Putting Things In Order: Father James V. Schall, S.J., on
Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing | Carl E. Olson | IgnatiusInsight.com
Putting Things In Order: Father James V. Schall, S.J., on
Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing | Carl E. Olson
Regular readers of Ignatius Insight likely need no
introduction to the wit and wisdom of Father James V. Schall, S.J., prolific
author (over two dozen books and countless essays) and professor of political philosophy,
since 1978, at Georgetown University. This year marks some major milestones in
his life. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed
Father Schall about those milestones, as well as his new book, published by
Ignatius Press, The Order of Things.
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Ignatius Insight: First, I'd like to wish you "Happy
Birthday"! You turn eighty on January 20th. Any thoughts on that
Schall: I am pleased
you noticed the "milestone," as you called it. I've written columns for Crisis
entitled "Schall at Seventy," "Schall at Seventy-Five," and one on "Schall at
Eighty." In each one of them, I think, I cited the passage from one of the
Psalms that reads "Man is given seventy years, and eighty if he is strong."
Actually, aside from a few unpleasant incidents, I have been in good health
most of my life.
I am older than most of my students grandparents. Elizabeth
II is two years older than I. The Holy Father is six months older. (His
autobiography in fact is called Milestones.)
The pope discusses the relation of eternal life to this life in Spe
Salvi. He says that nothing is wrong with
wanting to live a long life. But we do not want to live to be one fifty or two
hundred. The normal human span has its own purpose. Death is given as a
punishment, but also as a blessing. We can clearly see the blessing part when
we consider scientific efforts to abolish it in this world. They end up making
us longer lived and decrepit.
While I was at my niece's over Christmas, I read an article
in the Los Angeles Times about the Prima
Ballerina of the Cuban Ballet Company, a lady also in her eighties. She said
something about wanting to live to be two hundred. As she was a friend of
Castro, she probably was a Marxist, which would mean that inner-worldly
immortality would be the only sort available to her. The pope pretty well
spelled out the difficulties with such a view and with the scientific thinking
behind it. It is largely an effort to escape the reality of eternal life by
proposing a this-worldly life that goes on and on. What we really are made for
and desire is 'eternal life,' as the pope rightly called it.
We Americans live in almost the only country in the world
where old age cannot as such be used as a means to retire us. This is, legally
at least, the reason why Schall is still able to teach. Unlike those cultures
where the elderly are welcome within the family, we do tend to put the elderly
(and the young) in separate cantonments. "Retirement" is thus a rather
interesting word. The activities of old age are a favorite topic of the
We do begin to see, looking at Europe, and in some sense
ourselves, what happens to those cultures that cease to produce their own
children. They age rapidly. They import other people's children to replace
their own, which is usually called an "immigration crisis." The Europeans, when
they dare to think about it, wonder who will defend them or take care of them,
at what cost. They are quickly finding out. They live in suppressed fear of the
future they have given up and not replaced it with eternal life. What was it
the pope said at the "Te Deum" Vespers on the last day of 2007? "To say it in a word, in Rome one also notes that lack
of hope and trust in life that constitutes the 'obscure' evil of modern Western
society" (L' Osservatore Romano, 2 January
With a class, I read the Republic of Plato every semester. Thus, I frequently think
about the conversation in book one between Socrates and Cephalus in the old
man's home in the Piraeus. He protests to Socrates that he is too old to come
up to the city to listen to him. He complains that Socrates does not come down
to see him. But Socrates tells him that he enjoys speaking with old men. Why?
Because they have been down a road which we all must all must follow. I urge
students to talk to their grandparents; it is all in Plato, who died at 81.
So we would like to know how it is down the years.
Unexpectedly, Cephalus tells Socrates that he has not found it so bad. He
acknowledges that most old men complain about loss of strength and pleasures.
When Socrates suggests that the reason why Cephalus finds old age so tolerable
is that he is rich. Cephalus admits that it is true that his wealth is of some
assistance. For as we get older we begin to worry about whether we were really
just in our lives. If not, we can repay our debts and perhaps pay to offer
Cicero takes up this same theme in his famous essay "On Old
Age," an essay that shows us that great minds read what went before them. No
essay looks at the reasons for a natural death better than Cicero. He also puts
it in its context of a service to others. Wisdom is to be passed on but it
cannot be passed on unless it is attained in the living of our lives.
Ignatius Insight: This year, if I am not mistaken, marks
another milestone of sorts for you: the fortieth anniversary of the publication
of your first book. In 1968, after having co-authored a couple of books, the
first book under your name alone was published: Redeeming the Time (Sheed & Ward). I own and have read that book,
and it bears some interesting similarities to your most recent book,
The Order of Things, especially in
how it contemplates the Trinity, man in the world, and the nature of the
cosmos. What similarities and differences do you see? Has your thinking about
those Big Topics changed over the decades between?
Schall: I am pleased
that someone has read both of these books. You are right; both are about "the
Big Topics," what are often called the "highest things" by those who do not
like to name God. I would include also in this list the Redemption and
friendship as central themes. Ever since I began more carefully to think of
political philosophy as such, largely since I arrived here at Georgetown, I
have added the central theme of how reason addresses revelation and how
revelation addresses reason. I have returned again and again to this
fundamental topic. As Spe Salvi also points out, the whole
"order" of modernity at its deepest roots is either an opening to revelation,
or, more often, a substitute for it.
Clearly, what fascinates me is the question of "how do
things fit together?" I can still recall the thrill that I received when I read
Stanley Jaki's book, the Ways of Science and the Road to God, when he pointed out that modern science could not
have happened without a theology that allowed for real secondary causes that
were not purely a product of the human mind. They had to be investigated by this
same human mind to find out what they were. The mind "found" mind already
there. Actually this issue of secondary causes is what is behind much of the
problems with Islam and its voluntarism. The reason this point is important,
something I believe was recognized by Whitehead, is that we do not have to set
science against theology and revelation. They are aspects of the same ordered
understanding of things.
I was thinking the other day that I should have included in The
Order of Things a chapter on the "Order of
Games." Now I have written several essays and two short books (Play
On: From Games to Celebrations and Far
Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation and Festivity) in
which I have meditated on Aristotle's notion that games are "for their own
sakes." I cannot tell you how often students have remarked to me, after
reading the essay "On the Seriousness of Sports," in Another Sort of
Learning, how relieved they were to
discover that their inner fascination to watch good games was not just
frivolous or a "waste of time." Quite the opposite, of course, it was something
welling up from their very being seeking finally to confront what is, what finally is "for its own sake," what finally is
simply fascinating because it is the good. We learn this latter from watching
good games unfold before us.
Actually it is the Trinity that has most fascinated me. All
else flows from that source. What a remarkable relief it is to realize that God
does not create the world because He "needs" it, as if He were somehow
deficient. I think that is already implicit in Redeeming the Time. The other side of this question is the fact that
Redemption, the coming of the Word into the world, is the central doctrine that
corresponds to Aristotle's treatise on friendship, which wonders whether God is
lonely and whether friendship itself requires resurrection. In Spe
Salvi, the pope cited two members of the
Frankfurter school who practically said that to solve humanity's ultimate
problems, we need the resurrection of the flesh. For any friendship, we need
flesh and its resurrection.
Has my thinking on such issues changed? To say: "No,
Schall's ideas do not change," I know will sound either arrogant or "rigid."
Rigid is that modern word for any belief that there may just be truths that not
only do not change but that we do not want them to change because we catch a
glimmer of the truth. The universe we live in has both change and permanence
within it. One of the functions of the intellect is to decide which is which.
Change for its own sake implies a denial of any purpose, no "change to what?"
The very fact that all things, especially ourselves, are created to return to
God after their own manner is what is behind the real dynamism in the universe.
If we finally managed to get to heaven only to find out nothing was there but
"Change," a view already implicit in Heraclitus, I suspect we would despair. If
we didn't, we should, for it is not heaven where we find ourselves when all
things are changing without end.
Speaking of "milestones," this year is also the hundredth
anniversary of the publication of Chesterton's
Orthodoxy. This is really the greatest book published in the
last hundred years. Chesterton is always a delight to me, a delight of the
mind. If someone reads Orthodoxy
over and over again, which is certainly a pleasant thing to do, his mind will,
I think, be in order—either that or he will have to rage and deny that
either revelation or reason exists. He will hate Orthodoxy because it spells out the truths that are really
behind the things that are.
Ignatius Insight: A reader once asked me, "Does Schall
ever sleep? The man must do nothing but read and write!" (It was, of course,
meant as a compliment). So, do you sleep? More seriously, how does, say, your
average week look like, with teaching, reading, writing, praying, etc. Do you
set out to write a certain amount each day or week? Or does it just happen?
assured, Carl, that Schall gets enough sleep. I pretty much cease to function
if I do not. Besides, I am fond of sleeping, itself a gift of the gods. But
this question about Schall's "busy-ness" must be viewed from the other side,
which is, of course, my brother's side. My good brother Jerry is fond of asking
the question, in front of friends, in his elder brother's presence: "Tell them
how many hours a week do you college professors work?" I know there is no
defense. I have read Plato on the view of the ordinary man on the life of the
professor. "The answer," he tells them, "is six hours a week." He then adds,
"Ask him what he does with the other 178 hours a week." It is a family joke,
but it also, in a way, your question. What does Schall do the other hours of
The answer is not simply "prepare class," though "preparing"
class is one of the greatest incentives a mind can have. We professors are in
great debt to the fact that those young students out there are willing just to
be there and listen to us. But the answer to what one does the rest of the time
is really straightforward: I think about things. The only justification of a
student attending a university or in a university existing at all is the chance
of listening to the professor think about things—think about the truth of
things, about what is.
When I have said these things, I always insist on citing the
following line from Yves Simon, one of my heroes, a clearer mind hardly exists.
Simon wrote, in A General Theory of Authority: "No spontaneous operation of intellectual relations protects the
young philosopher against the risk of delivering is soul to error by choosing
his teachers infelicitously." The Christian theory of the fall hints that
professors are more likely to err than any other group in our society, such is
the nature of pride. Finding teachers who tell them the truth is in fact the
main task of young students. In any university there are numerous pied pipers
who lead us down paths no mind should follow. And they are charming. I have
tried to suggest books that gently lead back to reality.
There is no way to convince anyone that teaching a "full
academic" load of six hours a week is anywhere near a full time occupation. But
a university is a certain kind of institution. Its "work," if you will, is not
labor. It is what Josef Pieper called leisure. I think that, if it does what it
should, a university provides almost the only leisure, in the Aristotelian
sense, left in our society. Academic departments try to quantify what
professors do. But this is almost impossible to do. Universities, at their
best, tell their professors, "Go ahead and see what you come up with." They are
"free" places, as the pope intimated in his Regensburg Address. The old Jesuit
Order had some of this sense of reducing prayer and community time to an
absolute minimum in order that the life of the mind, itself both an individual
and social good, could happen freely in real human beings. It cannot, for the
most part, be programmed. It is easily abused, often corrupted.
A Catholic university, in its essence, is a place where
thinking about all that is, including
reason and revelation and all else, can be freely pursued. How many "Catholic"
universities there are, I would not hazard a guess. But what is peculiar to
such an institution is that the truths of the faith—Trinity, Creation,
Redemption, the Virtues, yes, "the four last things," as Spe Salvi shows—are the things that are most exciting to
think about in the light of all the alternative proposals. I have always loved
Aristotle's remark, which I just reread today with a class: "For all the facts
harmonize with a true account, whereas the truth soon clashes with a false
One has to have time to read, to write. Things jell. We can
be too busy. But we also need the incentive to do so, what Rebecca West once
called "the strange necessity." I have always been struck in myself and in
others by the fact that when you come across something that is strikingly true
or strikingly funny, or both at the same time, the almost physical urge to tell
someone else about it arises in our souls. Ultimately, I think, along with
Plato, that this response to the truth we discover is why the world was created
in the first place.
There is a "gladness" about teaching, I think. I have
written a lot about the topic of students and teachers. But that "gladness" is
best, I think, when a student tells you, on his own: "You know, Father, I never
thought of that before, but it is true. I see it." He is not complimenting you
on "your" truth. He has suddenly seen in his own soul the same truth that you
saw, usually with the help of some obscure friend or writer, even the not so
obscure ones like Aquinas and Augustine, who are still the best.
But I am not someone who writes a certain number of lines a
day. I have often read of writers who have such a discipline. They write their
four pages and then are off for a beer or to mow the lawn. I find the
"discipline," if that is what it is, which I doubt, in the idea itself, which
is closer to pleasure and delight than anything else. I recall Étienne Gilson
saying somewhere that you never know what you will write before you start to
write. Your very writing is the working out of what you have to say. The very
writing is the creating, the thinking through the issue that appears in your
soul as a seed. Sometimes you even feel that it is not you who is writing.
Writing is a habit that started long ago. "The strange necessity" to write
something, likewise, never knows whether there is anyone out there to read it.
But that is the mystical contract that a writer has with the world, living and
dead and yet to be born.
I doubt if Carl Olson was born when Redeeming the Time was first written, speaking of "milestones."
[Editor's note: That is correct. I was born in April 1969.] As it fascinates me
also, I never tire of pointing out to students, on reading them with me, the
fact that Plato and Aristotle lived some twenty-five hundred years ago. And
yet, they are better than any other thing they will read. And I then ask, "Why
is that?" Basically, it is because we live in the same world and our souls long
for the same truth.
Part Two of this interview will be posted on Ignatius Insight later this week.
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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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
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!