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31 Questions for Schall (Part One) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 10, 2007

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This past Monday, October 8th, Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., professor of political philosophy at Georgetown and a regular contributor to Ignatius Insight, paid a visit to the University of North Dakota to take part in an honors program entitled "People You Should Meet." The students invite someone to come to the campus in conjunction with a reading of the books of the person invited. The students read the following books by Fr. Schall: Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, A Students' Guide to Liberal Learning, and the Sum Total of Human Happiness. On this basis, the students were invited to submit brief questions to the author on the occasion of his visit. There were 31 questions and responses; below are the first fifteen of those. The remaining sixteen will be posted in the next week.

Question #1: "How does one start to develop the type of discipline necessary in being responsible for one's own formation in regards to the highest things?"

Schall: Aristotle said that if we have good upbringing in which we learned about and practiced the basic virtues, we would recognize more easily the highest things and how to achieve them once we were old enough to be concerned with them. The question is curiously posed: "How to start, responsible for our own formation." We need the basic habits, courage, temperance, justice, prudence, liberality, control of our anger, wit, sociability, manners. We have to learn to see something besides ourselves. The first step is to be fascinated by even one thing besides ourselves that we would like to know about for what it is. Yves Simon has a wonderful section at the end of his A General Theory of Authority, entitled, "Freedom from the Self." This is the first step. Only then can we begin to know things "for their own sakes," that great classical advice to enable us to know more than ourselves.

Question #2: "What sort of responsibility does the education system have in fostering this development of discipline?"

Schall: I am not sure that I want to give any existing educational system this development responsibility. We are talking here, I presume, about "discipline." Generally, rewards and punishments were conceived to assist us in learning to discipline ourselves, that is, to acquire habits by which we could rule ourselves. To rule ourselves means to put the stamp of reason on our own actions. But it takes a long time to acquire habits. The classical writers, beginning with Plato, were aware that all order and disorder of the city began with the order and disorder of our own souls."

Question #3: "Are there any changes you'd recommend be instituted within the educational system?"

Schall: Again that term "educational system" comes up as if it is what is responsible for our learning the highest things. Another Sort of Learning was in fact written on the assumption that, for the most part, the really important questions would not be asked in modern educational systems. So the student has to look elsewhere. Indeed, the presupposition of most academic institutions is that there is no common truth available to everyone, so there can be no common search for what is. In my experience, most sane people, students included, search anyhow. If they come across, say, Augustine's Confessions or Jane Austen or the Little Prince, they are fortunate. They suddenly realize that perhaps it is worthwhile to look elsewhere.

Question #4: "Would someone who is not a Catholic still be able to find a path to the truth by reading your books or the books you recommend?"

Schall: I suspect that it has been done before! I have not been particularly aware that I have been writing for Catholics. Moreover, Catholics themselves have to seek the truth, the highest things. The world is full of those who do not evidently seek it, not a few of whom are Catholics. As you know, in many of my books, I recommend a number of books that I think lead us to sanity and truth. After reading the question, I am now contemplating a new revolutionary list of books entitled, "Schall's List of Twenty-Five Books to Find a Path to Truth Especially for Those Who Are Not Catholic and Who Do Not Read Schall or Any of the Books He Recommends."

My only problem with this worthy project is that if I actually knew any books that would put us on the path, I would have already listed them. And I am not particularly aware that the books that I do list require a prior supposition of Catholicism before they make sense. They are just good and wise books. I really do not much care who wrote them. If one has to say after reading a good book, "Oops, that book was written by a Catholic, therefore it does not count," I must confess that I see no solution for the initial problem. The way the question is posed is that one will not start out on the quest for truth unless it avoids anything that Schall might have in mind. My only response is, "Good luck!"

Question #5: "What do you mean by 'immortality' as you use it in both The Unseriousness of Human Affairs and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning?"

Schall: At first I thought the question asked: "What do you mean by 'immorality'?", itself no mean question, the answer to which I would also be willing to take a stab at. The only answer I can give to the initial question about immortality is that I presuppose that I am talking to someone who is minimally familiar with our philosophical tradition, that they have read at least the Apology and Phaedo of Plato, the De Senectute of Cicero, where this topic is classically presented.

Technically speaking, "immortality of the soul" means that it is a purely spiritual power, not itself composed of matter, though it is the form of the human body that together constitute the whole person. Immortality is a Greek, not Christian idea, though Christians use it in order to explain that aspect of the resurrection of the body that needs to explain how it is that the same person who died will rise again, why it is this one and not some other creation.

Immortality also has another meaning. In Greek thought, what are immortal are the gods and the species. Begetting technically is a seeking of the immortality of the species. The individual members of the species constantly come into existence and die out of it. The human city was designed to address the question of the living memory about the deeds, words, and accomplishments of those who have lived in a polity. Monuments to deeds or men are designed to bear witness to this sort of immortality—think of the Lincoln Memorial, or the Arch of Titus in the Forum of Rome.

Question #6: "If a student does come to the conclusion that the education brought about by academia is lacking the substance of truth, what forms of recourse can a student really take to address the issue in academia?"

Schall: The Wall Street Journal carried a review of former Yale Law Dean, Anthony Kronman's book, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," by Robert Messenger (October 4, 2007). There are a number of smaller colleges that do this study effectively. One could find one and transfer. The home schooling movement is already far advanced in this direction. Then one can read. Usually one will find in most schools one or two people or corners that still can address the highest things. One needs to be enterprising. But my own view has been largely that today the "ultimate things" is a matter of free enterprise. Because of multiculturalism, relativism, political correctness, and a general loss of faith in the tradition, the universities have no "authority" to teach anything. This too is why the older religions like Islam and Buddhism, together with other religious movements are so strongly present. If you lack a knowledge of the tradition of reason and revelation, it is easy to be open to just about anything.

Question #7: "What is your answer to those who would suggest that truth can also be gotten outside the spiritual realm—that God does not bring the highest truth of things?"

Schall: Well, this is just another way of saying that if truth is "outside the spiritual realm," it either exists in some other realm or does not exist at all. If someone tells me what he thinks his "truth" is, fine. I am free to see if the position is coherent. If it is, I accept it; if not, I look elsewhere. If God does not "bring the highest truth of things," please tell me what does. Actually, the whole history of philosophy has been full of this sort of inquiry from the beginning. Part of the discipline of truth is to know the arguments against it. I would wonder just what a "truth outside the spiritual realm" would look like. But if one merely means that we begin to know the truth of things by trying to understand material things and to formulate in our minds what it is, then of course that is just another way of following Aristotle. I am quite happy to understand anyone's source of truth and I would still have to decide if the claim holds water, that is, if it is still true."

Question #8: "What is truth?"

Schall: One would like to know who asks such a question! After all, it is one of the most famous questions asked in the history of politics and human culture. It was the specific question the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate--at the Trial of Christ--asked Him in the eighteenth chapter of John. Pilate asked Jesus if He was a "king" Jesus said that He was and He came into the world to "bear witness to the truth." Then he added, "everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." It was at this point that Pilate responded, "What is truth?" Pilate, finally, washed his hands of the whole thing. He thereby abandons his own legal responsibility and implying that "truth" was not his concern.

Thus, it is difficult to hear this particular question without recalling this background. Still, the general definition of truth is the "conformity of the mind to reality." What does this mean? It means that we do not ourselves create truth, but find it already in things. We are beings who affirm the reality that is not ourselves. We do this because we have the power to think, to know. When we know--and know that we know--we have the truth in our minds, its proper location for us. Plato said that we should say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not. When we do this, we speak the truth. Pilate's question, in a sense, goes back to the previous question about "finding truth" outside of God or the spiritual realm. If there is no ultimate source of truth, I suspect, there is no truth. In that case, we wonder, why do we still keep asking the question?

Question #9: "What if there is no truth?"

Schall: The only answer to this question, I think, is "Why ask it?" If it is true that there is no truth, then there is a truth. This is the oldest enigma in the world. This means that there is a truth in the very asking of the question, so we must begin from here. Otherwise the question would be meaningless and so would our asking of it. The very asking of the question "What if there is no truth?" implies a logic that itself implies some order and also anticipates some intelligible answer."

Question #10: "Is truth religious? Can one find truth if one is nonreligious or atheist?"

Schall: It depends on what one means by "religious," "nonreligious," and "atheist." Obviously, we want to know what "religion" means. We want to know what "atheism" means, and the arguments for both. The very word "atheist" contains the word "God." Generally speaking, one is religious or not because he has found the truth, not vice versa. A truth does not make a great deal of difference about where it came from, but what it maintains and whether that position can be valid by criteria of reason.

When we say that the intellect is a power of the soul and the soul is immaterial we are not saying that its activities are "religious" The word religion technically refers to a branch of the virtue of justice, that branch which recognizes obligations that cannot strictly be defined by a quid pro quo relationship. The word pietas or piety refers to what we "owe" to our god, our country, or our parents. We seek to honor or praise them even if we know we cannot "pay them back" for what they have done for us.

Atheists usually have some explanation of the world, man, god, intelligence. No one will be totally wrong. So truth is the activity of our mind by which we judge, and therefore know, that this thing is not that thing, that this thing is rather than is not. Our investigation into things brings us to questions of "Where does it all come from?" and "Why am I, rather am not?" All we can say of a religious or atheist affirmation is: "What does is said or maintain?" With this intelligence, we can proceed to judge the truth of the proposition. If it is coherent, we can accept it; if not, we cannot. In both cases we want to know why. There is absolutely no reason in principle why an atheist cannot discover some truth, or why a religious person cannot say something silly.

Question #11: "What is 'what is'?"

Schall: This question of course made me laugh. I am always using that penetrating phrase, what is, that goes back in one form or another at least to Plato and the Book of Exodus. The very asking of the question implies logically that the person who asked it knows what it means. Of course, what is, as such, is not a question. The very question implies that we need to know of Aristotle's Metaphysics and of Aquinas. One can approach the issue negatively. Suppose we ask, "What is nothing?" We cannot, strictly speaking, think "nothing." All we can do is to know something, then in our minds deny something of it. What is that "something" we deny? Well, it is not another thing. What we deny is precisely "existence."

What fascinates us are all those things that, through no power of our own, stand outside of nothing, which exist, in other words, whether we like it or not. Thus, what is refers to what it is that we know as not ourselves, what we encounter as existing. But everything we encounter is a certain kind of thing, not just "existence." So we wonder especially what actually exists. What is the origin of this existence? It must be in something that possesses existence and can cause it. This is why the definition of God in the Book of Exodus has so riveted philosophers, as Benedict XVI pointed out in his Regensburg Lecture. Yahweh defined Himself simply as "I AM." The only being that is not a what is but simply an is, is God. This is why we wonder, as Aristotle said, about everything that we encounter that is actually there, but is not a complete explanation of itself.

Question #12: "What are some things that you have read that speak well against what you believe, but that you do not find convincing?"

Schall: Most of modern philosophy, especially Nietzsche, whom I quite enjoy. But actually the reason I like Nietzsche is because he too thought most of modern philosophy was off the mark but did not have courage to admit it. One here must recall Aquinas. If you know how to read him, you will notice that he usually begins every question he addresses with a very clear and accurate statement of the argument against his position. A Platonic dialogue is much like this also. It is filled with arguments against what Socrates would hold to be the truth, which ultimately was that he did not himself know everything.
In any case, most of philosophic learning and education consists in encountering things that are not true or only partly true. Indeed, there is nothing that is not true in some way. We cannot think pure error or untruth. This is really the dynamic of thought and education.

Chesterton said that he spent his youth and early manhood reading no Christian tract, but only those written by men attacking it. After he read enough of these tracts, he discovered that one contradicted the other. He wondered how something which was so wrong could be looked at in just the opposite manner. He decided that perhaps what was attacked was pretty normal and the attackers were abnormal. Generally speaking, if we run across some well-publicized book attacking this or that aspect of the truth, if we just wait a bit and read around, we will find what at first seemed like such a dangerous thing was itself ill-founded. So I am not opposed to reading the things that "attack what I believe," since almost invariably they end up providing a deepening of the truth when properly put in place.

Question #13: "Why are you religious?"

Schall: This question could mean, "Why are you a religious?" This would ask the question in Catholic terms, "Why are you a member of a religious order?" Or it could mean, "Why are you a religious person?" I presume the latter was meant. I suppose a "religious" person is someone who goes to church and believes in the commandments, things like that. As I mentioned before, the word "pious" has a noble background. Aeneas in Virgil's poem was "pious" in that noble sense of respecting the gods and family and country. The word "religious" has something of the same overtones today. I actually would not call myself particularly religious or pious in these senses. But if one simply means by "religious," why does someone include the proper relation to God in his life and attempt to live accordingly, I can only say that it is because I think it is true. I cannot think of any other reason that makes sense.

Question #14: "Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Charles Schulz (the creator of Peanuts)?"

Schall: Alas, no. The closest I ever got was a year ago last summer, with my friend Jim Kline, visiting the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. I also used to get from Bill Burleigh, when he was at Scripps-Howard, the yearly accumulation of Peanuts text. Currently, the collected Peanuts is being published, of which I have four volumes, the early ones. But I have quite a few other collections, including The Parables of Peanuts. I used to have the Gospel according to Peanuts, but I have lost it.

Peanuts is like Chesterton. It is almost impossible to sit down and read through a strip or essay in which you do not arrive at something profound, something which is often funny at the same times. I am a great fan of the remark of Chesterton when someone objected that he could not be serious because his essays were so funny. He replied that the opposite of serious is not "funny." The opposite of "funny" is "not funny." The same is true of Schulz. There is absolutely no reason why a thing cannot be true and funny. Indeed, this is the ultimate cause of our joy.

Question #15: "How do you personally reconcile to yourself that over half the world is not Catholic or even Christian? Many of these people are never even told of the doctrines of the Catholic Church or of the great sacrifice of Christ. What helps you remain so firm in your belief that you hold the Truth?"

Schall: Goodness! Every semester with a class, I read Herbert Deane's book The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. Thus, twice a year, I read this passage:

"And as the end of the world approaches, it will be difficult to find even a handful of good men within the Church on earth; Scripture tells us that in those last days sin will abound and the love of many will wax cold" (p. 37).

This takes us back to Pontius Pilate and his question to Christ, "What is truth?" Pilate, having washed his hands, turned Christ over to be crucified. By the logic of the question--that is, that truth will succeed in this world--all we can say is that it does not seem much to do so. The Crucifixion meant that it probably would not. Actually, there are only a fifth of the world who are Christians, not half. Islam actually expanded much faster in its first century than Christianity did in its first century.

So if my faith depended on the supposition that numbers count or determine its truth, I would follow the implications of this question. But there is nothing in the presentation to think that everyone in this world will be Christian. They were not in the past and it does not look as though it will be different in the future. In fact, the Christian lands are reproducing themselves least of any and many demographers think that they will disappear or be reduced to insignificance. We do not know what God's plans are. We know men are free and need not accept the truth even if they encounter it. All I can say is that such statistics do not much bother me as I do not think the truth of Christianity depends on numbers, something the Scripture itself makes very clear.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Author page for Josef Pieper
Author page for G. K. Chesterton
"Socrates Meets!" Website
Philosophy and the Sense For Mystery | Josef Pieper
St. Thomas and St. Francis | G.K. Chesterton
Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Seducing Minds With the Socratic Method | Interview with Peter Kreeft
On Learning and Education | Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Peanuts and Thomists | Raymond Dennehy

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. His most recent books include The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture. His book, The Order of Things is being published this fall (2007) by Ignatius Press.

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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