The Classical Moment
Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures
Father James V. Schall, S.J.
St. Augustine’s Press.
154 pages, $27
To order: staugustine.net/our-books
In this most recent collection of essays, Father James Schall considers the “classic moment.” The example he uses to illustrate such a moment is an episode of the life of writer J.M. Coetzee, then a young boy in Cape Town, South Africa. He hears his first piece of classical music, from Bach, coming from the house next door. That lead Coetzee to a life of the mind, for he had never heard anything so wonderful before, and it lead further to reflection on what constitutes a “classic.”
For Father Schall, “what interested me most in Coetzee’s essay/lecture was not so much his social-science ruminations. It was the raw fact that a human being, even at fifteen — there are people who have fallen in love in every proper sense at more or less that age; I think of Dante — can see or hear something that simply changes his life and, perhaps, in changing his life, changes the world.”
The writer Russell Kirk called moments like these “when time and timeless intersect,” when eternity seems to break through our daily existence. These essays try to explore what that means and how we may think about the basic reality of existence. As usual with Father Schall, we get a wide range of references, from Plato and Samuel Johnson to the Peanuts comic strip.
In an essay titled “The Enormity of the Universe,” Father Schall uses Charlie Brown and Linus to explain that humans “are peculiar kinds of beings. We not only are, but want to know what we are, who we are. For us, it is not enough just to exist.”
That seeking after knowledge is what causes us to love one another and to search for God and meaning to our lives. To help us do that, we turn to the classics and those classic moments that help us understand what Father Schall calls, echoing Plato, what is.
The collection brings together 53 essays on a wide range of topics, from art to economics, usually collected from Father Schall’s varied reading. The essays are short, usually just a page or two, and so are perfect for dipping into as the mood strikes (and would make a perfect book for students).
But Father Schall makes certain themes quite clear: There is a reality beyond ourselves, and we can know what it is. And because reality is not simply an extension of our ego, we must recognize our own existence is a gift, and our lives should be ones of gratitude and joy to the gift-giver. Reason, too, is a gift, in that it enables us to distinguish between true and false, to see “a truth within a falsity,” as Aquinas did, and also to understand that “an idea that is not true will close us off from the fullness of reality to which we are oriented.” Citing Pope Emeritus Benedict’s work in “Four Philosophies,” Father Schall defends reason, but reason, to understand itself and the world, must be open to faith. Revelation completes rationality.
Moreover, we have free will, which allows us to appreciate existence. That is, as G.K. Chesterton, one of Father Schall’s heroes might say, the romance of orthodoxy. Vice, in contrast, is (as Father Schall puts it in “On the Effects of Vice”) a cruel narcissism that causes “us to see everything in the image of our self-defined end. Hence we miss reality and end up only with ourselves.”
So much of what was assumed to be part of our Western Christian heritage is in danger of being forgotten or misunderstood. Father Schall is the antitdote.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.