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What Must I Read To Be Saved? On Reading and Salvation | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | May 4, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2
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
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
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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