“Knowing What We Now Know”

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. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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