About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

31 Questions for Schall (Part Two) | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | October 16, 2007

Print-friendly version

On 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 final sixteen of those. The first fifteen were posted last week.

Question #16: "Do you feel that Georgetown University professors share truth with their students? Are students 'eminently teachable' on your campus?"

Fr. Schall: I am singularly remiss in attending classes of my colleagues. I have colleagues whom I very much admire and recommend students to be sure to take before they graduate. One of the joys of being a professor is precisely to find colleagues who know considerably more than you do. You can tell students to take their courses.

Yes, I find students to be "eminently teachable." I love that phrase. The issue is not the university but what is presented to students. All twenty-year olds are twenty-year olds. That is, they do not know but would like to. Someone needs to say to them, "read this," or "think about that." I do not like the word "share." It is a cheap and inadequate substitute for "give." Give is a much more profound idea. I am sure that students at the University of North Dakota are equally teachable, and eminently so, but alas I do not have the opportunity to find out. Truth is not "shared." The teacher just helps to see something that is free, already there to be known. He does not "own" the truth. Truth is free. This is its glory.

Question #17: "If you were to teach a class on a person whom students could meet through reading, who would it be and why?"

Schall: In an essay that I once wrote called "On the Mystery of Teachers I Have Never Met" (Modern Age, Summer, 1995), I pointed out that the best teachers that we can run into are often dead long before our time. Most of our education is meeting persons who are no longer alive. It is the greatest of all follies to think that our best teachers are alive when we are. Leo Strauss made a big point of this fact that we are lucky if two or three of the best minds are alive in our own time. And if they are, we will be lucky to recognize them. Moreover, as I point out in the essay, "What a Student Owes His Teacher," in Another Sort of Learning, someone who may be a good teacher to me, may not be a good teacher to you.

I once had a Jesuit colleague, Father John Leary, who told me that it is a good idea to meet everyone you can who might teach you something. There is a difference between what a man writes and meeting the man who writes it. This is the ineffable mystery of what a person is. My candidate would be Anne Carson Daly, currently the Academic Vice President at Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, North Carolina. I once heard her give a lecture on fairy tales. It moved my soul. That is sufficient reason."

Question #18: "Is there a book that no one should read? Are there any books that you have read, but will never be read again?"

Schall: Of course there are books that no one will find much in them. I once had a course from the great Austrian philosopher and doctor, Rudolf Allers. He said that we should always be reading novels, even bad ones. We will always find in them something that is profitable to us. I think this is true. Even in the case of pornography, we should know what is going on there if only to know why it is so available. The worst books are very often revealing, if we know what we are looking for."

With regard to books I have read that I will never read again, this is, I suspect, most of the books I have ever read. To read a great book again is the very definition of a great book. C S. Lewis' famous quip, "you have never read a great book if you have only read it once," is true. I have remarked that when I die, I hope my shelves are full of books that I never got around to reading. One of the great benefits of being a professor is that it gives you an opportunity to read books again and again. There is a difference between reading and knowing. Many very wise people have never read anything much.

Strauss points out that neither Socrates nor Christ ever wrote a book. I have had students tell me that they have read the Lord of the Rings many times before they are fourteen. I never heard of it when I was fourteen. Indeed, it had not been written yet. Ninety to ninety-nine percent of the books you read you will never read again. Do not worry. No one has ever read his way through the Library of Congress, or even the local town library. There is food for thought here. Why is it on the day we die we will still want to know many things we never got around to knowing, yet that it is all right to die, as Cicero said, when we have completed our years?

Question #19: "How did society become 'lethargic' towards the learning of higher things?"

Schall: Society is not a person. Only persons can be "lethargic." Chesterton said that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject. There are only uninterested people. This is right. Aristotle said in the tenth book of the Ethics that we are not to listen to those who tell us, being mortals, to be interested only in mortal things. We have to be ready to "see" things. It is quite possible to pass the most beautiful person or thing and never notice. We become lethargic by not noticing what is. This alone is what gets us outside of ourselves because it is what is outside of ourselves. We become "lethargic" about the highest things when we fail to notice the ordinary things, their mystery.

Question #20: "Throughout your several books you provide lists of 20-25 books for us to read. Where should we start? Is there any particular order that would be best to follow? If we only want to read one of these books—which one should we read?"

Schall: No order; one book is as good as another. But on my lists, I do think that one book leads to another. Truth is abundant and inter-related. The issue is to read something that is good. I noted that several of the books that you listed on the other list submitted to me were ones that I did not know about. Well and good. The order to follow is the order of wonder. I do not like to be overly detailed. When I read a book that moves me, the first thing I want to do is to tell someone about it. When I do so he often looks at me like I am nuts. Do not let that reaction discourage you. Cicero said at the beginning of his De Officiis that he was never less alone than when he was alone. This aloneness will be true for the true reader.

However, now that I think of it, my lists themselves are an order. At least they are a way to begin and progress. I do not have so-called "great books" on my lists. I am not impervious to their charm. Indeed, my books lead to them. But the great books, as Leo Strauss said, contradict each other and can lead a young man to skepticism. This is no reason not to read them, eventually. In fact, it is a reason to read them. But we are not skeptics. As Gilson said, "there is truth and we know it"—this is where we begin.

I am not sympathetic to the mind that wants to know what single book with which to begin. There are hundreds. The essential thing is to begin. That being said, read Chesterton's Orthodoxy, written a hundred years ago in 1908, or Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, or Dorothy Sayers' Whimsical Christian, or Belloc's Four Men. If you do, you will never be the same. Count on it.

Question #21: "In Chapter II of The Life of the Mind, you write that students selling back good books is a sign of intellectual failure but that worthless books should be sold back. You then write, 'The trick is to know the difference.' How can we know the difference? What are the criteria to use to determine if a book is good or worthless?"

Schall: Actually, if you read a good book, you will know the difference. You do not need some further criterion. I do not want to be overly systematic here. If you read, say, E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, followed by Josef Pieper's Anthology, again followed by, say, the Little Prince or Peter Kreeft's Philosophy of Tolkien, you will know a book that is not worthless.

Question #22: "What if there is no truth?"

Schall: What if there is? Again, if there is no truth, that itself is evidently a truth. If that is so, it is not true that there is no truth. So I would begin from there, by looking for it by the same criterion by which I tried to speculate that there is no truth, namely, by reason. Once we realize that the very question "what if there is no truth?" cannot really be asked without presuming that there is a truth, we can begin."

Question #23: "Was there a particular book or person who you felt tied everything together for you in regards to the truth?"

Schall: There were more than one, I think. That is part of the wonder of it all. Aristotle said in the Ethics that when we seek to know the truth, we should know the reasons that are given against it. For once we see such arguments, which are in fact part of the truth, we will see why the truth is as it is. As one grows older, of course, he reads more books and meets people.

I have come to know Msgr. Robert Sokolowski at the Catholic University of America, one of the best minds ever. His book, Christian Faith & Human Understanding, I have only known a year or so. It is one of the best books I have ever read. But I remember the thrill of finishing Chesterton's book on Aquinas, or almost anything of C. S. Lewis, especially his Till We Have Faces, or my first realizing that I could read Aquinas in Latin and follow him.

I have come late to Plato. I will do a course on Plato the next semester in which we do nothing but read as much of Plato as we reasonably can in one semester, about three quarters of what we have of him. There is nothing like the charm of Plato. But there is no book quite like Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed.

Question #24: "Do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to share what you know with others or do you feel more of a desire to encourage and assist others in seeking what you know?"

Schall: First of all, I should have mentioned this earlier. The verb "to feel" and the verb "to share" are almost never the right words. To "feel" is often used as a substitute for to "think." Feeling has a specific meaning and it does not mean "think." If one wants to talk about "feelings" or "passions," well and good, but feeling is not thinking. Secondly, "to share" does not mean "to give." A world that is full of "sharing" is a world strictly speaking lacking in the glorious notion of giving. The two words are not the same. If I "share" something with you, I do not "give" to you. Sharing implies it is already yours.

So I do not "feel" that it is my personal responsibility to "share" what I know with others. Aquinas talks of the notion of contemplata tradere, which means that what we have learned and pondered, we want to pass on, but not because we are "sharing" but because we simply want others to know freely what we have come to know. It is not like Schall suddenly has this great insight and immediately wants to "share" it. It is rather that somehow Schall came across some what is, some truth that really moved him and he is not content until he tells someone about it. It is a kind of overflowing, almost uncontrollable. Yet, we are often aware that we cannot speak of the highest things to everyone. Not everyone wants to listen. That is the mystery of the Fall.

I like to think that what I might know is not mine but is just the truth. So when someone reads me, they do not read Schall's truth, but something that is true both for Schall and for anyone else. "Assisting others to know what I know" sounds rather droll. I like to think that somehow I point someone else to what is and let him make is own discoveries about being and what its existence means.

Question #25: "Would you propose a list (or know of someone else's list) of books parents should expose young children to?"

Schall: That is a funny word "expose" young children to. Reading aloud to children and seeing them learn to read themselves is one of the great wonders. Once you teach a child to read, he has that great possession by which he can know more than his own experience. My friend Anne Burleigh has written on this, as has Christopher Wolfe. The homeschooling web sites, especially that of Peter Redpath, are very good. My own youth was singularly deprived of reading such books. I have listened with envy to students of mine who, at nineteen or twenty, read the Lord of the Rings five or ten times before they were fourteen. I have an essay in Revisiting Narnia, called 'The Beginning of the Real Story.' I was quite aged when I got around to Narnia. But this reading is very important. I sometimes suspect the only real defense against television and the games are such books and stories.

Question #26: "What was the major inspiration/trigger in you life to become serious about learning more about what is?"

Schall: The immediate response is simply the experience of knowing that one does not know. I think the whole thing grew on me when I least suspected. Certainly Chesterton is a factor, and Aquinas. But so is Samuel Johnson and Belloc's essays. Plato and Aristotle are there. I am particularly fond of Joseph Pieper; no one is quite like him.

But in another sense, it is the people you run into, the places you see, the wonder that anything exists at all. My books of essays, Idylls and Rambles and Schall on Chesterton, even my oddly titled The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches,' follow this seeing. But perhaps what most alerted me was the writing of short essays, the discipline, if you will, of seeing things and stating what you see in the most vivid way you know how.

Question #27: "Is there really such a thing as sin that has no public consequences? By the nature of the world, a sin requires acknowledgement and repentance precisely because it is a sin, so can anyone act that does not require these things be a sin?"

Schall: This question might take a long time to answer adequately. Much of the answer is already in Plato, as most things are. The first part of the question, "Is there really such a thing as sin that has no public consequences?' was the hypothesis and plot of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The answer of that great man was "No." What Scripture says is that "what you do in darkness will be shouted on the housetops." I rather believe that, whatever we think of hell, about which I have written rather much, all sins have their punishment in this world even when we, as it were, get by with them. Remorse is itself a terrible punishment.

Sin does require acknowledgement and repentance. In Plato, we are supposed to want to be punished for our sins. This willingness is the sign both that we recognize that what we did was wrong and announce to the world that we so see it. It also is a sign of our repentance, of our willingness to restore the balance we disrupted. The Christian idea is pretty much the same, except that it adds the dimension that all of our sins not only affect our neighbor and ourselves but also put us out of balance with God. Each sin is thus a drama that transcends those who commit it, but still involves them in the drama of their consequences. In the Phaedo, there is the scene of those condemned to Tartarus floating in the river but who cannot escape until those against whom they sinned specifically forgive them. These are powerful ideas. It makes us suspect those who thought there was something inspired in Plato look again.

I am not quite sure what is meant by the last question, "Can anyone act that does not require these things be a sin?" If this question means that if we act in the moral sense, then by knowing what is a sin guides us to our actions, either that we avoid sin or choose it. We know that such acts have transcendent consequences. This realization is what the doctrine of hell is about."

Question #28: "In A Students' Guide to Liberal Learning, you suggest that there is a truth, that it can be known with the guidelines for living your life in order to know it. These include things like maintaining an open mind, voraciously reading any and all things that provide some insight, actively thinking about the things we see and read as to discern any truth with them, and maintaining the self-discipline to do these things constantly throughout your life. Yet, in the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, it becomes clear that there seems to be one truth in mind and that it is the Catholic Church. While that is to be expected, by your own guidelines, it is our duty to remain open intellectually, spiritual to the truth because we do not know the ways in which it will reach us. Yet, how can somebody actively remain open to the truth in the necessary ways if that person already believes that he knows the truth? How can any truth exist in a person who is constantly open to the possibility that it may not be the truth at all?"

Schall: Whew! First, the title of the Unseriousness book comes from Plato. The context was whether human affairs, as interesting as they are and important, still are not the most important thing in the universe for finite beings like ourselves. The assumption behind the question often seems to be that the human person who knows some truth is already God. This would be a philosophic and theological heresy, of course. The premise of not knowing everything by ourselves is not that we know absolutely nothing. It has never been my experience that the knowledge of something necessarily implied that its opposite might be true, unless we were not really sure of it in the first place. That is what is behind a theoretic voluntarism that denies any order in either universe or mind or human affairs.

I have often remarked that I hope on the day I die, that my bookshelves contain many books that I never got around to reading. The world is certainly full of people I will never meet, which is, in my view, the real mystery and wonder of first reading Aristotle's treatise on friendship, particularly in the light of the Last Discourse in the Gospel of John.

Concerning the "intellectual duty" to remain open, the story is told of Thomas Aquinas who, some time before he died, suddenly had a realization of God that made him understand that all he had written was "of straw," as he put it.

There are something like ten thousand questions in the Summa Theologicae alone about almost every conceivable topic. Thomas died when he was forty-nine and wrote his first essay when he was about your age, twenty-two or so. There is a great passage in Plato's Phaedrus, of which Joseph Pieper writes so beautifully in his Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness, in which he warns us that we should be very careful of our own rationalism, of our thinking that we have complete knowledge of everything practical and contemplative. But truth does not contradict itself. Generally speaking, such experiences if they happen will end by enabling us to see what we already know in a more profound way. This is why we can never fully exhaust the knowledge even of one flower, but we still have a real knowledge of it, we know that it exists, that it is.

Question #29: "Also, in all the works I have read of yours, you fail to make any acknowledgement of Eastern philosophy, which has a great deal of both similar ideas with western philosophy, as well as a remarkable number of ideas and concepts that are intellectually valid and pertinent to any discussion of truth despite their tendency to conflict with many of the accepted premises of western philosophy."

Schall: This is an ancient issue, of course. I recall once being in a bookstore in Lusaka in Zambia. By chance I came across a journal, which had an essay maintaining that everything in Aristotle was stolen from the Africans. And we often hear the idea that Plato must have gotten many of his ideas from the Old Testament, even though there is no evidence, though I believe Plato was in Egypt. Certainly Herodotus was.

This question as spelled out really presupposes its own answer, something never denied or doubted in most philosophical systems, particularly those stemming from Greece. There are not two different "philosophies." The very notion of philosophy is that it must be open to every claim to being; it is the quest of the whole. The Schumacher book touches some of this. Western missionaries have often busied themselves trying to understand and spell out Eastern religions and philosophies. Fred Dallmyer has a good essay on this. The very question as asked really presupposes one philosophy, which is not as such either Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern.

Over the years, I have at least looked at Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. They present certain views of reality that can be examined, just as their positions must seek to understand what is not theirs, though this seeking to know the all seems to come especially from the Greeks. Very often the views of man, the all, the cosmos that are found in these systems, when reduced to principle, do not stand up. But it is always useful to see what is the reason why they hold what they do hold. It is usually because of the lack of an alternate explication. In any case, we have to live with those systems that are there and examine them. I really have no problem with that. I am always amazed with someone like Eric Voegelin who does precisely what the questioner suggests.

Question #30: "Is the Catholic Church the ultimate Truth?"

Schall: The Catholic Church never says that what it teaches is something that it invented itself as if it were some sort of human concoction. Basically, it says that the Godhead has an inner life that needs nothing but itself. Out of love and generosity creation includes and is centered on rational beings who are free. The Incarnation was an event in time, an actual place and time. Into the world, the Son of God is present. This changes everything. This is what the pope's book Jesus of Nazareth, which someone mentioned he is reading, is about. The Catholic Church as such is not the ultimate truth. God is, something the Church must acknowledge as the very essence of what it is. The Church merely claims to testify and witness to the event that set in motion further stages in God's plan for the human race. This plan is basically that, through revelation and reason, we choose to return to our origin, or the purpose for which we were created in the first place."

Question #31: "I once heard God described thus: 'God is not a tight–rope. There is more than just one narrow way to find him. God is a mountain with many paths to the top, and our purpose as human beings is not about deciding which path to take, but about doing our best to reach the peak using the path we are on.' How do you reconcile this statement with an apparent belief, as gleaned from your readings, in the absolute nature of the Catholic Church as the Truth?"

Schall: Actually, the narrow path is an image that Christ used. Do all ways really get to the top? That is what is at issue. If someone asks me how to get to Los Angeles, unless we presuppose an eternity of luck, not all directions get there. It is said that all roads lead to Rome. So there is a certain paradox at work here. If we assume that all ways are equally valid, this means that there is no wrong way. If there is no wrong way, we have no right to complain about any way that anyone else chooses. The very existence of truth suggests that there are wrong ways.

But the crucial issue is whether there is one way that really reaches the goal. And if there is, who indicated that path? If it is a human being alone, then we need not worry much. If what revelation is about is the "narrow way," then I suppose we need to go back to the premises and ask whether all ways are equal. The wars of civilization are more often than we think over this very issue, over ways that do not lead to the end but which have the power to insist that they do.

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!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius