Learning to Leave College
an interview with James V. Schall, S.J. | Spring 2006
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.