Sense and Nonsense: The Partisans of Excellence

In an old Peanuts sketch, from a book Scott Walter once gave me, Linus and Charlie Brown are seen walking across the countryside. Linus says to Charlie, “I have a theological question. . . .” Next, they are seen, caps on, leaning on a stone fence, as Linus continues: “When you die and go to heaven, are you graded on a percentage or on the curve?” To which query Charlie, looking off into the distance but with absolutely no hesitation, responds, “On a curve, naturally.” But Linus objects, “How can you be so sure?” Charlie finally puts his finger up authoritatively and explains, “I’m always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.”

Actually, as I think of it, that was a very Platonic sort of conversation between Charlie and Linus, both potential philosophers, on truth and opinion, rewards and punishments. We only go around once, so we must choose right the first time; we are loved in our particularity, not abstractly, so we do get a grade. But Linus’ very question presupposed a criterion by which we are measured — not in this or that area, but in the transcendent arena of what a particular human life as such is all about. Of course, if the meaning of life is always a matter of “opinion,” of subjective preference, as it were, then discussions about the highest things are neither worthwhile nor even possible, because, on such a premise, it really makes little difference what our actions or conversations are about.

In his essay on Aristotle’s Politics, Leo Strauss remarked that Aristotle was not an ordinary patriot or partisan of just any cause. Rather, he was “the partisan of excellence.” However noble this might at first sight sound (recall that there are also “excellent” thieves) it would be less than fair not to remind ourselves of the fate of the partisans of excellence in the ancient world — of Socrates, of Christ, of Cicero, even. Aristotle himself was said to have chosen to leave Athens so that it would not commit the same crime against philosophy twice.

Thus, any real form of excellence finds itself in a sort of jeopardy, particularly when the question concerns precisely human excellence. We ought not to forget Plato’s stern warning about the greatest form of tyranny — the one only possible to the exalted stature of the philosopher-king gone wrong. This philosopher gone wrong defines and pursues his own good, his own world. But he is still called noble and good by others, by admirers. We ought not to be overly naive, I think, about the attraction of evil, especially for those whom Plato called the young potential philosophers.

To put the point in another way, were Socrates teaching at any “good” university (assuming of course that he could get hired in the first place), how many students would sign up for his course? What marks would he receive by students and faculty on their evaluation forms? If we might extrapolate Socrates’ own suspicion in this matter from the Apology, he would be looked on as just another obscure teacher, whom the parents of the students and not a few of the students themselves, along with his colleagues, thought just a bit dotty, and his course would be followed by a few, mainly for its entertainment value.

Ideology Disguised As Excellence

Universities, I suppose, are places which claim to be the special loci for this pursuit of excellence. As they claim of themselves, they are constantly reforming themselves along the lines of “excellence” in order to present a better figure in the academic marketplace. The skeptic is not wrong in wondering about the difference between fad and form here. No doubt, we can say that there should be enclaves of quiet and leisure somehow apart from the turmoil of sundry opinions. It takes only a bit of prodding to discover that most universities in the world are highly politicized institutions wherein the formulation of ideology is deftly disguised as the pursuit of excellence.

In 1779 Johnson observed to Boswell, “Every man is to take care of his own wisdom and his own virtue, without minding too much what others think.”

A friend in Cincinnati recently reminded me that Shakespeare’s 106th Sonnet begins, “When in the chronicle of wasted time . . . .” When I heard this line, I exclaimed, “So that is where Malcolm Muggeridge got the title of his autobiography!” Muggeridge called it Chronicles of Wasted Time. And need I remind anyone that it was the Little Prince who said that it is the time we waste with our friends that really counts?

Does all this mean that Schall is suggesting to students in the heart of the university that they “waste” their time? Well, in a way — in two ways, in fact. First, one is well advised to have a very healthy skepticism about the prevailing fashions in academic institutions. Paul Johnson, who has done much to elucidate the connection between intellectuals and modern tyranny, asks in Modern Times: “Why had the twentieth century turned into an age of horror, or as some would say, evil? The social sciences, which claimed such questions as their province, could not provide the answer. Nor was this surprising: they were part, and a very important part, of the problem.”

The social sciences, in their turn, are mostly reflective of turmoil in metaphysics and in the spiritual life of man.

The second way of wasted time is to be mindful of Johnson and Strauss, indeed of Plato and Aristotle. A friend who has gone to several good universities over the years told me recently that it was strange, in our lifetime, how few are the places where we can find really good, serious conversation, conversation which seeks the highest things. A university is only a pursuit of excellence in a very limited fashion. The minute we think it something more, we will find ourselves mostly locked into a fashion of the times.

Our virtue, our wisdom, minding what others think, the chronicle of our time, wasted on a what is which is not studied, not popular: these are the “higher order concerns” which we must reflect on, pursue when we wonder about what it is we are to learn.

A Permanent Simplicity

The Ignatius Press in San Francisco has just begun to publish for the first time the collection of weekly essays G. K. Chesterton used to do in The Illustrated London News. On December 2, 1905 Chesterton wrote an essay, pertinent to the issue here, entitled “Education by Fairy Tales,” and occasioned by some duchess who wanted to abolish fairy tales from the schools. Chesterton remarked:

How strange it is, then, that we should so constantly think of education as having something to do with such things as reading and writing! Why, real education consists in having nothing to do with such things as reading and writing. It consists at the least of being independent of them. Real education precisely consists in the fact that we see beyond the symbols and the mere machinery of the age in which we find ourselves: education precisely consists in the realisation of a permanent simplicity that abides behind all civilisations, the life that is more than meat, the body that is more than raiment. The only object of education is to make us ignore mere schemes of education. Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

The pursuit of excellence, the deadly danger of taking educated people seriously, the time we waste in discovering what is, when what is is apparently nowhere to be found in this world, not minding too much what others think, chronicles of wasted time: these are my opinions, and I am quite sure of them.


  • 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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