By the time of his death on April 17, 2019, Fr. James Schall was widely renowned as a priest, teacher, and philosopher who defended the traditional liberal arts and introduced readers to some of the West’s greatest thinkers. For much of his life, he was a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, where he earned his doctorate in 1960. As the author of hundreds of essays and dozens of books, he was a prolific and impressive thinker — the kind that could teach you more about God, reality, and what it means to be human.
As George Weigel wrote upon Fr. Schall’s death, he was “an old-school Jesuit,” meaning that he was “the kind of Jesuit St. Ignatius Loyola imagined when he founded the Society of Jesus in the 16th century.” More fundamentally, he was “a man of rock-solid Catholic faith and a first-rate intellectual.”
I recently had the privilege of reading through Fr. James Schall’s 2008 book The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (ISI, 2008). This book reminds us that, as human beings, our minds are built to know the truth of things and to delight in knowing all that is. In the spirit of A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, Fr. Schall discusses in this book the ways that we can cultivate and approach the life of the mind. This includes the simple acts of seeing, hearing, making, and walking. Despite its deceptive title, this book is not just written for professors and those with doctoral degrees. It is instead written for almost everyone, especially the many ordinary lay Catholics who believe that study is an act of love and a way to seek Christ.
Within an essay “The Metaphysics of Walking,” found in The Life of the Mind, Fr. Schall argues that we should begin walking. He writes that we should quite literally go outside and walk around, especially around places where we have never been. This does not mean that we should only walk. Cars are fine too. Yet it does mean that we should more frequently walk on foot around the places that we want to see. A place, a city, a country — all of these are good places for a walk. The sounds, smells, and sights are all important. They assure us that a place is real and that we did not create it. Upon walking and seeing a place, we can then begin one of the great adventures of our existence, which is “not only to know that something besides ourselves exists, but to inquire what it means.” Fr. Schall suggests that we should walk in order to encounter what is. Or to put it another way, we should walk in order “to see.” There is a world outside of our own individual subjectivity, and that world is just as real as we are. As a result, we should never lose sight of the metaphysical need of the human being to walk this world — to see, touch, smell, and handle actual things.
In this essay, Fr. Schall discusses the significance of walking. At the same time, though, it is important to note the larger point he is trying to convey. In particular, Fr. Schall suggests in this essay that we return to the metaphysical realism of thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas. In the aftermath of Descartes, Fr. Schall writes that we have suffered from an epistemology that “often does not allow us to trust our own eyes.” As a result, “we see but we do not believe that what we see has its own existence.” It was Descartes who famously used methodic doubt as an epistemological tool to prove beyond certainty that “I exist.” In doing so, however, Descartes set into motion a subjectivism that would remain prominent throughout the modern world and would play a major role in the decline of Western philosophy itself. For Descartes, the “cogito” (I think) became the foundation of existence and a wedge was drawn between the mind and objective reality. Fr. Schall’s essay cautions against this view.
Instead, Fr. James Schall agrees with the philosophers and theologians of the Catholic intellectual tradition, especially thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, who held that each of us is real and that the world outside of our individual subjectivity is just as real as we are. As it is often said, nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. And what is taken in through the senses, actual things in the world, is knowable. Truth itself, after all, is defined as the conformity of the mind to reality, to what is real. Reality is actually out there, and we can see it, wonder at it, and discover the truth about it. As Fr. Schall reminds us, omne ens est verum — everything that is, is true. According to Fr. Schall and those within the Catholic intellectual tradition, there is no wedge between our mind and reality.
This is why Fr. Schall considers walking such a wonderful activity. It is a way of getting our minds in touch with reality. Getting out of our heads and walking is a way of seeing and encountering what is. Walking of this sort is something done for its own sake. It is not done for “exercise,” as good and important as exercise may be. It is “useless” in this sense, just as the liberal arts are “useless.” Walking to see is done for one reason and one reason alone: the delight of walking and seeing.
Philosophical ideas are often concretely embodied in literature. Ray Bradbury was neither a Catholic nor a Thomist, yet some of his writings reflect an intuitive grasp of the metaphysical realism of Thomas Aquinas and others. As such, the idea of walking to see is embodied in Bradbury’s short story “The Pedestrian.” The main character, Mr. Leonard Mead, would rather see the world around him than sit in the tomb of his ill-lit living room to watch the television. As a result, he often goes outside and walks. He does not walk for exercise.
Instead, to use the words of Fr. Schall, he walks so that he can remember that something is real and inquire about what it means. At one point, as he is walking, a police officer approaches him. The officer considers Mr. Mead’s walking a form of regressive behavior, as it is unclear to him why anybody would go out and walk when they have a television to watch. For the officer, the concept of seeing and experiencing actual things in the world does not make sense. Indeed, decades after this story was penned, there is almost no greater enemy to seeing what is than the act of escaping reality through the television, phone, and computer screen. The conversation between Mr. Mead and the officer goes as follows:
“What are you doing out?”
“Walking,” said Leonard Mead.
“Just walking,” he said simply, but his face felt cold.
“Walking, just walking, walking?”
“Walking where? For what?”
“Walking for air. Walking to see.”
Leonard Mead waited in the cold night.
“Just walking, Mr. Mead?”
“But you haven’t explained for what purpose.”
“I explained; for air, and to see, and just to walk.”
“Have you done this often?”
“Every night for years.”
Mr. Mead walks for air. He walks to see.
Unfortunately, too many of us in the modern world have been dulled and distracted from reality. Many of us have forgotten the wonder, the amazement that something actually exists and that we can know it.
Fr. Schall, however, can be remembered for laboring to reawaken this wonder and amazement. In order to live truly human lives, he reminds us, we must accept the necessity “of actually seeing and touching things, of allowing things actually to crash into our world.” After all, we as human beings have the capacity to know all that is. As such, those of us who feel dulled and distracted would do well to walk down the paths that help us recover in ourselves the human desire to know.
“Seeing, handling, sailing, thinking, touching, dining, traveling, and, yes, walking” — Fr. Schall reminds us that these are some of the paths that lead us to what is.
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