The Docile Visionary, James V. Schall, SJ

Observations on the life and thought of a remarkable priest, philosopher, professor, and author on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

Several years ago I began a review of The Modern Age (St. Augustine’s Press, 2011) by noting the error of the author, Fr. James Schall, in citing Psalm 90, verse 10’s estimate of the standard human age as “four score years and ten” rather than “three score and ten, four score if our strength endure.” Three score and ten is 70, four score is 80. I sympathized with Fr. Schall’s confusion, given that at the time of publication he was 83 and still strolling the aisles of Georgetown University to quiz undergraduates on what precisely Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, or Tocqueville meant by this or that passage, while using his spare time to write essays in dozens of journals and books on the difficulties of faith and reason, the oddities of political philosophy’s autonomy and yet dependence on divine revelation, and the “strange coherences of Catholicism” (as he subtitled another book). “Of the making of many books there is no end,” we read in Ecclesiastes, and we might add to that, “certainly not in the lifetime of Schall.”  

By the time you read this essay, Fr. Schall (b. January 28, 1928) will be turning 89, heading toward what his younger, 83-year-old self mistakenly assumed the biblically allotted norm. Of course he did slow down, a bit, retiring in 2012 from his 58-year teaching career, which began with 14 years in the faculty of social sciences at the Gregorian University in Rome, for seven of which he taught fall semester in the government department at the University of San Francisco. He spent his last 35 years as a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, where he was thrice awarded by the senior class with the Edward G. Bunn, SJ Award for Faculty Excellence, and moonlighted with stints as a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, National Council of Humanities, and National Endowment for the Humanities. 

His “retirement” to Los Gatos, California, site of his Jesuit novitiate over six decades earlier, richly deserves ironic scare quotes. All-knowing Wikipedia can’t even keep up with his post-retirement publications, limited not merely to regular columns in The Catholic Thing, Gilbert, Catholic World Report, and The University Bookman and countless venues that had not counted on him sending them something, but received them anyway. With over 30 books under his belt at retirement, Schall’s books just since 2012 include Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading (CUA Press, 2013), Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius, 2013), The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and its Pleasures (St. Augustine’s, 2014), Remembering Belloc (St. Augustine’s, 2014), On Christians and Prosperity (Acton, 2015), and the book sitting next to me, Docilitas: On Being Taught (St. Augustine’s, 2016). As I write, St. Augustine’s lists as forthcoming At a Breezy Time of Day: Selected Schall Interviews on Just About Everything, On the Principles of Taxing Beer, and The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Man. As to what manuscripts are sitting on other publisher’s desks at the moment, only God and Fr. Schall know. If he has moved on to the life of a rocking chair, the rocking chair sits in a library very close to the plug-in for his laptop. 

While it is common in the lives of people celebrated for great achievements—whether of holiness, artistry, or scholarship—to look back and see hints of what was to come, it is nice to know that an undistinguished childhood does not rule out a very distinguished adulthood. The child might be father of the man, but the apple can sometimes fall a bit farther from the tree. In an interview I did with him in 2005 after a conference lecture, Schall recalled growing up in small-town Iowa (he was born in the delightfully named town of Pocahontas) in the 1930s and 40s: “I knew I could read, but we were too busy playing ball and all the rest. As far as children’s literature . . . I didn’t get much of it.”1 After a desultory semester at Santa Clara University he enlisted in the army in 1946. Like many a young man, Schall found that soldiering involved a lot more hurrying-up-to-wait than he had anticipated. It was during this time that he discovered the joy of the library set up on his post, a joy tempered by bemusement at the offerings: “I was standing in the library looking at all these books, and I realized I didn’t know what to read. Did you start from left to right or go from A to Z or what?”

After his army stint, Schall went back to Santa Clara for another year and then entered the California Province of the Jesuits in 1948 with a hunger for education. He ended up receiving his BA and MA in philosophy from Gonzaga University, his MA in sacred theology from Santa Clara, and a PhD in political theory from Georgetown in 1960, all before being ordained a priest in 1964. From then on it was a life of consistent, thoughtful action and teaching, without the drastic markers of celebrity or ignominy. Explaining to Joan Frawley Desmond the secret of his productivity in an article marking his 2012 retirement, he said his “daily routine is exactly like it has been all my life: Get up; say Mass and [the Divine] Office; go to meals; shoot the breeze; read some more; do what I have to do; and go to bed.” While he never “went viral,” he made a life that was remarkable for the steady accumulation of articles, essays, and books produced, and, more importantly, sacraments dispensed, sermons and retreats preached, students taught, and truths and blessings pondered. “A long obedience in the same direction,” the Protestant spiritual writer Eugene Peterson’s definition of Christian discipleship, seems written with Fr. Schall in mind.

To simply list those accomplishments and that patterned form of life may make some think that the life of Schall has been, if not exciting, a kind of life of Riley. But the biblical teaching about discipleship is that the disciple is never greater than the master and that discipleship does not lift us up above earthly troubles. So it has been with Schall. He may be going on ninety, but he has been dying for many years. When I interviewed him in 2005 he had been receiving treatments for cancer for a year or so. A recurrence of cancer in 2010 caused him to have part of his jaw removed and replaced by a bone from his lower leg. Many years before he lost an eye due to a different disease. And of course as an academic and political philosopher he has lived to see difficult developments in both the academy and western political thought that have been troubling. “Beloved,” we read in the first Epistle of Peter, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). Fr. Schall has never been surprised at the disastrous or the ludicrous. George Weigel wrote of his dual mastery as teacher and spiritual director, explaining that “he is both because he is a man at peace with the absurdities of the world, which he knows to be part of a divine plan he doesn’t presume to grasp fully.”  

Schall’s career in political philosophy has been built on the very Catholic notion that the not-fully graspable divine plan, which includes death, is nevertheless at the heart of the political project. His Georgetown doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the famed German Catholic natural law theorist and émigré Heinrich Rommen, was on “Immortality and the Foundations of Political Theory.” The history of political thought began with the difficulty that mortality presents for a polis in search of justice:

I have always been struck by the fact that the immortality of the soul is a teaching that grew out of political philosophy, out of Plato’s wonderment: “Are all crimes properly punished and are all good deeds rewarded?” In one sense, the ancient city was itself founded to minister justice among the feuding tribes and individuals. A citizen was someone who lived in a polity that sought to see that justice was done. But it is quite clear that no human polity or court has ever managed to reward and punish everything that deserved it.

The questions of justice and of the highest end of humans, contemplation of the truth, were not answerable from within political philosophy itself. While Plato thought such contemplation possible only for a few, hence the smallness of his ideal polis, Aristotle’s emphasis on our gathering knowledge from sense experience meant that even non-philosophers could be part of the city and could have as their end the contemplation that goes well beyond political life. For Schall the problem with this outlook is that Aristotle could not identify how it is that more than a few ordinary people could actually find contemplative happiness. For Schall, Christian Revelation offers the answers to the problems laid out by Plato and Aristotle, giving the possibility of justice and a contemplative beatitude to ordinary human beings outside this life. It clarifies the end of man and also gives a way toward that beatitude, not giving the details of how to the political philosopher, but the vision of whither. In its doctrine of original sin it also gives limits to political philosophy by suggesting that moral evil is something that is endemic to human nature, not something that can be stamped out with political tools and technocratic means. Christianity’s ideal city is the city of God, where persons experience justice and contemplate the Lamb who was slain. For Schall, Augustine was a kind of realist who made clear that politics was a this-worldly check on sinful mankind and that even the best regimes could only provide the “tranquility of order.” For Augustine, political life was a necessary evil. It was left to St. Thomas to discover the positive, Aristotelian insight that nature and political life have their own dignity that is distinct and this-worldly, but ordered toward the “supernatural” end that is found in contemplation of and participation in the life of God.

Modern political theory, which has rejected the sensible limitations of classical theory and the clarifications offered by Christian revelation and thinkers like Augustine and Thomas, has too often been the foundation of political projects of a quasi-redemptive character that have attempted to bring transcendence to the earthly city without an acknowledgment of either the transcendent nature of man or his inherent frailty and the impossibility of truly eradicating evil in this life. The experiments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been designed to “immanentize the eschaton,” in Eric Voegelin’s famous phrase. While paradises have not been forthcoming, hells on earth have been created often enough. 

To be clear, Schall is not suggesting that Christian political thinking can only go back to the “Thirteenth, the greatest of centuries.” Schall does not propose reviving the institutional arrangements of the Christian Middle Ages, but instead reviving the spirit of medieval Christian political thought: “a way of thinking about human, social, and political life that takes into consideration what we know about human beings from unaided reason and divine revelation.” To know the fullness of Christian revelation about human beings—the glorious destiny of man as personal, social, and contemplative being, but also the limits of what is possible here on earth to make that happen—is to realize a truth “that leaves politics to be what it is, precisely non-redemptive. . . . To know this is the first step to an age that has shed from its public life the illusion that it decides the last things for all of the people, all of the time.” As Schall observes, too often that illusion has been at the heart of modern politics as a “substitute religion or metaphysics” giving us “covert ideological efforts to resolve what are essentially Christian ideas by man within this world.” A non-redemptive politics will be aware of the human end of contemplation of divine things but refrain from offering itself as the source or summit of those things.

To be a good citizen, therefore, is to be something more than a citizen. It is to be a human being open to being taught and open to receiving the heavenly vision, just as in politics, from both reason and revelation. For the follower of St. Thomas Aquinas, to receive the supernatural gift of contemplation can be prepared for by the purely natural contemplation of truth available everywhere. That is the point of education. And education is to be taken seriously but not with undue solemnity, as evidenced by the front cover of Another Sort of Learning, Schall’s most famous book in this line, which tells us its contents are “Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still at College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Books Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.” Here Schall addressed students and alumni of sundry educational institutions who felt that they were getting or had gotten “an education” but were not educated: that is, they had not been taught how to seek the truth of things deep down. 

Schall’s newest book, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, returns to this theme of learning to see the whole of things, so that we might see the highest of things. It is that Catholic vision of wholeness—for Schall it’s not just Athens and Jerusalem, but Rome as the place where the two meet—that Schall says is essential for any true education:  “One ought not to come to college to learn something, unless he comes first to learn everything. That is its real adventure. It is the only real justification for freeing ourselves for four or more years from the busy, un-leisured things that storm about us from every side and for which alone we are told, falsely, that we exist” (17).

Learning everything really does mean learning from every thing. The “docilitas” or teachability that is his theme is an openness to the real. “Education means,” he writes, “that we seek to know (and see and hear and taste and feel) what is.” And what is includes “myriads of particular things” that we encounter “whose ultimate cause of being we wonder about” (ibid.). Schall’s penchant for citation of Charlie Brown alongside Plato, facts about the 1937 World Series alongside details of the Big Bang, and pretty much anything seemingly insignificant alongside the recognized-as-significant follows through in this book as well. Any one of them can lead us to wonder about their causes all the way back to their ultimate cause.

While Schall has plenty of wisdom about the teacher in this volume (especially in the chapters “On Teaching” and “On Teaching and the Highest Good”), the focus on docility puts more emphasis on the responsibility of one who wants to learn. Schall’s introduction, “Knowledge is not ‘Owned,’” makes clear that while professors can pass on enthusiasm and a willingness to speak not merely of what they know or hypothesize, but of what they see and wonder about, the responsibility is on the student. For no teacher can give a student the “willingness to do the sometimes hard work of learning” (2). Only when the teacher and learner are looking closely at the same things, wondering and reasoning about them and even learning about themselves, can there be said to be any real education going on. Although he’s not striding through the classrooms anymore, one suspects that, going into his ninetieth year, Fr. James Schall is still teaching because he is still learning about the myriad things including himself. It is his continuing docility that enables him to be the visionary he is.

(This essay is adapted from the Preface to the Winter 2017 issue of Logos.)

About David Paul Deavel 17 Articles
David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).