Father Schall Lecture

Georgetown, April 10, 2008




Ralph McInerny



              Reforms in the English universities, like that which began in the 19th century at Harvard under President Eliot, often are prompted by the belief that the traditional curriculum, with its emphasis on the liberal arts, is both self-indulgent and ineffectual. Think of the years devoted to Latin and Greek, and then ask yourself how many actually learned these languages and read them with enjoyment, in youth or age. Yet they were meant to shape the gentleman, the preferred product of university education. Reformers, for the most part, found the remedy for this in an emphasis on the sciences.

              Anyone conversant with English biographies and autobiographies which cover the subject’s university life will not be surprised to hear that for many those years went by in a bibulous blur, leaving little trace on the mind. In fiction, Brideshead Revisited and This Side of Paradise will do. If one equated that prolonged party with a liberal education, one would be justified in offering a stern alternative.

              We have now reached the point where institutions of higher learning are eager to portray themselves as “research universities.” On the home page of my own university, the landing of a huge research contract having to do with the entrails of computers was featured for a full week, with our president touting it as a CEO might a plush government contract. But of course that is what it and he, in this instance, are. A National Catholic Research University. Think about it. Progress is our most important product.

              Now, in the College of Arts & Letters, we are being urged to get undergraduates involved in research as soon as possible. So let us start there.


1. Research and Scholarship


              As it has come to be used ,‘research’ is meant to cover what is done in the experimental sciences. Their methods and techniques are aimed at discovering something new, something hitherto unknown. This is especially the case in that vast and shadowy area where theory becomes technology and the results have an immediate and beneficial effect on human lives.

              In the area of technology, there is no need to brood over the inadequacy of our theories, any one of which -- or all -- is in principle replaceable by others. Even a chancy grasp of the way things are can enable us to turn nature to our purposes. The wild and wooly speculations of half a century ago turned out to be enough to send men to the moon and space probes into the vast reaches beyond. Practical results can be taken as confirmation enough of theory.

              The models such activity puts before us are the very icons of the age. Einstein in his sweat shirt and fuzzy hair coming up with, not a new bagel, but a mathematical formula that eventually leveled entire cities. Men in lab coats frowning at beakers they hold up to the light. The quantitative nature of such research into the unknown migrated from the hard to the so-called soft or social sciences, and the age of polling was upon us. Human beings become data probed for results as if we were all physical particles.

              Despite this last ambiguous application, no one would want to question the power of the scientific method by which reality is reduced to its quantitative aspects. There were of course philosophers who did an ambulance chase after such success – actually, philosophers had started it all – until colors and sounds and the warmth of objects came to be regarded as mythical overlays to the really real. And we have become used to thinking of ourselves in terms of egos and superegos and ids, those underlying causes that make free responsible human action seem a kind of myth.

              Under this onslaught, the humanities as they are still called, altered in odd ways. The work of historians and interpreters of literature, even Sacred literature, began to mimic as best they could the wertfrei methods of those who work in laboratories. It was only a matter of time until the National Endowment for the Humanities was developed as a counterpart to the National Sciences Foundation. Now, those in arts and letters could submit their research proposals and receive government grants aimed at pushing these disciplines forward in the manner of the physical sciences. Who would say that all this has had no results? ( I myself received both NEH and NEA grants. Perhaps I should add QED.) Not at all. The definitive editions of Mark Twain and Henry James, for example, have resulted from such research projects. But there has always been the danger that such ‘research’ would be regarded as the proper approach to the great works of the mind and imagination.

              There have been reactions to all this, of course. A kind of Nietzschean hegemony has established itself in the arts and in philosophy; these were taken to be different from the sciences just because there are no supposedly objective points of view on poems or novels or accounts of knowledge. What authors intended to do was set aside in favor of what critics can make of what they wrote according to criteria that become ever more hazy. Philosophers have been urged to become “strong poets,” a libel on poetry, of course. The notion that there is no ‘there’ there has also been applied to the physical sciences, regarded now as simply stories we tell ourselves about the world. The admitted incompleteness of theory now being taken to mean that a theory tells us nothing true about the world.

              But enough. My question is this: Is it possible that ‘research’ has little to do with the historic educational task , that of a liberal education? Consider a simple example of our progress in understanding, say, Shakespeare. When we are quite young, in high school, we read Hamlet for the first time. We read it again in college. No need to say that neither of these readings exhausts the text. In later life, we see stagings of the play, we watch Lawrence Olivier enact the part, and on planes or in other moments of quiet, we read the play again. And again. With luck, this will lead to a deepening of our understanding of the play, but more importantly of the insight it gives us into what it is to be a human being, prince or not. Only by such prolonged and engaged reading is Hamlet available to us. But who would call this research?

              Say, then, that there can be and is, on the side of the humanities, something called scholarship that is analogous to research in the sciences. Nonetheless, the aim of a liberal education, is not to turn us into scholars, let alone researchers, but into free men.


2. The Ideal of Liberal Education


              At this point, in the interest of dullness, I might give a sketch of the tradition of the liberal arts – of their origin in Plato and Aristotle, of their continuation in the Imperial Rhetorical Schools in which Augustine taught, in the work of Boethius and Cassiodorus Senator which defined the effort through the dark ages, of their survival after the introduction of the integral works of Aristotle into the universities of the 13th century, and so on and on, until we arrive at the Great Books Movement of the 20th century.

              The man honored by this lecture series suggests another and I think more effective way to convey all this. Let us consider the achievement of Father James V. Schall, S.J.


              Most surnames are nouns or descriptive phrases, but some at least are verbs. When I looked ‘Schall’ up in the dictionary, German of course, my eye first hit upon schaulustig, defined as curious. That will seem only close and no cigar, and may be due only to the modest paperback dictionary I consulted. But it is suggestive. I like the inclusion of schau and the echo of weltenschauung. Now I am no etymologist, except perhaps of the Isadore of Seville sort, but this is enough for me to run with. A Schall is someone who wonders, who looks, who develops views, who is, finally, a contemplative.

              Actually schall itself is in the dictionary, and it means sound. Even better. ‘Sound’, like so many monosyllabic English words lends itself to ambiguity. Think of ‘ball”, used for dances, and spheroids and a part of the foot; or ‘pen’ which encloses swine and issues ink like a squid and used to keep your diapers on; or ‘deck’ which gathers 52 cards, is what when burning the boy stood on, and what Popeye does to antagonists. ‘Sound’ is similarly rich. The object of hearing, a body of water and, most appropriately, sane, balanced, reasonable. You may remember Jeeves’s remark to Bertie Wooster: “You would not like Nietzsche, Sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” The man this lecture series has been founded to honor is sound as a dollar. But I will not relinquish the affinity with the verb ‘shall.’.

              Given Father Schall’s admiration for the lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, I know he will forgive this appeal to the dictionary. He has moved verblike through a long life sentence and I hope to draw attention to at least some of his many achievements, with the emphasis on his writings..

              They are various. In many ways they defy classification, and this because he is incapable of the narrow view. Now the opposite of the narrow view has its dangers. You will remember Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsy, saying of himself that he was that narrowest of specialists, the well-rounded man. Well, there is sound and unsound roundedness. The ability to connect, to see similarity in dissimilar things, to see the seemingly scattered elements of culture commenting on one another, interweaving, suggesting a very large and ordered whole -- that is the soundness of Schall.

              Perhaps it is better to see his tremendous accomplishment in terms of the several roles he plays. First of all, he is a priest, a Jesuit, a member of the order whose Ratio Studiorum defined post-tridentine higher education. He has been a professor in this Jesuit university longer than he, and perhaps some others, might care to think about. I first became aware of Father Schall, the teacher, by meeting a whole host of former students of his who spoke reverently of his influence on them. His academic field is political philosophy – not politics, not political science , not Government, but political philosophy. He is a philosopher. And he is a theologian who has set out for readers the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church, and commented on papal encyclicals like Fides et Ratio, or on papal addresses, as in The Regensburg Lecture. He is a journalist. An indefatigable journalist, contributor of essays, articles, reviews, to a bewildering number of publications. It would be difficult, I think, to find anyone who reads who has not read some of Schall.

              Out of this description emerge categories which would enable us to gather his writings into clusters. But here, too, dullness threatens. Tempting as it is, a bibliographical survey can only suggest the range of his mind, and that superficially. So what to do?

              What I have hit upon is this. Among his writings, one finds a book devoted to Jacques Maritain, and another devoted to Chesterton. The first provides an opportunity to indicate Father Schall’s adroitness as a political philosopher. The Chesterton book is even better for my purposes. Father Schall is, obviously and undeniably, the Chesterton of our times.


3. Schall and Maritain


              For people Father Schall’s and my age, the role of Jacques Maritain can scarcely be overestimated. Converted from agnosticism, if not atheism, by the reading of a novel of Leon Bloy’s, Jacques and Raissa Maritain were thereby saved from despair and a suicide pact. Their classes at the Sorbonne conveyed a militant naturalism. Human beings were seen as mere clusters of matter, destined to be dissolved, leaving no trace but their scattered component parts. On that basis, what is the meaning of life? The Maritains found it in the closing sentence of Bloy’s novel, The Woman Who Was Poor: There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint. This baffling remark, when pursued, led them to Bloy and eventually into the Church. At the time, Maritain was a scientist. He became a philosopher. He is one of the stellar figures in the Thomistic Revivial initiated by Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris.

              Now, to be a Thomist is not to be a kind of philosopher; it is to open the mind to wherever truth about the real is to be found. It is not to be a medievalist. The thought of Thomas attracted, not because it was quaint and medieval, ą la Walter Scott, but because it was true. Nor is the Thomist a specialist, interested in this at the expense of that. It is a question of wisdom, and wisdom is knowing all things in their ultimate causes. Not the work of a summer’s day. It is rather the task of a lifetime. Wisdom is finally seeing all things in the light of their relation to God.

              Given all this, we should not be surprised to find that Maritain wrote, not only about metaphysics, and natural science, and ethics and aesthetics, but on politics as well. In his book, Schall devoted particular attention to Maritain’s Walgreen Lectures, delivered at the University of Chicago in the late 1940's, and eventually published in book form as Man and the State.

              Maritain ponders the problems of the post-war world in the light of what he has learned from Thomas. In the late 1940's it became clear that the world was divided into two hostile camps whose underlying ideologies were clearly incompatible. Where argument and persuasion are impossible, the threat of force and violence looms. Martain’s approach to this obviously provided a model for much of what Schall has done as a political philosopher.

              One begins with the observation that no two views can be utterly, fundamentally, in every respect, opposed. In order to disagree we have to agree on at least the principle of contradiction – if I am right, you are wrong, and vice versa. Now first principles in the practical order are gathered under the rubric, natural law, but modern political theories, out of which the twentieth century stand-off eventually arose, rejected natural law in favor of natural rights. So let us start there. What is natural law?

              In discussing what Maritain had to say about natural law, and its relation to natural rights, Schall exhibits his uncanny knack for grasping a notion underlying it all. He finds a first description of natural law in Maritain; natural law is “normalcy of functioning.” Anything does well when it performs its function well. This is true of daffodils and ducks and elms and all the rest. Of course, the normalcy of function of inanimate and less than human things is not natural law in the required sense. A human being functions normally when he functions as a human being, and human beings have minds and will. For us, normalcy is a task, as it is not for ducks and elms. Anything can malfunction, but we are blamed when we do so. Because we could have acted otherwise. We are free. So freedom is both a gift and a task: we have it will-nilly, we are responsible for using it well. Natural law provides the first and most obvious criteria for acting well. In something of a tour de force, Maritain, and Schall, find the duties imposed by natural law to be the flip side of human rights.

              I know you will have read Jacques Maritain The Philosopher in Society. But I urge you to read it again and see the way in which Schall’s account of Maritain mirrors the skill of his master and in many ways improves upon it. When a Schall is functioning normally his great merit is to ground apparently difficult and abstruse discussions in what we and everybody else already know. No wonder he likes the description of Thomism as the philosophy of common sense.

              It is also common sense to note the difference between a good argument and persuasion. Good arguments are regularly rejected; logic is not enough. Hence the vacuousness of trying to turn the art of governing into a skill applicable by anyone, no matter the kind of man he morally is. The art of governing is part of the larger task of making us become free men. It is not simply that a ruler who is a slave of his passions is a bad role model; his passions prevent him from recognizing the good. See Schall and Maritain on Machiavelli.        





4. Schall and Chesterton


              Schall is inconceivable without Chesterton. In GKC Schall found a model for most of his writings. The bulk of those writings are journalistic, obiter dicta on this or that, essays, reviews, presentations, what-you-will. Hilaire Belloc provided a similar model. Chesterton and Belloc dashed off essays on a vast range of subjects, often triggered by something as evanescent as a newspaper story, and morphing into delightful insights. There was an “Essay on Everything,” and, inevitably, eventually, an “Essay on ‘On.’” We should not miss the note of sheer fun in all this. We certainly cannot miss it in reading Schall. Fun, but not frivolity. Schall has written that “the short, often lightsome essay is one of the greatest of literary and philosophical tools.” You need only read his own essays to be convinced of this.

              I will concentrate on Schall on Chesterton, a book that gathers together articles he wrote for Midwestern Chesterton Notes. The provenance of the essays is already eloquent of Schall the writer. Not everything a writer writes is destined for the ages, but every writer writes in the hope of being read. You may think that writing for the Midwestern Chesterton Notes – the reference is not to Chesterton, Indiana – is on a level with doing a column for the parish bulletin. One of the delights of Father Schall is an almost total lack of a sense of ‘career management.’ He had been asked to write a monthly column on one of his favorite authors for a modest publication aimed at a few aficionados. Any agent worth his 15% would have advised against this. Schall never hesitated. These essays might never have been collected, they might have wasted their sweetness in the past issues of a publication difficult to acquire, not all of whose readers would have saved them. They were rescued from such apparent oblivion by The Catholic University of America Press. Even if they had not been, I don’t think Father Schall would have regretted having written them. After all, they had readers in their original form, and readers of the sort that appealed to him. He was preaching to the choir, in a sense, but few choirs have had such delightful pieces directed at them.

              Let one of them, “Wilde and Wilder” provide a taste. He begins by recalling Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker – the basis for Hello, Dolly. Schall is on the lookout for a recognition of Original Sin, and finds something close in the sentence, “Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools, and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.” And he notes that most of us will foolishly consider ourselves covered by that one-percent. Next, he asks himself if Chesterton had been aware of Wilder, whose The Bridge of San Luis Rey had been a best seller. And he found this little poem by GKC.


The Decadents’ bridges broke down in despair:

It is something that someone could fling

Some sort of a Bridge over that dreary abyss

In the name of Saint Louis the King:

That Art might cross to the people, and purify

Of poison and slimes that defile her;

For when I was a child half the world had gone Wilde

But now half of the world have gone Wilder.


Wilder’s novel sought sense in the fact that people had plunged to their deaths when the bridge broke. Like Chesterton, Schall does not think Wilder came up with a satisfactory explanation, the reason being that there is not one that is available to us.

              About this, several things. First, we are not surprised that Schall knows and likes the writings of Thornton Wilder. Second, we are not surprised that he finds their outlook teasingly close, but not close enough. Anyone who has pondered the ending of Wilder’s The Eighth Day will agree. But, three, the emphasis is on the closeness to, not the distance from, a religious understanding of the mystery of human life, and death.


5. Discovering What We Already Know


              If human life ends in mystifying ways, so too will this tribute to our mutal friend. If I had to sum up the genius of Schall, the mark of his greatness, I would seek it in Chesterton’s 1908 book Orthodoxy.

              In this book, written before Chesterton became a Catholic, we have a paradoxical model of how the believer finds himself in the modern world. All around him is seeming chaos, the collapse of certitude, the trivialization of human life, the exaltation of absurdity. No more than the Maritains, could Chesterton rest with this. He sets out in search of a more plausible reading of the mystery of life.

              Chesterton begins with the realization of what believers call Original Sin. It is not first of all a dogma; it is an observation, as it was for Newman. Look around you.

              To summarize any book is to eviscerate it. The only way to read Orthodoxy is by reading Orthodoxy. In it, the author tells why he accepts Christianity. The arguments he offers for it are largely examinations of, and rejections of , the arguments against it. It is an exuberant, playful, profound little book. One of the great contributions of Father Schall is that he has read and imbibed this book and became in a way one with its author. Not to repeat what Chesterton has said, but to learn the lingo, the accents, the approach, and then to apply it again and again in his own writings.

              It will surprise any reader to find Chesterton all but equating Christianity with common sense, as resting firmly on facts available to anyone. But what he mainly does is remove impediments to its acceptance, by looking at reasons for rejecting it. He finds the reasons perfectly plausible; it is the facts they are supposedly based on that he questions.

              An example out of dozens. People reject religion because man is so like the beasts, in some sense, no more than a beast himself. Chesterton agrees that there are enormous similarities between us and beasts; and then he turns to the even greater dissimilarities. Animals are all tamed beasts; members of a species do what other members of a species do; man is wildly unpredictable. Bees have civilizations, ants are highly organized. True enough. But bees do not erect statues to former queens, nor are the streets of antland named after famous ants. This may seem superficial arguing. Schall does not think so, and neither do I.


              At the beginning of Orthodoxy, Chesterton likens the odyssey he is setting out to a man who leaves England in search of New South Wales. After a long and perilous journey, he sights land and storms ashore, only to find that he has gone in a circle and has landed, not at New South Wales, but at old South Wales. He has come home. To discover home is a paradox. So is learning things which, as they are learned, seem simply things we have always known, things that have been concealed or obscured by a false sophistication. Discovery is uncovering what was already there. Common sense can get distorted by the assumptions of the age. By addressing those assumptions, and finding them wanting, Chesterton leaves us where we have always been. In a Chestertonian paradox, common sense, what we have always known, is also what we must learn. Orthodoxy is the paradigm of discovery in the humanities.

              In that, I would say, is the essence of Schall.