WASHINGTON — Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall was filled to capacity. The images of morality, faith and patriotism, of art, science and the alma mater looked out at the crowded horseshoe balcony and down on the stage, with its podium and single chair.
In the first row in front of the stage, edged with roses, gladiolas and Canterbury bells, pink, purple and white, sat professors and priests, authors and political philosophers. They were almost the only representatives in the hall of the elderly and the middle-aged. The bulk of the rest of the 700 seats was taken up by undergraduates and youngsters still in their 20s.
The students had come to Gaston Hall on a Friday night to hear a lecture — a lecture on which no credits or grades depended and for which no attendance would be taken: the last lecture of Jesuit Father James Schall.
Born in 1928, Father Schall joined the Jesuits in 1948 and received his Ph.D. from Georgetown in 1960. He taught in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University and in the government department at the University of San Francisco before returning to the government department at Georgetown in 1977. He is the author of more than 30 books and numerous essays on theology, political philosophy and related subjects.
After 34 years of teaching at Georgetown, Father Schall has retired. The lecture on Dec. 7, "The Final Gladness," was his farewell to the school and its professors and students. The meaning of the title was perhaps obscure to most of those waiting in the hall — unless perhaps they took it to refer to their old professor’s retirement. Maybe after so many years of teaching, a sunny home in California is precisely the sort of gladness that one looks forward to.
The case, as it turned out, was otherwise. The quotation from which Father Schall took his title belongs to Hilaire Belloc’s
The Four Men and comes as one of the four, Grizzlebeard, reflects on how he returns from his travels: "Then, indeed, I have each time remembered my boyhood, and each time I have been glad to come home. But I never found it to be a final gladness."
Importance of Friendship
With that quote, and lines from Frederick Wilhelmsen and Samuel Johnson as anchors, Father Schall sailed off into a meditation on learning, philosophy and friendship — on friendship most of all and the importance of friendship in and for philosophy and learning.
"For both Aristotle and Aquinas," Father Schall explained, "friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality. No subject stands closer to the reality of the student: If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong." Of Aristotle’s views on friendship in particular, he reflected that "it’s a sobering and, yes, exhilarating experience for the student to realize that the best thing said on the subject was said 2,500 years ago."
More recently, Father Schall finds the idea of friendship in an essay that G.K. Chesterton wrote on Charles Dickens: "This is one of the greatest passages I have ever read. Its central truth has come back to haunt me over the years. It contains something transcendent, which I bequeath to each of my students over all the years:
"There is ‘a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant: and the passage is along a rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick traveled. But this at least is part of what he meant; that comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but that, rather, our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: And when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.’"
Father Schall reflected that the passage, which is "a graphic English version" of the visions of the afterlife suggested by reason and Revelation, is something from which he has "never quite recovered." In fact, the topic was one on which he wrote his dissertation, the argument of which "concerns the truth that Chesterton saw in Dickens, that Aristotle and Aquinas saw in friendship, that John saw in the passage ‘I call you not servants, but friends.’"
In Christianity, Father Schall explained, God is neither the unapproachable God of the philosophers nor a lonely being who needed to create man to satisfy his own needs, but a Being whose Triune existence both ensures his sufficiency and overflows to our benefit.
It is this image of God’s perfection, anticipated in the thought of Plato, which, according to Father Schall, gives force to the Aristotelian injunction that men should as far as possible "devote our lives not to the human and mortal things, but to divine things."
Of course, one can only learn so much of the divine things in a lifetime. But for Father Schall, the recognition that one has much to learn is an excellent discovery; it acts as a spur. He and his fellow professors know three kinds of students: "those who are interested only in grades, those who know everything and the eminently teachable." The eminently teachable are those who, like Socrates, know that they do not know — and who, therefore, like Socrates, continue to ask questions.
Things to Remember
Towards the conclusion of his lecture, in preparation, as it were, for his own departure, Father Schall asked rhetorically what a professor most wants his students to remember. It is "not himself, but what is true. Above all, he wants them to remember the Socratic foundations of our culture: that it is not right to do wrong, that death is not the worst thing that can happen."
Reflecting on his return to California, to the part of it that used to be called El Dorado, Father Schall repeated the line of Samuel Johnson which he had quoted at the beginning of his lecture: "It is folly to delay those things that cannot be escaped." Parting, Father Schall concluded, is an inevitable element of human existence; and yet, at the same time, "it is clear that human life is ultimately about meeting again."
That meeting, in Father Schall’s vision, will be both Dickensian and Socratic, will involve both friendship and debate, will be a time of "drinking from those great flagons at the end of the world." Most of all, however, it will be a meeting in which we, in friendship, at last find ourselves "seeing God as we would have it, face-to-face."
This, then, is "the final gladness" of Father Schall. There is no question, in his opinion, that such a final gladness exists. The only question regards "its location and whether our manner of living and thinking is worthy to receive it.
"Such is my last lecture that I bequeath to you."
Sophia Mason is a graduate student at The Catholic University of America.
She blogs at
and lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Five Questions With Father Schall
What was the best course you ever taught?
As I taught every semester a course on the nature of political philosophy, that was probably my best course. I always found it a delight. I taught an eight-semester cycle that included the following semester courses: "Plato," "Augustine," "Aristotle," "Aquinas," "Classical Political Philosophy," "Medieval Political Philosophy," "Natural Law" and "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy."
Each of these was an insightful, often-wondrous course; probably the semester with Plato was the most memorable, though I liked them all. When one has finished a semester on Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas, he can hardly imagine how much he still has to learn from these great men.
What book of yours do you think was the most worth writing? Which others do you think will still be read in 50 years?
Goodness, I should be pleased if any Schall book were read in five years. Another Sort of Learning is undoubtedly the book that has received most attention. I think Roman Catholic Political Philosophy is the one that solves the most theoretic problems. The book that I like best is On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, but The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men and Idylls and Rambles are more autobiographical and are books that I have enjoyed doing.
My best literary form, as it were, is the short essay. I do a regular column entitled "On Letters and Essays" in The University Bookman. I think Belloc was the greatest essayist in our language. I do love the short essay. In fact, the subtitle of Idylls and Rambles is precisely Lighter Christian Essays.
The Schall-on-Chesterton book is in this category, as is Unexpected Meditations Late in the Twentieth Century and in the forthcoming The Classical Moment.
How do the roles of a priest and a teacher fit together? Does being a Jesuit have anything to do with it?
At least one of the purposes of the Society of Jesus was to combine the priest and teacher into one person. A priest simply knows things that a teacher is not likely to know. To teach is also one of the duties of the priest. St. Paul said that teaching is one of the possible manifestations of the variety within the Church. To teach is to make present to another what is true and how to see it by himself. Teachers do not own knowledge. It is free.
One of my best essays was entitled "What a Student Owes His Teacher." Both teacher and student pursue the same thing: the truth itself. If they do not, both are lost.
You left the Army to join the Jesuits in 1948. How did this come about? Is there any leftover Army in you?
Well, I did not exactly leave the Army to join the Jesuits. I had an 18-month enlistment after World War II. On finishing that, I went back to the University of Santa Clara. It was at the end of my first year there that I entered the order. Do I still have any Army left in me? Every time I make my bed in the morning, I thank God for the Army.
One of my best essays is in The Mind That Is Catholic — The Real Alternative to Just War. It is about the need and rationale for need of a military. The first essay in my Maritain book — Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society — entitled "Justice, Brains and Strength," deals with this issue also.
I must confess little patience with pacifists or those who are unwilling to see that sometimes the lack of strength and the will to use it reasonably is itself a cause of greater injustice and suffering than the use of force when needed.
Chesterton is frequently characterized as a brilliant but unsystematic thinker. Is that a fair characterization, and (if the latter part is true) does the unsystematic nature of his writings pose any problems for studying him?
Chesterton, as you know, is simply the greatest. On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Orthodoxy, I wrote a long essay on this book in Telos magazine. Orthodoxy is simply the greatest book written in the 20th century, and I have not seen a better one yet in the 21st. The major premise of the question about Chesterton being unsystematic is roughly that real thought only takes place in systems. Usually what takes place in systems is ideology. What Chesterton was is a metaphysician. He went where "what is" took him. That is why he understood St. Thomas practically without reading him. No more orderly mind ever existed than Chesterton, except perhaps Aquinas. Neither one had a system.
The real problem in reading Chesterton, as a lady once asked him, is his humor. She thought that one had to be serious to be a philosopher. Chesterton told her: "Madam, the opposite of funny is not serious. The opposite of funny is not funny." There is absolutely no reason why truth cannot be found in humor or presented in a humorous way.
Why people have difficulty in reading or appreciating Chesterton, I think, has nothing to do with his supposed unsystematic mind. It has to do with his clear grasp of the truth and where arguments contrary to it lead us. The conclusion of his 1905 book Heretics always seems to me to state the real issue. Modern philosophy has separated us from what is. It now takes faith to affirm whether the grass is green.
One cannot read Chesterton very long without examining his mind. He must be put away or put off by calling him unsystematic or funny to avoid the real implications of Chesterton, which is that Christianity has it right about man, cosmos and God. If we live our lives in a way that allows us to blind ourselves to his logic, we will have to find ways also to reject reality itself. This rejection, as I tried to point out in my book The Modern Age, is what we are about today. But if we want to know what reality itself is about, we had best read Chesterton. — Sophia Mason