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Fr Schall: The man who launched a thousand libraries

Fr James Schall (CNS photo/Arlington Catholic Herald)

The legendary Georgetown professor Fr James Schall SJ died peacefully last week, at the age of 91, surrounded by his family. He had retired in 2012, after teaching for more than 30 years in Georgetown’s government department. Despite serious health problems, the books and articles had continued to pour forth. I was privileged to know him as an undergraduate, a writer and editor, and a correspondent.

His output was extraordinary: dozens of books and thousands of essays on the great works and writers of the Western intellectual tradition. His book, Another Sort of Learning, is a classic. Composed of short chapters on topics such as “Why Read?”, “Oddness and Sanity” and “On the Seriousness of Sports”, each ends with a reading list. Taken together, Schall’s lists of “books nowhere else in captivity to be found”, as the subtitle has it, comprise a liberal education and helped form a thousand libraries.

Schall’s books are a kind of skeleton key to the entire Western tradition, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Benedict XVI. As he said in his last public lecture at Georgetown, “The Final Gladness”: “Truth exists in conversation.” The great authors are talking with one another, and with us, to identify and understand what Schall called the ground of all being. This is why he often had his classes read the Greek philosophers on friendship – because making friends is one of the most important things young people can do. Plato and Aristotle, among others, also knew that, and have things to say that still speak to us.

Sport and play was also a recurring topic for Schall, in part no doubt because athleticism and finding out what to do with one’s free time is also a preoccupation of college students. In an essay for The University Bookman, “On Play and Seriousness”, he wrote: “The great thing about play, about games, is they need not exist, but do. They have existed as long as man has existed. What is so great about this aspect of play? Again, I think that Aristotle had it right, an utterly unsurprising surprising thing, for Aristotle saw so much. He had said that play was like the contemplation of what is, only it was not so serious.” Seriousness and playfulness, or joy, were not separate.

Schall’s books are all designed to “keep the perennial questions of philosophy before us with all their force”. They are written as a kind of conversation themselves, filled with quotations from the great authors and asides about Schall’s friends. He often describes how he met them and what books they discussed or shared. Although Schall was at heart an Aristotelean Thomist, this emphasis on friends and how we discover the truth by talking with one another about the highest things is a Platonic dialogue for the present day. How we live matters to us, to those around us, and to God. The questions of devotion, love, friendship and reverence which the tradition has wrestled with matter still.

The most important question, ultimately, is whether we are made for something beyond the world. For Schall, this is not only a philosophical question; it is also a political one. In an essay titled “On the Reasonableness of Hell”, Schall wrote: “If the human soul is not immortal – that is, if nothing passes beyond this life – it follows that injustice and justice have the same results. Great crimes of injustice are gotten away with and great examples of courage or generosity are unrewarded. If either of these results is the case, then the world is made in injustice. It is rationally incoherent. It was this frightening alternative that Plato fought against, as we also do.”

In another essay, Schall said: “I mentioned that hell is a positive doctrine. How so? Each human person is so important that anyone who seriously sins against Him (see the Commandments) at any moment or place, is, if unrepentant, worthy of hell. Put positively, the reality of hell defines what our relation to each other ought to be, something noble, yes, something sinless.”

For Schall, revelation and reason were separate but connected, and indeed only by acknowledging that connection could the world be intelligible at all. At the limits of political philosophy (the title of another of his books), there lay something beyond political philosophy itself, for political philosophy cannot answer its own question: how can we live in the “best city”? As philosophy, it cannot exclude pertinent information that may help it become more of itself, and so, for Schall, this meant that philosophy, properly understood, could not exclude revelation.

But that revelation will always be consistent with reason; once we become aware of that relationship, as he wrote in one of his last essays, “it becomes clear that what it contained in revelation can incite reason to broaden its own understanding of reality. In other words, from the point of view of the philosopher, revelation makes reason more itself – more reasonable. It does this by considering how a revelational teaching expands something not fully understood by reason itself.” This was one of the great insights Schall found in the work of Benedict XVI, for example, which he expanded on in a book exploring the Regensburg lecture.

Schall spent his life explaining that the Logos – that is, Christ – contains both reason and revelation; indeed, it is the fulfilment of both. So may the Logos, which is not an abstraction but a Person, receive his good and faithful servant.

Gerald Russello is editor of The University Bookman