Schall at Eighty-Five

At seventy, I started writing, in effect, quinquennial reports on events of the previous half-decade. Likewise, every four years my birthday falls on the now established date of a presidential inauguration. I consider these simultaneous events to be happenstance, not providential!

The big news, I suppose, is, after thirty-four years, my retirement from teaching at Georgetown University. My skeptical younger brother never considered a “heavy” academic load of two courses a semester to be “work.” And, in a way, readers of Josef Pieper on leisure will know that he is right. On the first day of spring, I will migrate to the Jesuit House in Los Gatos, California. The date is not happenstance but deliberately chosen. The Spring Equinox is a good time to leave D.C. and to arrive in San Jose, the nearest airport.

The Los Gatos house is the spacious building in which I spent my first four years in the Order. Now it is mainly a retirement residence, not a novitiate, another story in itself. In those long-ago days, we called it “The Novitiate of Los Gatos.” Located in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it was surrounded by lovely hillside grape fields for our then well-known winery. The hills are still there, but the grapes and winery are long gone.

Often I am asked, “What will you miss most?” Actually, I am rather glad not to be in Washington during Obama’s second round. I suspect, however, that it will not make much difference where you are, its effects will be so pervasive and radical.

Sometimes during my three decades here, I think that I have “lived” more in Athens and Rome than in Washington. This is what academia can do to you. Indeed, I have never thought anyone could understand what was happening in Washington if all he knew was Washington. That, after all, is what political philosophy is about, the things perennial in the passing city in which we live.

The best part of teaching, of course, is the students. Somehow, they find their way into one’s classes, though I was never sure quite how. An element of providence hovers about it. I have always understood that knowledge as such is free, however steep the university tuition for matriculation. As you watch, students pass through a period of their lives that you once passed through yourself, if you could just recollect it all.

College years are formative ones, a time of waking up or, in Plato’s terms, of “turning around,” of becoming aware of a past, of the fact that we choose. Students sense that they are responsible not for what they are but for what they become by their own considerate or inconsiderate choices and habits.

A university ought not to be a place for “relevance” or training or mere current events. It should be a place that keeps the world at bay for a while until a student acquires some awareness that everything in the now does not include everything that is.

At the end of the spring semester in 2010, to continue, I went to the dentist. My lower gums were sore. One thing led to another. I was diagnosed for a cancer in the jaw. The operation took place on the June day that I was scheduled to give a lecture at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire. A good part of my lower jaw was removed and replaced by part of a bone from my leg. Needless to say, several friends could not resist commenting on Schall’s foot in the mouth.

It took about a year and dentures to return to reasonably normal shape. The university kindly gave me the fall semester off to recuperate, with pay. During this time, I wrote a book entitled Reasonable Pleasures, which Ignatius Press will publish in the Fall. During these five years, the Catholic University of America Press published The Mind That Is Catholic and St. Augustine’s Press published The Modern Age. Two other books, Remembering Belloc and The Classical Moment, are due out shortly.

I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity of writing regular columns – Schall on Chesterton, in Gilbert Magazine, and “On Letters and Essays” in the University Bookman.  During this period, most of the journals that I habitually wrote for, such as Crisis Magazine, the Catholic World Report, and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, went on-line. Robert Royal’s The Catholic Thing has become an especially good initiative that I have been pleased to write for most every other week.

Thus, Schall reaches eighty-five, not in the world’s greatest shape, but still breathing. His hearing is now magnified by electronic contraptions to a degree that makes him wonder how much he wants to hear. But he is still vain enough to admit that he does not want to miss anything. He was asked by his students to give “A Final Lecture at Georgetown,” which he did and called it “A Final Gladness.” It can be found on Youtube. It sums up many years of doing something that he always loved doing.


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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