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Putting Things In Order: Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing (Part 2) | Part 1 | Carl E. Olson

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Ignatius Insight: One thing that you seek to do—and you do it very well—is to introduce readers to the minds and thoughts of writers and thinkers they might not otherwise meet. In the first few pages of Redeeming the Time, for example, you mention or cite J. F. Powers, Pourrat, G. L. Prestige, Shelley, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and E. M. Forester. Likewise, in the opening pages of The Order of Things you discuss Plato, C. S. Lewis, Belloc, Aquinas, Josef Pieper, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and (of course) Aristotle. Do you find that this approach to teaching and writing puts you at odds with the prevailing trends in education? How do students and readers react to it?

Schall: Yes, what I seek to do is to take readers to books and essays. Usually, I entitle my book lists something like "Twenty-Five Books that No One Will Ever Tell You About." Even though I am a reader of the so-called "great books," the Platos, Aristotles, Aquinases, Machiavelli's, Hegels, and Nietzsches, I am not really in the business of pursuing studies in texts or issues of scholarly wissenschaft, however valuable that may otherwise be. I am interested in the whole. Philosophy is the knowledge of the whole, in so far as we can have it. And if we cannot have it all in this life, which we cannot, it is about knowing what we can. Socrates' "knowing that I know nothing" is nothing other than the negative theological principle that however much we can know about God, what we do not know is infinitely greater. But as the pope said in the Regensburg Lecture, we really do know something even if we do not know everything. And that slim bond is what keeps all things together.

Often I tell the story of being a young man in the Army. After a semester at college, with some leisure time, I went into the Post Library (at Fort Belvoir, Virginia). Looking over the stacks, I suddenly and vividly realized that I did not know what to read! Nor did I really know where to go to find out. But the impact of that realization was only brought home to me in later years after I had read some things. Now, this latter opportunity and reflect was only possible to me, in my particular circumstances, because I entered the Order at a time when we were taken off the streets ("out of the world," as it was quaintly put) for long years—seventeen years, to be exact. We really did nothing much but read and reflect. Many a modern cleric thinks that sort of thing was absurd because it is the culture that is to educate us, that social justice is safe without philosophy. But I now have read Plato and Augustine, and I know better.

Moreover, I have been influenced by Aquinas, Chesterton, Lewis, and others in the view that the truth can be stated clearly and succinctly. It can also be stated charmingly. And, with Chesterton, there is no reason why what is true cannot also be funny. I have been much influenced by the notion that there is a joy behind things, something I found certainly in Chesterton and Belloc above all, but also in Flannery O'Connor, Charles Schulz, and all the humorists. P. G. Wodehouse writes many truths. Humor is, as I once wrote, close to sadness; but the converse is also true. I know that to be a Christian means to hold that in the end there is gladness, but only if we choose it. Not surprisingly, that is often what we find out in our daily lives dealing with those we love and know.

You will recall the Ignatius Insight essay, "31 Questions for Schall" (October 2007). That essay was occasioned by my participating at a program at the University of North Dakota in which the student seminar read a number of my books—Students' Guide for Liberal Learning, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, and the Sum Total of Human Happiness. When the seminar was over, the two professors who conducted this seminar required a paper of the students reflecting on what they had read. Almost all of these students said the same thing that you did, namely, that Schall directs one to books that lead to other books that lead to truth. That is pretty close to what I have always thought that I was doing. The very title, Another Sort of Learning, with its long sub-title, was designed to tell students that they were not to despair if they did not learn anything really important or if they only were given ideology. Anyone can read. My friend Anne Burleigh says that this is the first freedom, the ability to read. And with that little blessing, anyone can read a few books to get him started. But some of these books are the best he will ever read, I think.

My books lists usually contain short, concise books. The first thing a young man or woman needs to do is wake up. I can read something that is important, true. Once this initial fire is kindled in our soul, we are all right. Plato has much to say about this, the "turnings around," the "what did you say, Socrates?" but also his warning that we often start too young. We are not ready to see or understand so we turn away. This in part is why I love to cite C. S. Lewis' remark that "if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all." I often describe my mission to students by saying, "It is the function of Schall to get you through the book the first time." The first time is often confusing and bewildering if someone is not there to urge the student on. That is, as I see it, why I am in a classroom and in fact enjoy being there. Over the years, I have had thousands of students in class. Samuel Johnson, another hero of mine, once remarked on what a delight this is to have them about. He was right.

Ignatius Insight: Why a book on "order"? Isn't that considered a rather quaint, even restrictive, notion? Why not a book on "liberation" or "the politics of gender" or "self-expression"?

Schall: I did write a book once called Liberation Theology! Well, you cannot write a book on gender until you first decide what men and women are. Get this wrong and you will probably get every thing else wrong. Indeed, you even first have to decide what grammar is. I have always thought one of my better books was Human Dignity and Human Numbers. That was written in the days when the literati thought that there would be too many of us. In the meantime, Paul VI wrote a prophetic encyclical in which he suggested that if you stop having babies, soon there would be too few of you. One of my most prophetic short essays was published in the old Month in London, in September, 1969, entitled the "Papacy and Humor." I suspected even then that the papacy would have the last laugh, and it did.

It has always struck me as rather odd to be "expressing" oneself before one has anything to express or any check of reality on whether what one expresses had any object or truth. I am frankly put off by people who go about "expressing" themselves when their only claim for the worth-while-ness of what they express is that they express it. All you can say to such a thesis is, "Well, fine, now what?" If my "expression" is true and so is yours, even if they are the opposites, then all that is left is universal incoherence.

But "order" is a different matter. If we take a look at the index of Aristotle's Basic Works, we see that everything is ordered. We know where things belong. I never forget the thrill I had when I first realized—and this was not too long ago—that there were really two worlds. The first was the natural world of things that could not be otherwise. This is the world that supports our existence, and includes the whole cosmos. The second is the world that could not exist without us, the world. This is the world full of our own choices, each of which could be otherwise. This is the world of "praise and blame," as Aristotle called it. The first, cosmic world is for the second, moral world. The ultimate purpose of the universe lies in this second world.

"Why a book on order?" you ask. We do not so much live in a world that betrays no order as in a world that maintains that even if there is an order we cannot know it. It is an epistemological problem. The various forms of relativism are the product of this view. But it has a moral origin, I think. Modern relativism is really an effort to protect us from having to face the truth that there has been a revelation which is addressed to a world that has reason. If this is the case, the only way to protect ourselves to be "free," in the sense of doing whatever we want, is to deny the power of reason to know anything.

I am a fan of Chesterton's notion that the real problem of the world in accepting a coherent order of things is that the truth is too good to be true. It is not so much that mankind does not want to know the truth, but it does not want to know it if it comes from a certain place which they have convinced themselves cannot know the truth. This means that they go off in their own order of disorder, as Aquinas put it. It is very strange, really.

The problem is not just that there is an order, but that we are intended to understand and acknowledge it as an order that ultimately does not come from ourselves. The Order of Things simply says that, even though we may want to deny that order exists in our lives and in our soul, the fact is that it is there. The reason we deny it is because we want only to live under our own order. As opposed to the order of joy of which Chesterton spoke, it is an order of sadness. The stakes are very high.

Ignatius Insight: In the opening chapter, "The Orderly and the Divine," you point out something that often amuses and frustrates me at one and the same time: "There remains, of course, those who find no order or reason in reality. They even somewhat illogically perhaps, spend a good deal of time explaining why it is 'reasonable' that there is no order or reason in things." What to make, for instance, of the recent spate of books by atheists attempting to use logic and reason to assert that there is, in the end, no source or meaning to logic or reason? Isn't that like a neo-Luddite using the internet to denounce technology?

Schall: The current "atheist" books have received an amazingly large number of highly critical reviews suggesting that the gentlemen atheists are rather superficial in their tastes and deficient in their logic. It is no longer possible to shock the world when some scientist announces in the New York Times or Nature that he is an atheist. Most people yawn and wonder what else is new. If you want to cause a stir suggest that there is something to "intrinsic design."

The atheist onslaught, if it is that, arises, I suspect, out of desperation. The notion that the whole universe has a very precise order as does everything in it, which the old determinists could accept, is not so much the problem with the current crop of atheists, who know that there is indeed an argument for intrinsic design. And this argument does not arise from religion. No, religion has long capitulated to the notion of "evolution." It is certain scientists who have the problems with their notion that there is no order in a universe which seems not only to betray order at every step, but to betray an order that seems designed to bring forth the rational creature some place within this same universe.

In the "Regensburg Lecture," Benedict had a very penetrating remark. He was stating that the Church has no problem with science or its modern discovery if they have a proper human use. In fact, he said, the modern world was the result of a combination of "Plato and mathematics." Then he added that the world is not simply matter and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of mathematics, which presupposes matter. By restricting itself only to what could be analyzed by mathematics, science neglected to know the myriad of things that were not material, which the older religions and philosophies understood.

Benedict then remarked that it was rather curious that mathematics actually worked in the world. If we do not measure or calculate properly, the things we make fall down. Does it not seem odd that there is a correspondence between mathematics, from the tradition of Plato, and the real world? The world of ideas and the world of physical being seem to belong together. "Why?" the pope wonders. He addresses himself to the scientists, "does it not seem that they have a common origin that can be from either the world or our own minds?" Benedict leaves it at that. I suspect the current atheist books know very well what is at stake. They are no longer facing a philosophic and Christian mind (which is also itself philosophical) that does not know their game. The agenda of this pope includes the minds of scientists on their own grounds.

Ignatius Insight: There are chapters on "The Order within the Godhead," "The Order of the Cosmos," "The Order of the Soul," and "The Order of the Mind" (among others). But "The Order of Hell?" Please explain a bit.

Schall: Ah, you have caught Schall in his favorite Platonic topic, namely "Hell." It is a place Schall would prefer not to visit, but is glad it is there, wherever there may be. Christ asked, "How could Beelzebub's kingdom stand if it was not united?" The "order" of hell is found in revelation. It is also found in philosophy. The great last book of Plato's Republic is precisely about the punishment due to those who persist in their evils. Christianity did not "invent" Hell. It was already in the Old Testament and in the Greeks.

Over the years, I have included a chapter on hell in my books—The Politics of Heaven and Hell, At the Limits of Political Philosophy—as well as doing several essays on this happy topic. I even gave a talk called "The Hell It Is" at a pub in Stamford, Connecticut. And there is an essay on Chesterton in the New Blackfriars called "Haloes in Hell."

Now, I happen to think the doctrine of hell, far from being an awful topic that all liberal thinkers must treat as an aberration, is the charter of our freedom. Without the doctrine of Hell, our lives would be utterly vapid and insignificant. Indeed, I have held—and the pope touches on this same point in Spe Salvi—that modern political philosophy is nothing less, at times, than a constant recreation of Hells in this world as a result of its own dynamic. The gulags and the concentration camps, even the abortion clinics, are but this-worldly versions of Hell. They flow directly out of modern thought seeking to give us a perfect world by our own powers.

Basically, the doctrine of Hell means that each of our lives at every minute of our existence is infinitely important. Each of us can, if we choose, commit an act against ourselves or against others that can send us to Hell. This means, looked at from this angle, that our lives really are meaningful. The very drama of human existence is made poignant because of this divine insistence on its importance.

The "order" of Hell, I think, reflects the order of our actions. Those who reject the existence of Hell are logically left with an unjust world, the very purpose that Plato set out to show was not possible. There is no actual city in which all crimes done within it are adequately punished or all good deeds rewarded. The modern secularist, who has spent over a half century making movies of Hitler, must in the end conclude that the gentleman's crimes really went without punishment. We Christians do not necessarily know what happened, but Spe Salvi does not belong to that theological school that maintains dogmatically that everyone is saved. The pope says that even if through repentance the man who kills another is saved, there will still be distinctions in Hell.

So, I look on Hell as a kind of liberal doctrine. It says straight-forwardly that our acts are of transcendent importance. We do not trifle with one another about ultimate things. We do not finally escape from our crimes even if we avoid punishment in this world. Not everything is forgiven if no repentance is forthcoming. Much of this is already in Plato. Indeed, there is a wonderful passage in the Phaedo in which the punishment of the unjust is being described. It seems that those who have committed great crimes are cast into the river to be circulated about Tartarus endlessly until (and this is significant for us Christians) the person against whom we committed the crime forgives us. We have an advocate, that is Christ the Lord, but it is the same principle. You see why I like Plato. And why I take with a grain of salt all those pundits who are so horrified by the doctrine of Hell. If they had their way, our lives would be totally meaningless.

Ignatius Insight: Can you leave us with one of you famous lists? Perhaps: "A List of books that you should have read by the time you are eighty"?

Schall: It may be immoral to give Schall temptations he cannot resist! Before I do, I want to say that often I have said that on the day I die, I hope my shelves contain many books I intended to read but never got around to reading. Why do I say this? Simply because no human being should delude himself that he has "read it all." I know many friends and scholars and ordinary folks who are far more well read than I. I've often had the experience (somehow I think of Scott Walter or Andrea Ciliotta Rubery) of suggesting a book, a book that took me days and weeks, even months to read. Two days later, not only do they tell me what the book was about, they want to know if I have any other suggestions.

Just today, I received an e-mail from a student who had been in my class a couple of years ago. He confessed to me that he had not read carefully all the books that I had assigned in class, but now with a little experience—he tells me he is a stand-up comedian in New York!—he realizes that he missed things that would be useful and important him now after a little experience. This is just what Plato said to young men in book seven of the Republic. He wanted to know if I had any books I might suggest to him! Well, I did. I told him to look up the lists in Another Sort of Learning but in particular to read James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times and Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

But here is your requested list:


1). Chesterton, Orthodoxy
2). Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
3). Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien
4). Lewis, Till We Have Faces
5). Pieper, Josef Pieper—an Anthology
6). Belloc, The Four Men
7). Boswell's Life of Johnson
8). Jane Austen, Persuasion
9). Simon, A General Theory of Authority
10). Guardini, The Humanity of Christ
11). Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture
12). Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God
13). Sayers, The Whimsical Christian
14). Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov
15). Huizenga, Homo Ludens
16). Morse, Love and Economics
17). Arkes, First Things
18). Derrick, Escape From Skepticism: Liberal Education as if the Truth Really Matters
19). Baring, Lost Lectures
20). Sokolowski. The God of Faith and Reason

Permit me one book of Schall: On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.

Thanks for the questions, I enjoyed them.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Part One of Putting Things In Order: Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Patron Saint of Teachers: Or, On the Meaning of the Second Semester | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Philosophy and the Sense For Mystery | Josef Pieper
Leisure and Its Threefold Opposition | Josef Pieper
Philosopher of Virtue: Josef Pieper (1904-1997) | Ignatius Insight
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr. Jose Yulo
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with 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 School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

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 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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