Retired political philosophy professor James V. Schall, S.J., recently published three books whose philosophic and theological themes help us understand Lent and Easter. This interview coincides with the conclusion of a seminar in Claremont on the principal works of Harry V. Jaffa. Returning to my pre-seminar reading, I immediately encountered Fr. Schall’s chapter “Thomism and Atheism,” from his Political Philosophy & Revelation. It begins by reference to Jaffa’s change of mind regarding Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of Aristotle—in other words, the relationship between revelation and philosophy. This subsequent wide-ranging conversation, conducted via e-mail, approaches this theme in a variety of ways. For links to earlier conversations see the previous one.https://www.claremont.org/publications/pubid.826/pub_detail.asp
Ken Masugi (KM): In noting a dimension of Jaffa’s “turn,” which many at the Jaffa seminar observed in his contrasting understandings of Abraham Lincoln and of the founding, you see as well a reconsideration of Aristotelian magnanimity and Christian humility. “Humility and truth are presupposed to each other.” How do this presupposition and the reason-revelation dynamic tension of western civilization figure into the three books you published last year?
The Reasonable Pleasures book was written mostly in the Fall of 2010. I had a jaw cancer diagnosed and operated on in June of 2010. That meant that I needed at least six months to recover. The University kindly gave me an emergency leave during the Fall Semester. The whole jaw replacement, new dentures, and the healing of the bone graft took all six months and more, but I was able to teach in the Spring Semester of 2011. As I began to feel better, I had wanted to think through a project that I had been wondering about for some time. So partly to keep busy and partly because the project seemed remarkable to me, I began to write the book. I think that it was finished and submitted to the publishers in January 2011.
The title of the book, of course, is from Aristotle, as is so much of what is sane in this world. Every act is accompanied by an appropriate pleasure—eating, smelling, hearing, touching, seeing. Aristotle adds that thinking itself has its own proper pleasure. Indeed, and this is how this book touches on political philosophy, he said that the politician, if he does not, in some sense, himself experience the delight of thinking, he will in all likelihood find his pleasures in some other less than noble activity. Aristotle would not deny that the good politician (or even the bad one) experiences a unique pleasure in ruling. But that is not the same as the pleasure of thinking. Still, the goodness or badness of an act does not depend on its pleasure. It depends on the purpose of the act in which pleasure exists or is manifested.
A reasonable life is one that experiences, at the right time and in the right place, the proper pleasure that an act allows or signifies. In an earlier book of mine, The Order of Things, I pointed out that the very meaning of wisdom is to see this order or, in the case of our moral or political lives, to put pleasures into existence but as ruled by reason. In one sense, this present book takes up the old Epicurean issue of the primacy of pleasure. When pleasure, perfectly legitimate in its place, becomes separated from the activity in which it belongs, we are in for trouble, sometimes big trouble, whether we like it or not.
But the main point is that pleasure is itself a good thing. Its natural purpose is to enhance the activity in which it belongs. Pain is also a good thing, though the opposite of pleasure. It is paradoxical to speak of the pleasure of pain. But if we did not have a toothache, we would never know the problem. It is the pain that tells us something is wrong and hence to a relief to us.
But this consideration also leads to the great questions of Greek political philosophy and Christianity; that is, whether it is better to do evil or suffer it? Our civilization is really built on the stance we take on this issue. It even brings us to Callicles in the Gorgias, to his astonishment over Socrates remark that we should want to be punished for our evil deeds. A chapter on this topic is found in Political Philosophy & Revelation.
But the essence of the present book goes back to issues like sport and humor in our lives. I have long been taken by Aristotle’s casual remark—one I have seen confirmed in the lives of many students over the years—that the closest a young man or woman gets to contemplation is in watching, being absorbed by following the action of a good ball game of some sort. Several students have said to me that no one had ever explained to them why watching a good game was not simply frivolous or a waste of time. Aristotle, as you recall, said that it was close to contemplation because it was the unexpected experience of beholding something for its own sake, and not for some useful purpose. It is in the life of leisure within the political order but beyond politics that the highest things take place. Without them, our civilization soon loses its soul.
But the book is primarily about the pleasure of thinking and its relation to beatitude. I covered some of this inThe Life of the Mind. Here I am concerned with how revelation belongs to this reality of reasonable pleasures that are, in their being, something we do not concoct for ourselves. We simply find them given in reality.
In another sense, this book is a reflection on Benedict XVI’s Spei Salvi, a very great document, especially for political philosophy. Benedict sees clearly that modern philosophy is pretty much what Voegelin said it was, the “immanentization of the eschaton,” the attempt to reach by human means the elevated ends that human nature was given at its creation, immortality, resurrection, and eternal life. Strauss was perplexed by this “elevated” sense of nature that revelation implied.
KM: And how does Remi Brague, who wrote what you called “the most important book written in political philosophy” [(The Law of God (2007)], complement what Benedict has written?” I understand he took the place of Pope Benedict as speaker at a conference in Rome.
JS: Benedict carefully points out what happens when we reject hell but try to extend our lives by scientific methods to the point of denying death. These were also topics that I discussed in At the Limits of Political Philosophy. The present book’s subtitle, “On the Strange Coherences of Catholicism” comes from these considerations. Modern political philosophy is in one sense a systematic effort to avoid seeing what it is actually about. It is only when we get the “dogma” right, as the first chapter of this book has it, that we get the rest of it right. And dogma is what the mind does when it is being mind.
That is, it affirms of what is that it is, and states of what is not, that it is not. Once our “dogma” is that no nature or no objectives of knowledge can be found, we still have unacknowledged “dogmas” but ones that lead us to incoherence. It is the suspicion that the world and our place in it is really not incoherent that runs through this book.
Remembering Belloc is a book that I much love, a real “labor of love.” It is a collection of mostly short essays that I have done over the years. I have written regular essays on Chesterton over the years, some of which are collected in my Schall on Chesterton. I had a briefer series called “Schall on Belloc” and this book contains many of these plus other essays on Belloc, including his very insightful position on Islam.
Belloc was simply the best short essayist in the English language. He walked or sailed everywhere. He has a collection about “everything” and another about “nothing.” He writes children’s tales and has a book on Danton and most of the great figures of English history. Belloc lost one son in World War I and another in World War II. His wife was an American from Napa, California. He was half French and served in the French army. He loved military history and walked every battleground. His Cruise of the Nona around England by himself in his own boat is simply charming.
No books are quite like The Path to Rome and The Four Men, the first a walk, in 1901, from his old army base in Toul in France to Rome, and second, in 1902, a walk with a Poet, a Sailor, an Old Man, and “Myself,” through Sussex County England, his home county. The four men are, of course, all Belloc. He says in The Four Men that the only way you can keep a place you once loved is to write about it, for it will soon disappear as you once knew it. A friend once gave me his Towns of Destiny and later the same friend found in an English book store his collection called Places—both wonderful books.
Belloc walked much of North Africa, Spain, France, and England. He sailed into Patmos, where he noted that all the trees were cut down. He climbed the Pyrenees and the Alps. He loved bacon, eggs, good bread, wine, and cheese. He thought one ought not to drink any strong drink invented after the Reformation. He was a born Catholic and, as he said, never lost the faith, but not without struggle. In many ways, in spite his laughter and wit, he was in many ways a sad man. His essay on Jane Austen in one of the selected collections of his essays is lovely. Belloc can move one’s soul if you let him, so he is only to be read with caution by modern men who are constrained to deal only in little thoughts and have not allowed themselves be touched by any hint of transcendence, a touching that Belloc himself found heavy.
Belloc loved the world, its ordinary things, but he hated liars. He would have considered our “non-judgmental” society to be slightly daft and probably diabolical. When you decide that the mind is not made to know what is and to judge, you decide the mind is not mind. But the title of this book is on target. When you “remember” Belloc, you remember most of the things that are worthwhile remembering in this world, and, yes, also in the next.
The third book on political philosophy and revelation is, in a way, the bringing together of most of what I have thought on these topics that are kept at bay in the academies. It was Strauss and Voegelin who made it not only possible but often necessary to think of reason and revelation, of Athens and Jerusalem, and, as I insist, also on Rome. I call this book “a Catholic reading” of the topic.
I am in part thinking of Harry Jaffa’s remark at Strauss’s funeral that the importance of Aquinas was that he kept Aristotle alive. Indeed he did, but he also saw how Aristotle and revelation were in fact related. It has been my life work, as I look back on the political philosophy essays and books that I have written, to explain how they belong together. We still must keep the proper distinctions and observations.
Without care, it is relatively easy to turn political philosophy into a theology or theology into a political form. It is, I think, the primary effect of revelation to allow politics to be just what it is, and only what it is, that it, politics. Politics is not itself, as Charles N. R. McCoy used to say, a “substitute metaphysics,” or as Voegelin and Benedict XVI say, an attempt to achieve Christian ends by political, economic or scientific means within this world by human means—the famous “immanentization of the eschaton.” This approach was also the burden of my book, The Modern Age.