The Catholic Thing
On the Impartial Reading of Books Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 17 February 2014

 Robert Royal was traveling this weekend. His next column will appear tomorrow.

In No. 82 of The Rambler (Tuesday, January 15, 1751), Samuel Johnson wrote: “So prevalent is the habit of comparing ourselves with others, while they remain within the reach of our passions, that books are seldom read with complete impartiality, but by those from whom the writer is placed at such a distance that his life or death is indifferent.” Who did Johnson intend by “those within the reach of our passions?” He implied that envy, hatred, adulation, greed, or pride can cloud our judgment when we compare ourselves to those with whom we interact.

The vice of envy, in particular, is more frequent among us than we generally realize. It is more damaging than greed, a distant competitor. Envy is quite present in academia, where the competition is of a spiritual or intellectual nature. But in this regard, the culture of the modern media might give it a run for its money.

Some economists, indeed, have considered envy to be a major factor in economic relations, more so than greed. Issues revolving around poverty in particular are often more due to envy than greed. Efforts to deal with the poor almost always fail because they assume that the issue of why the poor are poor is one of greed and not one of envy.

Greed is the vice of wanting material goods out of proportion to our real needs and capacities. Since money enables us to buy almost anything, we can make it our end. We think that this accumulation (or lack) of wealth is what happiness is all about. We associate greed mostly with the rich, but it can also be a vice prevalent among the poor, even the very poor.

Envy, on the other hand, is more spiritual. It consists in honors and glory. We do not praise what should be praised in others. We find fault with the excellence or performance of other people because, well, we hate their guts. We choose not freely to give credit where or in what excellence it is manifest. We do not like what we see when we “compare ourselves with others.” The vice of Judas might well have been greed, but that of the Pharisees was more certainly that of envy. To give honor and praise where they are due is much more difficult and much more important than in giving or returning money where it is due.

            Plato and Aristotle (detail) The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509

The fact is that I read neither Plato nor Aristotle “impartially,” even though they died considerably before my time. To be educated, even today, especially today, one has to take a stand with regard to Plato and Aristotle. Yet if that affirmation were true, all universities would insist that those matriculating in them read Plato and Aristotle. They don’t.

Those who know Plato and Aristotle are often envied with a passion verging on hatred. These ancient gentlemen stand for the truth. They make it clear. Our civilization is built, as I like to say, on the Socratic proposition that “It is never right to do wrong.” No statement is more hated in a relativist world. None is more envied by those who refuse to admit its truth. They have no other choice.

Yet, what does it mean to “read a book with complete impartiality”? It means that we can read the book without our protective mind interfering to prevent us from admitting the truth of what opposes what we want to do. Our society is full of a hatred rooted in envy, in the refusal to acknowledge the truth of our being. We are thus in a revolutionary situation, something similar to what Burke described in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. We have now freely chosen principles of polity that deny elements of goodness in our being. We do not bind ourselves by what is. We withhold praise from any truth that we choose not to live by.

The anti-hate laws that now prevail in Canada, Britain, and this country are themselves rooted in an envy and hatred of any truth that contradicts current established ideology. Freedom of speech, whose root justification was the obligation to speak and listen to the truth, has become an instrument to exclude any consideration of truths that conflict with what we want – as we politically will it.

We are now far enough away from Scripture and the classical authors whereby we might objectively consider them. But it has not turned out this way. Why? I think it is because the articulation of the truth requires these two sources to see it. If our “passions” do not allow us to admit their truth, we end up hating it because we cannot but envy its existence. The refusal to praise what is true and good is increasingly the ethos of our culture.

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 (9)Add Comment
written by Rich in MN, February 17, 2014
Thank you, Fr. Schall, for your thought-provoking reflection. I am reminded of an old "Twilight Zone" episode in which Bill Mumy played a young boy with psychic powers which he used to terrorize the adults in the house and force them to obey his every whim. Reality did not restrict or govern his desires; rather, his desires governed the permissible reality.

This evening I was watching "Couples Ice Dancing" at the Sochi Olympics and I could not help but wonder how long before same-sex couples must be allowed to compete. After all, if the Vatican is not immune from public reprobation at the hands of GLBT surrogates at the UN, why would we think that the Olympic committee is?
written by Mack Hall, February 17, 2014
Thank you. The Orwellian concept of "hate speech" is certainly a most useful tool for tyrants.
written by Jack,CT, February 17, 2014
Proff Schall,
I love it! I found myself stuck" to every word!

My dad was a devote Catholic and always said,"Jealousy is a sin" and "Like cancer",I relize this as a cousin to envy and greed but in the same strain.
I tell my two boys all the time to be happy for all.I agree
that "Envy" is more spiritual and I have seen people decide how to treat others by the others "Material Worth" and even scarier I have seen others snipe at others based on the others Title".

One finds alot of this in "Medicine" and the society would be better to relize petty "Titles" that make most little to NO more money are often the cause of much envy.
I worked in middle management most of my career ad then I ended it all giving back to students and took a 75% cut in pay!
I worked at the state level and with decisions that wold foever change the lives of many but no greater a job was to work with what most would refer to as "HOPELESS"!
The "Deadly Sins" are never talked about?

I suppose we all are under "Spiritual warfare' and need to pray for the humility we need to have a healthy Spiritual life.
I have a couple of brothers I love to watch: One gets an electric fence for the dog and a week later the other is installing the same.
One gets a new golf club and yup within a couple of weeks the other owns the twin!, and on and on.....
I must admit my wife and I find it amusing BUT it is much deeeper than this,a "Wanting of Material goods out of proportion to our real needs".

I grew up in the same little house these guys did and as nine were squeezed in I recall the only wish I had was to have space when I grew older (Big House) and I did,game over.
God Bless and thanks for a great read.

written by DeGaulle, February 17, 2014
Jack, to be fair to your brother, you need to consider that loyalty and admiration can also be the motive for imitation-can't it be a sincere form of flattery?
written by Ross Howard, February 17, 2014
A great and thoughtful article! It immediately reminded me of Blaise Pascal writing in the Pensees on self-love: that no matter how big is the ego, man “cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants” and this ultimately “produces in him the most unrighteous and criminal passion that can be imagined; for he conceives a mortal enmity against that truth which reproves him and which convinces him of his faults.” So in the end he hates Truth itself.
written by Jack,CT, February 17, 2014
DeGaulle,Yes i agree
written by schm0e, February 17, 2014
If I could trade on envy the way Al Gore trades on carbon, whoa! would I be rich!
written by senex, February 20, 2014
The more we read, the more we absorb. Consequently, it is difficult to read the next book as if our minds were a tabula rasa.
written by Mary, February 21, 2014
Thank you for writing on this. A good friend and I were pondering over such things over dinner just this night. I am trying to understand what you are saying about envy. I suppose people envy, because they desire the good but are not willing to sacrifice for it. You might say a prayer for a young Catholic girl who backed out of having a Catholic wedding (because the church only allowed thirty minutes of photo taking after the wedding) and she is marrying a man who does not support her in her faith or practice of it. I can't help but think of Fulton Sheen's philosophy of how the sins of individual souls become the mass tribulations of peoples, and governments, and countries. If we see envy of the good on public podiums then it is because it first is expressed in individual souls. Most people might not have read Plato or Aristotle but they have their friends to point out what is good. Fear of disapproval and rejection by the world is often what keeps them from going after the good. (Money mindful parents' money wasted, beloved fiance potentially lost, the censure of a misunderstanding society)
I wonder where ignorance interplays with envy. If you don't know how good it could be how can envy it? If you don't see what there is to be had how can you give up everything else? If this ignorance I see So much of is denial then there is a storm of denial which results in a pitiful amount of lost and angry sheep. I only see two options for those called to shepherd, to go pray on the mountain top, and to go find the sheep where they are. Either way it's a long rather lonely journey. God be with us.

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