The Catholic Thing
On Philosophical Eros Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Editor’s Note: Fr. Schall delivered “A Final Gladness,” his last lecture at Georgetown University Friday evening in Gaston Hall, which was packed with former and current students, the papal nuncio, and various other luminaries. More on this, as well as a recording of the event, quite soon. Though our dear friend will be retiring to a Jesuit community in Los Gatos, California, in March, we expect him to continue his always noteworthy contributions to this page – of which the present column is a sterling example – for a long time to come. – Robert Royal

In book seven of the Republic, Socrates asks: “What then, Glaucon, would be a study to draw the soul from becoming to being?” (521d). This is a question we do not ask ourselves every day, though perhaps it should be. The question asks about a “study” that might incite us to consider things of highest importance. We do not automatically make this step by ourselves. Many of us need to be awakened, even prodded. We need to be “turned around,” as Socrates tells us. Yet we all have in us the capacity to know. Indeed, more than anything else, this capacity defines us. We are the beings who by nature seek to know, know what is, whatever it is.

Later in this same book, we read: “For souls, you know, are far more likely to be cowardly in severe [difficult] studies than in gymnastics. The labor is closer to home in that it is the soul’s privately, and not shared in common with the body” (535b). That is, though both are important, sports are easier to comprehend than metaphysics. Yet sports too can wake us up to notice the existence of things worthy for themselves.

When we read this passage about cowardly souls, we remember that this same Glaucon was called “brave” by Socrates in the second book because he insisted on asking Socrates about the truth even when he could make persuasive arguments against its possibility. The military virtue, bravery, came to be applied to philosophical inquiry, to the insistence on knowing the truth, nothing less. No doubt few things are more needed today than our courage to ask about the truth of the reigning moral aberrations now increasingly established as law and custom by our regime and with the consent of most of us. In a world where relativism is king, truth finds itself the martyr. Where truth cannot be spoken, no one can reform his life.

How is this issue understood? Our courts and university faculties are no longer courageous enough to ask whether what they were deciding and teaching is true. In order to avoid responding to this basic question – “Is it true?’ – with an answer not merely an opinion, they have preferred to go on and on making distinctions and equivocations that would allow them to continue to undermine our moral and intellectual stature so that they could justify certain ways of acting and living.

The term “philosophical eros” comes from the followers of Leo Strauss. It refers to Socrates, of course. At first sight, to juxtapose “eros” and philosophy is just as odd as to juxtapose courage and philosophic inquiry. We assume that “eros and philosophy oppose each other. Plato himself implied this in the famous fifth book of the Republic. “Eros,” as it were, is a bodily word; philosophy is a heady one. Yet the phrase “philosophical eros” intrigues us. Ideas will not let us alone.

          The Reverend James V. Schall, S.J.

The term “philosophical eros” means, roughly, that we should pursue the truth with the same passion and zeal that we pursue our beloved. Indeed, it implies, at least in Christianity, that we can, if we will, pursue the truth even if we give up the normal consummation of eros in marriage. But philosophical eros and marriage are not in conflict either, except perhaps in St. Paul’s sense that the married man has many concerns.

We live in a time when any notion that truth exists or that it should be pursued is identified with fanaticism. The skeptic will fanatically pursue his own skepticism, while those who pursue the truth he will call “fanatics.” And while the principle of contradiction remains the fundamental philosophical tool, we find that it means little to those who do not mind giving their souls to contradiction in order that they do not have to acknowledge error and change their ways.

Augustine, in a famous passage, told us that two loves built two cities. He meant that it is quite possible to pursue falsity and evil, claiming it to be good, with every bit as much passion as the saints pursue the truth. “Eros, as such, in other words, what is simply bodily, is not itself the last criterion of truth. The martyr is indeed a witness who suffers for his cause, but if he is not a witness to truth, he is doubly dangerous.

The world, we can say, is in some sense built on ideas. If the ideas are wrong, the structure of the human world will be wrong. We do not like to admit that our “subjective” ideas have “consequences.” We like to think, with the Supreme Court, that we can construct our own vision of reality that has no need to inquire whether it is true or not. In such a world, we cannot even talk to one another nor have any issue between us resolved by persuasion. Philosophical eros does not let us rest with such illusory opinions in our souls.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Ib, December 11, 2012
Diogenes Laertius relates a "happy saying" of Aristotle's in his "Lives of Eminent Philosophers," (Book V, Ch 1, §17): "To the question, 'What do people gain by telling lies?' his answer was, 'Just this, that when they speak the truth they are not believed.'"

All our institutions lose credibility through the implementation of relativized ethical standards. But, as we've seen from the examples of Islamic politics, the solution is not the imposition of blasphemy codes. These are simply irrational and barbaric, and in the end no more satisfactory to what Fr. Schall terms "philosophical eros" than relativism. The centrality of Reason in the pursuit of Truth is what makes communication (and persuasion) possible. Without Reason, we end up with irrational rules or irrational relativism. Such practices are inimical to the Roman Catholic mind.
written by Richard Smiley, December 11, 2012
If you love and pursue the truth your passion will conseive and your Father will be your mother and your progeny will be Christ who is in all and is all, and the truth shall set you free .
Thank you for your thoughtful essay. May we learn from the consequences of our sins that the folly of God is wiser than the wisdom of men .
written by Stephen MacLean, December 11, 2012
Huzzah for Fr Schall! Ad Multos Annos!
written by Jacob, December 11, 2012
Any "progressive" project in history has led to an environment in which no two groups can agree upon a single truth.
They always suggest this mass disagreement will somehow lead to utopia but it doesn't, it leads to the rise of the pragmatist--whoever is the most ruthless is silently assented to by the (fed up with bickering) majority, and proceeds to marginalize and delegitimize the minority opposition.

Your current Pragmatist in Chief most certainly believes in truth, whatever he says in public. He's working for the 52-55% majority and their cold, calculating, rational plan involves breaking the back of the minority.
But they believe in truth. They believe it's true that a woman should be able to kill her child and that people with morals should just go on working hard and paying for the people who don't have them, no matter how close society comes to the brink.
written by William Manley, December 11, 2012
The most important question of our time: Can moral absolutes be re-established in a society where moral relativism has become the law of the land?
written by Diane Peske, December 11, 2012
I love Fr. Schall. He speaks the language of the academia. Another priest who uses more modern language but communicates this same message is Fr. Ronald Rohlheiser. His book: "The Holy Longing" was for me - a breakthrough moment in my spiritual life...a realization that the hunger in my soul for Truth, a hunger that was virtually insatiable, a hunger which brought tears when it touched my heart through music, or a sunset, or my love for my children...was what Fr. Schall refers to as 'philosophical eros'. Thanks to Rohlheiser - I got a translation-language, a first step, to not only understand Fr. Schall, but embrace his wisdom with joy, gratitude and wonder. May all of us who live in Christ grow into BEING souls, filled with THY glory, O Lord.
written by Jack,CT, December 11, 2012
God Bless You Father!
I look forward to your continued
writings here!
written by Virginia Arbery, December 12, 2012
Your careful work drawing the lines and correspondences between reason and revelation have been of incalculable guidance to me and to my students. The strength of your character and the shine of your soul raises my hope and quickens my heart. Thank you, Fr. Schall. Gratefully, Ginny
written by senex, December 13, 2012
The Last Hurrah of Fr. Schall (TCT, 12-11-12) reiterated the message that I have seen consistently in his writings, especially on TCT: “Truth is that which is.”, not opinions, desires, consensus, probabilities, poll results, etc., not even facts (because facts can be false in their conclusions and implications).

He has consistently had the courage to challenge the emperors who have no clothes: the politicians, academics, the opinion makers and dissident Catholics.

We will miss you, Father, and the inspiration that you have given us to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.
written by Brad Miner, December 13, 2012
@senex: Let me reinforce what Bob Royal said in his editor's note at the top of the column. Fr. Schall has retired from his teaching position at Georgetown. He has not stepped aside from The Catholic Thing, and you'll be able to read him here every other Tuesday.

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