On Philosophical Eros

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. (1928-2019), 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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