The Catholic Thing
"Knowing What We Now Know" Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 07 August 2012

Schall is not the first to maintain that Charles M. Schulz of Peanuts fame was a first-class thinker and theologian. He is easier to read than most philosophers and theologians. But that is a virtue provided one speaks the truth of things.

Linus and Sally are standing in a field. She looks at him puzzled. He observes that “Life is peculiar.” In the next scene, he reflects: “Wouldn’t you like to have your life to live over if you knew what you know now?” In the third frame, Sally and Linus silently look in the distance, reflecting on this profound observation. Finally, to an impassive Linus, Sally asks: “What do I know now?”

Philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger have asked the same question – “What do I know?” “Is truth dependent on chronology?” Even with Sally’s limited experience, her worries are not yet about living her life over but about getting through this one with limited knowledge.

Linus and Sally are next on a grassy field looking up at the sky. She asks: “How high are the clouds, Linus?” Linus, a scholarly sort, looking up, responds: “Oh, they’re at different heights. Some of them, are ‘far-away’ high and some of them are ‘right-up-there high.’’ At this point, Charlie Brown appears. He was listening to the conversation. He protests: “What sort of an explanation is that?” In the last scene, Linus explains to Charlie, referring to Sally’s young age: “Sometimes it’s best to keep these things in the language of the layman!”

Keeping philosophy in a language that the layman could understand has been the vocation of many good philosophers. John Paul II in Fides et Ratio touched on it, as does Peter Kreeft in his Summa Philosophica. If philosophical language is so esoteric that only a few learned souls can understand it, it is probably not very good philosophy. “What do I know?” and “How high are the clouds?” are pretty good questions. Sally isn’t as dumb as she pretends. Charlie is right too. We must ask of our explanations whether they make sense.

On June 11, 1966, Charles Schulz gave the commencement address at St. Mary’s College in California. This address is found in his autobiographical collection, My Life with Charlie Brown. Schulz noted that commencement speakers cover many topics. He recalls doing the previous year’s Peanuts Christmas show. He wanted some way to indicate how children search for the true meaning of Christmas.

       Charles Schulz by Yousuf Karsh (1986)

After some reflection, Schulz tells us: “I finally decided that every idea we had was an idea that really avoided the essential truth which was that the true meaning of Christmas could be found only in the Gospel according to St. Luke and so we had Linus recite those famous passages.” No doubt, “avoiding” the essential truths of Christmas and of Christianity itself is a major industry. Linus seems to be almost the only person we know who can at least tell us the story. The “story” when heard, I suspect, still unsettles and uplifts many different souls.

About the world we live in, we sometimes wonder: “Who’s in charge?” The world is made for man, but man is a certain kind of being. Some things he would like to see, things he thinks he ought to see, require powers not fully given to him

Linus has just informed Lucy of a scientific fact. She doesn’t like it. She raises her voice: “What’s this about not being able to look at the eclipse?” Linus reasonably explains to her frown: “It’s very dangerous. . .you could suffer severe burns of the retina from infra-red rays.”

That is just a fact. But Lucy, arms spread wide in protest, continues: “But what’s the sense in having an eclipse if you can’t look at it?” All things are visible. But an eclipse cannot be looked at. Therefore, it makes no sense to have eyes or eclipse.

In the final scene, to a dazed Linus, full of scientific information, Lucy walks away still yelling: “Somebody in production sure slipped up this time.” Now it takes a dull reader not to know who is in charge of production when it comes to eclipses and eyes. From her point of view, Lucy’s logic is impeccable.

Yet behind it, there is something of a rebellion against what is. It may well be that we are designed to know all things. Aristotle defined our mind precisely this way. Lucy is quite amusing, no doubt of it. But she is impatient about the limits. The world should be ordered to her demands. If it is not, she wants to know who is “in charge.” She finds out when she listens to Linus recite the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke.

Yes, Schulz is a pretty good philosopher – and theologian.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, 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 (12)Add Comment
written by debby, August 07, 2012
this is great!
thank you, father!
i have never linked the two before, but today's Gospel is Matthew's account of the storm at sea & Peter walking on the water.
after reading your post, i see Lucy is a lot like Peter - and often me!
you have lifted my heart once again.
written by Grump, August 07, 2012
Father, I enjoyed this column because the KISS principle always seems to work well in a complicated world.

Bertrand Russell once wryly observed: "Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted."

written by Ray Hunkins, August 07, 2012
Thanks for this piece Fr. Schall. Charles Schulz was a gift.
written by Bill M., August 07, 2012
Brilliant, Father Schall. You are calling for a study of Lucy, Alcibiades and Judas Iscariot!
written by G.K. Thursday, August 07, 2012
Charles Schulz was a public intellectual in a way that had very few precursors. Perhaps the engravings of Dürer are one of the few ancestors to Schulz, but not in terms of their aesthetic content, but in their intellectual heft. Over the years his uniting of the visual with metaphysical and moral content in Peanuts is a very profound accomplishment. Although others tried similar things (e.g., Kelly in Pogo, Capp in Lil Abner), only Winsor McCay in some of his work attempted to move beyond the merely topical to the deeper truths of humanity, Christ and eternity.

As for Russell, I refer everyone to Ray Monk's definitive biography. As the Library Journal wrote "Throughout his life, Russell (1873-1970) felt that he might go insane. He believed very much in romantic love but was apparently incapable of truly loving anyone. This emotional insecurity led him to multiple liaisons outside of his marriages (at the age of 64, his third marriage was to a 20-year-old) and strained relationships with his two children. Particularly upsetting to Russell was the homosexuality of his son, since he was on record as saying that homosexuality was the consequence of bad parenting. " As Sophocles writes in Antigone (620-3):

"evil sometimes seems good
to a man whose mind
a god leads to destruction."
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 07, 2012
Bertrand Russell's elder brother Frank, the 2nd Earl had the rare distinction of being tried for bigamy by the House of Lords in 1901. He received a rather lenient sentence of 3 months imprisonment, for at the time of his second marriage, he had been living in New York and had relied on an invalid Nevada divorce. Dying without issue in 1931, the title passed to his brother.
written by Graham Combs, August 07, 2012
In the past decade, the sales of the original Peanuts Christmas special soundtrack have steadily increased into the millions. There were two "creative differences" over the program. One involved Vince Guaraldi's now classic score. He was probably the last of the tuneful and melodic jazz composers. CBS wanted generic pop or rock. The other was over Linus reciting from the Gospel of St. Luke. Apparently even back in 1965 -- when the Andy Griffith Show was still on the air -- this was considered controversial. Schultz and his producer stood their ground. After all CBS only commissioned this as a cheap and last-minute holiday filler and so Schultz was not obsessed about airing it. It's one thing to be a first-rate theologian; another to be one with the courage of your convictions.
written by Layman Tom, August 08, 2012
I LOVE the peanuts. Thank you for bringing this topic up for discussion Father. If I may add to the evidence of Schultz’ genius, I have several other observations. I think his understanding of the many facets of the human condition was immense. Even as a young man. If you read the early strips, you will see that, although they look a little different, his insight was always spot-on.

Of course, understanding is one thing; to be able to impart that understanding to others is quite another. He really had a deft hand. To be able to express a weighty subject with understanding and humor (or either for that matter) in the space of four frames is mastery. His drawing was, on the surface, crude. Yet just as you’ve pointed out about his philosophy, the genius was always lying under the surface. His facial expressions were perhaps the most expressive and evocative in the craft.

I also love how although, just as in life, there was much cynicism; the Peanuts is one of the few strips where one laughs AT the cynicism instead of WITH it. It is a difficult proposition to present big, heavy topics in an innocent child-like way. It’s almost as difficult as presenting something innocent and still being funny. Really funny. All part of the genius

Personally, Charlie Brown is a hero of mine. He get’s beaten down over and over. Sometimes it’s by the world tricking him, i.e. Lucy and the football. Sometimes he does it to himself as with the kite. But he never quits trying. He get’s clobbered in every game, yet still takes the mound thinking that THIS will be the game he turns it all around. Nobody likes him, except his trusty pal Linus who more often than not dispenses tough love when Charlie Brown gets discouraged. Through it all, all the anxiety, discouragement and failure, Charlie Brown picks himself up and keeps trying. He is the everyman hero for our times.
written by G.K. Thursday, August 08, 2012
We should not forget all the talented people who collaborated with Schulz to make the memorable television specials happen. First among these is Bill Melendez, the primary artist behind the animation of Schulz's characters. If you wish to see Melendez' work on bringing Schulz characters to life, do a search for "Bill Melendez Productions," click on the TV icon, then choose "Specials". You can see clips of Melendez' work on all the Peanuts specials from the 60s and 70s. He was a master of animation!
written by Blake Helgoth, August 09, 2012
Bill Watterson was another great philosopher / cartoonist. I miss Calvin and Hobbes as well.
written by Jack,CT, August 09, 2012
Thanks Father wonderful perspective!
written by tracy, February 04, 2013
Betrand Russel specifically wrote a short bit called "Why I am not a Christian" and was an avowed atheist. My point here is that being an atheist does not in any way exclude one from having a grasp upon morality, or preclude a grasp of spirituality; I would submit that the implied statements (and implied questions) in various of the Peanuts cartoons, also illustrated this. I'd further suggest that Linus' character was a classic example of a religious humanist, which itself does not automatically imply him to be Catholic nor Christian nor exclude him from considering himself an atheist.

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