Father Schall: Pleasure Is Part of the Moral Life

In his new book Reasonable Pleasures, Jesuit scholar James Schall discusses its ‘valuable and subordinate role’ in human existence.

LOS GATOS, Calif. — Reasonable Pleasures, the latest book from scholar Father James Schall, examines the “valuable but subordinate role” pleasure plays and how it can contribute to a life that is both fulfilled and good.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed “that the human being has a variety of tendencies … all of which have some kind of pleasure connected with it,” Father Schall, emeritus professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, told CNA.

“So the reasonable man, if he is virtuous, will put the proper pleasure on the proper ends of his activities, so the pleasure itself is a consequence of, is involved in, every action you do,” he said.

“These pleasures are to be experienced; they are good things. Yet it’s not the pleasure that’s important; it’s the cause of the pleasure that’s the important thing.

“So you get to the understanding that pleasure is part of the moral life; that’s what the moral life is partly about: putting the proper pleasure on the proper activity. And the thesis of this book … is that the highest pleasure is the one which has to do with thinking and loving and a consequence of that.”

Published by Ignatius Press, the book “flows out of Aristotle,” Father Schall said. The philosopher noted that human persons — rational animals — can experience pleasures related to both their body and soul and that when one does not take the time to engage in intellectual acts and enjoy their pleasures, he will “start to find his pleasures in other kinds of things, which are deviations from the good.”

Father Schall, a priest of the Society of Jesus, reflected on the importance of the act of reading good books for “the delight we take in knowing the truth of things” by relating a story about St. Augustine.

“In the Confessions, when he was about 19,” St. Augustine relates how “he happens to come across a book of Cicero, the Hortensius … a dialogue on philosophy. And when Augustine finished it, he said, ‘I’m going to be a philosopher. That’s what I’m going to do with my life. That’s what I’ve been looking for.’”

“That is one of the most momentous moments in the history of thought, when Augustine says, ‘I am going to be a philosopher.’”

While it took St. Augustine another 15 years “to figure it out,” Cicero — who had died 400 years earlier — “changed the world” by his writing.

“This tradition comes down to us when we sit down and read a story. That’s what I tell my students: 'That’s what it’s all about, when you see that that’s what you want to do — to know the truth.'”


'The Strange Coherences of Catholicism'

In a sense, Father Schall said, there is a pleasure connected with seeking the truth “and also an angst, a restlessness, as Augustine says, because you know that any truth you get leads to others, and you’re living a life seeking the truth, but at the same time are unsettled because you know, ultimately, you don’t have it.”

“And so the subtitle (The Strange Coherences of Catholicism) is precisely about that point, that it does cohere, once you do have a clarity with regard to the end, as it is presented to you in revelation and in reason.”

Reasonable Pleasures means to show that reality does make sense and does make sense as it is explained by the Church; that revelation is an answer to the questions asked by reason; and that human persons are ordered to a transcendent destiny in the resurrection of the body and a new creation.

Our bodyliness places each of us in a unique situation “in which you work out your freedom … and carry out your purpose,” which makes possible for us the pleasures of sport and play.

“I think that sports, for example, do have a very important place in our lives,” Father Schall said. “The closest a young man comes to contemplation is watching a good ball game. Why? Aristotle says contemplation is thinking about the highest things, enjoying them and being outside of yourself, because it’s not yourself you’re talking about; you’re beholding something beyond yourself.”

“It’s the same thing in a good game,” he reflected, discussing a college football game he had watched recently. “You don’t know what’s going to happen; you step back, and you don’t know until it’s finished, and you’re absorbed in that, and you say, ‘What was I doing those two hours?’”

“Well, I wasn’t ‘doing’ anything. I was contemplating that thing as it unraveled before me. That kind of experience ... you see that’s what Aristotle says is the contemplative act that we are most ordained to.”


The 'Ultimate Inn'

Next to Aristotle, the book’s most influential thinker is G.K. Chesterton. Father Schall quoted the 19th-century writer as saying that mankind’s end is when we’re together conversing in “the tavern at the end of the world.”

“That’s precisely the highest thing. The end of civilization is a few people sitting in a room talking. That’s exactly what it’s all about. Why talking? It means pursuing the highest things.”

Father Schall then went on to discuss Josef Pieper, whom he said “points out that you can’t set out to find joy. Joy is a byproduct of doing something that ought to be done, of doing or possessing something that is good. … You don’t go out to have joy. Joy is the result of something you’re doing which is right, the good which is in the thing itself which you are experiencing.”

“The joy of conversation … it’s not the conversation, but the conversation is taking place ‘about’ things … so that the perfection of human nature is precisely this common pursuit together of conversations about what are the most important things,” he added.

“Very often the analogies of heaven are not only of vision, but the delight of truth; also the delight of knowing, of conversation, speaking about it, giving it back.”

Father Schall put it thus: “The best thing a college has is a pub, where you go and talk; you know, not going out to be drunk, but to relax and to talk about the important things. And you more often talk about the most important things, not with your professors, but with your colleagues, your buddies, your friends; and for most of us the best part of college life is precisely this. Why? Because it’s precisely what our nature is.”

Yet our orientation to “the tavern at the end of the world” is just that. The “ultimate inn” is not in this world.

“Unless you realize that’s your end, you will be frustrated the rest of your life trying to find it somewhere else, which is what the history of mankind is partially about: trying to find it someplace else” other than in eternal life.

The book concludes that man’s perfection relies on his accepting his being and his ordination to sharing in the inner life of the Godhead and that to accept this is “to find the true location of our home, even when we catch intimation of it in the homes in which we are born, dwell and live our mortal lives.”

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