was Socrates, in immortality, or like Christ in
first seeking the Kingdom of God.
Do I think The Prince
to be one of the books that we must "read" to be saved? I do indeed. The
knowledge of what one ought not to do is not a bad thing. It can be, but as
such, it is not. It is good to know the dimensions of what is persuasively
wrong. We ought to encounter disorder in thought before we encounter it, and
especially before we duplicate it, in reality. It was Aristotle, I believe, who
remarked that virtue can know vice, but vice does not know virtue.
What must I read to be saved? When classes were over one
spring, I received an e-mail from one of my students who had arrived back at
his family home. He wrote:
I have found
something interesting while talking to my friends here at home.... Many of my
peers have fallen into the trap of moral relativism. They have accepted
education as a means to an end. It is very disheartening. I was wondering if
you had ... any ... suggested readings for this subject of the relativism of my
generation? Many of my friends feel that religion or spirituality is a private
thing, and one ought not question another's belief system. Everything is
personal and therefore out of the realm of criticism. I think someone wrote something
about how an affirmation of morality, religion, and ethics as a 'private'
enterprise, is in itself a moral statement.
No doubt, readers will recognize the sentiment expressed
here. It reminds me of the famous passage in Allan Bloom's 1986 book, The
Closing of the American Mind: "There is one
thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering
the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."  We
wonder: "Does this relativism have a history?"
In a two-frame Peanuts
comic strip, Sally is shown sitting upright in a formal chair staring at the
television in front of her. From the televion she hears the following
announcement: "And now it's time for ..." In the second scene Sally, with
determination, points the remote control, which looks like a gun, at the
machine and firmly announces: "No it isn't!" The last thing we see is a printed
"click."  Sally shoots point blank to kill the monster before her. I cite
this colorful little snippet in the context of "what must I read to be saved"
because it makes the graphic point that we each must simply shut things off in
order to come into some possibility of knowing what all that is is about.
So I am going to propose, with some rashness perhaps, a
brief list of ten books that, when read, will perhaps save us or at least bring
us more directly to what it is that does save us, faith and grace and good
sense. The writers of the books I select will all, I think, accept the
proposition that saving our souls and saving our minds are interrelated. We do
not live in a chaos, though we can choose one of our own making.
Basically, I think that if there is something wrong with the
way one lives, it is because of the way one thinks. However, I am most
sensitive to Aristotle's observation that often how we live and want to live
prevents us from clearly looking at what is true. Our minds see the direction
that truth leads and often we do not want to go there. In short, there is no
way around anyone's will, but the shortest way is go follow Sally's example,
click off the screens that keep us in mere spectatorship and take up the much
more active occupation of reading for understanding what it is all about.
These, then, are the ten books:
1) Chesterton's Orthodoxy
One might object, "Only Dostoyevsky is a classic and it is
long. What about John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope? Or Benedict's Encyclical on Love?" Read them! What
about the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle? Read them! And Augustine's Confessions? Never to be missed. What about Schall's opera
omnia? For heavens sake read them!
2) C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity
3) E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
4) Fedyor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
5) Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien
6) Ralph McInerny, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You
7) Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian
8) J. M. Bochenski, Philosophy: An Introduction
9) Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience
10) Josef Pieper: An Anthology
I do not want to "defend" my list against other lists. I can
make up a dozen other lists myself. The only really long book in my list is
Dostoyevsky, which takes some time to read. Gilson's book requires attention
but it is manageable by most people. Most are short, easy to read. All should
be read many times. The point about this list, however, as I see it, is that if
someone reads each of the books, probably in whatever order, but still all of
them, he will acquire a sense that, in spite of it all, there is an
intelligibility in things that does under gird not only our lives in this world
but our destiny or salvation.
Again, a relation exists between what we think and what we
do. We can think rightly and still lose our souls, to be sure. But it is more
difficult. The main point is that the intelligibility of revelation is also
addressed to our own intelligence. We need to be assured that what we believe
makes sense on any rational criteria. Lest I err, a reading of each of these
books will point us in the right direction--one that indicates at the same time
how much we have yet to know, including the completion of God's plan for us
itself, but also how much we can know midst what often appears as a chaos of
conflicting opinion. But to obtain the impact of these readings that I intend,
one does have to click off the screens and the noises that prevent us from
encountering writers, often delightful writers, who so clearly wrestle with the
reality of the things that are,
including the ultimate things.
 Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Oxford, 1931), II, 227
 J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," The Tolkien
Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968),
 Allan Bloom, The Closing
of the American Mind (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1987), 25.
 Charles M. Schulz, Could You Be More Pacific? (Peanuts
Collector Series #8; New York: Topper Books, 1991.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Author page for Josef Pieper
Author page for G.K. Chesterton
Author page for Peter Kreeft
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | Peter J. Kreeft
On Learning and Education | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Writing and Reading | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" |
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life and Theme of G.K. Chesterton | Randall Paine
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Seeing With the Eyes of G.K. Chesterton | An Interview with Dale Ahlquist
Philosophy and the Sense For Mystery | Josef Pieper
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life of the Mind | An Interview with Roger Kimball
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. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and
The Regensburg Lecture.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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and news in the Church!