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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 have.

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 Congress.

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 one.

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." [3] 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." [4] 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
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
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!

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.


[1] Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Oxford, 1931), II, 227

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), 68.

[3] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25.

[4] 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 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 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 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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