Father James Schall was, as many readers of this magazine know, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University. For the last half-century, Fr. Schall has published a near-constant stream of books, articles, and reviews ranging over almost every subject, from Peanuts to Plato, sports to the Church Fathers.
Although now retired, Fr. Schall was known, famously, at Georgetown for deeply discussing with his classes the really great books of the Western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine—at length. Moreover, he shows that these books are in conversation with one another, while bringing in contemporary authorities such as Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Pieper, Chesterton, and many others. These books are the same; an essay opening with Aristotle moves along from Etienne Gilson to Chesterton, Samuel Johnson to Aquinas. But the effect is not a jumble, or a disordered list of high-browed references. Rather, Fr. Schall’s purpose here, as well as in the classroom, is to show us that our Western tradition is an intelligible (though changing over time) whole, and that through the use of reason we can come to understand, in part, the nature of reality.
Fr. Schall speaks not only as a believer, but as someone who has devoted his career to teaching political philosophy. What have the books on which he has penned during his career have to do with the ordering of the state? Quite a lot, actually. Fr. Schall takes from his wide reading of the pagan authors an important political lesson, and then draws a second lesson specifically from the Catholic tradition.
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Further, study of the great books shows us that part of that understanding of reality must include an openness to revelation. In an essay included in Political Philosophy and Revelation on Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Schall argues that “Reality included the reality of God and His activity in time. Faith cares for and about reason.” This is a crucial point. As the destructive ideologies of the twentieth century have shown, efforts to put the good of human society in some outside force—the classless society, a racial group—that way lies madness and evil. The first good of society is the goods of each and every person. And those ideologies have not all gone, in the words of Ronald Reagan, onto the ash heap of history. Fr. Schall here cites the dangerous themes within environmentalism; man is a steward of nature, not, as some environmentalists believe, some kind of blight on it. That view, which replaces man as the center of political and social reflection with an abstraction such as “nature” or a divinized “Gaia,” can be no less dangerous.
Instead, a proper understanding of reason must acknowledge that solutions to some of the answers it poses lay outside of reason. That is why the Catholic mind is open to what lay outside of its understanding or observation. The secular mind, contrary to elite opinion, is closed. “Much modern rationalism, under the guise of method, wants to limit reason to what is now called ‘scientific’ reasoning.” But this understanding of scientific reason—that only what can be quantified or measured is truly known—truncates and does not expand reason. If the Catholic mind is an open road, leading to our final destination, the secular mind is a closed box and we are stuck inside.
The secular city, what St. Augustine called the City of Man, killed two of the best people who ever lived Socrates and Christ. Those societies could not see what was beyond reason. In the case of Socrates, Athens did not want to hear Socrates ask the fundamental questions of man’s being, and Rome did not want to hear Christ preach of a kingdom not of this world. This was politics before revelation, which had not yet had fully revealed the Christian message that “the important things are not political, even though politics is worthy.”
Revelation adds a warrant for justice, and makes the world intelligible. Father Schall finds the beginnings of understanding political meaning in Plato and Aristotle. For them, the immortality of the soul and a kind of last judgment in the case of Plato had political effects. In “The ‘Reasonable’ Case for Hell,” included in Reasonable Pleasures, Fr. Schall lays out the effects on the secular city of belief in the immortality of the soul and final judgment. In short, these teachings allow for justice.
If the human soul is not immortal—that is, if nothing passes beyond this life—it follows that injustice and justice have the same results. Great crimes of injustice are gotten away with and great examples of courage or generosity are unrewarded. If either of these results is the case, then the world is made in injustice. It is rationally incoherent. It was this frightening alternative that Plato fought against, as we also do.
Judgment is therefore not only an element of revelation, but also a political fact. To ignore it or pretend it has no political consequences will lead—as it has lead—to horror. Indeed, for Father Schall, one can dispense for a moment with the theological case for hell and final judgment and simply look at the real world in which humans live. Without a notion of final judgment, no justice in this world is possible.
This insight is common to both the Catholic tradition and the pagan philosophic tradition upon which the Church drew to give intellectual structure to its unfolding revelation in time. But this insight has been lost to most modern people, who tell us on the one hand we have endless “rights” yet on the other hand we are told that we are no more than successful products of a “survival of the fittest,” no more valuable than the primates or dinosaurs we succeeded. This too is rationally incoherent, and the effects of this incoherence is apparent in everything from how we discuss marriage to how we understand the relationship of rights and duties.
But not only judgment provides a window to the eternal and changes how we understand politics and our human life. As his students well know, Fr. Schall shows how things like laughter, play and sport, and friendship are also windows on the eternal and cannot be understood without an appreciation for the limits of reason and an opening to the divine. Play, for example, is not as some would think “wasting time”; when we are so deeply in play that we cannot sense the passage of time is nothing less than a glimpse of the timeless, what for Christians something like what heaven might be like. And friendship, that great subject for Aristotle, is a desire for permanence, and a desire for the good for the other that cannot be fulfilled without a lastingness for the good for the other, which cannot be fully realized in this world. In other words, the world is good, and full of good things, but their goodness rests in large part in that they help us see beyond the world.
The tradition Father Schall does so well to explicate in two of these volumes was current in Europe until perhaps the middle of the last century as a living alternative to secular ideology. Even during the height of Nazism and Communism, giants like Saint Pope John Paul II lived the tradition under oppression. And that brings us to the final volume, dedicated to the writings of Hilaire Belloc, who himself embodied that tradition and whom Fr. Schall considers one of the finest English stylists of the era, alongside Matthew Arnold and John Henry Cardinal Newman. This collection—a sort of companion to his earlier, and also indispensible Schall on Chesterton, is divided into 30 short chapters, each dealing generally with one of Belloc’s essays. One essay is devoted to Belloc’s infamous phrase, “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” This is not, as once was charged, exclusionary. Belloc, in the first part of the phrase, is simply stating a fact. The Church created Europe out of a multiplicity of peoples, as Pope Benedict XVI has recently reiterated. Even the second part of the phrase must be properly understood. Europe expressed the Faith as a combination of Hebraic spirituality and Greek rationality and Roman authority. But the mission of that faith “assumed that reason was common to all men.… The purpose of the mission was salvific, to explain the ultimate meaning of each person in the world.” The faith is Europe, in the sense that Europe would not exist without it; but that specific gift of faith demands it be presented to others through the force of reason, since reason properly understood is the common gift to humanity.
Taken together, these three books provide the basis for a Catholic understanding of political life that is countercultural in the best sense, replacing a box with the open road.
(Photo credit: Hilaire Belloc by Emil Otto Hoppe / 1915)