|6) LECTURES AND ADDRESSES.
James V. Schall, S. J.
I will include four addresses here: 1) "Duty and Sacrifice"; 2) "The Pleasure of Walking about Derby"; 3) "The Call Contained in the Being of Things": The Import of John Paul II's Centesimus Annus"; 4) "Writing in an On-Line World."
I might also recommend the following lectures: 1) "On Wasting the Best Years of Our Lives," Vital Speeches, January 1, 1993; 2) "On Living Three Years in New Zealand," Vital Speeches, July 1, 1991; 3) "Ludere Est Contemplari: On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs," The American Benedictine Review, 44 (March, 1993), 99-111; 4) "What Is a Lecture?" in Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988), Chapter 15.
Other addresses and lectures will be found in 21) Bibliography below.
As a listener, I have always enjoyed a good lecture. A lecture, as I see it, is something one prepares for a definite audience about some topic about which one is asked to speak and about which he knows something. Just whether there is a difference between an address and a lecture can be debated. A lecture has more the connotation of a reading, something rather academic, while an address is more in the order of a public setting. Perhaps the emphasis in a lecture is the knowledge while in an address there is more rhetoric, more urging to some cause or principle.
Lectures or addresses are usually result from something you have been invited to go. There is always a certain delight in preparing for such an occasion. Writing or memorizing a lecture is itself something different from giving it. There is a definite oratorical skill. The written form of lectures or addresses constitutes a separate form of literature. Anyone is well advised to memorize and give to some audience some of the great historical speeches, addresses, lectures, just for the practice.
1) From Vital Speeches, LIX (April 15, 1995), 395-98. An Address to the Fifth Annual Symposium on Public Monuments on "The Firefighters' Legacy" The Public Monuments Conservancy by James V. Schall, S. J., Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University, at Time-Life Building, Rockefeller Center, New York City
March 21, 1995.
DUTY AND SACRIFICE
I will begin my remarks as someone from another city by citing the following passage from The New York Times, for August 9, 1994: "The number of New York City Firefighters killed or seriously injured in the line of duty this year is the highest in at least a decade, fire officials said yesterday. In the latest incident, Captain Wayne Smith suffered burns over 40 percent of his body, as well as to his lungs, in a Queens fire on Sunday." Captain Smith subsequently died fifty-nine days after the fire. Times published two poignant photos concerning Captain Smith, one of his funeral at St. Luke's Church, in Whitestone, Queens, the other of his truck, FDNY #136, bearing the insignia his men gave to him, "Wayne's World." From this account, I want to single out the word "duty", a topic to which I shall return.
Public monuments are central ways in which a polity defines itself, its goods, its principles, what it honors, what it praises and, indirectly, by way of contrast, what it abhors and rejects, what it discourages. We can tell a people by its monuments, or lack of them. Monuments, be they statues, tombs, or other artistic symbols, define not only the physical shape of a city or a nation but also, and perhaps more sharply, its moral shape, what it thinks of itself, what it encourages as well as what it blames or worries about.
If we have been in Paris, for example, we may have seen the Tomb of Napoleon. I came across an account recently by Victor Hugo, the French novelist, of that day, December 15, 1840, on which the body of Napoleon was triumphantly returned from exile in Elba to Paris to be buried. "I have heard the drums beat to arms in the streets since half-past six o'clock in the morning," Hugo began. At a quarter past two in the afternoon, the civil and military procession conducting the body of Napoleon had reached Les Invalides. Hugo continued:
"It is three o'clock. A salvo of artillery announces that the ceremony at the Invalides is at an end.... The sight of the coffin has produced an ineffable impression. The words which were spoken were simple and grand. The Prince de Joinville said to the King, "Sire, I present to you the body of the Emperor Napoleon." The King replied, "I receive it in the name of France." Then he said to Bertrand, "General, place upon the coffin the glorious sword of the Emperor." And to Gourgaud, "General, place upon the coffin the hat of the Emperor."
This simple account from another nation to whom ours owes so much serves to emphasize the majesty, the definition that a people bears of itself by what it chooses to honor in its official monuments. The very fact that France chose to bury Napoleon in Paris rather than to leave his body on Elba tells us much about what this country thinks of itself. Napoleon is still buried in Paris at Les Invalides. France still remembers Napoleon.
The City of New York has a Firefighters' Memorial. It stands since 1913 at West 100th Street and Riverside Drive. Its existence is designed to recall those members of its Fire Department who have, over the years, shown particular valor in time of crisis. Thus, this Memorial stands in the City because this huge metropolis has recognized that its own continued existence as a city required over the years, among other things, the services of men and women who have looked after its physical structures, the buildings, the stores, the factories, the homes, the churches, the docks, even the automobiles, trucks, ships, lawns and trees, that define the scape of a city, that make it visually what we see it to be.
When we think of firefighters, we no doubt think of those individuals, past and present, who have been called to meet the destructive force of one of the four great elements, that element that some of the ancient philosophers indeed thought, not without reason, was the very core of reality. Aristotle thus remarked in his De Anima that in their search for the nature of the soul as a first principle or origin of action, certain philosophers thought the soul to be "fire." Fire, they thought, was "the subtlest of the elements and nearest to incorporeality; further, in the most primary sense, fire both is moved and originates movement in all the others" (405a6-8). Thought of fire, why it exists at all, does bring us close to other realities.
Consequently, while fire can initially connote to us devastation and destruction, and that is perhaps what is first in our minds today, still it can symbolize also life and soul and transcendence. The Holy Spirit is, in the Acts of the Apostles, made visible precisely by tongues of fire. In the very notion of fighting it, then, we still retain our awe for this great gift of fire that has been given to mankind, a gift indeed that some ancient myths thought we had to steal from the gods, so precious it was. Like all things of nature, we rejoice that we have fire, that it exists. We respect its goodness even when we must contain it. We recognize that it is our responsibility to know and provide for its proper place in our homes, in our cities, in our lives. With a minimum of reflection, moreover, we can recognize that a simple box of Ohio wooden matches is one of mankind's greatest inventions, just as the volcano pouring forth its flames or the inferno that is the Sun is one of nature's greatest spectacles, a spectacle on which our very existence depends.
Certain public offices are established precisely because, for the good of others, specific obligations of responsibility need to be assigned on a regular basis to those who are trained and equipped to handle situations that we must classify as emergencies or crises. Many of us, no doubt, recall the older idea of the volunteer fire department which recognized that, in some emergencies, everyone, every able-bodied citizen, was to answer the call of common danger. When we concentrate on this emergency situation that city fires often connote, however, we recognize the wisdom in the old adage that the most successful military weapon is the one that never had to be fired. Some would like to conclude that therefore there was no need for the weapon in the first place. But this is surely an error of perception about human nature. The truth is just the opposite. The weapon did not have to be fired because it did exist.
The most successful fire department is, similarly, the one that never has to put out a fire. But from Nero's fiddling while Rome burns to the great Chicago Fire, said to have been ignited by Mrs. O'Leary's famous cow, we know that all cities need to be prepared for accidents, natural disasters, and, yes, human perversity. Yet, firefighters, no doubt, for which they received a considerable amount of good-natured kidding from members of other occupations, spend much of their time in very undramatic work, just being prepared, keeping equipment in condition, polished, running, anticipating probable causes of fire, teaching common sense of fire prevention. There is a certain civic comfort in the thought of a fire department just being there, prepared, but with nothing much to do.
None the less, if we do not know of the complexity of the human condition, its finiteness, its sometimes evident depravity, its daily routine, yes, too, its glory, we will not understand why we can be gathered here. We are here to reflect on that organization of the public good designed to address itself to the reality of fire, particularly unwanted, unexpected fire, fire that ought not to exist, but which sometimes does burst forth, again either because of lightning, carelessness, arson, accident, or ignorance. The fireman is not the policeman or the soldier, but often the work of the one entails that of the others, the works of all three are described in terms of duty and sacrifice, when that dire moment comes in which they have to confront what they are prepared, for the good of all, to anticipate.
In July of 1993, next door to us at Georgetown, about four in the afternoon of a very hot day, we suddenly heard local fire sirens screaming. We soon realized that the lovely old Visitation Convent next door to our property was on fire. The Convent had some fifty or so wonderful young and old nuns; the students at the school had mostly gone home. I walked over to watch the brick enclosed old wooden beam building at full blaze. The whole neighborhood, which itself could have been at peril if the firefighters did not do their job, had gathered anxiously across the streets from the burning Monastery.
This Convent was one of the oldest buildings in the city. In it, many young women from all parts of the country and from many generations back to the early 1800's had been educated. Especially memorable were the elderly nuns, sort of stunned, sitting outside watching the firemen pour water into their school, chapel, and home. The evening news that night gripped the whole city as it watched again the consuming fire, the nuns, their sense of loss of a physical place, the firemen trying to stop the flames, the police closing off the area. The Convent is now happily being rebuilt because enough of it was saved, though the old and elegant interiors were destroyed. Fires thus symbolize crisis, change, caution, and historic loss, as some of the records of this famous Convent were destroyed.
We should not doubt, of course, that, as in most tragedies, including fires, there is also an element of humor in all of this dramatic concern. I once saw an amusing observation to the effect that "the average fire is put out before any considerable damage is done by the fire department." We all know that after any fire is extinguished, we ruminate, as they did at the Visitation Convent, about water damage, which is sometimes, to be sure, worse than the fire itself. Often our complaint about water damage is the other side of our forgetting that the choice is, in the concrete, between water and
ashes. We all know that fires, like wars, must be fought proportionately, but we also know that, when it comes to fires, it is generally preferable to do too much quickly rather than too little, too late.
The story is told, moreover, of a man who had just heavily insured his property against fire. He asked his agent, "What would I get if this building I just insured should burn down tonight?" The insurance agent scratched his head, thought a bit, and replied, with some considerable insight into human nature, "I would say that you would get about ten years." Part of understanding why fires occur is to understand their causes, including their human causes.
We are gathered her to reflect on, memorialize firemen in the line of duty, when they are asked to do what they are trained to do, even though we take every effort to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. Fire fighting and fire prevention are two sides of the same coin. Most of the daily work of fire departments is, as I said, preparation, prevention. Equipment needs to be operative; firemen need to know how to use it effectively; they need to practice, gain experience. Much of the fireman's work consists, paradoxically, not in fighting fires, but in waiting to fight them. It is one of the few professions, I suppose, in which "doing nothing" is, if I might say so, doing a job well. I have heard it said that firemen are often good pinochle players.
What distinguishes the soldier, the policeman, or the fireman from the politician or the normal citizenry is that his job, of its very nature, in its very definition, includes danger, even the danger of death. Willingness to accept such a profession is not a sign of morbidity, but of service. The first and most basic of the moral virtues, as Aristotle said, is that of courage. What does courage mean? It means our ability to overcome our fears and pains in order to uphold our human purpose, what we ought to do to achieve a good in spite of the pains and fears. Courage is the virtue of life itself, its dignity. It is a difficult virtue, one that requires us to go against what we might normally prefer to do.
Professor Sidney Hook once remarked that there are some things about a person we do not want to know -- that is, that he betrayed his friend, that he yield to cowardice and thereby caused injury or death to someone else for whom he is responsible. A firemen who is not brave when he is called upon for the good of others is not merely a danger to himself, to his own moral stature, but to the physical existence of the community whose safety depends on his courage. Courage is more than knowing what it is to be brave, of knowing its definition. It is the willingness and ability actually to do what needs to be done, yet without being so rash or so flamboyant that nothing much is accomplished except calling attention to oneself. No one would maintain, of course, that all soldiers, policemen, or firefighters are equally brave. Yet, the very choice of such an occupation implies something above the ordinary, some willingness to serve a purpose that is not simply one's own. Every police force, every fire department, every army, knows that some of its members are braver and more generous than others.
Again, let me note that we use the word "duty" of the occupation of the firefighter, the policeman, and the soldier. We all have duties, to be sure; priests do; politicians do; mothers do; teachers do; truckers do. The relative ranking of various duties to be done, indeed, defines what we mean by civilization. We have also heard of the expression "above and beyond the call of duty". What does this expression mean? It implies something addressed to the heroic, to the noble. Many a country and many a human life would not exist if some one was not brave beyond the call of duty.
I still recall vividly the evening in January several years ago when an Air Florida plane crashed in a snow storm into the Potomac. I had landed at National Airport, to where the ill-fated plane was headed, a couple of hours before. That evening on the news, everyone in the country saw in the icy river waters a woman survivor struggling weakly. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, while everyone else sort of stood around helplessly, a young man threw off his coat, dove in, and dragged her out. He just did it because it had to be done. Ronald Reagan rightly gave the young man one of the nation's highest medals simply for being brave, for seeing a human duty when everyone else was immobile.
And yet, the line of duty itself is already a pledge of something out of the ordinary. Duty implies that we are social beings, that we depend on one another, sometimes, often perhaps, for our very lives and well-being. Certain occupations, such as firefighting itself, exist primarily so that everything else of importance can go on. The world ought not to be made up of firefighters. A city composed of firefighters, as Plato would say, is no city at all. We do not exist to put out fires; but unless fires are attended to, we cannot survive.
The notion of sacrifice, perhaps, takes us to the deepest elements of our being, to the depths of duty, and more than duty. We are familiar with Christ's remark that "he who loses his life will save it." One of the ironies of the virtue of courage is that often the willingness to risk our life is the only way to save it. And the realities of a common good, a good of many, suggests that at times some must sacrifice themselves if the whole, if what is noble and good in it, can continue to exist and flourish. The fireman, then, stands "in the line of duty." He is never quite sure what building, what factory, what church or what school even, may suddenly because of fire call him and his companions.
To be sure, we all know that part of a fire department's normal business is the false alarm. At a university or school, whenever a fire alarm goes off, it is immediately considered two alarm by the local fire department, no questions asked. And over the years, though we have also had a couple of pretty good blazes on campus, I have also noticed many, what turned out to be, false alarms. Indeed, as the school year approaches examination time, there seems to be an increased incidence of false alarms, something I am sure every fire department is begrudgingly aware of. The false alarm is, no doubt, itself part of the lore and business of any good fire department.
Some fires, I suppose, we simply let burn, old buildings standing by themselves, already too far gone to save for any good purpose. I assume too that, at times, some firemen die in fires because they did something stupid, or did not follow the rules, or were caught by an accident that no one could foresee. But usually, fires in one building or in one area threaten other properties or people so that the immediate task is to contain and to stop. Moreover, and this is where the fireman can at times be called to the highest sacrifice and service, in a given fire some particular human beings are trapped, caught. Something extraordinary must be accomplished, if possible.
In one sense, I should judge, if no fire ever actually threatened human life, we would not be here. It is precisely the awareness of the intrinsic dignity of human life caught in a dire and incendiary situation that draws the firefighter into his most dramatic and dangerous public position. He is to be there precisely as is his duty, as commissioned by his polity, to meet a situation that no one wanted or anticipated but for which he is in some sense prepared. These are the dramatic stories and incidents that we finally see in the press and about which the highest lore of the firefighting profession is written. It is about these poignant scenes that monuments are built and firefighters memorialized before the citizenry.
When the fire is over, the equipment restored to the truck, and the flames are out, the fireman leaves the scene of the fire. It is not his task to rebuild the damages. He is not an engineer to reconstruct a Convent or a shop that has burned down. He is not the insurance agent who has to provide financial coverage for the damage. He is not the priest who buries the dead, nor is he the politician who bears responsibility for the order of polity. He is, when it comes down to it, someone who has done his duty.
The life of the firefighter is, at its best, the life of everyday duty and sometimes, rarely, of sacrifice. That human beings can choose to spend their lives in these positions that call for danger, even death, is the sign of the nobility of our kind, a sign that we are not merely people who spend our lives fearing death or avoiding any effort that might jeopardize ourselves. We seek to routinize such dangerous occupations so that we can accumulate a certain experience of what to do in emergencies. Yet, not all emergencies can be anticipated. We think of the fireman in his capacity of establishing and enforcing fire codes. We think also of the enormous innovative and technical effort that goes into improving materials and devices so that the dangers to property and life from fires will be lessened. We realize, however, that the sacrifices of some, the experiences of duty of others, are the raw material that guides us in the great effort to know how to avoid fires or stop them before the fire department arrives if possible or more easily contain the flames once they have gotten started.
In Greek mythology, as I mentioned, Prometheus, in order to make life better for human beings, stole the fire from what he thought to be the jealous gods. In punishment for this theft, Zeus sent a young woman by the name of Pandora back among the humans. Pandora had a famous box, in which were contained all the human ills. These ills escaped when Pandora opened the box. But in the box there was one thing which could not escape even when all the other ills, including perhaps the fire that Prometheus had stolen, were let out. That one thing was hope. All service professions such as that of the firefighter witness to this abiding hope in all dire human affairs.
The line of duty and the sometime call for sacrifice that any experienced fire department contains as part of its intrinsic structure need to be remembered among those for whom the duty and sacrifice exist and to whom they are ordained. We will not have duty and sacrifice, that is, we will not have institutions like fire departments, if we are a people who cannot appreciate or imagine that there is a nobility and a grace in serving others. If we think that human life or property is not worth much anyhow, if we think that no one else matters so long as we get ours, if we imagine that no one depends on us, we will not have institutions of service and duty. Fire departments and the purposes for which they are established are themselves functions of what we consider human beings to be, their dignity and their intrinsic worth.
In conclusion, let me say that the duty of the firefighter is accomplished when the fire is put out and his equipment is restored and put back in its proper place, ready for the next emergency. Yet, the reality of the fire's damages is only finished when that which was burned or destroyed is replaced, when life goes on as best it can. The work that the firemen in Georgetown began with their hoses is done at the Convent next door when finally the repairs are complete and the building, now improved, is again operative as a school, a convent, a chapel.
James Boswell, in his London Journals, to confirm this point in another way, tells of being invited on November 26, 1762, to dine at a prestigious thirty-five year old club with the marvelous name, "The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks". This club apparently met in the building of the Covent Garden theatre. Boswell was summoned there from the near-by Bedford-coffee house by a gentleman by the name of Beard, for whom Handel had composed some of his great tenor parts. Boswell went up a "great many steps to a handsome room above the theatre." There he met the Beefsteak Society members. Their motto, he learned, was, "Beef and Liberty". Their function was apparently nothing more or less than to enjoy a good steak with some good wine. Boswell noticed, however, that this elegant meeting room "was once burnt." The Gridiron, which Boswell notes is called a "Brander" in his native Scottish and on which I presume the steaks were prepared, was almost consumed by the fire, but the room was now restored in stucco. We obviously have here a hint of forgotten fires, forgotten firefighters in the London in 1762, who saved enough of an elegant room to allow it to be restored for The Sublime Society of Beefsteaks.
The purpose of firefighters, in their line of duty, in their courage, yes, if necessary, in their sacrifice, is that we all might, with Boswell, find restored places wherein the normal and noble purposes of our kind can continue precisely without fear of fire or disaster. Fire, the gift stolen from the gods, should be used to broil the beefsteak on what the Scots call a Brander, not to burn down the room in which the Beefsteak Society meets to discuss liberty and beef with some, as Boswell put it, "wine and punch in plenty and freedom", accompanied by "a number of songs."
The duty and sacrifice of some are that on which the normal and the ordinary of the city depend. The monuments we erect and restore help us define what is important and what is exalted. The Fireman's Memorial is the city's reminder to itself of the cost, of the sacrifice, of the duty that it often takes simply to keep the city in all its parts in existence. We erect and keep in existence what we have built and wrought in order that those things higher than simple existence, our freedom, our conversation, our truth, our relation to God, what it is we define ourselves to be, might be manifest to ourselves and to those who chance to visit among us.
2) This was a lecture given to the Phi Beta Kappa Convocation at Georgetown University in May 1991, published in Social Survey, Melbourne, 41 (February, 1992), 15-21.
ON THE PLEASURE OF WALKING ABOUT DERBY
No one will ever know whether there are answers to the highest questions unless he has first accurately formulated the very questions to which such answers might be addressed. Faith does depend on reason in this sense, while reason need not a priori exclude answers of revelation that curiously seem to be aware of the abiding questions, when accurately formulated.
A cartoon in The New Yorker puts us in a wealthy businessman's club on Wall Street. Two gleefully sardonic bankers are talking to each other over their morning paper. Both are bald and portly. They are attired in very conservative suits. With a kind of wicked gleam in his eyes, the first man, who obviously practices what he preaches, turns to the second man, who listens with much knowing approval. "Sure, life isn't fair," he informs him, "but that's all right." Clearly, the cartoon implies that it was the unfairness of life that enabled these two successful bankers to garner and enjoy all those good things about them.
But is life fair? Is it all right if it isn't? Whose fault is it? Ours? God's? Can we find some scapegoat for our ills -- society, say, or the environment, or the rich, or even philosophical determinism? What can we hope for? Will the world ever become perfect? When? Why not sooner? Where? Would we in our fallibility recognize it if it did become perfect? Is the world related to us? Are we the world "writ" small, as Plato said? Are fairness and unfairness due to our own choices? Are all of us but "reeds shaken in the wind?" -- to recall ironic words used of John the Baptist?
In 1980, Eric Voegelin engaged in a series of conversations with students and faculty at the Thomas More Institute in Montreal in Canada. During the course of these wonderful exchanges, Voegelin was asked the anxious question we all have at one time or another, "But what are we to do about the problems of the world?" Voegelin's response has always seemed to me to indicate a basic insight into the intellectual life. It is not an affirmation of individualism, nor of collectivism, nor is t a sort of skepticism that satisfies itself that in knowing that we know nothing, contrary to Socrates, we in fact can know nothing. Dialectics did teach Socrates something.
Voegelin's advice to potential philosophers was this: "Civilizations as such are never static because every man is a new element of revolution in the world. Just stop being static and do something.... Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. He can do something else." The first thing we can do, paradoxically, is simply not to cooperate with what causes the crisis of the culture in the first place.
Such a response is grounded in several memories given in our tradition. In The Apology of Socrates, we recall the incident of Leon of Salamis. This notorious case was the only time Socrates, the private citizen and philosopher, was asked to act as a public official. Leon, it seems, was one of ten Athenian generals who, in 406 B.C., had failed to gather up the bodies after the Battle of Arginusai. The proud Athenians were angry and wanted in revenge to try these men for treason en masse, contrary to the Athenian law. In order to carry out their designs, they appointed five armed men, including Socrates, to go over to Salamis and pick up Leon. When it came time to depart, four citizens went to fetch Leon, but Socrates, as he tells us, "went home." He did not participate in the crisis of his time.
In Book II of The Republic, we have a not dissimilar scene with Adeimantos and Glaucon, Plato's brothers, who quietly want to hear virtue praised for its own sake. Socrates listens to these two earnest and impressive young men. Whether each will be attracted by the highest things, what each will do with his freedom and life, neither yet knows. Both know, however, that the best can become the worst. Indeed, it seems likely that this dire result will be true in the majority of cases. Socrates is astonished to listen to them vividly expound the case for injustice in such eloquent and philosophical terms. But he is even more startled to learn that they are not persuaded by their own arguments. They are attracted by the good even when they cannot defend or explain it.
Then too, there is the account in the New Testament of the Rich Young Man (Luke, 18:18-27). He is not unlike Adeimantos and Glaucon. He questions the philosopher. He wants to know about the highest things. He keeps the Commandments from his youth. He asks Christ what he must do to be perfect. In a response not unrelated to Plato's Fifth Book of The Republic where all temptations are removed from the Guardians, Christ tells the wealthy young man that he must go, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow the Lord. "But when he heard these answers," St. Luke tells us, "he went away sad." It seems incredible to believe that we can have all things, be virtuous, be interested, and still be asked to do more. We go away sadly as we begin to think life is not fair.
Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. At Agincourt, Henry offered to pay passage home for those of his soldiers who wished to return to England before the battle. The Rich Young Man went away sad. He could not anticipate what exciting journeys he might have taken had he stayed with the Lord, just as those who returned to England could not in their old age recount what happened on that St. Crispin's Day. But if the crisis is itself rooted in an ignoble cause, we should leave it, we should go home, even from Salamis or Agincourt.
In Nobody's Perfect, Charlie Brown, a book with obviously Platonic overtones, Charlie is reading from a scientific report in the morning newspaper. Lucy is looking away, rather bored. "It says here," Charlie begins, "that the force of gravitation is 13% less today than it was 4 1/2 billion years ago...." Lucy, on hearing this otherwise useless bit of information, suddenly turns on Charlie to snap, "Whose fault is that?" "Whose fault is it?" Charlie somewhat taken aback protests; "it's nobody's fault." His moral placidity before fate sends Lucy into a rage. While Charlie forlornly listens, looking down at the paper, he yells, "What do you mean nobody's fault! It HAS to be somebody's fault! Somebody's got to take the blame!" Finally, she opens her mouth wide, throws up her arms, and screams at Charlie, turning him upside down, "FIND A SCAPEGOAT!" The world isn't fair; it's ill made. Somebody will pay.
"Civilizations are never static because every man is a new element of revolution in the world." Somebody has to be at fault because of the 13% decrease in gravitation in 4 1/2 billion years. The young potential philosophers want to hear truth and justice praised for their own sakes.
Two of the most significant words in the English language sound almost alike -- to "wonder" and to "wander." The first word, wonder, suggests something about our minds, about the extraordinary fact that we want to know, that we are satisfied when we do know. It is its own sort of pleasure, as Aristotle told us. No where is this fact about ourselves stated more clearly than in the conversation in Book III of The Republic. To the same Glaucon, the young and potential philosopher, who is not sure what good he will choose with his mind, Socrates says, "Isn't being deceived about the truth bad, and to have the truth good? Or isn't it your opinion that to affirm the things that are, is to have the truth?" (413a) To these profound questions, Glaucon admitted, "What you say is correct." We do not wonder simply to wonder, but to know the truth and to affirm it.
"To wander," on the other hand, has spacial overtones. It touches on aim and aimlessness. Another cartoon in The New Yorker took us to a psychiatrist's office. On the couch, flat on his back, hands folded, legs crossed, nervously twitching, lies a very large chicken. The psychiatrist, notebook in hand, turns to the chicken to ask, in an admittedly terrible parody, "Why do you cross the road?" Why do we go where we go? Do boundaries make a difference? We travel to return home. We wander because we have here no lasting city. "Why are we homesick even at home?" Chesterton asked us at the end of his Chapter on "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy?
Many of the things I will recount here originated from students. Indeed, in the pursuit of knowledge, the chance to teach regularly is a grace. It continues the opportunity to reflect on great ideas, books, and people for a second and third and hundredth time, because someone new is always before us to listen for the first or second tome to realities whose freshness has been dulled only by our own familiarity with them.
For Christmas one year, I received from a student I had several years ago, a copy of the Penguin Classics' translation of Madame de Sévigneé's Selected Letters. As I was preparing these reflections, I recalled that a friend had sent me from England several years ago an earlier French Edition of Madame de Sévigné's letters. I looked through it again. My French edition was published in Paris in 1812, a wonderful well-made book even yet. I read a bit in the French letters. Madame de Sévigné's letter from Bourbilly, Lundi, 16 Octobre 1673, to her daughter reads:
Enfin, ma chère fille, j'arrive présentement dans le vieux château de mes pères. J'ai trouvé mes belle prairies, ma petite rivière et mon beau moulin, à la même place où je les avois laissés. Il y a eu ici de plus honnêtes gens que moi; et cependant, au sortir de Grignan, je m'y meurs de tristesse.
This letter was not included in the English edition, but it serves to remind us not merely of wandering and returning, but of the effect that place, especially a happy place that we have loved, can have on our souls. If we are sad, it is sometimes not because life is not fair but because life is so dear, the lovely fields, the streams, and the beautiful mills of our youth when we realized that often our parents were more honest than we.
The famous Western novelist, Louis L'Amour, wrote a most interesting book entitled, The Education of a Wandering Man. L'Amour seems to have read every book he could get his hands on during every moment he could get free. He made long lists of the books he read beginning in 1930, when the first three books he read were by George Santayana, followed by Josef Conrad's Selected Stories and Friedrich Schleiermacher's Soliloquies.
I have a certain affinity with such an enterprise, I must confess. I think that education in the highest things, as I tried to show in Another Sort of Learning, is largely a private enterprise. Almost the only thing that will save us from so many ideologies in academia and in the City will be books, good books, that we find lying about unnoticed because, as was the situation with the philosopher in the Athenian democracy, on one can distinguish a good book from a silly one.
As a way to truth, I would not exclude prayer, to be sure, nor would I neglect the fact that we might just meet good men and women wherever we are, in any time and place, in our wanderings about this world, people who can tell us more than any mere philosopher or academic. we are called, in fact, by St. Peter in his Epistle "wayfarers and pilgrims"; and at the end of the Synoptic Gospels, we are said to have a mission, to be sent along a way, to all the nations, to the ends of the world. That there is indeed something to be said to all men, in all times, in all cultures, is the ground of the claim of universal civilization itself.
Thus, as Aristotle also hinted, it might just be possible to find the truth through those who live particular and good lives, like the parents of Madame de Sevigné in Grignan. L"Amour wrote, to the same point, "I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and a guidance. the rest one has to do for oneself." If we think that the university will simply "educate" us, we will seek scapegoats when we find that we are not educated, if indeed we ever find this out, for to know we know nothing, we need the capacity to know, as Socrates always maintained.
In Leo Strauss' essay, "What Is Liberal Education?" he noted that the "greatest minds ... are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them in any classroom. We are not likely to meet any of them anywhere. It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one's own time." The only way we can meet such original thinkers, and they contradict each other, is through their books, through carefully reading what they said to us. Books cannot substitute for philosophy, but philosophy can be found also with the guidance of books. No man is a prophet in his own land. We would be lucky if we recognized the one great mind alive in our own time, even if we ran into such a person.
But why is this essay about Derby? about the pleasure of walking in Derby, about education in wonder and the learning of a wandering man in a particular place and in a particular time? On Friday, September 19, 1777, Dr. Johnson and James Boswell set out in the Rev. Dr. John Taylor's post-chaise for Derby, North of Birmingham.
On the way, they stopped by Keddlestone, the Seat of Lord Scarsdale. A fine house was found there. "I was struck with the magnificence of the buildings; and the extensive park, with the finest verdure, covered with deer, and cattle, and sheep, delighted me," Boswell wrote. He found there wonderful old oaks and a fine gravel road and ponds and a lovely Gothic church. Thinking of this magnificence, not unmindful of the Rich Young Man, which he himself was, Boswell confesses that this "grand group of objects agitated and distended my mind in a most agreeable manner. 'One should think (said I,) that the proprietor of all this must be happy'."
Samuel Johnson was listening intently to this account. With great profundity, he replied to Boswell, "Nay, Sir, all this (vast property) excludes but one evil -- poverty." The deepest human problems can and do exist in the most well-appointed and prosperous seats of culture, something we learned from Plato in Athens, Christ in Jerusalem, and St. Paul in Rome, something modernity, as it seems, is not loathe to admit to itself.
The party proceeded on towards Derby. The post-chaise seemed to have been a speedy one. Johnson, not unlike the subsequent drivers of Porsches on the German Autobahns and Corvettes on the Los Angeles Freeways, liked to drive very fast. Boswell records him as even admitting that "If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand us, and would add something to the conversation." Johnson, who was an ungainly, in fact ugly yet noble man, had his own version of Plato's female intellectual guardians. Johnson's conversations with women in Boswell's Life in fact always sparkle.
When the post-chaise finally arrived in derby, Johnson and Boswell were immediately shown through a "manufactory of china." Boswell thought it pretty, but too expensive. He figured he could get the same services made of silver, so why bother about porcelain? Finally, to continue our theme of wandering, Boswell had a chance to see the local sights. "I felt a pleasure in walking about Derby
such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed," Boswell reflected.
There is an immediate sensation of novelty; and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, which, although there is a sameness every where upon the whole, is yet minutely diversified. The minute diversities in every thing are wonderful.
The "minute diversities" and the general constancy of human nature across time and space are both recorded here. The particularities of human existence are, indeed, "wonderful," as Boswell remarked. The same sentiment exists in Dante, in St. Paul, in Aristotle, in Plato, and perhaps originally in Herodotus.
One of the joys of teaching, as I said, of being invited to join Phi Beta Kappa late rather than early in life, is that students, over the years, will have given me books I might not otherwise have seen or read. Students seem to know books or essays their somewhat odd professor will especially like, how I am never quite sure, but they are usually right. Years ago a graduate student saw a copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson in a used book store in Miami. He bought it for me for a couple of dollars because I had read something of Johnson in class. I still read a little of it almost every day. Its charm has not lessened. Life is too short to comprehend it all, I think.
A young lady who is now in the Journalism School at the University of Missouri, after an Interview she later published in a student newspaper, sent me a copy of T. H. White's The Once and Future King. This was a book I did not know. She assured me that I would like it. Early in the book, under the instructions of Merlyn the Magician, Kay, the future King, and the Wart, his young friend, are being taught to hunt. They are hunting rabbits. Each has six arrows. One Thursday afternoon Kay manages to hit a rabbit. They clean it with a hunting knife. As they prepared to go home, the boys had one further exercise.
This is how White describes it:
Every Thursday afternoon, after the last serious arrow had been shot, they were allowed to fit one more hock into their strings and to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. It was partly a gesture of farewell, partly of triumph, and it was beautiful. They did it now to salute their first prey.
The wandering -- that is the sign of the human being, not only that he can shoot the rabbit for training and for food, but that he can shoot an arrow into the air and see that "it was beautiful." The wandering about the fields leads to the wondering about how beautiful things can be. At the end of need and necessity lies freedom and loveliness.
Another student gave me a copy of a book that is not exactly a summary of The Closing of the American Mind, but it does have a certain educational charm. It is Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I am quite sure that this proposition is not true, if only because I never went to kindergarten. Too, many of the best things I know I seem to have learned only lately, things like the presence of oleanders and what lies at the End of Lone Mountain.
Perhaps we should recall Aristotle's wonder here, that the things that are best to know are not necessarily those we "need" to know, but those we find most enchanting because we do not need them, things existing for their own sakes, especially one another. The final question I always ask of myself and of my students is simply, "what do you do when all else is done?" Unless we can broach an answer to such a question, our lives will necessarily be incomplete and not a little sad. The arrow shot into the air, I think, has something to do with the right answer to this question.
Fulghum recounted this story:
There was a famous French criminologist named Emile Locard, and fifty years ago he came up with something called Locard's Exchange Principle. It says something to the effect that any person passing through a room will unknowingly deposit something there and take something away. Modern technology proves it. Fulghum's Exchange Principle extends it: Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this "something" cannot be seen or heard or numbered. It does not show up in a census. But nothing counts without it.
Actually, that reflection reminded me of a passage from E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed, a book I read frequently with my classes. In it, Schumacher remarks that when we look at a class or at other human beings, without in the least denying our corporeality, all the really important things about them are invisible to us. We have to cultivate our inner lives to be able to understand what is going on within someone else.
One day a couple of years ago, a tall young man came by my office. He word a rather scraggly beard. Somehow I felt I knew him but I could not place him. I do try to remember my students but when they go away and suddenly appear years later at your door, now more grave and mature, you have to search for their names and personalities. I asked him what he had been doing. "Wandering over Europe," he told me. He had been to France and Germany and I do not know where all during the previous year. Finally, he spent about three months on Mt. Athos, that extraordinary complexus of monasteries in the Orthodox tradition on the most famous spiritual heights of Eastern Christianity.
As a result of this visit, later, during an annual retreat I made at Los Gatos, in California, I read the English Cistercian Basil Pennington's book on Mt. Athos, a wonderful book. In any case, I asked this former student why he had wandered so about the world. "It was that book you assigned," he told me. "What book?" I asked. "The Schumacher book -- you see, I am Greek. It was the first time I ever read anything that made me wonder what this Greek tradition meant and how it was deeply meaningful and valid." Schumacher's profound unease with his own education at Oxford, its failure to address the things that were really important, still had its effect.
The final book I was given about which I wish to comment was given to me by a perceptive young graduate student from Mexico City. It is a book I had often meant to read but never did. The book was Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World. This book, the student told me, was a "book you will like." He added frankly, that it "saved my life from the pervasive Hegelianism which is every where present at the University of Mexico." De Rougemont, of course, takes up the gnostic problem in Western, that is, in all thought. This is an issue about which Eric Voegelin has made us so aware, the notion of the self-salvation and the denigration of matter. It reminds us that St. Augustine's wrestling with Manicheanism is by no means out-of-date.
No doubt, de Rougemont's thesis is, to conclude, that it is the Incarnation that saves the world, marriage, and passion. Gnosticism has pervaded much modern thought and literature. The primacy of death over life that de Rougemont studied does conform a suspicion that I have long had that the purpose of philosophy and the university in general is to prepare us to ask the right questions. We are question-making beings, and this is as it should be. Yet, as I said in the beginning, we must prepare our souls. If we are question-making beings, we are even more answer-receiving beings. We cannot have one without the other without, ultimately, contradicting ourselves.
We live in an ideological time that has proudly assured itself that no answers can be given, that there is only power and exploitation and contingency. No proposition is more questionable or less questioned than this. It is not true that there are no answers. What is true is that there are many answers we are not prepared to recognize because we have not formulated the proper question to which they are answers. What is true and likewise ominous is that we can choose not to question because we do not want to hear certain answers since they would require us to change our lives. Plato said that a lie in the soul is the worst of evils.
"Or, isn't it your opinion that to affirm the things that are, is to have the truth?"
"Sure, life isn't fair, but that's all right."
"Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time."
When commissioned to participate in an illegal act, Socrates "went home"; when invited to be perfect, the Rich Young Man went away sad.
"What do you mean it's nobody's fault?" Who is responsible for the 13% decrease in gravity in 4 1/2 billion years? What if the answer is nobody?
Why do chickens cross the road?
"The greatest minds are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them in any classroom."
"Every Thursday afternoon, after the last serious arrow had been shot, they were allowed to fit one more nock into their strings and to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. It was partly a gesture of farewell, partly of triumph, and it was beautiful." The highest things in their beauty are done for their own sakes after we have done the things we need to do. When all else is done, and we are responsible to know "what is to be done," to use Lenin's phrase, we begin to see that everything ends in beauty and glory.
"I felt a pleasure in walking about Derby such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed...."
To these recollections I can only add that we should not fail also to be surprised, such is the purpose of our intelligence, by those faces and localities that we have come to know. The loss of these very things, when they are no longer incarnate among us, will cause that sadness of heart that Madame de Sévigné recalled. And finally, the faces we know and the old streets new to us, along with the beauty of the un-serious arrow shot straight up into the air on a Thursday afternoon, the answers to the deepest questions properly addressed to the love of what is in the Western world, in any world that is.
3) From Vital Speeches, LVIII (January 15, 1992), 213-17. Delivered at the Catholic Physicians' Guild of St. Louis, November 9, 1991.
"THE CALLED CONTAINED IN THE BEING OF THINGS"
The Import of John Paul II's Centesimus Annus
On Saturday, the Sixth of May, 1776, James Boswell recalled that he and Samuel Johnson had dined at the Mitre Tavern that day. During the course of conversation at the Mitre, Boswell commented on the case of a certain Dr. Memis who had sued in the Court of Sessions in Aberdeen in Scotland because in a public charter, he was referred to as a "Doctor of Medicine" and not as a "physician." Dr. Memis claimed damages because he thought some sort of slight to his character was implied by this usage. Johnson was asked what he thought of this dispute. He first tried to ascertain the source of the physician's problem for not liking the term "Doctor of Medicine," even though that is what the man in fact was, proper certificate and all.
"A Doctor of Medicine is a physician under the protection of the laws, and by the stamp of authority," Johnson explained. "The physician who is not a Doctor, usurps a profession, and is authorized only by himself to decide upon health and sickness, and life and death." Johnson then expounded further on the whole curious subject.
A Doctor of Laws is a man who can form lawyers by his precepts. A Doctor of Medicine is a man who can teach the art of curing diseases. There is an old axiom which no man has yet thought fit to deny, Nil dat quod non habet. ("No one gives what he does not have.") Upon this principle to be a Doctor implies skill, for nemo docet quod non didicit. ("No one teaches what he has not learned.") In England, whoever practises physick, not being a Doctor, must practise by a licence: but the doctorate conveys a licence in itself (Boswell's Life of Johnson, I, pp. 600-01).
We would today, I suppose, be more willing to grant that there were physicians or doctors of medicine who could practice medicine under license but who were not particularly adept at teaching their art.
And yet, the very word "doctor" comes from the Latin word for "to teach." What is implied here, of course, is, as St. Thomas maintained, that it is a greater thing to pass on what we know or can do than to be able merely to do it or to know it. Thus, no one can give what he does not already have. No one teaches what he has not himself learned. The beginning of teaching and thus of a kind of generosity implies the prior effort to learn.
This whole subject will rapidly get out of hand if I explain further to you that the Encyclopedia Britannica's discussion of "Surgery" points out that "It was not until a 13th Century pope interdicted the practice of law and medicine by the clergy that medicine came into the hands of the laymen." And lest you worry too much about some further attempt of the clergy to re-take the medical profession, I would recall that this same discussion adds "the practice of surgery was not taught in most universities, and ignorant barbers wielded the knife."
In fact, both in England and France, there was a close relationship between barbers and surgeons, both practiced a kind of cutting. Indeed, under Henry VIII, to put some order in the matter, the Company of Barber Surgeons of London was organized. This Guild lasted two centuries to be finally replaced by the Royal College of Surgeons of England. To complicate matters, I believe surgeons are still called "Mister" not "Doctor" in England, while all physicians must also be surgeons. This result may point to one of the more successful papal interdicts. Likewise, keeping medicine out of the hands of the clergy may reassure the doubting about the wisdom of papal infallibility.
If there are Doctors of Law and of Medicine, however, there are also Doctors of the Church and of Theology who do not double as physicians or lawyers, or barbers, for that matter. One of the essential missions of the Church and the Papacy in particular is precisely to teach. The Apostles were thus sent into all nations "to teach" what they had first learned. But to teach means that there are those willing to be taught and capable of being taught.
Teaching, moreover, is not to be conceived as something alien to us. The teacher does not, strictly speaking, teach what is "his" own property. He does not "own" the truths he has come to know. They are spiritual goods that belong to everyone by right, but only on condition of someone's being willing and fit to learn them, with, at best, the help of a "doctor," of one who teaches because he has first learned.
What is wrong and what is right about ourselves and our society are ever central questions of our lives, no matter who we might be, no matter when or where we might live. What is wrong, indeed, is ever to be seen in contrast to what is right so that we cannot engage in the one, the inquiry about what is wrong, without engaging in the other, the inquiry about what is right. In the New Testament, physicians were challenged first to cure themselves. I am not sure if this admonition was intended primarily as a kind of reassuring indication of competence for the non-physicians before they let surgeons cut them or whether it was a warning against hypocrisy, both of which are good ideas.
G. K. Chesterton wrote a book at the end of the first decade of this Century entitled What's Wrong with the World. He originally got this title from some sort of query he saw in a London newspaper wanting to know the best answer to this question about the ills of the world. Chesterton sat down and wrote a reply in which he stated succinctly, "'What's Wrong with the World?' I am. Signed, G. K. Chesterton." In other words, Chesterton belonged to that central school of thought familiar both to the Greeks and to readers of Scripture that maintains that ultimately what is right and wrong in society begins and ends in what is wrong and right in ourselves.
We are all, in fact, somewhat in the situation of the doctor who stopped his young daughter some time after she had introduced him to her new beau. "Did you tell that young man that I think he's no good?" the embarrassed physician asked his daughter. The young lady replied perkily, "Yes, I did, Dad, but he did not seem at all upset. He said it wasn't the first wrong diagnosis you've made." We might well suggest that for doctors as well as for those of us who think about our church and our society, a wrong diagnosis is something we well might make. This susceptibility we have to err ought, if we are minimally humble about ourselves, makes us open to diagnoses of society and of its ills that are fruits of a long and traditional reflection on our human lot.
In May, 1991, John Paul II issued a memorable Encyclical on social concerns called Centesimus Annus, so named because it was written one hundred years after Pope Leo XIII's pioneer Encyclical Rerum Novarum. It is a document, whatever one's profession, education, or religion, that is well worth considerable reflection. If you will, both of these documents. Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, were written to "diagnose" the problems of civil society and through it problems of the human soul.
"A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying," John Paul II wrote (#41), "who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them to the truth, cannot be free." Both documents spoke not only of what is wrong but of what is new, of what is capable of working when other theories and endeavors obviously do not. John Paul II's document is a remarkably honest presentation as well as a rather optimistic one. Thus, speaking of the events of the Year 1989, specifically the collapse of Marxism, the Pope emphasized that "the complex problems faced by those peoples can be resolved through dialogue and solidarity, rather than by a struggle to destroy the enemy through war" (#22). Why Marxism so radically changed without great violence and strife is one of the mysteries of our era.
One has the impression that this Pope thinks that what things go on in the world in these historical movements of our time are more than merely human events, though they remain also human deeds from which we ought to draw appropriate lessons. "Part of the responsibility of pastors is to give careful consideration to current events in order to discern the new requirements of evangelization," John Paul II reflected. "However, such an analysis is not meant to pass definitive judgments, since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium's specific domain" (#3). We know that God's will is at work in the events of the world without knowing specifically what they imply, yet neither are we wholly ignorant. Some meanings do become clear. The Pope thinks about them also.
The title of these particular reflections, "The Call Contained in the Being of Things," is taken in fact from Centesimus Annus, from a passage in which the Holy Father is speaking of atheism as a social philosophy, specifically of that Marxism, that has controlled many governments during most of our lifetimes. The whole passage reads like this:
It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it (#13).
The Holy Father not only remarks that we each have a transcendent dignity, but that we are to be aware of it, both in ourselves and in others. We are so aware because of the being, of the reality, we find in the things we encounter.
Sometimes what we are asked to encounter, of course, is ourselves. We remain in great perplexity about ourselves. Lucy is obviously annoyed. She is standing before an open door in her house yelling out at the world and those what made it, "I DON'T CARE! IT'S NOT FAIR!" In the next scene, she determinedly walks over to Linus who is glued to the television. "I wanna ask you something!" she bursts into his watching. "Do you remember before we were born?" Without changing his TV interest, Linus answers, "Not hardly." Puzzled but logically, Lucy continues, "Weren't we up in heaven with a bunch of other kids waiting to be born?"
Still not looking at Lucy but at the television, Linus exclaims, "The theological implications of that are beyond me...." Lucy merely goes right on, "Well, do you think we ever asked about being born?" This question finally gets to Linus who turns his head a bit away from the television. "I don't recall ever asking anyone or even seeing anyone...." Then Lucy stretches her arms wide to persist, "So you're sure we never asked to be born?"
Linus, back watching TV, firmly answers, "No I don't think so." Lucy checks, "You're sure?" Linus turns completely around to address her face to face, "I'm positive." Lucy agrees with him, "That's what I thought.... I just wanted to be sure...." The next to last scene has no words. Lucy is shown with down turned mouth, shoulders straight, an angry countenance, walking purposefully back to the door. On reaching the door open to the heavenly hosts, she shouts, "I DIDN'T ASK TO BE BORN!!"
Linus was right. The theological implications of such a question are mind-boggling. We might say of Centesimus Annus, that, granting the perplexity of this question about being born, it suggests that there is an answer. The Church's social teaching, the Pope maintains, "proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself" (#54).
And almost as if to respond directly to Lucy's defiant protest, John Paul II recalls the classic doctrine of original sin, the Pauline and Augustinian rebellion of heart implied in Lucy's rebellious protest, "I didn't ask to be born." However little this basic Old Testament and New Testament doctrine on original sin has been neglected in recent years in our preaching and in our schools, here it is stated clearly and bluntly in Centesimus Annus:
Humankind, created for freedom, bears within itself the wound of original sin, which constantly draws persons toward evil and puts them in need of redemption. Not only is the doctrine an integral part of Christian revelation; it also has great hermeneutical value insofar as it helps one to understand human reality. The human person tends towards good, but is also capable of evil. One can transcend one's immediate interest and still remain bound to it (#25).
What is most remarkable about this passage is the conclusion that John Paul II draws from it. Both C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton had remarked that original sin was the chief theological doctrine needed to support democracy, for it was the one doctrine that taught us not to trust too much any human being, especially a politician. If such is the conclusion, that is no doubt a popular dogma in any era! A healthy political system thus owes much to the imperfectibility of man.
John Paul II himself suggests that this doctrine of original sin teaches us not to place in too radical an opposition our personal interests over against the interests of society as a whole. If we try to suppress self-interest too much, we will tend to replace it with a "burdensome system of bureaucratic control" that will "dry up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity." And these wellsprings are some of the very things this Encyclical especially wishes to recognize. The Pope goes on to argue that those who think that they have a formula for a "perfect social organization which makes evil impossible," will likely go on to think that they can use any means, "including violence and deceit," to achieve such a lofty goal.
So original sin warns us against the utopians who have done so much actual damage in this century because of their theories and the practices based on them. "No political society ... can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God," the Pope insists in a passage that explains why politics are always limited. The totalitarian regime wants to take to itself the judgment of men and society, to take the place of God. Again this Polish Pope teaches us the profound nature of often neglected Christian dogmas.
John Paul II, himself one of the most perceptive of men, indicates then that this response to the call of God we find through the being of things, including our own being, cannot find a substitute in politics or mere service to others, however good these might be in themselves. When these civil movements or societies become substitutes for God, as they have been and can be, we do not reach God in them but an idol placed in His stead.
Uncomfortably for us if we think we are immune from these ideological temptations, John Paul II sees that dangers of totalitarian rule do not come only from Marxist theory. Lucidly, he defines a form of popular democratic theory, one quite familiar to us, that is based on the same philosophic suppositions as totalitarianism. "Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life," John Paul II observed in a passage that shows acute awareness of what is held in many western universities.
Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power (#46).
That is as an incisive statement as I know of the sort of intellectual divisions that are found not in far-off Russia but in our daily and scholarly press and in our finest academic institutions.
More and more what has replaced the "classless society" as the prime candidate for this man-made political idol is a conception of culture and civil society in which there are no to be "imperfect" beings. In this view, everyone will be born perfect or not born at all. Lucy's "I didn't ask to be born" will be taken quite seriously by the human perfection school of ideology. Everyone will be completely cared for, managed, and retired from life on schedule in the name of compassion and the supposed limits of the earth.
Our "rights," in this view, are primarily determined not by any transcendent end but by a conception of the environmental and political limits of human society that finds all social purpose and dignity exclusively enclosed in this inner-worldly vision of human planetary life. Interestingly, it is the theory of the free market that is the primary secular opponent to this view, so it is no wonder the Holy Father has taken a second look at it. This is the real significance of the Encyclical's recognition that the real source of wealth is the human mind and genius, not just property or goods.
The response we are to give in our freedom, that is, the recognition that our being is not grounded in itself or in our wills, is directed properly, in John Paul's analysis, to what is the highest being in reality, to the apex, to the origin of all that is. The very use of the word "response" means that we are to choose our good, even if we do not ourselves make it. The first being is of a nature to address itself precisely to us in our highest activities, in our own particular lives.
Yet, the Twentieth Century, the one we still live in, is at the same time the bloodiest century in the history of man and also our Century. It is the Century during which men first walked on the Moon and in which the killing of pre-born human infants became a widespread, prosperous industry. It is a century in which the poverty of the Third World was contrasted with the widespread riches of man's productive capacities. It is a century in which the question for many of us is not why do we have so little, but what is the meaning of so much? What are we to make of these contrasts?
In 1977, the late E. F. Schumacher wrote, anticipating what John Paul II would say in Centesimus Annus, that
the economic problem is a convergent problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been. But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not ... capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort. (A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper, 1977, p. 140).
Moral problems are rather mysteries in Schumacher's terminology so that we will always have to decide the most fundamental of questions even when all our material wants are taken care of, perhaps especially when they are taken care of. This is why, after all, abortion and euthanasia and a thousand other problems remain on the scene not merely in poor societies but especially in rich ones. These are not issues of riches and poverty but will and the meaning of existence, things about which we must always choose how we will stand.
What I intend to suggest to you is that Centesimus Annus is the Pope's formal recognition of the truth of this observation of Schumacher that we in fact do know how to solve the economic problems that remain to man. Nevertheless, the more interesting and perennial human issues ever remain and are ever more pressing. We know what social and economic systems will not work and why. We know what political systems will work and why.
But this practical knowledge does not mean that we will use the systems that work, since we are always free to choose something that will not work. Nor does it mean that other problems will not become greater precisely because we no longer have difficult economic problem at the center of our concern.
Earlier literature used to speak of a "gentleman farmer," or a "gentleman lawyer," or a "gentleman doctor." The phrase arose in an era that more easily recognized that if we are going to know any particular thing well, we must also have a good understanding of things generally, of what I like to call the order of things, of what is. The gentleman farmer, or lawyer, or doctor was someone who had, if you will, a more classical education than the strict scientific requirements of his particular profession or craft. He was educated as a man before he was educated as a doctor, lawyer, or farmer.
What was presupposed to any specialized training was an education in the highest of things. Specialists were not to be lost in their specialty, however valid the division of labor of which Plato spoke was necessary to do anything well. The most dangerous person, as this same Plato taught, was not the man of bad will but the specialist of bad will, the doctor or the lawyer or the farmer, who not only wanted to do evil but who knew how best to accomplish it.
Clearly this great Polish Pope expects us to know what is going on in the world. This Encyclical devotes a special section to "the events of 1989," to the fall of socialism. The Pope began by recalling the teachings of Leo XIII, particularly his stress on a limited state and the value of private property, of his awareness that ideas were often at the bottom of what was wrong with the world. Leo XIII was the previous Pope that had the most difficulty with socialism as a theory of property and of government. Consequently, when we see the collapse of its particularly Marxist form, we will not hesitate to draw certain conclusions about what systems can best provide an abundance of goods and services that are distributed in a free economy to most citizens.
John Paul II in this Encyclical simply accepts democratic or market capitalism as the best way, in general, for most people to solve their economic problems. He is quick to emphasize that there can be forms of capitalism that lack juridical or moral control so that the dire results against which socialism first arose can still be possible. But the notions of profit, market, and exchange are now enshrined in Catholic social thought as normal mechanisms that all people recognize as the best means to solve the problem of production and distribution.
In addressing those countries that have not yet found a path to economic development, John Paul II asked whether a form of limited capitalism was indeed the proper path for them?
If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative.... But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative (#42).
In the same passage, the Pope recognizes the strength of a market economy and realizes its possible abuses. He also acknowledges that it works well when its basic premises are understood and observed. With one sweep, the Pope sweeps away the long dominant intellectual radicalism of the left in western experience as itself incapable of meeting human needs. He gives the edge to capitalism without denying its own dangers. One could hardly ask for more.
The Pope gives a surprisingly large space in this Encyclical to the discussion of atheism, not merely the atheism of the Marxists but the atheism that is also present in free societies. The Pope here is not necessarily discussing the so-called "good atheist" who implicitly accepts most of the basic rules of morality and law however he arrives at his conclusions. We Americans, I think, are not accustomed to taking ideas seriously, particularly ideas about God. We are uncomfortable and we do not want to face the hard task of sorting our ideas out or admitting the difference they can and do make.
The Pope comes from a different perspective. He has lived in a society in which the denial of God was elevated into a political system. It was a legal system that attempted to remove systematically the idea of God from human life. The men who
sought to do this were themselves inspired by philosophers, if not philosophers themselves. It is thus particularly Polish in terms of experience and particularly Catholic in terms of thought to address the atheist question and argument.
The argument begins by reminding us that man's end and goal is not exhausted by the state. Indeed, many other ends and purposes are part of human nature -- family, voluntary societies, all of which have their own "autonomy" (#13). The first cause of misunderstanding this notion that the state is limited and other institutions are naturel to man is atheism. The first reason why atheism is a disorder is because it cuts man off from one of the ends or tendencies to which he is ordered by his nature. When he does not orient himself to God, he seeks alternatives to substitute for God. These alternatives appear as realities that will satisfy man's desire for God.
What the Twentieth Century has been is a working out of these alternatives.
There is a denial of the supreme insight concerning man's true greatness, his transcendence in respect to earthly realities, the contradiction in his heart between the desire for the fullness of what is good and his own inability to attain it and, above all, the need for salvation which results from this situation (#13).
Of the many remarkable things in Centesimus Annus, no doubt this observation is the most surprising, namely, that the proper analysis of the human social order, in all its depths and importance, leads naturally and normally to questions of salvation and redemption. When it does not do so, the results on actual political orders are immediate and far-reaching. They appear as human efforts to seek and establish substitutes for what man's ultimate meaning is about. John Paul II's reflections, his "re-reading" (#3), as he calls it, of Rerum Novarum, does not allow for a "separation" of politics and faith that would prevent the problems of the former from being answered by the truths of the latter.
In conclusion, the story is told of the doctor who, after examining his patient, gravely looks at the man's wife to report, "I don't like the looks of your husband, Mrs. Brown." To which Mrs. Brown replies, "Neither do I, Doctor, but he's good to our children."
All through the modern era, we have been hearing from many sources that we do not like the looks of this or that aspect of religion or of its understanding of the social order. Centesimus Annus, I think, is a document in which the Church itself takes a hard look at many things it has had serious problems with but which it has come to realize that there was much good in them. The Church in the person of John Paul II has also taken a hard look at the results of Marxism in the light of its own teaching about it. It has decided that the early modern popes were right about its principles and that those thinkers, including Christian ones, who thought that somehow "the left" was a wave of the future for the good of mankind were wrong. They have been proved wrong by experience if nothing else.
Perhaps we could even say that John Paul II's final judgment about a social order is precisely whether "it is good to its children." John Paul II, for all he generously grants of good in all phases of human life, does not think that we will achieve a society of justice and love, one good to its children, without "the gift of grace that comes from God" (#59). Whether we be Doctors of Medicine, physicians, surgeons, lawyers, theologians, men of letters, or barbers, what is most essential to understand is that "the guiding principle ... of all the Church's social doctrine is a correct view of the human person and of the person's unique value, in as much as the human being '... is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself'" (#11).
With such a diagnosis we can live even when we do not like the looks of our husbands and other fellow human creatures tinged, as we all are, by original sin. "I didn't ask to be born!" If, as Johnson said at the Mitre Tavern in London, "a Doctor of Medicine is a man who can teach the art of curing diseases," we can be attentive to a Document that addresses so directly the problems dealing with our souls and our societies, which teaches that we will not solve all our problems alone, but that, with grace, we can do more than we could expect. Such are the lessons of 1989 that John Paul wanted to recall One Hundred Years after Leo XIII's Encyclical Rerum Novarum, from the "new things" that break into our world because we do not, in the end, cause ourselves or our world to be in the first place.
4) From Vital Speeches, LXIII (June 1, 1997), 503-07.
An address presented before the Brent Society Catholic Writers' Group, Fairfax, Virginia, April 27, 1997.
Let me begin by reading a few concise sentences about the human self that does the writing from a wonderful collection called, Conversations with Walker Percy (1971, p. 49). "Of course, the point of my book" (Love in the Ruins), Percy writes,
is that the quest for the self is probably self-defeating. I mean if religion has any validity at all, then the quest for the self is nonsense, you know. It's the quest for God, or as Kierkegaard, I think, said: the only way the self can become self is by becoming itself transparently before God. So, to answer your question, I suppose a good deal of my novel-writing could be a satire on the theme of the so-called quest for the self, or self-fulfillment, et cetera, et cetera. A great deal of bad novel writing is about searching for one's self.
Notice that the subject matter of this passage is the relationship between good novels and nonsensical ideas.
Percy even hints that if we think poorly, we will probably write poorly, or at least, that what we write will not pass the test of good philosophy. Hence, it may well do more harm than good. This relationship between writing and thought seems to recall the old warning that "even the devil can quote Scripture." And Scripture is, in general, pretty well-written, even when the devil cites it, perhaps especially when he cites it. Indeed, as a fallen angel of light, we must presume that the devil, were he to try his hand at, say, E-mail, could write persuasively. This paradox means at a minimum that good writing is not valuable ultimately because it is, in the abstract, good writing, but because, in being good writing, it guides us to the truth which, as such, transcends both good and bad writing.
At one time or another, I have lectured on precisely "What Is a Lecture," likewise "On Teaching," "On the Intellectual Life," and "On Reading." So I presume it is time to accept an invitation to say something about "writing." What is noteworthy about the present time is that writing, at least letter-writing, has in some degree been rediscovered with Web sites and with on-line E-mail, that most speedy and most ephemeral way to communicate with people we do or do not know, here and across the globe. I have a nephew in mainland China with whom I correspond as easily and as instantaneously as I do with his sister in West Hollywood or his brother in Dallas or his cousin over across the Washington Beltway in Maryland. The circle of friends to whom we might frequently write no longer requires that we patiently await the post, affectionately known as "snail-mail" -- though I admit that there is something nice about the unhurried time it takes to await, read, and answer letters. The art of letter-writing, at its best, includes a time for pondering what we have first received. E-mail indiscriminately includes within the orbit of its new-found literary immediacy, the household, the neighborhood, the city, and the world, no doubt including the Columbia or Discovery spacecraft, if we chance to know someone up there.
In many ways, E-mail is more convenient and more intimate even than the telephone. No doubt, widespread use of some sort of videophone is around the corner. We will see with whom we speak. We will be "in person" around the world, not in eighty days, but right now. Teleconferences are common. Already our streets, malls, and airports are filled with every variety of folk walking along or standing by a pillar happily or noisily or annoyingly chatting with someone on the other unknown end of a cellular phone. Things have gotten so bad that you feel you are eavesdropping on someone else's private conversation while you are merely strolling down the avenues minding your own business. You can be in a three-seat bank in an airplane flying over Wichita, Kansas, as you unavoidably overhear a parent in the middle seat reminding the son at college in Florida to send his semester grades home, or else.
Already it is possible to send the same message by E-mail on a lap-top as by phone. Then there was a New Yorker cover showing an elegantly-dressed, very formal couple seated at table in a very expensive Manhattan restaurant, with attentive waiter in tux, violinist softly playing near-by. Meanwhile both the man and the woman, holding hands but looking distantly in different directions, were talking to someone else far away on different cellular phones. "Separate tables," the title of an old movie about loneliness, have collapsed into the same table. The husband of my niece in Florida showed me, with their experimental television hook-up, how they could order, pay for, and have delivered to their doorstep in twenty minutes, whatever kind of pizza we might desire. Talk about civilization advancing! But I am not knocking it. It is amazing. Soon it will be unnecessary to leave one's home for any imaginable purpose, including college and shopping. Ralph McInerny, in fact, thinks that some sort of interactive television university may be the only hope for any real religious education at the university level, assuming that we can keep the government from controlling that area also.
What I want to say about writing, however, relates to the passage from Walker Percy that I cited in the beginning in which Percy perceptively hinted that we write bad novels if we have bad philosophy. It is possible, of course, to find patches of good writing in a thoroughly bad novel, nor will we necessarily write good novels if we have good philosophy, though it helps. If we never read a lousy novel, moreover, we will probably never really know what a good one is by comparison Writing indeed is an art that must be acquired, by practice and repetition. Percy himself said he sometimes rewrote a story two or three hundred times.
Art, the habit of making well, and prudence, the habit of living well, do not have the exact same criterion of excellence. A bad man can be a good artist, but probably not precisely insofar as he is a bad man. Prudence looks to how our free human actions relate to what we are, what we do or achieve in our lives. Art looks to whether we put into a poem or a painting, an essay or a symphony, what we intended to put there and whether what we made is beautiful, regardless of the status of our own soul. If something is in fact beautiful, we do not deny it on the grounds that the artist was known to be a rake or a miser or drunk. This distinction does not mean, however, that we need to deny the personal failings and wrongs if there is real evidence for it.
Likewise, we can find very good writing in unlikely places, say, in comic novels. Take the following sentence from P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle: "Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons." I chuckle at such an extraordinarily amusing comparison between the multiple parental love of a prolific codfish and the cool aloofness of the British aristocracy towards a few younger sons. I nonetheless read Wodehouse with a dictionary and a pencil in hand both because he says things so felicitously and because he uses so many words I have never seen before used in quite the same remarkable way. How we write is no doubt directly related to how carefully we read and observe.
If, however, we do set out to write a novel for the purpose of discovering ourselves, the worst thing that can happen to us is actually to find ourselves, only then to realize that there is nothing much there unless we understand that the very meaning of self is a search for what it is not ourselves. This is the lifetime endeavor to fill the self through love and knowledge with what is not the self. The reason the human parent does not, like the male codfish, have three million five hundred thousand offspring, actually has something to do with the intense nature of love among human beings. The neglect of any human children, including younger sons of the British aristocracy, as Wodehouse playfully intimates, has dire consequences.
Actually, the reason that I started to think about writing was because I happened across an essay of Hilaire Belloc, in his lovely collection, The Silence of the Sea. The essay is entitled "On Books," an essay sportively devoted to the use of books as objects, not as sources of reading. A book, Belloc pointed out, can be used, if needs be, to throw at someone; it can be used raise a chair up a bit higher, or to keep maps flat while we try to find out how to get off Highway 95 to go to the Lincoln Memorial. Belloc, whose name in our library card catalogue brings up over seven hundred titles, warns, with some humor, that "of all fatiguing, futile, empty trades, the worst, I suppose, is writing about writing." Since this writing about writing is precisely what engages us here, we are obliged to consider the point of Belloc's concern about this strange exercise.
Writing about writing is a sort of second level abstraction, not unrelated to Plato's warning about the painters who stood two steps away from the reality about which they painted. Plato thought such a distance confused the soul and deprived it of its immediate confrontation with what is Belloc continues:
Writing itself is a bad enough trade, rightly held up to ridicule and contempt by the greater part of mankind, and especially by those who do real work, ploughing, riding, sailing -- or even walking about. It is a sound instinct in men to feel this distrust and contempt for writing; and as for writing about writing, why, it is writing squared; it is writing to the second power, in which the original evil is concentrated.... There is even, I am told, a third degree of horror. Writing about what other people have written about writing: "Lives of the Critics," "Good English," "Essays on Sainte Beuve" -- things of that sort. Good Lord, deliver us.
We might note that some of Belloc's own very best writings were his essays on precisely "real work, ploughing, riding, sailing," and even in "walking about." Who can ever forget the descriptions of Delft, Arles, Lynn, and Ely in The Hills and the Sea. There are no better books on "walking" than Belloc's own The Path to Rome and The Four Men, almost as if to say that if you are going to write well, you must first do the ordinary things that the "greater part of mankind do."
The great French writer, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, previously in the sixteenth century also wrote an essay "On Books." Similar to Belloc's criterion of experience, he particularly liked the writings of Julius Caesar because the man wrote of what he knew, namely of men and war. Remembering that Walker Percy was also a doctor, Montaigne asks, "What can a man expect from a physician who writes of war, or from a mere scholar, treating the designs of princes?" Evidently, not much. Montaigne then goes on to give some advice about reading books that need not be read again. I might recall first, however, a remark of C. S. Lewis, who said that you have not read a great book at all, if you have only read it once. But Montaigne is talking of books, perhaps not great books, that he figures are indeed worth at least one reading. At the end of a book he has just read for the first and last time, he tells us, he takes the time to jot down his general impressions of the book and of its author.
After reading the famous Italian writer Guicciardini, from whom Machiavelli learned so much, for example, Montaigne praised him for his vast erudition. He was in fact present at most of the events he wrote about. Montaigne pointed to what Guicciardini thought himself to be best at, namely his literary digressions. Though these sometimes were quite good, they were, on the whole in Montaigne's view, a bit too artificial. Guicciardini was too "fond" of what he was writing. Then Montaigne adds this remarkable reflection on Guicciardini, a passage that reveals quite well that doctor of souls, Walker Percy's insight about how a man's fundamental philosophy shows through what he writes:
I have also observed this in him, that of so many souls and so many effects, so many motives and so many counsels as he judges, he never attributes any one to virtue, religion, or conscience, as if all these were utterly extinct in the world; and of all the actions, how brave soever in outward show they appear in themselves, he always refers the cause and motive to some vicious occasion or some prospect of profit. It is impossible to imagine but that, among such an infinite number of actions as he makes mention of, there must be some one produced by way of honest reason. No corruption could so universally have infected men that someone would not have escaped the contagion: which makes me suspect that his own taste was vicious, whence it might happen that he judged other men by himself.
Even in translation, that is marvelously said, is it not?
Montaigne's quite lucid observation about Guicciardini, no doubt, is but a reflection on the classic teaching about the effects of The Fall, that men are prone to evil in many ways but that human nature is not corrupt as such, that there is always a possibility in freedom and grace to reject the vicious temptations that are admittedly prevalent. What of course Montaigne has done here, to be sure, is to examine the writings of a man to see what they reveal about him, about his self or his soul. Those who take up the craft of writing, thus, should be mindful that there will always somewhere be a Montaigne or a Walker Percy out there to read what we write and to see what it reveals about our own souls and the understanding of reality that what we write displays.
In Fowler's Modern English Usage, a book no writer can afford to be without, we find an entry entitled, "Worn-out Humour." In writing, we are urged to choose our jokes and witticisms carefully and to forget those that have become stale, or what we used to call in my Iowa youth "corney." The entry begins by recalling Queen Victoria's famous protestation, "We are not amused." Fowler points out that whatever it was that did not amuse the good Queen would have been in fact quite amusing to most people. Otherwise its not also amusing the Queen would not have been an issue. Whatever it was, Fowler points out, just did not "amuse the person whose amusement matters."
Having given us this solid reflection, Fowler proceeds to make a point about writing. In writing, whose opinion matters? "The writer's Queen Victoria," he carefully explains, "is his public, and, he would do well to keep a bust of the old Queen on his desk with the legend 'We are not amused' hanging from it." Why, we might ask, is this bust of the Queen on our desk an aid to our writing? Because the public for whom we write will not be "amused if he (the writer) serves it up the small facetiae that it remembers long ago to have taken delight in. We recognize this about anecdotes, avoid putting on our friends the depressing duty of simulating surprise, and sort out our stock of chestnuts and still possibles. Anecdotes are our pounds, and we take care of them; but of phrases that are our pence, we are more neglectful." That is, we all have stories or jokes we like to repeat that are in truth "chestnuts." Fowler advises us simply, "Don't use them." But we still may have old stories or jokes that we can really tell again, the "still possibles," that will work in this explanation or before that audience. These we can use if we are good writers.
Let me make one more point about the relation between reading and writing. In the previous citation that I just used from Fowler, he used the word "facetiae." Similar to what I said about reading Wodehouse with a pencil in hand, I had to look that word up as it was not quite familiar to me. It comes from a Latin word meaning something witty or amusing, a remark or a writing. Fowler used the word perfectly to make his point. In recalling it, I wish again to remind any writer that when he comes across a word in Fowler or Wodehouse or Walker Percy or Montaigne that he does not know, the first thing he must do is to admit that he does not know it, look it up, and reflect on how it is used so well. And even when we know what a word like "cheerfully" means, we need to notice how wonderfully it is used when it appears in a sentence in Wodehouse to describe the reaction of the male codfish on beholding his three million, five hundred thousand little ones in contrast to the dour attitude of the British aristocracy who produce younger sons that Wodehouse himself describes with a good cheer and delight that is almost indescribably funny and human.
The suggestion that we also learn how to write by reading is not designed to encourage plagiarism, but to alert us to what it means to write well. We need not pretend that we dream up most of our ideas or our facts from out of the depths of our own relative emptiness. "Originality is nothing but judicious imitation," Voltaire once said. "The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor's, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all." We might notice this about copyrights, those legal fictions designed to protect the author of the originality of what he writes, that we can copyright what we write, but not our ideas as such. Ideas as such are not anyone's private possessions. The very purpose of knowledge is that we have the same ideas about truth. Ideas are presented to us as good or bad, true or false, in whatever language or wording they might be found. When we sit down to state the idea, it will be in our own way. Words change. Ideas do not.
Yet, it is good to have about us, within reason of course, many books. James Boswell recalls the following admonition:
Dr. Johnson advised me to-day (Monday, September 22, 1777), to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. "What you read then (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a change if you again have a desire to study it." He added, "If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination." (II, p. 148)
The books that we have about us are our immediate foundations for instruction. Ideas mould in our mind but they change too, and our memory of them, so we need the books to be there, to go back to them. They keep us grounded, just as what we write keeps before us the fact that our ideas are meant to be communicated to others. We are never content just to express them to ourselves. Indeed, if we had no one to write to, express ourselves to, we would soon go mad.
Dr. Johnson made another point that I think worth emphasizing. It concerns the "eager desire for instruction." As a professor, I have often wondered about what it is that makes a student stop reading for grades and begin to read because he is struck by something, because he wonders about something? Johnson did not deny that we might "prescribe a task" to read something that we would not otherwise read easily. We could decide, for instance, within the next month, one way or another, to read The Brothers Karamazov or Dorothy Sayers' The Whimsical Christian. But we would be reading it, at first at least, from duty, not delight. An ex-student of mine, now working for a Congressman, called me up the other day to tell me how pleased he was that a man who works with him came in the other morning and told him that he had reread Thucydides. My friend was pleased by the simple fact that his colleague actually read Thucydides because he enjoyed it. I have often been struck by the fact that a book I have been asked to review will be a great aid in reading the book. We learn to like many books that we are required to read -- which is, ultimately, if I might put it this way, is the only justification for a professor to teach a class to young men and women.
Thus, Johnson is right, a man's reading should mainly arise from his "immediate inclination." Johnson made the same point a couple of years later, on April 16, 1779, in fact, in another way. The remark concerned an earlier stage in a youth's education: "I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He'll get better books afterwards" (II, p. 290). Notice that Johnson does not necessarily disagree with Walker Percy about good and bad books. In fact, he agrees with him. There is no sense, however, in talking of good and bad books to someone who reads no books or who must always be forced to read out of a motive of need or profit rather than a motive of entertainment or wonder. The "sure good" is to get the boy's attention engaged. Once that is accomplished, we can begin to discuss the difference between good and bad books. I suppose once we can get him to begin to write just for the delight of it, only then can we begin to deal with the question of good and bad writing.
I would like to make one final point about books, and reading, and writing. I was lately talking with Mr. Nicholas Scheetz, the Manuscript Librarian at the Georgetown University Library. I asked whether the library preserves the discs that writers today normally use initially to write their works. He replied that this was a very perplexing question and one not at all settled in the profession. As anyone knows who has been writing on word processors or computers for many years, the technology of this way of doing things changes so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up with it. Scheetz said that twenty years at the most is the length of a disc before it not only becomes obsolete but unreproducible except in some rare archive that has preserved the machines we now use daily to read them. He said that from the point of view of an archivist, in many ways the "hard copy" remains the best way to preserve someone's letters and materials.
Several years ago, I had been on a committee in the National Endowment for the Humanities that was concerned with preserving even books written on various grades of paper. Books and newspapers and letters, as physical objects, are themselves, in terms of decades and centuries, quite ephemeral and passing. No doubt the future of both books and on-line materials will be itself a question of reproducing the technology in which much of writing today exists, though hopefully this will not be any impossible problem. In fact, it is probably true to say today, that a book or an essay first appears in on-line form and only secondarily in print form. Books are published from discs not from paper manuscripts, even though what we read is often still in print form. Indeed, I doubt if it will ever be possible and certainly not advisable for everything to appear simply on-line. A book has a certain independent existence whose integrity is guaranteed by its very physicalness.
In conclusion, let me again remind you of Fowler's admonition about not using old "chestnuts," whether on-line or in print. We need first to remind ourselves that with today's technology we could probably record every word we ever spoke in our lives. We could keep it on a couple of discs. This alone is proof of Walker Percy's point that paradise cannot possibly consist in eternally finding ourselves, in eternally listening to our own disc played over and over. Fowler, of course, does not mean that we should neglect irony and humor with the lessons they teach us, sometimes the most profound of lessons. Aristotle himself, I believe, intimated that someone who understands the point of jokes is potentially a good metaphysician because he can see how things relate to one another as parts of a whole. Indeed, some of the most profound of lessons can be taught through humor. Let no one who hears me ever forget Wodehouse's prolific male codfish cheerfully loving his three million five hundred thousand little codfish..
Bennett Cerf, in one of his books, a book appropriately entitled for our purposes here, A Treasury of Atrocious Puns, recounts the following scene:
The famous if sometimes unintelligible Gertrude Stein was about to cross the Champs-Elysées in Paris one afternoon when she paused to rub a mosquito bite on the back of her neck. Just then an automobile out of control careened down the avenue, missing Gertrude Stein by a matter of seconds -- inches. Miss Stein's companion, Alice B. Toklas, murmured thankfully, "An itch in time saves Stein."
Well, that is indeed an old chestnut, whether in print or on line. On hearing it, I hope none of you has to indulge, as Fowler put it, in the "depressing duty of simulating surprise" because you have heard it all before.
Notice that Bennett Cerf remarks that Gertrude Stein is both famous and "sometimes unintelligible." May I leave you with this thought? We never know whether we might or might not become famous or even infamous. We write indeed so that someone will read us, but writing is such that we never really know if they will, or if they do, who they might be. Our best reader will almost invariably be someone we never heard of. But we can always, on-line or on paper, seek to be intelligible. No one, not ever Gertrude Stein, with her itch in time, ever deliberately chose to be unintelligible to everyone. To be intelligible to one another is the purpose of our kind. this is why we are called, precisely, the rational animal.
And being intelligible does not mean that we need not be amusing, even in our seriousness, unless to achieve this lofty goal of intelligibility, we constantly inflect old chestnuts on our readers and friends. We want to pass from laboring to know because we set ourselves a task, to knowing because we love the truth and seek to write it down. Let us be like Guicciardini and notice all the things that go on about us, but let us not, like him, conclude that all things proceed from vicious occasion and profit, that no one at no time ever did anything simply because it was good to do. Let us not write our bad novels merely to be writing about writing or to inflict ourselves on ourselves as the sole objects of our discoveries. Rather let what is ourselves become part of the world that is, the world that is not ourselves, the world in which we actually live and in which we delight.
1) Lecture prepared for presentation at Christ the King, Anglican Church, Washington, D. C., April, 2002, by James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University
“The enjoyment of the Divine Comedy is a continuous process. If you get nothing out of it at first, you probably never will; but if from your first deciphering of it there comes now and then some direct shock of poetic intensity, nothing but laziness can deaden the desire for fuller and fuller knowledge.”
“We poets in our youth begin in gladness....”
– Wordsworth, “Resolution and Independence,” vii.
“Through the sloth that is sin, man barricades himself against the challenge handed to him by his own dignity. He resists being a spiritual entity endowed with the power to make decisions; he simply does not want to be that for which God lifted him above all natural potentiality.... He who is in conflict with himself in his inmost dwelling, who consequently does not will to be what he fundamentally is anyway, cannot dwell with himself and cannot be at home with himself.”
In the three short citations with which I begin, I want to stress certain basic ideas that will govern these reflections on the basis of gladness, a topic that seems to me to deserve special attention. Somehow, the very sound of the word “gladness” gladdens us, makes us glad. It does not itself define for us that because of which gladness comes about in us. But it intimates to us that we are gladdened because of what is, because whatever is, is good. We are gladdened because of the existence of something that flourishes beyond our own reckoning and towards which we strive and direct ourselves in all that we do, or even think.
We suspect in the beginning, in other words, that what ultimately makes glad is not something we give ourselves, not something that is in our own powers of making or doing, even though there is a proper pleasure in our own proper activities. What causes gladness in us may be given to us, but we do not create it or cause it to come to be by ourselves. Even what we do presupposes a power “to do” that we do not give ourselves. Indeed, we are “glad” that we exist all the while recognizing that this initial gladness itself points beyond itself to another, fuller gladness. “Grace upon grace,” as it states in the Prologue of St. John.
First of all, T. S. Eliot says that the Divine Comedy, that most concise description of our lot, is to be “enjoyed,” almost as if we may not know that we should enjoy it, or how, or why. He also implies, as the very title of Dante’s great poem -- precisely a “divine comedy” -- also indicates, as I like to put it, that there is a greater mystery in comedy than in tragedy, a greater mystery in joy than in sadness, a greater mystery in laughter than in tears, granted the mystery in both. Once we acquire a first-hand “taste” for this joy, we cannot let it go. It drives us not because it “forces” us but because it fascinates us. We seek because we are drawn. We seek, as Augustine says in his Confessions, because we are first sought. But we must seek, choose. We must be piqued, provoked, as it were, called to the attention of something that is not ourselves. Ubi amor, ibi oculus.
Dorothy Sayers once set down the principles underlying The Divine Comedy, underlying our lot in the world:
We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddy through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and his choice can be decisive to all eternity. For The Diving Comedy is precisely the drama of the soul’s choice.
Nothing glad can be ours unless we both have the power to choose it for its own sake and, in fact, do choose it.
Wordsworth tells us that, in our youth, “we begin in gladness,” if we are poets. I would not limit such glad beginnings to poets alone. We speak of the “joy” that comes at the news that a child is born unto us. The very meaning of the sacrament of marriage affirms that each of us is, in principle, to be “conceived in gladness.” It is good that things exist apart from anything we might have to do with their essential reality. We are glad to participate in the reality of what we are, of what is. We say, “I am glad to see you,” or “I am glad you are alive,” or “I am glad you exist.”
But in a more sober sense, Josef Pieper reminds us, as did Dorothy Sayers, that we can be in conflict with ourselves. We can reject what we are, this good that we are. Indeed, we can choose not to know or develop what we are, a kind of sloth that does not want to know the gladness in which we exist, not of ourselves. We want autonomy; we want to “self-realize” ourselves, define by ourselves what it is to be ourselves. And when we do define ourselves, we are annoyed because what we already are from nature does not originate in ourselves. From our very beginnings, we are a something, not a nothing. If we make ourselves to be what we are, we then logically want to make others what they are, otherwise our self-making is defeated by something not ourselves.. We end up with ourselves. Lonely.
The liturgical refrain most often heard during the Easter season is the lovely, “This is the day the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad, alleluia.” It is not, be it noted, the day we have made. Acts 2: 28, speaks of “the gladness of the risen Lord.” In Psalm 49 in the Book of Common Prayer we read, “Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness....” Christmas is associated with “glad tidings.” The St. Olaf College choir in Minnesota has an album entitled, “O Yule Full of Gladness.” William Dix’ 19th Century hymn refers to the Magi, “As with gladness, men of old, / Did the guiding star behold.” Shelly asks the skylark to “teach me half the gladness that thy brain must know....” George Eliot concludes, “so shall I join the choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” Psalm 100 tells us to “serve the Lord with gladness.” And Tennyson, in “In Memoriam,” speaks of “a solemn gladness” that crowns even Olivet. Oh, felix cupla.
Dictionaries indicate for us that gladness is “a condition of supreme well-being and good spirits, beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness. Like pleasure, it refers to the effect of what is good on us. Indeed, gladness is itself a pleasure, perhaps the highest pleasure. We notice the word gladness in all sorts of contexts. There is a “Gladness Band,” an “Oil of Gladness” shop that sells, what else, holy oils! The phrase, “oil of gladness, itself seems to refer to the oleo exultationis” of Hebrews 1:9. We find in April a “Gladness Stakes” at the racetrack at Curragh in Ireland, a “Deep Gladness“ motel in Texas, a William Gladness who once played basketball the University of Indiana Hoosiers, but now for Le Basket Francais. “Nights of Gladness” is a magnificent black/violet iris. Indeed the beautiful iris itself is sometimes called the “gladdon.” Finally, and most absurdly, I saw reference in a British paper to “Reefer Gladness” which is not the name of a rugby player but describes the loosening up of English laws against marijuana.
Gladness obviously refers to something ultimate. Psalm 4:7 reads, “Thou hast put gladness in my heart,” as if we could not put it there by ourselves even though it is really ours, really there. We hear sung, from time to time, the poignant, “Oh the days of the Kerry dancing; / Oh the ring of the pipers’ tunes; / Oh, for one of those hours of gladness; / Gone, alas, like our youth too soon.” One of those Hours of Gladness.... Psalm 51: 8, asks us, “Do you have real gladness...?” We would certainly like to think so, or at least like to think that it is available to us. We know that what gladness we have is real while, at the same time, we suspect that all gladness itself points to a gladness we do not ‘till now possess, yet which we anticipate.
Obviously, gladness is a word of many contexts and overtones, of delight when we have it, of nostalgia, when we once had it, of sadness when we do not have it at all. Scripture alone contains literally hundreds of words or phrases that could be translated by the English word “gladness.” The Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words that translate into English as “gladness” vary – jocunditas, exultatio, gaudium, felicitas. The English word seems to come from an Icelandic word meaning “bright,” or a Latin word meaning “smooth.” But essentially gladness is always, like joy its most frequent synonym, a blissful response to something that it given to us and which we now freely possess in response to what is given, with the added sense that it is really ours, really directed to us. We are not merely glad just to be glad, though there is nothing wrong with our reflective awareness of our delight in what is.
Indeed, I recall an old song with the refrain, “glad just to be sad thinking of you.” In fact, I looked the words of this song up on Google. The phrase, “glad just to be sad thinking of you,” is from “It Had to Be You,” of Gus Kahn and Isham Jones. Josef Pieper says that we cannot even be sad if we love nothing. The direction of our attention in gladness is outwards not inwards, yet the gladness is surely ours, yet without being selfish. The whole experience of gladness needs to be one experience. When present, gladness also describes our inwards. Indeed, this is its primary emphasis. We are glad to have what is good and to know that we have it in the only proper manner in which we can have it.
Near the beginning of his Apology, Socrates has to explain why he seems such an odd character in Athens, going around conversing with and even bothering everyone and anyone who would listen to examine his soul. Socrates explains that a young man by the name of Chaerephon had once gone to Delphi to inquire who was the wisest man in Greece. He returned with the astonishing news that Socrates himself was this “wisest man,” something that was news to Socrates. But being the curious man that he was, and not believing that the Oracle could be wholly wrong, Socrates decided to see if there was any truth in the Oracle’s affirmation about himself. Yet he could not be sure without further examination of those popularly said to be wise. Watching Socrates in this enterprise were the young potential philosophers, the sons of the Athenian citizens who were accusing him, accusing him of, among other things, corrupting these same youth. These same youth had not yet decided how they were to live, the only thing that Socrates thought worth while deciding.
This affirmation of the Oracle is the beginning of Socrates’ famous philosophic vocation. He begins to question those who are said to be wise, only to find out that they knew nothing, at least nothing of the important things. They vainly thought that by knowing one thing they knew everything. Socrates, for his part, modestly claims that he himself knows “little or nothing,” a claim that always seems a little disingenuous to us on first hearing it. But since he knows at least this fact about himself, he is wiser than those who think they know something but do not. Socrates next attempts to puzzle out what the Oracle must have meant, as he did not think it would err. He knew that his quizzing the local gentry had made him “unpopular,” if not hated.
The folks who listened to Socrates while he embarrassed the local wise men naturally held that he must have known the wisdom that he found lacking in others. But this was not the case. Finally, for his own comfort, he is incited to explain his own opinion of what the Oracle must have been getting at.
“What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response (that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece) meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says that this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said, ‘This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless’” (#23).
Thus, in this fundamental document of our culture, we already have the idea that human wisdom itself is worth, as Socrates quaintly puts it, “little or nothing.” Later on in the Laws, he will further explain that he did not mean to deny human wisdom of any worth, but merely that, by comparison to knowledge of the seriousness of God, all human life and wisdom are relatively insignificant and unserious ( 803b-c). It is to these divine things that Aristotle would later tell us to devote our attention as much as we could and not to the human things of politics and economics (Ethics, X, 7).
When we “moderns” hear such words we are often uncomprehending, even scandalized. We still hear the ringing accusations of, say, a Marx or of his ancient source, the Epicureans, who charge that the reason why the world is so disordered is because believers and philosophers waste their precious time and money on worthless practices connected with what they call worship or devotion to the divine. What they need to do is redirect their energies to this world, to the pressing needs of mankind, to “serious” things, like economics and politics. Atheism alone is humanism.
Socrates’ “atheism” consisted in not believing in the gods of the City. And he too did not like the idea of buying off the gods with gifts and votive offerings. The whole of modernity, it seems, has been one long effort to proclaim that man’s only serious concern is with himself, with his “human estate.” He must “lower his standards” from the “highest things.” Even religious people today seem to talk of little but poverty and want and their need to address them. Though this is probably a minority opinion, I sometimes think that there can be a kind of “atheism” lurking behind such a concentration on this worldly cares on the part of religious people, especially Christians. It is a kind of desperate escapism from what revelation clearly tells us is our primary concern. Much modern ideology, liberal, Marxist, and even conservative, ends up by divinizing the poor as the main motive for addressing the poor.
Someone might observe, moreover, that the notion of “the unseriousness of human affairs” is a perfectly good Greek or Platonic idea, but hardly a Christian idea. Chesterton observed that Christian revelation has a peculiar impact on classical ethical and metaphysical philosophy. In this light, I want to suggest that the effect of revelation is to stress both the importance of God as Trinity and to stress the importance of the world. Or to put it another way, if someone wants to change the world, he best not change his idea of God, particularly if he has the right idea of God. This is how Chesterton put it: “Let beliefs fade fast and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same. The more the life of the mind is unhinged, the more the machinery of matter will be left to itself.... As long as your vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized.” We ought not to be interested in changing the world just for the sake of changing it. We ought to change it only if we can make it better as world, and more importantly, only if our changes contribute to the ends for which we exist in the first place. The first change in the world, as Plato hinted, is always a change in ourselves.
In Charles N. R. McCoy’s book, The Structure of Political Thought, we can find a passage, commenting on Augustine, that I have always found essential in understanding the relation between the worship of God and its relation to the affairs of men. We are told in Scripture to seek first the Kingdom of God, then, and only then, “all these things” will be added unto us. We are also told by Dostoevski that in the end, that men will want only bread, only this world, not God. McCoy understood that
For St. Augustine, then, social justice should receive its initial movement from the most final of causes, eternal beatitude, the just distribution of temporal goods making us proportionately like God, “the most just Dispenser ... of all the adjuncts of [temporal peace] – the visible light, the breathable air, the potable water, and all the other necessaries of meat, drink, and clothing.” This is the root of Christian social justice.
I take this passage to mean that Christianity is not indifferent to what are called social goods or even a good life, quite the opposite. But neither Plato nor Aristotle would have doubted that humans needed some material well-being. The mystery of the classics, in McCoy’s view, was not its understanding of the goal but its lack of a proper motivation to achieve it. And that only came with the proper understanding of man’s relation to God through the Incarnation and Redemption. Christian worship not only provided a proper way to address “God alone,” the Memorial of the Sacrifice that was to be come in commemoration, but also the seeing of the eternal importance and destiny of each person leads back to what Augustine emphasized in the order of social justice.
The “unseriousness” of human affairs, moreover, refers not merely to the fact that only God is serious, but to the fact that we are created in the un-necessity of God. The kind of being we are need not exist in the sense that God did not need anything but Himself for his own happiness or completion. This lack of need is, in one sense, what the doctrine of the Trinity is about. There is no loneliness in God, something the Greeks could not anticipate and about which they worried. But in the highest things, whether we be rich or poor, philosophers or ordinary folks, our very presence before the Lord in worship is best described, again to cite Josef Pieper, not as something serious, though it is, but as something “festive.” Once we know the sort of act in which the Lord is made present among us, we can only be festive, we can only be joyful, we can only be, yes, glad.
In the end, what we long to see has been made known to us. St. Paul said in Athens that the unknown God is made known to us. We see Linus and Charlie Brown leaning on a stone wall. Both have puzzled looks on their faces as if they were pondering something really big. Both stare directly ahead. Linus remarks, “If we understand something, we usually aren’t so afraid....” In the next scene, Linus still concerned but perked up a bit, continues, “I think we all fear the unknown.” Charlie continues to stare straight ahead his head on his hands, elbows on the stone wall. In the third scene, Linus turns directly to Charlie to ask, “Don’t you think so?” In the last sketch, Linus, with a sort of hopeless look on his face as if he knows something wishy-washy is coming, hears Charlie answer these most universal of questions – “do we fear if we understand?” “don’t we all fear the unknown?” – with his pathetic “I don’t know.”
John Paul II’s whole life is a reminder of how many times we read in Scripture that we are to “fear not,” “not to be afraid.” The unknown God now makes Himself known, and we are glad of it. Socrates is right that the philosopher knows little or nothing. Charlie Brown is right, of ourselves we probably would fear if all we knew is what we concoct ourselves. Everyone does fear the unknown. The “beginning of gladness” arrives when we need no longer to say “I don’t know” when we are asked about our response to the seriousness of God. Plato answered this question of what we do before God by saying that we are to “sing, dance, and sacrifice.” Give or take a few clarifications, this is about what revelation also tells us. We can rejoice and be glad because our doctrines are not dull. They teach us that there is indeed something to be glad about, that we are, from the beginning, if we choose, or even if we don’t, intended for gladness. It is precisely “in gladness” in which we are to serve the Lord, and one another.
2) Published in The New Oxford Review, LXIX (February, 2002), 20-26.
“God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.”
– St. Paul, 2 Corinthians, 5:19.
“All you nations sing out your joy to the Lord.”
– Antiphon, Week III, Sunday, Readings, Roman Breviary.
“Honored as I am with a name of the greatest splendor, though I am still in chains I sing the praises of the churches, and pray that they be united with the flesh and the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal life; a union in faith and love, to which nothing must be preferred; and above all a union with Jesus and the Father, for if in him we endure all the power of the prince of this world, and escape unharmed, we shall make our way to God.”
The term “this world” can have many meanings -- a scientific meaning referring to the physical cosmos, a theological or a moral meaning. In the citation from St. Paul, “the world” was in the process of being reconciled to God through Christ. Such a reconciliation implies some fundamental disorder, something had gone wrong. Paul pictures the world as longing for its redemption as if somehow it also was affected by the Fall, or even by its own finiteness. “The whole world is waiting for God to reveal his sons,” Paul wrote to the Romans. “It was not for any fault on the part of creation that it was made unable to attain its purpose, it was made so by God. From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth....” (8:18-22). So the world itself, as related in the creation account in Genesis, had to be essentially good, not evil, in order for such a reconciliation to take place.
None the less, the sins and faults of men affected both themselves and the world. They evidently could not be reconciled by human power alone since they themselves had, in their very being, a transcendent destiny not of their own origin or making. “This world” likewise could be seen as that spirit or mood in the human soul, found constantly in history, that set itself against God. In this sense, as St. Ignatius of Antioch told the Magnesians, the prince of this world had power so that, “to make our way to God,” we needed to see that Jesus Christ is “our eternal life” to which nothing, not even the good things of this world, are to be preferred. This was likewise a constant teaching in St. Augustine. The alternatives to the City of God always consider something finitely good in the world to be fully capable of satisfying the human heart, a position that Greek philosophy, Christian revelation, and human experience itself deny.
We are thus more or less familiar with this terminology by which “this world” can mean several different things. What I want to examine here is the status of “this world” itself. That is to say, what is the ultimate purpose of what goes on in the world? What ultimately is it that we see when we see before us the activities of and in this world? Is it about the rise and fall of nations? Is there merely some inner-worldly purpose? And what would it be?
The antiphon speaks of “nations speaking joyfully to the Lord,” but we know that nations as such do not speak or sing, though we might hope for a nation that allows us to fulfill our ultimate purposes as human beings in peace -- not all do, as we know. We may have heard of the Hegalian expression that “a happy nation has no history.” We do find singing in happy lands.
But if we look over the world, both now and in history, we do not find too many happy countries. Indeed, we are constantly being warned, even by our religion, to be concerned with the dire conditions of poverty that we find in the world as well as by the moral decline in our own culture. The Holy Father, at Czestochowa on 4 June 1997, remarked, “we live in times of chaos, of spiritual disorientation and confusion, in which we discern various liberal and secularizing tendencies: God is often openly banished from social life ... and in people’s moral conduct a harmful relativism creeps in. Religious indifference spreads.” This is not a happy scene.
Recently, moreover, I was rereading C. S. Lewis’ famous book, The Problem of Pain. It remains one of the best analyses of this delicate subject of suffering and pain, one that does not exclude the question of the Cross itself. In the first pages of this book, Lewis recalls his own atheist days. When asked, “why are you an atheist?” his response was that the evil in the world is what justified this atheist position. How so? “Their (human) history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering it,” Lewis summarized his position. “... Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will someday be a uniform infinity of homogeneous mater at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing....” No God could have caused such a world; therefore, there is no God.
St. Thomas himself likewise tells us that the principal argument against the existence of God is the presence of evil in the world (I, 2, 3, ob.1 and ad 1). The argument is that surely an all powerful and all loving God who intended the good and happiness of rational beings in this world would not have allowed the presence of evil. Therefore, if there is a God, this God is “responsible” for evil. But God could not be imagined to cause evil. Therefore we do not have to believe in Him because, on such an hypothesis, He could not exist.
St. Thomas’ answer to this line of thought, following St. Augustine, is straight-forward. God does not “cause” evil, but only “allows” it. God would not have allowed evil, furthermore, had He not been able to bring a greater good from it. Even evil somehow serves the good. What is this greater good? Basically, it is that God could not offer “eternal life” to a creature except on the condition of that creature’s capacity freely to accept it. God is bound by the conditions of what He wants to do. In other words, the only being really capable of appreciating the glory of God would itself have to be not God, a creature not determined in its response to the good. But this entails, in other words, that it would be possible for a free creature to reject God’s offer to it to live at a level higher than could be expected of it in its natural status. This position presupposes that from the beginning, God intended to create the world in order that the free creature might reach the elevated end offered to him.
Without this initial purpose there would have been no cosmos, no world. What this view means is that God did not first create this world, then, as an after-thought, decide to do something with it, namely put free creatures on it and offer them a status that would include some participation in God’s own inner-life. This very offer would require from the beginning a special grace to make this possible. Thus, to recall a phrase from St. Thomas’ question on charity, “homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est.” More than anything else, this statement explains just why it is that we cannot ever properly speak of having an “earthly paradise” as our only and ultimate end unless it also includes angels’ or man’s free relation to God and what He has planned and offered to the human race.
Now, it is quite possible for some high good to be offered to us but that we still reject it. We necessarily refuse it in favor of some other good – hence the classical definition of evil must always include the notion of “lack” in some otherwise good being, a lack caused primarily by free will. Such choice of one good over another happens to us all the time, in fact. Moreover, the revelational offer of God to men is not pictured in Scripture as being something neutral or indifferent, something that we are morally free to take or leave. Looked at from this angle, God seems to be quite serious about what He offers to mankind. The offer is not on a take it or leave it basis as if it made no ultimate difference to us or to God what we choose. Scripture speaks of this destiny as something to be taught to all men. There is even a certain urgency to this mission, even after two thousand years.
Indeed, one of the first orders of business in the Church today is to reaffirm the priority of its obligation to preach the full Gospel to all men whether or not they accept its fullness. The very nature of religious freedom implies that making this teaching known is itself a good, whether it be accepted or rejected. This is particularly important in our multi-cultural era which, from various angles, rejects the idea that this redemptive purpose and mode are possible, obligatory, or necessary. This is what Dominus Jesus, the recent instruction about what the Church teaches about itself, was about.
In his lecture in Rome on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the publication of the Encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, Francis Cardinal George remarked that “in recent years, the Pope’s focus on Christ the Redeemer appears to be motivated by a growing concern that the waning commitment to mission ad gentes reflects a crisis of faith -- faith in the central mysteries of our religion: the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Holy Trinity.” The Church must state clearly from time to time just what it holds and why it holds what it does hold. It can do so in terms intelligible to men of any era or place. Most people simply do not know what the Church holds about itself; nor do they have any coherent idea of the logical and philosophical coherence of what the faith proposes. Catholicism, again, is also a religion of intelligence. Other people, however, do know what the Church holds but they reject one or another of its tenets. Others still try to make as if everyone already, at least implicitly, holds and practices what it teaches, or, worse, that it does not matter what we hold as it makes no difference for our final destiny. Again, Catholicism is an intellectual Church with clear and defensible reasons for what it holds and why it makes sense to hold it.
The immediate occasion of these remarks arises out of two somewhat disparate experiences. The first is the result of teaching a class of some ninety students each semester for twenty years. In this class, I always read, among other things, Herbert Deane’s provocative book, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. In it, we find a frank discussion of what Augustine holds to be the state of mankind as the world comes to its eschatological end as described in Scripture. Augustine does not think that things will get better and better. He is definitely not a “this-worldly utopian.” Indeed, he doubts if very many believers will still be found in the world at its ending. Furthermore, Augustine thinks that ultimately few, even among believers, will be saved. Needless to say, no doctrine can cause more outrage among the modern masses than this one that suggests that what they are presently doing will not save them, no matter what it is.
Let me cite just one illustrative passage to catch the mood of Deane’s presentation of Augustine. Deane writes:
Augustine ... does not assume that growth in church membership or influence can be equated with an increase in the number of those men who truly love God. Indeed, as history draws to its close, the number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase. His words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to belief in Christ and that earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God.
These are blunt words to any modern ear, especially when combined with Augustine’s view that, in the end, very few will in fact be saved. On considering these ideas, however, we should not forget that Augustine is also the author of The City of God, a book, perhaps more than any other, that describes the beauty of what we are offered, if we would choose it.
Invariably, when modern students read such words of Augustine or anyone who stands in his
tradition, they will be distinctly bothered. They will frown a lot, incredulously. They simply cannot believe, even as a proposition to be considered on the evidence we have, that “few will be saved,” or that things are not getting better. Nor can they believe that we cannot make the world better by our own efforts, after all to make things better is why they think they are going to college. Is not this what we have been doing, that is, making the world “safe for democracy,” as a famous American president once put it? Not a few wonder if the world is not safe precisely because of democracy.
Reading Augustine, however, is often the first time the typical student has ever been asked to consider the real condition and purpose of “this world.” It requires an enormous self-blindness to think that, from God’s eyes, the world is in fact getting better and better. There is a lesson to be drawn here from this deep unsettlement with the thought that this world may in fact be as Augustine maintained.. The lesson is not that there is no hope, but rather where is it that the source of hope lies? Is it really apart from the inner soul of each human person and the final destiny he is offered from the beginning?
Augustine, I point out, is pretty much an empiricist. He does not, in fact, delight in condemning people to Hell. Nor does he deny that he may be wrong. His view on how many are lost or saved is conditioned by his own observation of how men act in the world at least up until his time, though I suspect that he would doubt if our time is much different in principle. Moreover, Augustine does not think that God is cruel or unloving. Just the opposite, his clear understanding of what love is, more than anything else, leads Augustine to the conclusion that in fact few do love something above themselves. We can take one of four positions about what we see in “this world”: either all people are saved no matter what they hold or do, or most are saved, or few are saved, or none are saved. Augustine held for the third position, that few were, in fact, saved. That none are saved is contrary to the faith, while that all are saved, though conceivable, as writers from Origin to von Balthasar have held, is not likely.
If, I point out, Augustine were to read a morning newspaper in any major city in the world today, he would find little evidence that his general assessment of the number saved, based on empirical observation, needs modification. He would see displayed there in the morning press the same lusts, wars, crimes, hatreds, greeds, dishonesties, and lies that he saw in Carthage or Milan, or Rome. It is amazing to me how quickly students, when confronted with this example of the morning newspaper, become less hostile to Augustine’s thesis, even when they suspect that what he says about human disorder also applies to themselves.
The modern student trained by the modern mind in these questions does not, on reflection, really think that what Augustine saw in “this world” is inaccurate, just as what St. Paul saw was not an erroneous description of the social facts. Most students are horrified by what they often see on their years abroad or in what they read in class. They want to “do” something about it, usually, alas, go to law school. But they do not think that this “doing” something has much if anything to do with how they think or live. And they usually think the task of refashioning the ills of the world to be a “scientific” one of relatively easy effort after embracing the right political or economic formula. The tolerance principle -- that all thoughts and actions are equal – means, however, that they will accept no notion that a “right order of things” exists and demands their response on objective grounds.
Moreover, little thought is given to the “first principle and foundation” that St. Ignatius Loyola stated at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, namely that our first task is to “praise, reverence, and serve God and, by these means, save our own souls.” There is actually a notion that we can save the bodies of others without first attending to our own souls. Put it in another way, most students in our culture, as well as the culture itself, shy away from any idea that there is really a truth corresponding to human nature and to what is. Or to put it inversely, some levels of action and culture are definitely anti-human, the principles of which are found operative in the presuppositions and agendas of their own souls in their own culture.
What people want to hear is that even if they do any desired thing, even if they define sins as virtues, as we do today, usually in the name of human rights, there are to be no ultimate consequences of anything we do. What most seem to want is a world of no risk, of no consequences. If we want God to take the risk out of our world so that nothing we do makes any difference, so that we can believe or do whatever we want with no untoward results, then what we have logically done is to remove any reason for our being created as free human beings in the first place. So at this stage, I should like to say that what goes on in this world is the carrying out in history of the risk that God took in creating creatures He made for themselves, though in making them for themselves, He made them to return to His own inner Trinitarian life which is being offered to each. Any effort to deny Augustine’s point about the seriousness of our acts in order that we might not have to worry about their consequences does not enhance but destroys human dignity.
The second experience that I should like to recall has to do with the death of my mother’s last sister. My aunt died in Iowa in May, 2001, at 98 years old; she lived the twentieth century. My family on both sides came from a small town in Northwest Iowa. Both sides of the family were numerous so that I have many relatives who have already died. After the Funeral Mass of my Aunt, the funeral cortege drove ten miles across rich corn and bean fields back to the town cemetery. As I looked at this familiar spot, I could see the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles, cousins, my own mother. On the tombstones were names of people I had known or had heard spoken of. An Iowa graveyard in the Springtime is usually well taken care of, peaceful, a record harkening back down the ages of those who once lived there in all their deeds and beliefs.
As I looked at those graves, I realized that no one here was of any national or international
importance, though each was of eternal standing. Most lived their whole lives on farms or in this small town. Maybe some made it to other places, soldiers especially. What strikes me about this little town and those who lived there – as it must of any little or large town that we might know – is that what is important in these lives is really not the record of their work or accomplishments except insofar as these were generally outer signs of a person’s inner life. So when I again ask the question, “what is the purpose of ‘this world’?” in this context, I think that the real drama is about what sort of life these people lived. Did none, some, most, all save their souls? If they did, it means that the ultimate drama of life, against which littler else makes any difference, is taking place anywhere and everywhere. In this regard, I am always struck by Christ’s dealings with the little towns in which he grew up or in which he visited -- Nazareth, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capharnaum. He worked miracles in these towns, more so, He said, than those the people of Tyre and Sidon had seen. He warned them that it would not go well with them. “What could such insignificant people have been doing to warrant such a castigation?” we wonder. (Matthew, 11:16-24). Neither Rome, nor Athens, received similar warnings, though Jerusalem did.
In an old Peanuts, we see a very little Linus, not much more than a year old. He is sitting on the floor quietly sucking on his bottle. In the next scene, he is startled. He looks up to see Lucy walk by. She has a determined look on her face. “Nothing that’s going on in the world today is my fault,” she announces to everyone, particularly to an amazed Linus. In the third scene, Linus has a glum look on his face after hearing this astonishing information, while Lucy walks by him now with a placid, rather self-righteous countenance. In the final scene, Linus suddenly becomes alive. He has figured out that Lucy’s denial that anything is her fault equally applies to him. So he hoists his bottle in the air and happily shouts, “I’ll drink to that!”
What goes on in “this world?” Underneath all the secular history and drama of the world, what really is happening, as we see in our cemeteries, is that people are deciding, within their lives, whether they will choose God or reject Him. Lucy’s thesis that “nothing that’s going on in the world today is my fault,” though spoken with great paradox in her case, is a modern Rousseauist version that maintains that no personal or human acts are important. Institutions are at fault. Obviously, the dour Lucy thinks something is wrong in this world. She denies that she has anything to do with it. All human actions, it is said, are conditioned exclusively by structures and laws, not by personal free will. What is important is not what we do or hold but what organization or cause we support.
The division of good and evil passes not through our souls, whether rich or poor, intelligent or dull, but through the institution to which we belong. People are rich or poor, good or bad, because of someone else’s fault, not even someone else’s personal act since all acts are equally tolerable, but because of some institution or arrangement. Change that arrangement, it is said, and you will change man. The only problem with this well-worn thesis is that human nature remains the same under all institutions. Evil reappears no matter what the configuration of the world. The heart of the world remains in the human soul. But where is this human soul?
Robert Kraynak, in his remarkable book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, a book that again calls Augustine to our attention, considered the rise of New Age religions and the incapacity of Christians or any one else to look much beyond success or failure in this world. Kraynak writes that
such trends are not primarily imposed by the coercive state (though some are aided by it); nor do they triumph by insisting that other more noble activities are forbidden (one is always free to choose). Rather, they triumph because of widespread doubts about the real existence of a transcendent order of Being and Goodness beyond the material world and uncertainty about any higher purpose to life than middle-class careerism and popular entertainment. In most modern democratic societies, these are the only activities that call forth energy and commitment; all others are excluded by skeptical indifference and by demands for immediate sensations that seem harmless because they rarely lead to outright persecution. Instead, the dominant culture is imposed by the social tyranny of public opinion that, in principle, may be rejected but rarely is because the higher alternatives are treated with contempt or are simply forgotten.
This was likewise a theme that Eric Voegelin also touched on when he remarked that the rise of modern ideology into the form of a this-worldly eschatology was largely caused by a failure of belief of Christians in the real transcendence objects or goals of their faith.
What all of this means about the purpose of this world and the personal status of each human person before God must be seen in the light of Augustine’s belief that, judging from their acts, few were in fact saved. In the light of the myriads of small and large town graves in all parts of the world throughout history, graves that reflect the existence of lives in which the ultimate drama of choice took place once and for all, we must conclude that the ordinary lives of ordinary people are likewise scenes of the greatest risk. This is why the mission ad gentes is of such abiding importance.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his Salt of the Earth, responded to the question of whether the Enlightenment idea of necessary progress of this world towards “truth, beauty, and goodness” was tenable. He responded, “redemption is always related to freedom. This is what you might call its risk structure. Redemption is thus never imposed from the outside or cemented by firm structures but is held in the fragile vessel of human freedom.”
What this means, in conclusion, is that the purpose of the world is the risk of God’s initial decision in creation, that is, to associate other free, but necessarily finite beings with Himself, in His inner Trinitarian life. Whether this comes about in each particular life is what goes on at all times and in all places. Nothing can be automatic or apart from individual choice, however related to others as it is. The Commandments are precisely to be kept. We can never really say, contrary to Lucy, that “nothing that goes on in this world is my fault.” And if there are things that are our fault, this is why we have the particular mode of redemption we are given.
The great questions of the status of the nations, looked at from the vantage point of the City of God, are not important except in so far as they reveal the choices, the ultimate choices, of individuals in their living and dying in all times and places, even in small cemeteries in out of the way places in Iowa. This is why every small town, every small parish, every apparently unimportant life is significant and remains, as do the supposedly great towns with their great men and women, the locus of what goes on in this world. This is always the choosing of where we stand before God as manifested in our deeds and our understandings about what is. Augustine thought few chose well. Modern ideology tells us it does not make much difference how we choose, for our choices, at most, cause “progress” but not personal salvation.
“Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God and by this means to save his soul” – to repeat Ignatius’ famous affirmation. This remains the principle and foundation of what goes on in this world. This is the exact place of the risk that God took in inviting, not demanding, our acceptance of that initial invitation to eternal life. Even God had no choice but first to create us, then to see how we might choose. This invitation can be accepted. It can be rejected. Ultimately, what we choose – and all choices have particular objects – makes all the difference in this world, and in the next. For it is this world in which the ultimate risk of God can take place, the risk that some might not choose to love Him, the more exalted risk that some, many or few, might so choose to love Him.
3) James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
In the same newspaper recently, I saw the following headlines: One announced that some professor (who else?) insisted that apes have “human rights.” Other professors, I believe, think trees also have “human” rights. The next headline remarked that some, but not all, human fetuses are protected by law. Thus, if you are a negligent driver and kill a pregnant lady in a crash, that fetus in her is human. You can be sued for all you are worth. But others unborn babies are not human; you can get in big trouble by thinking they are. The final headline reported that most Americans do not believe that the devil is real.
If I ever had any doubts about the existence of Old Nick, such reasonings as those displayed in these headlines would make me pretty sure that most Americans, on this latter score, are quite wrong. No human culture just by itself could be so confused in its thinking about right order if there were not some spiritual power confusing it at some very deep level. Moreover, to give the devil his due, if not to prove his existence – I take it he is a “he” and not a “she” – such contradictory intellectual positions could not come about totally apart from our own choosings. The devil is not so strong that he can actually make us hold what we do not, for our own reasons, choose to hold.
The German philosopher Heidegger, I believe, speaks of our experience of having been “thrown” into existence. Some theories of evolution, I know, like to think that we were first thrown to being as apes or dolphins or some such. But it is rather dangerous to speak this way as we want to ask, “well, who threw us into this existence that we did not choose by ourselves?” Surely not even an ape could imagine a human being throwing himself into existence. And if we find ourselves already to be human beings and not apes, or trees, we can distinguish ourselves from either. As far as we can tell, no ape ever wondered to himself “why am I not a human being?” One cannot but be amused by the image of some ape solemnly wondering about his “human rights,” or better, wondering if humans beings have “ape rights.” Will law schools begin to have courses on “ape rights” as a special branch of ‘human’ rights?” It takes a human being to wonder why he is not an ape. Indeed, it takes a human being to think he is not essentially different from an ape. Apes, bless them, don’t think this way.
The philosopher Eric Voegelin remarks that our first existential question is, “what is the ground of my being?” It is simply impossible to think that I cause myself to be what I already am. Most of us have some evidence, reported by our relatives, that once were not, were not even thought of by anyone we know personally. Yet, I do stand outside of nothingness as a certain kind of being, a being who not only can ask questions but one who can expect to find answers. We assume that there is an answer to the question of why we exist both as the individuals we are and as human beings, not apes. Camus remarked that the first philosophic question is, “why do I not commit suicide?” The answer must be that, however I explain it, something is to be preferred to suicide. That something is human life and its drama.
What am I? After we have given the classic answer to that question, that we are substances of a rational nature, something that suffuses our whole being, we realize that we are, while being “what’s,” also “who’s.” That is to say, we are beings who seem to be “called.” We are spoken to. Our rational nature is also social. We are not complete by ourselves however much we really have our own selves. We are not, cannot be, do not want to be, someone else.
Aristotle had already made this same point. No one would want to have all the goods of the world, he thought, on the condition of being someone else. A pessimist might say,.then, that we are stuck with ourselves. On the other hand, there is something about ourselves that needs completion in someone else. The philosophers and theologians say that even if we are made for ourselves, we are made for others. Indeed, we are made to love – an idea that means literally, by remaining myself, I foster the real good of someone else. And friendship means that someone else is concerned with my particular good for its own sake.
Thomas Aquinas, when he came to explain how we might understand our relation to God, explained it in terms of friendship, that is, that God was concerned for our good. But he did not think that we actually became gods. We remained ourselves, which is rather what we prefer to do, even before God. Of course, we also want God to be God; we really do not want to remake Him in our own dull images. If I am a what that is also a who, it must mean that any “who” can relate itself to me. If God is also a “who,” as seems to be the case, then what I am will find its meaning in a kind of anticipation or expectation.
What if I, as a good American, do not believe that the devil exists? C. S. Lewis remarked in his Screwtape Letters that the very best the devil, as a rational, scheming being, could hope for would be that human beings did not believe he existed. Then it might be possible, as Lewis pointed out elsewhere, to “abolish” man, that hated thing God had created. What would this “abolishing” look like? It would, I think, look pretty much like what we are busy doing in our labs, courts, and seminars. We are trying to clone ourselves, artificially beget ourselves, confuse ourselves with apes, eliminate those of ourselves we do not want, all in the name of “improving” our well-being.
What am I? Evidently, I am also a being who can choose to get rid of those things in myself that most constitute my dignity and my destiny. I am a being who can define my own freedom as something presupposed to nothing, to no what-I-am. With this radical freedom, I can claim that what I am is totally dependent on what I choose myself to be. This was approximately what the account of the Fall in Genesis was about.
The only thing a rational “who” that wants to retain the original human idea can do in this case is to recall enough of what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being to see that that into which we choose to make ourselves is a mere inverse or perverse image of what it is we were before we began to tamper with ourselves. Ironically, we have become a people who do not believe in the devil. Our ancestors who burned a few witches at Salem did believe in the devil. We think them barbarous. We do not think ourselves barbarous. We think of ourselves as creating a “new man.” We no longer understand the kind of being that was thrown into being in the first place.
Aquinas, in his treatise on charity, observed that “properly speaking, man is not human, but superhuman.” He implied by this that if we did not understand the prime destiny to which we are called by our being thrown into existence, we would end up not with what is human, but with what is less than human. That is to say, apes have “human rights.” If it were not so dangerous, we could almost laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. They say the devil does laugh, a terrible laughter.
What indeed am I? We are also beings, as Aristotle said, who can laugh, laugh at the silliness of our own often terrible theories, theories that we see become practice before our very eyes. In not freely accepting what we are, we see ourselves choosing to become what we ought not to be. This is the meaning of our times.
4) James V. Schall, S. J., Georgetown University
William Rossner, S. J. Lecture, Delivered at Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri, February 28, 2002.
“It is this same disciple who attests what has here been written. It is in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true. There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.”
– John, 21:24-25.
“For this reason anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the envy and criticism of men. What I have said comes, in short, to this: whenever we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away.’”
– Plato, The Seventh Letter,344c.
“Books of travels will be good in proportion to what a man has previously in his mind; his knowing what to observe; his power of contrasting one mode of life with another. As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry this wealth of the Indies with him.’ So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.”
We are familiar with the incident in the Gospel of the rich young man who asked Christ what good he must do to be saved. Christ responded to him that he must keep the commandments. This the young man had done from his youth, a fact that Christ recognized in him. Christ added, in words that still force us to distinguish between “obligation” or “duty” and something more and different from it, that, if he wanted to be perfect, what he should do was to sell what he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Him. The Gospel records that the young man did not follow this proposal, rather he “went away sad,” for, as it says in striking explanation, the young man “had many riches” (Matthew 19:16-23). We might suggest that this rich young man was one of Christ’s conspicuous failures along with, say, Judas, one of the thieves, the scribes, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and some of His home-town relatives.
Notice that Christ did not tell the young man to become an entrepreneur so that he could create wealth to help the poor, though there is nothing wrong with this avenue. Nor did Christ “impose” a more perfect way on him. It was up to what the young man himself “wanted” to do with his life Yet, even on reading this famous passage, a passage that John Paul II refers to again and again when talking to today’s youth, we have the distinct impression that the rich young man, and perhaps the world itself, missed out on something at his refusal. If “ideas have consequences,” so, possibly more so, do choices, even refusals. We can suspect that the young man’s talents, without his riches, were needed elsewhere, perhaps later with Paul or Silas. Indeed, Paul was subjected to pretty much the same process, but he decided the other way, for which we can still be thankful as we read his Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, to Titus and Timothy.
This memorable account of the rich young man reminds us that not only is the world less when we do evil, but even when we do less than we are merely invited to do. It makes us wonder whether the world is founded in justice at all, in only what we are to “render,” in what we “ought” to do. Such a world would be rather dull, I think. The highest things, while not denying their acknowledged worth, may be grounded in something quite beyond justice. An utterly “just world” may in fact be a world in which no one would really want to live. The fact that God is not defeated by evil or even by a lesser good helps us to realize, with some comfort, I confess, that we do not find only justice at the heart of what is. The great book that teaches this principle, above all, is C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, a book not to be missed.
The title of my remarks today obviously plays on these words, “what must I do to be saved?” I ask rather, to be provocative, “what must I read to be saved?” I do not intend to suggest that Christ had his priorities wrong. When I mentioned this title to a witty friend of mine, she immediately wanted to know whether any of my own books were included in this category of books “necessary-to-get-to-heaven?” I laughed and assured her that indeed the opera omnia of Schall were essential to salvation! The irony is not to be missed. We cannot point to any single book, including the bible, and say that absolutely everyone must actually read it, line by line, before he can be saved. If this were to be the case, few would be called and even fewer chosen. Heaven would alas be very sparsely populated. But I do think that between acting and reading, even in the highest things, there is, in the ordinary course of things, some profound relationship. Acting is not apart from knowing, and knowing usually depends on reading.
Concerning books and getting to heaven, however, let me note in the very beginning that, statistically, most of the people in the history of mankind who have ever been in fact saved were what we today call “illiterate,” good people who did not even know how to read, let alone write and write books. While Christianity does not at all disdain intelligence, quite the opposite, it thrives on it, still it does not simply identify what it means by “salvation” or “the gaining of eternal life” with education or literacy, in whatever language or discipline. In the long dispute over Socrates’ aphorism that virtue is knowledge, Christians have generally sided with Aristotle, that fault and sin are not simply ignorance. Multiple doctorates, honorary or earned, will not necessarily get us to heaven, nor, with any luck, will they prevent us from attaining this same happy goal.
No doubt, throughout its history, the Christian missions in all parts of the world, not necessarily excluding the noble state of Missouri or that anomaly where I live, the District of Columbia, have historically been concerned with precisely literacy as a way to make the Lord known and to make human beings more fully what they already are by nature. For human beings, the fullness of being ought to include the fullness of knowledge. None the less, the drama of salvation does not bypass anyone simply because he is uneducated, or only has a B.A. from some out-of-the way college in Iowa, where I was born.
Just as there are saints and sinners among the intelligentsia, so there are saints and sinners among those who cannot read and write. Christoph Cardinal von Schönborn remarked that Thomas Aquinas was the first saint ever canonized for doing nothing else but thinking. Yet, within the Christian tradition more than a suspicion exists that the more intelligent we are, the more we consider ourselves to be “intellectuals,” the more difficult it is to save our souls. The sin of pride, of wilfully making ourselves the center of the universe and the definers of right and wrong, is, in all likelihood, less tempting to those who do not read or who do not have doctorates in philosophy or science than it is to those who read learnedly, if not wisely. The fallen Lucifer was of the most intelligent of the angels. His first sin was in the order of thought. No academic, I think, should forget Lucifer’s existence and his sobering story. It is not unrelated to a modern academic..
When we examine the infinitive, “to read,” moreover, it becomes clear that a difference is found between being able to read and actually reading things of a certain seriousness, of a certain depth, not that there is anything wrong with “light” reading. Indeed, the sub-title of one of my books, Idylls and Rambles -- though again, need I remind you, a book not necessary for salvation! – is precisely “Lighter Christian Essays.” The truth of Christianity is not inimical to joy and laughter, but, as I think, it is ultimately a defender and promoter of them, including their literary expressions. I have always considered Peanuts and P. G. Wodehouse to be major theologians. In truth, it is the essential mission of Christian revelation to define what joy means and how it is possible for us to obtain it, that it is indeed not an illusion. The first thing to realize is that joy is not “due” or “owed” to us.
J. R. R. Tolkien, in his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” even invented a special word to describe this essence of Christianity. We are not, as it sometimes may seem, necessarily involved in a tragedy or a “catastrophe” but precisely in a “Eucatastrophe.” The Greek prefix “eu” – as in Eucharist – means happy or good, the notion that, in the end, contrary to every expectation, things do turn out all right, as God intended from the beginning. This is why in part the proper worship of God is our first, not our last task, perhaps even in education. In Josef Pieper – an Anthology, a book not to be missed, Pieper remarks further that joy is a by-product; it is the result of doing what we ought, not an object of our primary intention; ultimately, it is a gift.
“Faith,” St. Paul told us, “comes from hearing,” not evidently from “reading,” though this same Paul himself did a fair amount of writing. We presume that he intended us to read it all. It seems odd to imagine that he wrote those letters to Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Ephesians with no expectation of results. When Paul remarked that faith came by “hearing,” he probably did not mean to say that it could not come “by reading.” We do hear of people who, as they say, “read themselves into the Church.” Chesterton, I think, was one of these. In classic theology, it is to be remembered, however, that, unless we receive grace, itself not of our own fabrication, we will not have faith either by hearing or by reading or, in modern times, by watching television, itself perhaps the most difficult way of all!
There are many, no doubt, who have heard but who have not believed. Paul tells of those, including himself, who at the stoning of Stephen, put their hands over their ears so they could not hear what he was saying. Alcibiades tells of doing the same thing so that he would not hear the persuasive words of Socrates. Christ said to St. Thomas the Twin, “blessed are those who have not seen but who have believed.” Every time we read this passage, we are conscious that we are among those blessed multitudes who have believed but who have not seen. And even our hearing, say in preaching, say in Sunday sermons, usually comes from someone who has previously read, and hopefully read well.
The Apostle John affirms at the end of his Gospel, a document itself full of the word, “Word,” – in the beginning was the “Word,” “Word” made flesh – that he in fact wrote the words that we read and that his testimony is true. He also intimates, reminiscent of Plato, that there are many things that are not recorded in books, even in all the books in the world. Yet, as the Church teaches us, what little of these things that the Lord taught and did that have in fact been handed down to us is sufficient for us. Sometimes, it is sobering to reflect that the entire corpus of the New Testament covers a mere 243 pages in the English Revised Standard Edition. We, those of who are fortunate enough to be literate, do not have to be “speed readers” to finish the New Testament many times over during our lives, even in the course of a few days.
Whether all the books ever written in this world are contained in today’s libraries, or on the on-line facilities, I doubt. But a tremendous number of them are. One of the main problems with the very title of these comments has to do with the sheer amount of books available to read, and yes, to re-read. I am fond of citing C. S. Lewis’ famous quip that if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all. This pithy remark, of course, brings up the problem of what is a great book and why great books are really “great.” And even more, it asks whether great books exist that are not called great? Ought we to spend all our time, after all, on so-called “great” books? Leo Strauss once remarked that, in the end, the famed great books contradict each other, a fact that has led many a philosopher and many a student into relativism under the very aegis of philosophic greatness. There are, as I think, “great books” that are not considered “great.”
In the web site of the Library of Congress, it informs us that in 1992, the Library accessioned its 100 millionth item. It added that the Library contains books in about 450 languages. I have friends who can handle fifteen or twenty languages. The current Pope seems to be one of these. But I do not know anyone who can handle 450 different languages. That takes a rather large committee. No doubt considerable numbers of books have been added since 1992, and I do not mention the books in the British Museum or the Vatican Library, or the great French, German, Spanish, American, and Italian libraries, as well as others throughout the world. I do not know if there is some mythical person who is given the Riply “believe-it-or-not” fame of having read the most books of any man in history. But whoever this man might be, we are aware that he could have read more books than any man in history and still not know much, not know the important things.
I like to tell the story of when I was about eighteen in the army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. I went into the post library, with time on my hands. I looked at all the stacks of books there, but I realized that I did not know what to read or where to begin to find out. It was a kind of revelation to me of that famous Socratic dictum of “knowing what I did not know.” Yet I knew, that , however logical, one did not go to the first book under the letter A and begin to read systematically all the books till one reached “Z.” First of all, it could not be done in one lifetime, even in a fairly small library, and secondly it would have promoted a mental hodge-podge.
At the beginning of the Summa, St. Thomas tells the young student that there is an order to learning and knowledge that makes it possible to distinguish the important and the unimportant things. No library, I might add, is constructed on the order of St. Thomas’ Summa which, I suspect, might tell us something about the limits of libraries, however good they might be. Again, we are not well advised to take some encyclopedia and begin with articles under “A” and read to those under “Z.” The order of knowing is crucial to us.
There is a famous quip that claims that “any man who says that he has read all the writings of St. Augustine is a liar.” And if we take St. Thomas, remembering that he had no computer and that he had at most twenty six or twenty seven years of life during which he could write anything before he died in 1274 A. D., we still find it almost impossible to believe that he actually wrote what he did, something itself clearly dependent on what he also had read. It is a constant recommendation of mine that students go over to the Library and look up on the shelves the folio opera omnia of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, just to consider what sort of life one would have to lead in order to write, let alone understand, such a vast amount of work. Too, the students should reflect on what very different kinds of life from each other that these two great intellectual saints lived. Moreover, we shudder to think where we should be had, like the rich young man, Augustine or Aquinas chosen some other form of life, which they no doubt could have.
The story of how the works of Aristotle or Augustine were saved for posterity is itself another of the scary accounts of how, even though they wrote what they did, we almost lost what they wrote after they wrote it. Indeed, we did lose much of what Aristotle wrote, not to mention Cicero and other important thinkers. The very dialogue of Cicero that changed the life of the young Augustine, as he tells us in The Confessions, is lost. We do not have it in the Library of Congress. I was once on a division of the National Endowment for the Humanities that considered grants to libraries for the physical preservation of books and newspapers. It is astonishing over time how fragile our output of books and papers is even with great preservation efforts. And of course all our current “on-line” facilities, in which most of today’s writing and publishing first appears and indeed in which it is preserved, depend on a continuous supply of electricity, not to mention computers. These latter technologies seem to defy both time and space in enabling us to send our latest thoughts around the world or across the street in an instant. The question always remains whether we have anything to say and whether what we say is true or not.
On a web site one day, I came across the name of a Hong Kong movie director by the name of John Woo. Though I had never heard of him, he evidently must be a famous director for, in several entries, he is referred to as “a god among directors.” This is no mean encomium. Reading further, I found a short comment of Woo himself about his film heros. Evidently Woo, something of a philosopher, wanted to get at the essence of why his heros are so popular. “The killer is the man,” Woo explains, “who does bad things, but he wants to be good.” Needless to say, this is a variety of the Robin Hood theme, if not Lucifer himself.
But I was struck by the precise words in this passage. The killer admittedly does bad things, like, I suppose, killing people. If there were no “bad” things to be done, that is, no distinction between bad and good things, the killer evidently would not have the attraction that he does. No one doubts that “bad” things have their own obscure attraction. Unfortunately today, killing certain classes of people, like unborn babies and certain of the elderly, is not considered by everyone to be a “bad” thing, or perhaps it is just one of those “bad” things we “must” do. However, if we “must” do a “bad” thing, it is difficult to classify it as evil or ourselves as free. Necessity is not a moral category, nor an accurate description of the inner workings of a free being.
I have unfortunately never seen a Woo film. But notice the peculiar way that Woo explains the outlook of the killer of men. No doubt he does “bad” things, so Woo apparently still retains some distinction between the good and the bad. I do not know if Woo makes less successful films on non-killer-types. But the killer, even in doing bad things, still “wants” to be “good.” What could this “wanting” imply? This paradoxical situation could mean either that the killer would like to reform the life that leads him to kill, so he retains the intention of the good, or that goodness depends on his “wants” or “choices,” not on his deeds. This latter is closer to the sin of Adam and Eve who wanted what it was to be good or evil to depend on themselves and not on nature or God.
What must I “read” to be saved? What I will call here “the Woo principle” is actually vary old, already found in Plato. This finding is why we must read him, especially if we watch Woo movies. Socrates, as we read, maintained in the Crito that it was never “right to do wrong.” Given a choice between death and doing wrong, we should choose death, as that is not clearly wrong if we suffer it from the hands of another. It is better to “suffer” evil than to do it. No wonder the Holy Father has praised Socrates and seen his death in relation to that of Christ.
On the other hand, I require each of my students to read what is probably the most immoral expository book in the history of political philosophy, the one that states this “Woo principle” in its modern classic form, even though Plato had already formulated it. It is also a most famous and enticing book. Students are much attracted to it and by it. Many students, indeed, I have noticed, are very charmed by it. I am charmed by it myself. We are naive if we think that the difference between good and evil is always easily recognizable, let alone easy to choose between even when we do recognize it.
This book, of course, is Machiavelli’s Prince. One of the young companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Peter Ribdanera, wrote a book called, Anti-Machiavel. Leo Strauss, in his famous book Thoughts on Machiavelli, called Machiavelli simply “a teacher of evil.” Now, Machiavelli can, in one sense, be looked on as a handbook. The book originally was given as a gift to the ruler of Florence, almost as if perhaps he did not himself know how to rule. It sketched how a prince would sometimes, perhaps often, do bad things in order to keep in power. So long as we think it is a good thing to stay in power no matter what, then Machiavelli’s advice becomes a lesson in how to do it, especially on the “no-matter-what” part of his advice. Evidently, in such a view, what makes good men to be bad princes is the restriction on their actions imposed on them by the classical distinctions of good and evil. The prince, liberated from these restriction, presumably, would be a more “successful” ruler, if not a better man.
In the course of this book, Machiavelli tells us, with some paradox, that all armed prophets succeed and all unarmed prophets fail. At first sight, this teaching will seem quite logical until we remember that Machiavelli himself was neither a prophet nor a prince. If this is the case, that he was a minor diplomat and not a prince, it seems paradoxical that he thought his own unarmed life was worthwhile. Moreover, the prince for whom he wrote the book probably did not much need his advice or even welcome it. Machiavelli hints that his real foes are men who did not write books, namely, Socrates and Christ. Both Socrates and Christ were, moreover, unarmed prophets, as was Machiavelli himself. But Machiavelli did write a book. Neither Socrates nor Christ wrote one.
What, then, can Machiavelli mean when he says that Christ and Socrates were “unsuccessful.” Socrates needed Plato to write about him. Christ needed the Evangelists and Paul. Evidently, what Machiavelli thought he had to undermine was not the armed prophets, but the unarmed prophets. Who was Machiavelli’s audience, then? Was it Lorenzo, the prince? It hardly seems likely. By writing a charming book, Machiavelli sought to entice generations of students and students-become-rulers. These readers encounter something that, if they follow its principles, will not save them. Machiavelli wrote to turn the souls of potential philosophers away from Socrates and Christ. Unless he could manage this “conversion,” the world could not be built on his “modern” political principles. To follow Machiavelli’s tract, we must cease to be interested, as was Socrates, in immortality, or like Christ in first seeking the Kingdom of God.
Do I think The Prince to be one of the books that we must “read” to be saved? I do indeed. The knowledge of what one ought not to do is not a bad thing. It can be, but as such, it is not. It is good to know the dimensions of what is persuasively wrong. We ought to encounter disorder in thought before we encounter and especially before we duplicate it in reality. It was Aristotle, I believe, who remarked that virtue can know vice, but vice does not know virtue.
What must I read to be saved? When classes were over last spring, I received an e-mail from one of my students who had arrived at his home. He wrote:
I have found something interesting while talking to my friends here at home.... Many of my peers have fallen into the trap of moral relativism. They have accepted education as a means to an end. It is very disheartening. I was wondering if you had ... any ... suggested readings for this subject of the relativism of my generation? Many of my friends feel that religion or spirituality is a private thing, and one ought not question another’s belief system. Everything is personal and therefore out of the realm of criticism. I think someone wrote something about how that affirmation of morality, religion, and ethics as a ‘private’ enterprise, is in itself a moral statement.
No doubt the students among this audience will recognize the sentiment expressed here. It reminds me of the famous passage in Allan Bloom’s 1986 book, The Closing of the American Mind, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” “Does this relativism have a history?” we wonder?
In 1959, The Newman Press published an English version of Jacques Maritain’s The Sin of the Angel: An Essay on a Re-Interpretation of Some Thomistic Positions. The book was translated by William Rossner, S. J., to whom these lectures are dedicated. Rossner wrote a Preface to this book, dedicated to the “members of the theology and philosophy faculties at Rockhurst College.” Rossner contrasted Maritain’s more familiar style in his Reflections on America with that of The Sin of the Angel. The Sin of the Angel, Rossner thought, enables us to zero in on the essential nature of sin apart from any confusion that comes from passion or our bodily existence. “For the sin of the Angel is found to be fundamentally,” Rossner wrote, “a life of self above all else.” Though, ironically, I think there are some problems connected with Maritain’s thesis in this little book having to do with whether angels could have sinned had they not been offered a higher grace, the fact remains that one of the things we need to read to be saved is precisely about sin and evil, what and why they are. Sin and evil are bad enough in themselves, as it were, but to think wrongly about what they are is perhaps even more dangerous
In a two-frame Peanuts, Sally is shown sitting upright in a formal chair staring at the TV in front of her. From the TV she hears the following announcement: “And now it’s time for..” In the second scene Sally, with determination, points the TV changer, which looks like a gun, at the machine and firmly announces: “No it isn’t!” The last thing we see is a printed “click.” Sally shoots point blank to kill the monster before her. I cite this colorful little snipet in the context of “what must I read to be saved” because it makes the graphic point that we each must simply shut things off in order to come into some possibility of knowing what all that is is about.
I had mentioned to my friend, Professor Thomas Martin, at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, that we “must get someone to the book to free him.” Martin replied: “We teachers are missionaries, a light in the dark electrical jungle, filled with blasting sound bites, strobe-lights and talking heads. To pry students away from the various screens where they are spectators of life to the ‘examined life’ is a challenge.” What struck me about Martin’s remark about being surrounded by “various screens,” was a mental walk through the campus where in fact we encounter screens of one sort or another almost everywhere. The only salvation from being protected from reality by such screens is to become active readers and readers of things that can take us to the highest of things, the things of man and the gods, the things that are.
So I am going to propose, with some rashness perhaps, a brief list of ten books that, when read, will perhaps save us or at least bring us more directly to what it is that does save us, faith and grace and good sense. The writers of the books I select will all, I think, accept the proposition that saving our souls and saving our minds are interrelated. We do not live in a chaos, though we can choose one of our own making.
As some may know, in several publications I provide a somewhat variable list of “Schall’s Twenty-Five Books to Keep Sane By.” I am perfectly capable of finding any number of “lists” of ten books that would do the same thing that I have in mind. Basically, I think that if there is something wrong with the way one lives, it is because of the way one thinks. However, I am most sensitive to Aristotle’s observation that often how we live and want to live prevents us from clearly looking at what is true. Our minds see the direction that truth leads and often we do not want to go there. In short, there is no way around anyone’s will, but the shortest way is go follow Sally’s example, click off the screens that keep us in mere spectatorship and take up the much more active occupation of reading for understanding what it is all about.
These are the ten books, for what they are worth:
1) Chesterton’s Orthodoxy; 2) C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, 3) E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 4) Fedyor Dostoveysky, The Brothers Karamazov, 5) Antoine St.-Exupery, The Little Prince, 6) Stanley Jaki, Chance or Reality and Other Essays, 7) Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, 8) J. M. Bochenski, Philosophy – an Introduction, 9) Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, and 10) Josef Pieper – an Anthology.
My selection includes one Russian, two Frenchman, one Hungarian, one German, one Pole, and three English. But, one might object, “what about John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope?” Read it. What about the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle? Read them. And Augustine’s Confessions? Never to be missed. What about Schall’s opera omnia? For heavens sake read them!
I do not want to “defend” my list against other lists. I can make up a dozen other lists myself. The only really long book in my list is Dostoyevsky, which takes some time to read. Gilson’s book requires attention but it is manageable by most people. The Jaki essays touch on the question of the sciences. The others are short, easy to read. All should be read many times. The point about this list, however, as I see it, is that if someone reads each of the books, probably in whatever order, but still all of them, he will acquire a sense that, in spite of it all, there is an intelligibility in things that does undergird not only our lives in this world but our destiny or salvation.
Again, there is a relation between what we think and what we do. We can think rightly and still lose our souls, to be sure. But it is more difficult. The main point is that the intelligibility of revelation is also addressed to our own intelligence. We need to be assured that what we believe makes sense on any rational criteria. Lest I err, a reading of each of these books will point us in the right direction – one that indicates at the same time how much we have yet to know, including the completion of God’s plan for us itself, but also how much we can know midst what often appears as a chaos of conflicting opinion. But to obtain the impact of these readings that I intend, one does have to click off the screens and the noises that prevent us from encountering writers, often delightful writers, who so clearly wrestle with the reality of the things that are, including the ultimate things.
“Is that everything you have to tell us?” someone might ask. It is. “Where can I get these books, are not some out of print?” The finding is part of the adventure. There are libraries. Amazon.com and used book stores exist. “But Father Schall, you are not being very practical....” My job is not to be practical but to set you off on an adventure. And it is an adventure. Just click off the screen. Try it.
5) Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, XCV (April, 1995), 17-23. (Address originally presented in Toledo, Ohio).
For born Catholics, a familiarity with their faith can produce a kind of inattentiveness to its inner coherence and its transcendent meaning. To be a born Catholic is no doubt one thing; to see why remaining a Catholic makes intellectual sense is another. Yet, the very function of the human mind is to know what it holds and why. The most dangerous thing the mind can do, as Chesterton remarked, is to doubt the capacity of our mind to know and to state what it knows.
What is unique about Catholicism, I think, and on this uniqueness it stands or falls, is its claim
to be true. Many philosophies and religions likewise claim to be true. Indeed, even the claim to be true implies that the very function of the human mind is itself to be critically examined especially when it comes to our religion. The mind, the locus of intelligence, is to know the truth and to know that the truth can be known. Dominant philosophies in recent years, contrary to earlier religious and intellectual debates, have not argued the particular issue of Catholicism's claim to be true together with the evidence for this claim. Rather they have doubted the capacity of knowing anything to be true. They have denied that the very purpose of the human mind is to discover, define, and establish what is true. Refusing to take a chance that something might in fact be true, it is best, they seem to think, to make it impossible for anything to be true. That way, any position can be held with no responsibility to test it other than with power or desire.
Catholicism's claim to be true is not it proclaimed in a kind of vacuum. Catholicism is a concrete faith. Catholicism's intellectual side has been a serious attempt, according to time and place, no less so today than ten or fifteen centuries ago, to meet the arguments that claim to reject, on whatever basis, the truth of Catholicism. The new General Catechism is in part a record of these controversies and of the way the Church has responded to arguments against its own claim to truth. Any alternate version of either Christianity, religion, philosophy, or science that would claim to undermine Catholicism's own self-understanding as essentially true has been and is to be examined and responded to in terms intelligible to the matter at controversy.
In part, this intellectual effort to account for the possibility of differing versions of truth is due to the faith itself in its very content. We are told that we are to know the truth and that this same truth, nothing more, nothing less, will make us free. This is the claim we make about ourselves, so if we are logical and honest we must affirm this truth. This is not arrogance, nor any lack of respect for the views of others. Rather it is taking seriously what others claim to be their positions and the reasons for them. We must also clarify in what sense we are free because of this same truth.
Secondly, Catholicism is in its very constitution a missionary religion. Evidently all men need to know something that they do not know already about their human lot without it. All nations are to be taught. Whether we likes it or not, this missionary effort puts the faith before the nations. Almost always, this missionary effort, which arises from the intrinsic structure of the faith itself, will confront the nations, with their varying political religions and laws that themselves claim to oversee the content of truth or practice of their own citizens.
I was particularly struck a couple of weeks ago at the irony of the Cairo Population Conference when it was reported that the Vatican's position was the only one from among the nations that in principle maintained that abortion was always and everywhere wrong. Everyone else compromised, including the so-called Catholic and democratic nations. We can, at first sight, wring our hands that we are in such a minority position. Surely we cannot be right and the rest of the world wrong? Yet we are implicitly asked to take our morality from the rest of the world on the general principle that so many "nay" votes cannot be wrong.
And yet, the history of the nations may well be inevitably leading to this sort of paradox, that no one is willing to acknowledge truths that are scientifically and rationally obvious and verifiable. The Church, especially when it is a minority of one, is a dangerous opponent. For in such a case different criteria of truth are clearly at work and at odds. The Holy Father's recent and brilliant Encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, spells this issue out as clearly as it has ever been spelled out in the history of region and philosophy. In Christian literature, at least, it is by no means inconceivable that the time will come, or perhaps has already come, when the nations will officially and publicly reject what is true, in spite of the evidence of truth itself. When the nations collectively "boo", as they did at Cairo, those few who present the truths, not of faith but of life, we can be sure that something ultimate is at issue.
On Saturday, April 3, 1779, Boswell visited Samuel Johnson. "I mentioned my having heard an eminent physician, who was himself a Christian," Boswell wrote,
argue in favour of universal toleration, and maintain, that no man could be hurt by another man's differing from him in opinion. Johnson. 'Sir, you are to a certain degree hurt by knowing that even one man does not believe.'
What, we ask ourselves, might Johnson have meant by this response, that we are hurt by knowing that even one does not believe?
Samuel Johnson's rejoinder to Boswell is indeed quite surprising when we read it today. We
all accept this "universal tolerance" as the only democratic attitude to religion. All are equal. We dare not hint that it makes much difference what we believe. Religious or philosophical diversity of opinion, we are led to understand, makes not the slightest difference in reality. Our mental faculties thus are of little worth. They can conclude to nothing, the opposite of which might not be equally true. We are so tolerant that nothing counts for anything. The only theory we are not tolerant about, of course, is the one that maintains that it does make a difference what we think, what we hold to be self-evident or true.
Since, in practice, we uphold nothing as true, almost all things are permitted. When all sorts of dire things follow from this view, as they inevitably do, we are necessarily tolerant or conciliatory about the results. We maintain that not merely are someone's ideas of no consequence, but no one's actions are of any consequence either. As in the case of AIDS or abortions, we systematically deny that actions have consequences. We have in principle evaporated the world of any meaning or inner coherence.
Johnson's point was, no doubt, that thoughts are the origins of our actions. When he said that we are hurt when even one man does not believe, he merely alluded to that very delicate bond with which we are all bound together in truth and goodness. We are told in revelation that we are not even to think on certain things that, if we do them, disorder our souls. The way to respond to ideas and thoughts is not to minimize their importance but to see to it that our thoughts and actions are right and true. We are not to be so naive as to think that there is no relation between what is wrong in the world and what we think we ought to do or be.
I bring this passage of Boswell and Johnson up because I think that Catholicism in particular finds itself in a very unusual position today. I would be presumed to be brash if I were to propose that Catholicism has no intellectual enemies worthy of it anywhere on the modern scene. But this seems to be in fact the case. The situation is doubly paradoxical, I think, because from within the Church itself, this situation is hardly admitted. In fact its very truth is rejected or ignored by many Catholics, particularly intellectual ones.
If we take a look at the modern popes, moreover, particularly John Paul II, we can see in Catholicism a concerted and systematic effort to explain itself in the context of the available alternatives to it. We have a Pope who is himself a major philosopher. We find papal commissions devoted to discussions with all the major and minor Protestant bodies, with Jews, Muslims, with scientists, with social science, with the Orthodox, with eastern religions, with non-believers of varying sorts. Thus, and this is my thesis here, Catholicism has never been intellectually more coherent or, and here is the irony, culturally weaker.
What do I mean by this? To explain my meaning, I harken back to a passage from the letters of the novelist, Flannery O'Connor. She was responding to a friend who was apparently scandalized that there were so many sinners in the Catholic Church, including in high places. Evidently, in Flannery's friend's mind, this fact was a reason for disbelief of Catholicism. Obviously, with the recent spate of scandals throughout the clergy, we know that great shock exists in the population. There is and ought to be the greatest unease on our part that such things happen.
I have noticed that in many Masses, priests drop the washing of the fingers after the Offertory, as they apparently are now permitted by the rubrics to do. Yet, I have thought that, if we, both priests and laity, read the prayer that the priest says at this moment and listen attentively to the words he is supposed to say -- "Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins" -- this part of the rubrics is one of the last things that should be dropped. For what we are in need of is not merely fewer sins, but more clear statements of what sin is, something that, in part, John Paul II wrote the General Catechism and Veritatis Splendor to show us.
Years ago, I remember reading an observation of the British historian Christopher Dawson. He remarked that if we were in the most important cities in the world in the year 4 B.C., and we happened to read the morning paper, we would have found there no account of events that took place in a little town outside of Jerusalem called Nazareth. I have often pondered this remark because it suggests the radically differing criteria about what is really important to us, about the difference between what we think of our world and what God thinks of it.
Even if we had been in Jerusalem on that Passover some thirty years later on which Christ was crucified, we would have probably found at most a brief notice about three criminals being crucified under orders of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Some gossip might possibly have also been recounted about certain strange activities in the Temple that required its Veil being repaired, but probably not. But all in all, not much would have been reported about the most important thing ever to happen to our race. This quiet way is, no doubt, the way God acts. The history of the City of God takes place alongside of the history of the nations.
To continue this mode of reflection, even the Gospel accounts of the end of the world similarly suggest that we would mostly not recognize what was going on at the end times even as it is happening. Not merely do we not know the day or the hour, but we do not know how to read the signs of the times that might indicate that certain prophecies or conditions are being fulfilled. People will go on marrying and giving in marriage, quite perplexed that anything should interfere with their ordinary lives.
No doubt, many things happen in our lives about which it is good for us not to know too much. We really would not like to be born knowing the definite day and hour of our death. That we do not know the day or hour is in fact a blessing that enables us to go on and participate in the activities of this world. We do not want to know ahead of time whom we will meet or know or love in our lives as this prior information would take the adventure out of living.
One of the things we rarely discuss in polite company any more is religion. Actually, religion is seldom even preached any more. What is mostly preached, on objective analysis, is a kind of bland socialism or social concern in which the purpose of religion is mainly to make the world better. Just what the word "better" means in such a view is itself something so ill defined that "better" can mean precisely establishing, as habits of the heart, things that were once considered to be definitely evil or disordered. I think part of the reason for any lack of discussion about the truth of religion is that we really cannot discuss any fundamental difference seriously. We prefer not to disturb anyone and of course, it is not to be done except for serious and mutual search for the truth.
The ecumenical movement itself, as it popularly has worked itself out, has become in many ways not so much a serious confrontation with religious differences and the importance of these differences but a kind of good fellowship in which everything is left as it was. If something is true, however, and it can be shown to be true, then we need to change our minds about it. We need to do something about our errors, about our lives based on them. I do not mean to disparage custom or historic ways of human living. But they need testing. This is why the Apostles were to be fishers of men and to go forth to all the nations.
What is almost a forbidden topic today is that of the truth of Catholisicm. The atmosphere of unlimited tolerance has brought it about that it is impolite under any circumstances to suggest that truth makes a difference in our lives and in our regimes. We pride ourselves, as I said, in thinking that differences of views about truth, including religious truth, make no difference. Just before he died, the novelist Walker Percy wrote a short essay about his religious beliefs. Percy was, to recall, a medical doctor, a philosopher, a kind of sage. He was concerned that words mean something. He felt the need to give brief and terse replies sometimes to frequently asked, but not altogether neutral questions. "However decrepit the language and however one may wish to observe the amenities and avoid offending one's fellow Americans," Walker Percy wrote, "sometimes the question which is the title of this article ('Why Are You a Catholic?') is asked more or less directly. When it is asked just so, straight out, just so: 'Why are you a Catholic?' I usually reply, 'What else is there?'"
Ever since I came across this terse remark of Walker Percy, I have been wondering about it. Percy admitted that he was being a bit flippant in making it. None the less, he was quite serious. We live in a time of the decline of ideologies. The passionate debates about Marxism are now quiet. The search is on for a new religion that is not allowed to be Catholicism, which is supposedly proven to be simply wrong or out-of-date, however little evidence there is that this is so.
The newest candidate for what else is, surprisingly, Islam itself, which is making serious inroads, even in the West. The Muslim claim is that they will grow rapidly in population and will become numerically and thus politically dominant over a demographically declining Western population caught within the logic of its own theories aobut the relative insignificance of incipient humnan life. At least one answer to the question "what else is there?", then, is Islam.
Paul Johnson, in an essay I have often cited, asked, after the fall of Marxism, whether "totalitarianism was dead?" He thought that in fact the same intellectual theories that gave rise to Marxism were at work in the West under different guises but to the same purposes. The notion that the ever increasingly powerful state should control the economy and society in the name of some sort of world common good has reappeared in the form of ecology and environmentalism. If we follow carefully what is said about animals, about trees, about the carrying capacity of the earth, we will begin to suspect a new religion is at our doorsteps. It is taught everywhere in the schools. Individual human beings are subsumed back into a kind of abstract species and become functions of its own closed system. It is propounded in the name of science but almost every one of its premises are shown to be scientifically questionable. It is a new act of faith that refuses to correct itself in the name of reason. It is itself very apocalyptic while being itself harbinger of precisely those things of which religious apocalypse at its best warned us.
One could go on, I suppose, listing the sundry alternate proposals that claim, in one way or another, propose a superior or higher understanding of man, nature, or cosmos. What the recent proposals have in common has been called variously their "gnostic" or "anthropocentric" first principles. Essentially, all can be reduced to some form of denial that there is a transcendent destiny to each human individual. What substitutes for this personal transcendence is usually some form of world state in which its power becomes in effect unlimited. No order of nature or man is claimed to exist so that whatever we will, is alone to have a claim on our energies and choices.
To be sure, the older philosophic attractions remain -- Plato and Aristotle remain in their un-Christianized forms and to that extent represent, in my view, something rather healthy. But the temptation of the philosophers remains very narrow and has itself behind it a long history of response, especially within Catholicism. In this sense, Thomas Aquinas remains important and active among us.
The particularly Catholic and contemporary response to all of these alternatives can be found most clearly and persuasively presented in John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, in the General Catechism, and in Veritatis Splendor, among other places. What is fascinating, in my view, is that the Church has taken great pains to articulate most clearly just what it itself holds about itself, this in the light of the various alternatives be them from other religions, from science, from ideology, from philosophy. My initial premise was Catholicism has taken all the alternatives seriously, examined them, agreed with what was reasonable and sensible, and shown its own unique claims precisely in the light of the best thought of our time.
This large-scale reworking or re-presenting of the specificly Catholic position is largely unknown, I think, not because it is not available, but because there are political and moral reasons not to examine and consider it because it does involve a questioning of how lives are lived and states ruled. I have often wondered why in the media, in the universities and schools, in book stores, even, in what is claimed to be the m,ost uncensored of all societies, it is almost impossible to find those documents, books, and arguments that simply state this intelligible and articulate account of Catholicism in relation to "what else is there"? I think that at least one of the answers is that many knowingly choose not to know. That is to say, the problem is no longer really intellectual but moral and spiritual. From all we know about the faith itself, in its own self-understanding of itself, this possibility is not unanticipated.
What else is there? It still appears that what is not considered or admitted in some honest and sober manner is precisely this understanding of man, God, and world that begins with the folly of the Cross, with the answer to our personal disorders and to our refusals to accept the wisdom that is in fact there and splendidly articulated in our time. We are indeed, so bound are we together, hurt by one man who does not believe. We are to pray always. We do live in a world in which the alternatives to Catholicism are known and carefully examined by it. We do live in a world that has failed to find God by pursuing its own wisdom, a world that has ended up with nothing but its own choice. This is what else there is. The question remains, no doubt, simply, "do we want it"?