Learning to Leave College
An interview with James V. Schall, S.J.
Editor’s Note: In this issue, we are examining faith’s intersection with our educational experience. One of our most valuable guides to this pursuit is Father James V. Schall, S.J., who was recently interviewed by the Ichthus. Fr. Schall is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is a regular columnist for the National Catholic Register and Crisis magazine, and author of numerous books, including A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, and a forthcoming book entitled The Life of the Mind. We are honored to welcome him to our pages.
ICHTHUS: Did you know there were Christian students at Harvard College? or that they had a journal?
FR. JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.: On the first query, I strongly suspected so, on the second, negative. I am pleased to know of both. Indeed, by the very logic of the question, I am delighted to know “non-Christian” students are found at Harvard! Part of being a Christian has to do with “going forth” and having something important to say to all nations. Being Christian assumes that we do not have to be obnoxious to do the latter, though there are martyrs, including contemporary ones, that tell us it is often a dangerous project. Indeed, the creation of an atmosphere, of institutions and opportunities, for everyone to speak to everyone about fundamental things in relative peace has been the great project of John Paul II and carried on by Benedict XVI, themselves two of the most intellectually stimulating figures in contemporary public life. A most disturbing aspect of the mystery of evil concerns why this effort to speak of the highest things to one another is so difficult.
I have only been on the Harvard campus once, but I do recall the passage in Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 Commencement Address there during which he cited the college motto–Veritas. When I was on the campus, I remember standing before a Gate with the Veritas symbol, presumably the 1875 Gate. I have long been moved by the words about that motto that Solzhenitsyn addressed on that rainy day to Harvard graduates: “Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives,” the great Russian novelist told them, “that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit.” Such are solemn, moving words that anyone with half a heart would be honored to have addressed to himself, to his college. Conversely, one would hate to have, as the epitaph on his tombstone, “Here Lies John Smith, ’04: Truth Eluded Him.”
The very first words in Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles are “Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum…,” which words, “my mouth (literally, ‘wind-pipe’) shall meditate on truth,” are taken from Proverbs, 8:7. Aquinas observes in the first question of this Summa, that “the ultimate end of the universe must be the good of intellect.” He adds, “This good is truth.” So I do hope students at Harvard College, Christian or otherwise, when they pass through this Veritas Gate, do not fail to ponder how this word, Veritas, takes them back to the core of their being, indeed to the origins of the universe itself.
Harvard College, from 1636, is the oldest college in this country. Georgetown, from 1789, is the oldest Catholic college. Its roots go back to the founding of the Colony of Maryland in 1634 when English Jesuits first came to this country.
As an aside, I might add here that in front of the lovely Gothic Healy Building on the Georgetown campus is located a statue of a seated John Carroll, of the founding Maryland Carroll family; his brother and cousin signed the Declaration and the Constitution. John Carroll was at the time a “suppressed Jesuit,” the Order having been disbanded by the papacy from 1773-1815. Carroll was the first Bishop of Baltimore and the founder of Georgetown.
The statue is said to have been conceived and erected in imitation of the statue of John Harvard on the Harvard Campus. In examining the two statues, the sharp eye will notice that space immediately under Harvard’s chair is empty, whereas that under John Carroll is obviously filled in and bronzed over. The reason for this filling in, according to legend, is that, over the years, the comparatively more undisciplined Georgetown students were recurrently wont to place a chamber pot under the sedentary Prelate. The Jesuits of an earlier age had to use a certain craftiness to foil further undergraduate blasphemy! I do not know whether earlier Harvard officials may have had the same problem or whether they solved it by more drastic measures. No doubt modern students find chamber pots more difficult to come by or, perhaps, see such bold use to be less witty.
We have an Argentine Jesuit with us in our community this semester who was till recently the president of the University of Cordoba there. This latter school dates back to 1621 and thus is older than Harvard. Moreover, the Argentine Jesuit, as had his father and grandfather, went to college at the famous Jesuit school at Stoneyhurst in England. Stoneyhurst was originally founded in 1593 at St. Omer’s in France during forced exiles of Catholics during the English Reformation. The school only made it to England after the French Revolution in 1794. I understand it is a beautiful place.
I taught for twelve years in the Gregorian University in Rome, the founding of which goes back to 1551. In all of these places, I suspect, students, in one form or another, once attentively reflected on the things found in Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, along with the Hebrew Bible and the Christian writers. They knew about Augustine in Carthage, Cyril in Alexandria, Bede in Iona, Aquinas in Paris, and Dante in Florence. I hope university students still reflect on these things even if they are not encouraged to do so. We cannot much know what we are unless we know what we have been. Indeed, on the Harvard Veritas Gate are also found the words of Isaiah, 25:2: “Open ye gates that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in….”
And, on this topic, thanks for your later e-mail information that the inscription on the 1881 Gate is St. John’s famous, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make ye free,” as well as that the original motto of Harvard was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, something that wisely appears untranslated in the identification box of your student journal, “truth for Christ and the Church.”
Such original things should be kept in stone to be remembered, even when one’s university drops part of its motto. At first it looked to me like the case endings in that Latin phrase are wrong. I thought it should have read, Veritas Christi et Ecclesiae, the truth of Christ and of the Church, both genitive. Then, on looking it up, one source said that the original motto was: Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia, the study of truth “in behalf of” or “for the good of ” or “through the inspiration of” Christ and the Church. By way of further introduction, I cite these sundry local signs of what we are about, hopefully wherever we are– to meditate on truth, to keepeth it through all the turmoil of the nations that such schools have seen, to know how the end of the universe is intellect and its good is the truth itself, that truth it is that which makes us free, that this truth is, finally, Word, Person. Veritas Christi et Ecclesiae, Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae.
ICHTHUS: Many people, whether religious or not, have a hard time seeing how reason could have anything to do with faith, or a belief in the incredible.’ Some scholars today (in the sciences, for example) talk about how important verification is in order for us to ground convictions. But what are the essential ways in which faith can intersect with reason?
JVS: First of all, this is a recurrent question that appears in every generation and in most cultures. I have dealt with it, in one way or another, as their titles indicate, in all my political philosophy books– The Politics of Heaven & Hell; Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy; At the Limits of Political Philosophy; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, and Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society. Its terms have to be understood.
Neither the word “faith” nor “reason” is totally unambiguous in actual usage. The first task of intellect is to clarify what exactly we are talking about when we use such terms. We need to state what a thing is and affirm or deny that it is. If you call a potato a banana and I call a banana a potato, until we decide what is what, we will have considerable difficulty in determining over what to pour the gravy. This pouring, to be sure, assumes in our culture that we both call gravy “gravy,” so that we do not subsequently pour gravy over bananas.
Men have thought about this issue of faith and reason almost since the beginning so that we ought not presume to talk about it as if we were the first people who ever broached the topic. But it is still ours to reflect on even if Aristotle explained it all, and he in fact explained an astonishing amount. Some things we need to think about ourselves even if nobody or everybody else also thinks about them. The perfection of intellect is also our perfection, no one else’s. And this perfection is, finally, to know the truth of what is. The great Socratic enterprise of knowing ourselves begins with the knowing of what is not ourselves, and, I suppose, with the being grateful that there is not only ourselves to know.
Take the word “incredible.” Strictly speaking if “faith” itself is “incredible,” it means that under no circumstances can it be believed, let alone understood. Christian faith does not understand “incredible” in this sense. The two most famous statements on the topic– fides quaerens intellectum and credo ut intelligam– are designed precisely to affirm that there is something intelligible about faith and something in revelation that is also aimed at intellect.
Faith and reason are not opposed as what is intelligible to what is in no way intelligible. Faith and reason are intended to go together as two ways to know the same ultimate truths about the same common cosmos. We do not have two “worlds,” one of faith and one of reason, neither of which is related to the other. Rather we have one world, knowable, according to the nature of each way of knowing, both by faith and by reason. We need to add that, according to the Christian faith, the world itself need not exist. It does not explain its own existence, but it does indicate that it does need explaining. God would be God even if the world did not exist. This implies, ultimately, that we are not solely products of cosmic or chaotic necessity but of a divine freedom and joy.
The problem with “faith,” if there is one, is not that it is irrational or unbelievable, but that our intellects, though truly intellects, are not the highest forms of intellect in the universe. For something to be “beyond” the power of my intellect does not mean that it is therefore unreasonable or unintelligible as such. It only means that Schall’s intellect is not powerful enough to see the scope of things in which the matter at issue becomes clear. Otherwise, if Schall insists that everything must be known first and foremost by Schall’s intellect, it follows logically that Schall is putting in a divine claim for his own mind. One ought, presumably, to be reasonably skeptical about such a claim. Aquinas noted this distinction when he said that some things are knowable in themselves, others are known first to us. From the latter we proceed to the former.
ICHTHUS: Are faith and reason the same as reason and revelation?
JVS: Such questions, I think, are better posed in terms of reason and revelation, rather than faith and reason. Faith or trust means the acceptance of something as true on the authority of another. Most of the things we do or make or know in everyday life, in fact, we know by authority, that is, by the testimony or guidance of someone who knows. Ultimately, no such thing exists as faith that is simply in yet another act of faith ad infinitum. All faith, by its own logic, finally depends on the testimony of someone who sees the truth or the fact at issue. The problem of faith is rather: “is this witness credible?” That is, is he telling me what he knows? Every revealed doctrine that is to be accepted by faith is rooted in someone who, on feasible grounds, sees its truth and testifies to it.
Basically, revelation is directed to reason. Aquinas, knowing the essential outlines of the content of revelation (one does not have to be a believer to know what this content is, anyone can read the General Catechism) proceeds to ask, “is this revelation ‘necessary’?” (I-II, 91, 4). The word “necessary” here means rather “persuasive?” Aquinas does not think, nor does any sound Christian, that one can argue directly from reason to the truths of revelation. If he could perform this intellectual feat of seeing the divine truths with the human mind, he would already be God and would not have to worry his head about it.
The question is rather, granted that these are the things found in revelation– basically, that there is an inner-Trinitarian life within the Godhead and that one of the Persons of this Trinity became Man, at a given time and place– are there any issues within reason that might indicate that this revealed understanding of reality might best correspond with issues that the human mind by itself did not figure out, but still wondered about?
What is characteristic particularly of Catholicism is a concern for philosophy as itself necessary to understand properly the meaning of revelation. Leo Strauss mentioned this in Persecution and the Art of Writing. It lies at the heart of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, and of course also of Aquinas and Augustine.
I like to put the issue this way: unless one goes to the trouble to think things out, following the light of his reason, he will not be in a position to know whether or not something in revelation is addressed to him. He simply will not have reached the limits of reason, pondered sufficiently those questions that reason in fact does not by itself fully answer. But it is to these questions that revelation is primarily addressed. Revelation is not “irrationality” speaking to reason, but mind speaking to mind, ultimately Person speaking to person. This is why, in practice, the pursuit of an understanding of revelation is also a pursuit of philosophy, indeed often a bettering of philosophy.
Philosophy is not the history of philosophy, a confusion that many academic curricula make. But the history of philosophy indicates the myriads of ways the human mind seeks to pose and answer its own questions. Some responses are quite frankly nutty. Others are very dubious, some feasible, others make sense, but not wholly so. Nothing less than vision finally satisfies the mind. Revelation poses itself as a possible answer to real issues that the human mind has already sought to solve for itself. Revelation can thus indicate why it is not “irrational” to hold what it poses because it does address itself properly to questions that the human mind has raised and knows it does not answer adequately by itself.
Revelation does not exclude considerations of its historically proposed alternatives, rather it insists on dealing with them. From a philosophical view, it merely maintains that it poses a better answer, something at least plausible, but not understood as certain by human reason without faith. That is the barest of touch between human mind, in its weakness as intellect, and intellect as such. Acknowledging that a relation exists between reason and what is revealed is merely an affirmation of the fact that something is not wholly unreasonable, because the question revelation answers is itself something that arises in the only reason we have. The revelational answer still requires faith, but a faith that has the effect of making reason more reasonable because it needs to explain itself and acknowledge its limits. Added to this is the fact that also in revelation are found many truths and virtues that can be arrived at by reason, a fact that itself hints that mind is speaking to mind.
ICHTHUS: What do you think is the greatest problem with ‘the University’ and higher education today? How can it be improved?
JVS: The answer I will give you comes out of many years of reading Aristotle’s Ethics. I do not think I would have answered your question quite this way even a year ago.
First, and this is an aside, I think universities in general are too big. One of the really good things happening in this country is the multiplicity of new and improved smaller colleges. Very few foreign countries, however, have ever allowed our multiplicity of different schools even to happen. Most states insist on total control of higher education. The relation between research institutions, think tanks, colleges, professional schools, and whether they should be in the same institution, needs rethinking. In several ways, on-line access to knowledge and opinion can subsume and bypass universities. The connection between state-federal money and what schools get what is a long and twisted matter.
The greatest American educational law was the G. I. Bill of Rights after World War II. It provided that the money for education went directly to the student, not to the school. The student was the one who decided which school he would attend. The schools had to appeal to the student. The student was really free. As it is today, the cost of education, camouflaged by taxes, makes state schools almost mandatory for many students. I would like to see the choice and will of students and parents always to stand between the school, the teachers unions, and the faculty.
Somehow at bottom and not wholly unrelated, I think home-schooling has something right about it. Indeed, I think students today should attend college with the serious thought in mind that home-schooling their future children is at least an option for which they prepare themselves. There is also much to be learned from the modern distributists, in this connection, from men like Wendell Berry, Allan Carlson, and E. F. Schumacher. But these are opinions.
Aristotle, to return to my main point, asks the question about the relation between one’s moral life and one’s intellectual life. He is remarkably perceptive. Colleges and universities, as they appear today, usually confront the moral environment of their students, not as personal ones, but as some sort of social problems, even social science. The reform of the world, if it needs it, is thus held first to be accomplished at the political level. All sorts of ideologies are imposed on student living, things that affect the student’s inner freedom and capacity to know. Things are wrong in the world, it is said, because they are not “structured” correctly. Therefore, change the structures. All will be well. Go to law school. Get into politics. Do service. Rousseau has replaced Plato, but not for the better.
This position looks very nice, I suppose, but if we look at western nations, including segments of our own, the most striking thing about them is the rapid decline in population and their replacement by peoples from different areas who actually have children and youth. Nothing, including no theory, is changing our world faster than this. We seem blind to it. I suspect, in this regard, to voice a minority opinion, that Paul VI’s much maligned encyclical, Humanae Vitae, may well turn out to be the most prophetic document of the last half of the twentieth century. The people who rejected it are rapidly disappearing in our very midst. Already the grand tour to Europe is not quite a tour to Europe. Indeed, Europe itself denies much of its own culture. We have forgotten to read Christopher Dawson, who was once at Harvard.
This situation is an aspect of the proper understanding of what is the family, something our own Constitution neglected. But not merely is the family the best and proper place in which to beget and raise children, but the family, husband, wife, and children, is the basic unit of human happiness such as we have it in this world. I know of no better two books on these topics than Jennifer Robak Morse’s Love and Economics and Smart Sex: How to Stay Married In a Hooked-Up World. The latter title is a bit flashy, if not fleshy, but it is a book that gets to the heart of the issue, beginning with college life.
And what is that heart? The question as asked has to do with “improving” higher education. My answer is that nothing will really much improve higher education until the question of virtue and its relation to truth is frankly faced. The task of the university is truth, not directly virtue, but the former is not possible without the latter. And by virtue I mean at bottom the moral virtues as described by Aristotle, with the Christian caveat that the problem with virtue is not knowing what the various virtues are, the pagans certainly knew what they are, but, as Augustine said, the problem is the practice or keeping of them. My suspicion is, take it or leave it, that the intellectual disorders of the modern world, within the university and in most individual souls, are almost invariably rooted in moral disorders. There is a very intelligible reason for this connection.
I do not suggest that moral disorders in the souls of individual students somehow lessen IQ’s or SAT scores. I am reminded that Lucifer was one of the most intelligent of the angels, which intelligence, as such, remains even in his Fall. Likewise, little or no difference in raw intelligence is found between the tyrant and the philosopher-king. What is different is the use to which the intelligence is put as a result of what one chooses to define as his happiness or end. In this sense, much modern thought is a brilliant, ever subtle, attempt to justify deviations from the good that is virtue. And once the deviation is accepted, when it is chosen as a way of life, the will to live according to it follows.
In this sense, intellect now becomes a faculty encumbered by one’s own chosen disordered passions. It becomes itself an instrument constantly at work giving reasons, both in private and in public, for what is, in effect, a disordered life. I suspect that until this connection of mind and virtue is again recognized, the university, in the sense of the mission to pursue truth as the affirmation of what is, will be constantly deflected to the mission of justifying what is in effect a disordered life and, following Plato, a disordered society. Aristotle remarkably said that if we are brought up with good habits, we will not have to worry about understanding first principles when we are old enough to know them because we are already habituated to understanding them, to what is good.
ICHTHUS: While teachers are an essential part of successful learning, at the end of the day, much of the responsibility for our education falls on our own shoulders. In your work, you talk about ‘another sort of learning,’ and the search for the ‘higher things.’ What do you mean by that? What do students have to do to pursue the ‘higher things?’
JVS: In some sense, this question follows on the previous one. In his wonderful, not-to-be-missed book, A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher has a moving description of his own experience on arriving, as a young man, at Oxford, the great center of learning. By all objective standards, he was where he should have been. He was a very bright young German in the best of the English universities.
Yet, his soul was torn and empty. What he was encountering was utterly unsatisfactory. Not that it was not the product of the great professors. Indeed, that was the problem. His soul was empty. None of the great personal questions that moves the human soul were really addressed because the methods proposed for study, in principle, prevented them from being seriously asked.
So “what do student have to do to pursue the ‘highest things’?” The first thing they need to do is examine their own souls. I recall a number of years ago, I do not remember where, I found myself chatting with a young Harvard student. Bemusedly, I recalled to him the passage in The Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom quipped the most unhappy souls in this country are those in the students of the twenty or thirty best and most expensive universities. The young man solemnly told me that he “was not unhappy.” All I could do, of course, was laugh.
But Bloom’s point was the same as that of Schumacher. Really perceptive students knew that their souls were empty precisely because the logic and methods of what they were learning led to skepticism and meaninglessness. By every objective standard, by an act of faith, that is, they were among the brightest and the best and in the right place, but it wasn’t working. It is like the cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker, of a group of aging Buddhist monks in a barren monastery. All were sitting on the cold floor in meditative posture, when one very grizzled monk looks up and mutters, “Is this all there is?” I suspect something like this still analogously happens in our universities and to their best students.
If someone is perfectly content with his life and what he is being taught, there is not the slightest possibility that he will ever wonder about its inadequacy. This is why, I think, there must always be a large element of “private initiative” in our own education. I think, in a way, that one can find the basic tools for life– the reading, writing, arithmetic– in almost any school. If one has learned how to read, he has a possibility to be free to educate himself in the highest things over against the ideologies that often, knowingly or not, storm through modern universities. Ironically, universities today are criticized for nothing so much as being totally onesided politically and for their almost universal conformity to a secular view of the world and a corresponding view of human life as itself having no inherent order other than whatever we will.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with knowing both that something is wrong and in what this wrongness consists. In fact, we are supposed to know not only the truth, but the arguments that can be leveled against it. The highest things are the living a life of virtue that itself points to and accomplishes a life of truth, a knowledge of the truth of things. This involves reason, moderation, and a consideration of revelation. But in addition, both reason and revelation point back to the fact that we live among others and in fact the highest things include others. The contemplative life both presupposes and leads to the realities of our world. Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, about active, personal charity, directly recalls that we also encounter the highest things in a love of God that includes the love of our neighbor. This latter emphasis seems to have been one of those things that revelation added to reason.
ICHTHUS: College students understand that great grades and test scores were an important reason why they had the opportunity to continue learning in a university. In this world that values measurable performance in the form of GPAs, LSATs, and ‘resume building,’ how should Christians, who ought to value more enduring qualities, contextualize such metrics?
JVS: Your phrase “contextualize such metrics” amuses me. I fortunately grew up in an era when such things as GPA, SAT, LSAT, and what all, were not yet invented. We did, I believe, have some sort of IQ’s administered out of the State of Iowa. I remember being somewhat relieved to learn I was not an idiot, as I think some of my classmates with reason suspected. But this pervasive quantification of criteria is a function of equality theory. Even the slightest preference has to be justified, and the only justification permitted is one based on numbers. This criterion means that courses have to be conceived and taught as if intelligence is capable of being so rendered.
What is not capable of being measured in this way, then, is said not to be intelligence. The whole directly intuitive side of reason is suddenly eliminated. Intelligence is claimed to be only what is measured by these systems, not by what is. And since everyone is in institutions because of these tests, it looks like the value of the system is proved when those who are selected, are the very ones who reap its rewards by having license to enter the system.
How do Christian students “who ought to value more enduring qualities” cope with such numbers which are in fact the only ticket that will let them into institutions of higher learning? One might say initially that one’s Christian values will not in all likelihood be promoted in institutions whose criteria is measured in this way. So again, Christians must be prepared to use their own enterprise and intelligence to encounter what is lacking. To fight for the truth is not all bad.
I have been struck in recent years by what I detect to be an overload in student academic life. To put it in its most succinct terms, students have no time really to learn anything. They are busy, as you say, with “great grades and test scores.” Every moment of the day, they are filling up their resumes. They are doing what they think is required to get on, once the university life is over.
There is a remarkable passage in book seven of the Republic about the dangers of being exposed to the higher things too soon. Both Plato and Aristotle give us little grounds for thinking that once we have finished college at twenty-two or so we will have learned much that is really important. Not only are we too young for politics, as Aristotle tells us, but we are too young for philosophy.
We thus lack experience of virtue and vice, or perhaps, in view of my earlier observation, all we have is a world initially seen through our own disorders. We have not read widely enough in literature to understand virtue and vice in others. Indeed, we no longer see the books that call vice vice and virtue virtue, to see what happens to both. And yet, Socrates spent his whole life seeking out the potential philosophers. And the Christian experience adds repentance to the mix, just as Plato suggested that we should wish to be punished for our own faults and crimes precisely to acknowledge that the norm that we broke was, none the less, the correct one for human virtue.
ICHTHUS: Christians today might believe that they don’t have much use for non-Christian ideas, both from today and from the ages.
JVS: One probably needs to distinguish somewhat between dealing with ideas with no intellectual background available to one and dealing with ideas when one is familiar with them. The phenomenon of the Da Vinci Code, as I understand it, depends on a massive popular ignorance in the simplest of historical facts and theological concepts, even common sense. However, in principle, ideas from whatever source are to be taken seriously, yet neither naively nor innocently nor uncritically. The famous phrase of Richard Weaver, “ideas have consequences,” contains a basic truth– both good and bad ideas have consequences. The origin of almost any political, religious, or cultural change is in the brain of some thinker, usually occurring long before the idea ever reaches the arena of active life.
The contemplative intellectual life is of vital importance both in the Church and in society. Ideas need to be examined, analyzed, criticized, yes, often combated. Aristotle’s “small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end” is painfully true. But so is the truth that great things begin in hidden, obscure places, like Nazareth. The great wars are first in the minds of what I like to call the “dons,” intellectual and clerical. Religious orders in the Church were once designed, in part, to meet this need. But in principle, never neglect the fact that a truly “intellectual life,” to use the title of A. D. Sertillanges’ famous book, is a much needed and worthy one, one that honestly and honorably pursues the truth for its own sake. Each of us should have something of this pursuit in our own lives whatever our particular vocation turns out to be. Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas can still be our models.
ICHTHUS: In your book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, you said that an “academic experience at its highest level requires spiritual vision.” Why is that the case? And before we wrap up, what are a few books that you would recommend to students who have a budding interest in Christianity and some books you would recommend to students who are already Christian?
JVS: Perhaps I should say, “academic experience at its highest level leads to spiritual vision.” From personal, literary, and anecdotal evidence, my “vision” estimates of folks in academia is modest. But St. Ignatius’ principle that we should find God in all things keeps us from forgetting that this vision is also to be found in our daily lives, in those we know and love, in finding the truth of things wherever things are found. Ultimately, any given thing can lead us to all things. Likewise, the understanding of what is the origin of all things takes us back to particular existing things.
With regard to what to read, as you know, advice on what to read has long been a theme of mine. My books, Another Sort of Learning, A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, and The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, have in various ways addressed this topic. Each of these books contains various lists of books that touch, in one way or another, on the issue of what and why to read. Another Sort of Learning has a very long sub-title that I am rather inordinately fond of, but the short sub-title that I give to it is “how to get an education even while in college.”
Though I do not concentrate on them in these books, I am obviously not unconcerned with what are called the classical books. I am always most delighted to spend a whole semester with a class when we read together only Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. Life is not long enough to do any one of them justice, but a semester is long enough to open our eyes and be astonished. And I am a great believer in C.S. Lewis’ admonition that you have not read a great book at all if you have only read it once. He says somewhere that when you have read it thirty or forty times, you will still learn something new. He is right, I think.
I have two other books that will be out shortly on these topics, The Sum Total of Human Happiness, by St. Augustine’s Press, and The Life of the Mind, by ISI Books. First, I begin by recommending certain authors that one should read. Everyone should have and read Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. Pascal is not to be missed, nor C. S. Lewis. Chesterton and Josef Pieper should be collected and read again and again. Nothing better will be found. I love Belloc’s The Path to Rome and Four Men. Belloc’s essays are as good as essays can be, which is very good. Likewise, his book, The Crusades, will be more instructive about what and why things are happening in today’s world than almost anything written in the daily papers.
Recently, I have finished Robert Sokolowski’s Christian Faith & Human Understanding. This is a basic book, not to be missed. His God of Faith and Reason, Eucharistic Presence, and Introduction to Phenomenology are of major insight and importance.
In 1936, at the school’s 300th Anniversary, the William James Lecture at Harvard was given by Etienne Gilson under the title, The Unity of Philosophical Experience. This book is as fresh and as important today as when it was written. It is simply a must, as are, for those with scientific interests, William Wallace’s Modeling of Nature: The Nature of Science and the Science of Nature and Stanley Jaki’s The Road to Science and the Ways of God. I am also fond of Dennis Quinn’s Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder.
No one should miss Peter Kreeft. I particularly recommend Gertrude von le Fort’s Eternal Woman and Leon Kass’The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature, along with Hadley Arkes’ First Things. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts is great. Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, are as illuminating a book as one will find. John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Cardinal Ratzinger’s Salt of the Earth and The Spirit of the Liturgy are mind openers.
Three books to start with are Josef Pieper– an Anthology; Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien; and Ralph McInerny, the Very Spiritual Hours of Jacques Maritain.
There are the three “after” books, as I call them, each rather heady, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, David Walsh’s After Ideology, and Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing. Hans Urs von Balthasar is always good, as is Eric Mascall. Henri de Lubac is very basic. I just came across a little book of Jean Daniélou, La crise actuelle de l’intelligence, which I have found very insightful. I have always liked Daniélou’s The Salvation of the Nations. I do not see why anyone should miss reading Wendell Berry’s novels or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or Sigrid Undset, or Mauriac. The more Newman you have the better.
One must build his own lifetime library– in which he should have the basic works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and the rest, along with the Bible, a good commentary like the Jerome Biblical Commentary, and some fathers of the Church, especially Irenaeus. Books are to be marked, kept, cherished. A subscription to L’Osservatore Romano (English), Crisis, First Things, Catholic World Report, among others, would not hurt. The web site– www.ignatiusinsight.com– is good. Well, even though I have left out too much, this is probably enough for here. Check the above books on learning if you can stand more.
ICHTHUS: One last question. What do you think are the most important things we all must study before leaving college?
JVS: The most important thing that you all must learn before leaving college is that you must leave college. College is a privileged place. It was once a place, called by Plato, “the Academy,” to which knowledge fled when it could not live in the city. It may yet be a place from which one has to flee to know the truth. The most important thing that you must learn is that you may not find the most important things in college. Then again, you may, at least some of them.
I suppose the better question is: “what are the most important things we must study after leaving college?” But this is the same question, in a way. Plato said in the Laws and also in the Republic that human life is not particularly “important” or “serious.” What we must learn is why did he say this. He said it because he understood that our delight is in beholding what is really serious, that is, God. Our existence comes to us not by chance or by necessity, but as a gift and as a project. Aquinas said that homo proprie non humanus sed superhumanus est, and Augustine explained that, because of this, we have “restless hearts,” which we do, in case you have not noticed. But really, the most important thing you must study before you leave college is at least one novel of P.G. Wodehouse. I suggest Leave It to Psmith or Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets. Why? Because you must see at least one perfect thing in this world, so that you will finally recognize what it is all about when you finally encounter it. This is called the “analogy of being” in metaphysics.
No, on second thought, the one thing you must study before you leave college is the answer to the question that Walker Percy asked in Lost in the Cosmos: “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”
Stop, the one thing you must learn before leaving college is why Chesterton said at the end of Orthodoxy (which, I think, is still the greatest book of the twentieth century) that the one thing Christ concealed from us while He was on earth was His “mirth?”
Father James V. Schall, S.J., is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University.