Gift Books of Christian Wisdom: A Syllabus for Our Era

Despite the recent, precipitous decline in Western education, most people do realize that going to college entails reading books. Of course, thoughtful men question the kinds of books which students are getting assigned these days. As a remedy, I’d like to list books almost no one in college will mention to students. Hopefully, they will provide a counter-balance, a way to keep one’s eyes on the important things, the things that are. Students will have to fish such books out for themselves, sometimes from used book stores or on-line sources in order to embark on the great adventure of finding books that tell the truth about what is. These books are not generally classified as “Great Books,” but they are very good ones that serve a purpose usually not found by reading “Great Books” as such, at least without some philosophical preparation. The “Great Books,” in the end, often contradict each other and can leave the mind with the suspicion that no truth can be found. The study of “Great Books” can, and often does, lead to a kind of “relativism” that despairs of the possibility of any truth at all. This latter suspicion is why I cited the passage from Boswell in my previous essay on education. Along with Plato, he warned us that we could be exposed to the highest things too soon, before we have experience and virtue enough to understand them. I do not argue here against reading what are often called “Great Books,” but I do insist that they too must be tested. So let me recommend five very good books that any college student should start with:

I am a big believer in personal libraries, in books that we keep. Though much is available online, I still think there is nothing like having one’s own books, books he has read, books he knows he must keep. For not too much money, if one knows used and on-line book stores, he can possess good copies of the basic works of Plato or Aristotle or Augustine. He can find most of the books I will recommend here, plus many others that the adventure of his mind will find. Books will bring us to teachers we could not meet as they lived before our time or not in our place.

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Allan Bloom in Shakespeare’s Politics wrote an Introduction on “Political Philosophy and Poetry.” In it he remarked that “The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination.” These are significant words “taste” and “imagination.” “In general, they (students) do not look at all to books when they meet problems in life or try to think about their goals; there are no literary models for their conceptions of virtue and vice. This state of affairs itself reflects the deeper fact of the decay of the common understanding—and agreement on—first principles that is characteristic of out times.”

No literary examples of what each of the virtues entails, no principles to ground what life is about—these issues themselves will be familiar to university students in their absence or outright rejection on grounds that are themselves dubious. Perhaps the best book we can find on the need of experience filled also with literary guides is C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Bloom himself, in the above reflection, remarked that we are often more alive, more aware of what we are watching a tragedy or drama being played out before out eyes while reflecting on our common participation in the human adventure.

Back in 1905, G. K. Chesterton explained the reason why he wrote his book, Heretics, wherein the term “heretics” simply meant the ideas charging the minds of his era. The word “heretics” again means here the ideas are important in one’s era. The irony is that probably the greatest “heresy” is that which most men would call sanity, the one that is most difficult to come by. Chesterton wrote that

the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.

This passage captures much of the spirit of what we want to consider here. It is perfectly all right to know the unimportant things, but it is fatal not to know about the important ones. We can learn most of the important ones from reading Chesterton, so here are some starting points in his own work:

Here are a few more supplemental syllabi I’d hand out to any student willing to listen:

Five Books of Initial Insight:

Five Books on the Philosophical Basics:

Here are some works by the a man we might call a “leaping Thomist,” for the joy he brings to the study of the higher things, Josef Pieper:

And finally, if I might do so without appearing immodest, there are some books I’ve written myself which might be worth a look:

I hope that some of these good books find their way onto your list of Christmas gifts, especially for high school or college students. A single truly important book can spin a young person’s life in a whole new direction—in this case, inward and upward.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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