Sense and Nonsense: Three Books

St. Thomas Aquinas is known for being, at the same time, very terse and very diffusive. He can state the basic princi­ples of all that is in a few brief, riveting Latin words. At the same time, he has no difficulty, in a short life, writing vol­umes and volumes of fundamental principles on all phases of reality.

Those who know me are used to the fact that I am capable, at the drop of a hat, of recommending to them this book or that. I do so with great enthu­siasm—”Read this!” A good book is a treasure. It is not an uncommon expe­rience, when we read something that strikes us as particularly true or well- said or funny, to rush off looking for someone to whom to read it, almost as if what is ours is not ours until we give it to someone else.

It is my particular calling, I sometimes think, to be concerned with what I call “the life of the mind.” I am aware that the disorders in the world stem mainly from the will, not the mind, even though a mind component is found in any disorder or sin. Often in my thoughts I mull over what I would recommend to someone who really wants to know the truth of things. What would I tell him? Where would I tell him to go? Whom should he con­sult? I have multi-lists of ten books, 20 books, 25 books. “Acquire these,” I tell anyone who will listen.

I know about Scripture, Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and the rest. I have long given out lists of what I call “minor” classics, books that no one tells us about in the university or in the culture, but books that never­theless explain the essence and right order of things. At the top of this list is probably, for me, Chesterton. Nothing is quite like him. He makes truth so delightfully clear that we deliberately have to close our souls to keep it out as we read him. Chesterton is not some­one to dally with if we want to hide our inner selves from truth.

What I have in mind here, how­ever, is the following project. Let us suppose that someone wanted to read, say, three books that would explain in clear, profound, and incisive terms the whole structure of human life, its des­tiny, and how it stands before God and the world. What books would I recom­mend? Or if some parent asked me what three books should he give his son or daughter on the way to college, something that, if read and pondered, would keep what is clearly before his or her eyes, in all its philosophic and rev­elational dimensions. What books would these be? If some unsuspecting student inquires, “What should I read this summer?” what three books would I suggest?

Or if a young man or woman, out of college for several years, has sud­denly become aware of how shallow his or her education had been, what would I recommend? Or suppose someone 50 or 60, who has lived a practical and not always edifying life, was now prepared to look again at the truth square in the eyes, what would I recommend? Imagine some cleric or religious has finally realized the con­temporary shallowness of his theologi­cal or philosophical background and wanted something at the same time profound and eminently clear and direct, what would I recommend?

For these purposes, which are after all the same, I would recommend three books, two of which are just on the market; one has been out since 1989, at least in English. Its German original, once given to me by a German student, was published in 1981.

Read carefully and leisurely to­gether, these books give a better and more coherent overall picture of the unity of intellectual things, the relation of reason and revelation, the order of knowledge, the meaning of modern thought, of virtue and vice, than any­thing else that one could read, except perhaps Chesterton.

These three books are the follow­ing: (1) Josef Pieper: An Anthology (the German book); (2) Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien; and (3) Ralph Mclnerny, The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life. None of these books is very long. Each is relatively easy to read. All three are as profound as any book ever written. They all deal with what is.

These books cover every issue of any importance about how to live and what is true. Each of the authors knows classic and modern thought. None of these books intends to be apologetic; yet taken together, they constitute the finest apologetic imag­inable. They are all lyrical. They deal with evil. They take us to the order of things in a way that nothing else will in quite the same way. “Read 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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