In the early 1980s, I was on an extended leave from Amherst, visiting at Georgetown. One unanticipated gift of that stay was a new colleague who would be an enduring blessing, James Schall.
I would take long walks with Fr. Schall through the bricked paths of Georgetown, and we would think aloud, together, on some of those questions in political philosophy that we were both trying to work through – and a find a way of explaining to others. (See “Walking With Schall,” March 16, 2009).
One of the things we were fascinated to think through were the teachings of my former professor, Leo Strauss. I discovered that Schall had written on Strauss, and that he had fastened on the problem at the heart of the things: reason and revelation. Did they mark the hard boundaries between philosophy and theology? Or did they come together in their moral teaching about the ways of life that were rightful for men?
Strauss brought a striking counter-revolution to political theory: He would stand against the currents of relativism in our time by reasserting the existence of enduring, objective moral truths. He would stand against modernity by restoring the teaching both of the Biblical tradition and classical philosophy. He would return us, for our bearings, to Jerusalem and Athens.
Strauss was persuaded that the two domains of reason and revelation were marked by hard boundaries. Neither could refute the claims of truth offered by the other. But John Paul II would write in Fides et Ratio of the “two wings” of the human spirit in faith and reason. John Paul II thought that, through the connection to classical philosophy, the teachings of the Church could satisfy “the demands of universal reason” and provide “a rational foundation for. . .belief in the divinity.”
Fr. Schall picked up on these themes in John Paul II and began to draw them out for reflection long before Fides et Ratio appeared. His retirement from Georgetown made me think back to those essays, and as I drew his volumes from the shelf, I could trace his thoughts on this problem from Christianity and Politics (1981), when I first came to know him, to At the Limits of Political Philosophy (1996), and more recently to The Modern Age (2011).
Schall thought that Leo Strauss remained Thomist to the extent that “he did not close off the theoretical possibility that natural law might in fact include what revelation discovered in it.” We see a homeless man living on the street, perhaps because he has broken his own life; and yet even my atheist colleagues quickly affirm that he merits our solicitude, our deep concern. Even in his broken state he has about him, they say, a certain sanctity.
“Sanctity”? Of the sacred? Some of us learned to say that, as broken and unworthy as he might be, he is made in the image of something higher. But what is there, in the canons of logic alone, that would move us to see this forked creature, in the first place, as a “rights-bearing being”?
But at the same time, as Schall would later say, “Revelation can be articulated because it contains logos. What is revealed, on examination, is strangely open to reason.” The very notion of making a covenant with God already presupposes creatures of reason who are capable of understanding what it means to make a promise and honor a commitment.
If Moses came down from Sinai and said, “The Lord, our God, said not to worry overly much about taking what is not yours, and let’s not be too judgmental about lying with other men’s wives” – if that were the report, we would have expected to find many Hebrews scratching their heads and asking, “Are you sure you got that right?”
Following John Paul II and Aquinas, Schall would point out that revelation too is anchored in the laws of reason: “The principle of contradiction holds, even for revelation.”
And so Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural that both sides in the Civil War, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” and yet he was sure that “the prayers of both could not be answered.” Whatever the perplexities of the case, Lincoln was sure that God would not at the same time accept slavery in principle – and reject it.
We are led, in this path, to creatures of reason whose souls must be in a condition to receive revelation. This point came through in a powerful personal way as we saw Gaston Hall at Georgetown packed, as we have rarely seen it, for Fr. Schall’s Farewell Lecture, “A Final Gladness.” What was so moving was the sense of reverence in the eyes and demeanor of those students: Something had prepared their souls to receive the teaching of Fr. Schall, and for many of them, it was the teaching of Schall himself.
Fr. Schall drew, in his lecture, on Chesterton to say that if things worked well, we would all be united in the end with Dickens and that world of vibrant characters he had brought to life. I couldn’t help thinking, that with my luck and my record, I would end up, not with Schall and Chesterton, but in Purgatory. . .with Joe Biden.
But if things go well, I’ll be with my wife and loved ones, and with Jim Schall, and the conversation, blessedly, will never end.
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and the Director of the Claremont Center for the Jurisprudence of Natural Law in Washington. D.C. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.
Michael P. Jackson
Never has it been more fitting, even in this storied room, to say that our speaker needs no introduction.
Because Father Schall loves grilling his students about historical dates, I first offer up a few of his own milestones. Born in 1928, James Schall joined the Jesuit order in 1948, and received his doctorate from Georgetown in 1960. He then mostly taught in Rome and San Francisco until returning thirty-five years ago next month to teach in Georgetown’s Government Department. He has thereafter been one of the University’s most beloved teachers.
This remarkable, witty and marvelous man is many things: Jesuit priest, scholar, professor, gentleman, prodigious writer, mentor and teacher of virtue.
Borrowing from his practice, let me elaborate with a few quotations – all vintage Schall. First, this one from 2002:
Learning is very often a question of whether someone has his soul in order, whether he can be attracted by what is. Great things will not be seen by those whose souls are not ordered. I did not say that first. Aristotle did. But I do not mind repeating it, as if I were the first to discover it. (The Life of the Mind)
The nucleus of Father Schall’s extraordinary career as scholar and teacher is a profound meditation on Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, on political philosophy and on that which transcends it. Here is a concise summary of Schall’s Thomism, penned by him in 1996:
Revelation, I argue, leads to the completion and fulfillment of political philosophy, not in any necessary or artificial way, but as an intelligible response to valid questions posed in the discipline itself. Revelation is a gift; it does not arise from human sources. It is not something that could be demanded or commanded. It is a rational gift. . . .Aquinas remains a key to the compatibility of reason and revelation. (At the Limits of Political Philosophy)
Father Schall’s teaching about the enduring things is rooted in reason and faith, in Aquinas, the Greeks, Chesterton, John Paul II and legions of others. But also in that which makes us laugh, weep, and cheer. In Schall’s Another Sort of Learning, his own guide for the perplexed, philosophers share pride of place with Bertie Wooster, Bach, Linus and Lucy, public policy debates, college football, and excellent meals.
When the good Father returned to Georgetown in 1978, I was then in my second semester of doctoral study in political theory here. Along with George Carey and Dick Stevens, Father Schall set out with incessant good cheer and persistence to point me in the direction of great books and important questions.
I was humbled and dazzled in every way by this man, by his great learning and generosity of spirit. Decades later, I sat in a hospital room with Father as he recovered from his serious jaw surgery. He uttered not a peep of complaint about the severe pain; not a word of self-pity. Instead, I recall vividly his one true complaint, captured in this lament: “Michael, I’ve just got to put this behind me and get back to my classroom, where I belong.”
Always the teacher. But a teacher of much more than book learning. A rare man such as the ancients revered, a teacher of virtue.
Since my marvelous student days at Georgetown, Father Schall has been the source of countless blessings in the life of my family. He introduced us to new friends and worthy books. He formally welcomed my wife, Caron, into the Church, baptized our daughter, Catherine, and later celebrated her first communion Mass. Last week he invited Catherine, now a high school senior, to attend one of his final classes at Georgetown. Fittingly, it was a class on Plato’s Republic. His teaching and his engagement with his students was, Catherine reported later that night with eyes wide, magical. In truth, still magical.
I offer these personal reflections with an acute awareness that this remarkable man has etched equally vivid memories into the hearts and lives of many of us – and literally thousands of others who could not be with us today. Father taught generations of students at Georgetown, but through his writings, he reaches many more around the globe – from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky to Rome.
My assigned task was to introduce a man who needs no introduction. So now, friends, allow me in close to turn from you. On behalf of us all, instead allow me now to speak directly to our dear Father Schall.
Father, it is fitting that you formally take leave from Georgetown University with a lecture in Gaston Hall. Your thirty-five years of teaching at Georgetown is a profound gift, a stunning legacy. Your wisdom will be preserved for the ages in Dahlgren Library. Yet more, in lives made better, simply for knowing you.
In 2005, you wrote an article that ended with this passage:
What we most associate Christmas with is a gift. A gift is not something we can demand, not something that is due to us. Ultimately, the structure of the universe is first to be understood as a gift. Who made Christmas? “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” It has never been put more succinctly . . . . All gifts must be freely received by those to whom they are freely given. This is the principle upon which the universe is constructed. (“Inventing Christmas”)
Father, our universe has been shaped and profoundly blessed by your many gifts. We have come to know and love you, as your students and friends. At this Christmas season in 2012, you come to us with yet another gift – this evening’s lecture. We expect the usual: to learn still more, and perhaps enjoy a pun or two, intermingled, of course, with the sublime.
So now, Father, please approach the podium, knowing well that you have our profound gratitude and warmest affection. And, I sincerely hope, accompanied by a raucous greeting.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.