Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813221540
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2013
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 997,635
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.84 (d)

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Political Philosophy and Revelation



The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2154-0


Books That Are "Great"—Books That Are "True"

The Good Shepherd (school) and Pigeonville College were trying to be the world of the past. The university was trying to be the world of the future, and maybe it has had a good deal to do with the world as has turned out to be, but this has not been as big an improvement as the university expected. The university thought of itself as a place of freedom for thought and study and experiment, and maybe it was, in a way. But it was an island too, a floating or a flying island. It was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.


The study of philosophy is not directed toward discovering what men may have thought but toward knowing what is true.


The scholastic tradition was intended to be spoken out loud as I have insisted earlier. These two worlds cannot be lumped together under the rubric of "Great Books." Great Books fanaticism, once again, ignores the audience and in so doing reveals its parochialism, its innocence toward history. We no longer live in a book-dominated culture; to treat our students as though we did is to violate their very psychic structure. Today we enter a new kind of Middle Ages, but Great Books people still absent-mindedly behave as though they were living in the eighteenth or nineteenth century."



The first thing that I want to establish in this book is that I am concerned with the truth. I will approach this topic delicately through a lecture that I gave to students in a small college in North Carolina. It catches, I think, the spirit of what this book is about; namely, that revelation addresses itself to the reason, that reason is not just thinking or talking but distinguishing between this and that, between what is true and what is not. Ultimately, we need to think for ourselves, but thinking for ourselves does not presume to make truth to be whatever we want it to be, but what we discover it to be. Error is quite possible. Indeed, any knowledge of truth leaves behind it a long train of errors and misjudgments. Nothing is essentially wrong with this fact. Truth is only firm when we also know what is not true and why it is not.

It is not compassion to say that error is true. It is, in fact, a kindness to say that what is false is false. This affirmation goes against the tenor of our times, which thinks that truth and the claim to truth are rooted in arrogance. Yet, those who maintain no truth can in principle be found still maintain that that negative affirmation is the truth. Not only is it difficult to maintain that there is no truth, but impossible to deny it without affirming it.

Let me begin with some autobiography. For those who know me, they will attest that I often, from out of nowhere, suggest to them books or essays to read. Read Dorothy Sayers's "Lost Tools of Learning"! Read The Habit of Being! Read Hans Urs von Balthasar's "A Résumé of My Thought"! Read the Path to Rome. Read Ratzinger. Read Sokolowski. Off-handedly, I will affirm that you can probably save your soul and your mind by reading only three books—Josef Pieper—an Anthology, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and Kreeft's Philosophy of Tolkien. Do I expect that whomsoever I am talking with will immediately drop his life duties and read Schall's suggestions? Probably not, but it is still worthwhile suggesting them.

In a number of my books, I include a list of twenty or twenty-five books to "keep sane by," or books "that tell the truth," or books that "awaken the mind." These are never lists of what are ordinarily called "great books," though, in another way, I think they are "great," if you grant that a book that keeps you sane, wakes you up, or tells you the truth is something you have been looking for all your life. It has long been my contention that someone could go to the best (or worst) of the universities, read the "greatest" of books assigned or required there, listen to the most famous professors, either online or in person, and still never come close to being incited by that drive to know what is that lies at the heart of our personal existence.

I frankly envy you students here at Belmont Abbey College, since all you need to do to come in contact with the highest things is simply to go and chat with your Academic Vice-President for three minutes, which, alas, is about all the time that she has left over from her daily duties. Ask Carson Daly about fairy tales, mysticism, Ireland, Mt. Holyoke, horses, the speech of Parisian women, David Jones, Houston, the Blessed Virgin, science, her favorite poems, our last end, or just about anything else a body can think of. You will be, as I have often been, amazed and indeed amused. She is herself a "liberal education." And what is so good about Carson Daly is that she has a twin sister who can cover the same route just as well as she can and in French, not that Carson does not also know French.

I give a short informal subtitle to my book Another Sort of Learning, a book that tells you much of what I want to speak about here. My short subtitle, in lieu of the much longer one on the book itself, is: "How to Get an Education Even While You Are Still in College." Think about it. I usually add "in college or anywhere else," since I think the country and the world are both full of people who realize that they really did not learn many of the important things as a result of their formal education. I do not think that knowing, or better learning to know, is painless. I do think it becomes a delight, sometimes immediately, when we read the first book or essay that we know tells us the truth.

What I do think, then, is that once we realize that "things exist and we can know them," to use Gilson's memorable phrase, we are on our way. In my experience, what usually sets someone off in this pursuit is a book read, one usually encountered by chance in some odd hour or out-of-the-way place. The book indeed can be Plato or Aristotle, and we always go back, or more likely, go forward to them, once we begin. But in saying these things, we are reminded that philosophy is not reading a book. Philosophy is closer to conversing than to reading, as the third citation at the beginning of this chapter intimates.

But there are books that, in their very reading, teach us to philosophize. And to philosophize is simply to know the truth of what is and know that we know. Philosophy's method is, as Msgr. Sokolowski says, to make distinctions and to delight in making them. What we find, I think, on reading such a book or essay as I have in mind, say Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Benedict's "Regensburg Lecture," or C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces, is that we simply cannot contain ourselves. We want to tell someone about what we read, as if it is too great for us to keep to ourselves, which it is. This is why reading leads to conversation by its inner impulse. The best thing you can do for a boy, Samuel Johnson says in Boswell's biography, is to teach him to read. This will give him the whole world to talk about. Soon enough he will have to judge, of what he reads, what is true and what is not.

We need to attend to one further thing. This one thing is something that I learned, I think, from Aristotle. The adventure of learning is also an adventure in the morality of how we are living, of how we choose to live our lives. We cannot deceive ourselves with theoretic opinions that we are not responsible for ourselves. The Aristotelian distinction between practical and theoretical intellect is a most important one. But it does not tell us that we have two intellects. We have but one mind that we did not give ourselves and know that we did not. We can use it in two ways: (1) to know how and what things are, and (2) to know how to live and how to make, be it tables or symphonies. The first is the sphere of wisdom, first principles, and science; the latter is the arena of ethics, politics, rhetoric, craft, and art. We should seek to know, as I have put it in the title of a book, from Aquinas, "the order of things." This is our delight.


Johns Hopkins University, the Catholic University of America, and Clark University in Massachusetts were originally founded in the latter part of the nineteenth century as American models of German "research" universities. They were conceived, perhaps, as a higher form of university being. The German universities did arise, however, out of a definite philosophical presupposition, namely, that truth was the result of "research," of modern science. What was important was the "method" by which a thing was known. But a "method" can only reveal what the method is designed to reveal. Reality is always larger than any human method to discover it. No one who does not know this is safe from ideology voluntarily imposed on his own soul.

The Catholic University of America's concept of research not only understood that something was there to discover, but that revelation itself fell into the sphere of our receiving. We did not make either the gods or nature. Scientific research in the modern sense is not the only way of knowing, however valuable it is in itself. It can only know what its methods allow it. Not all methods presuppose that everything is matter or quantity. These higher ways of knowing also belong in universities, which are relatively empty without them. They "research" everything but the highest things.

The English universities that go back to the medieval founding of universities had a different idea, that of the "liberal arts." This notion even goes back to Aristotle and Plato. Something was "liberal" when it freed us to be what we are, even in spite of ourselves. "Liberal" arts were concerned with what living well means. There were things for their own sakes that each person was eager to pursue, if he would. He followed this path, to be sure, with the help of the great thinkers, including the religious thinkers. But the emphasis was on understanding the things that are.

No human person, not even Shakespeare, created the world or what was important (or unimportant) in it. But most of us wanted, out of a spirit of wonder, to find out what life, including our own, was about. We thought it worth our while to seek to find out. This drive pointed to a world of speech and conversation. None of us have enough experience in our own lives to know what the range of human life is about. This is why, as C. S. Lewis also said, that we are given books so that we can know more lives than our own. We do this vicariously, by the reading of them.

A friend once gave me a copy of Waugh's A Handful of Dust, a title that probably comes from Genesis through T. S. Eliot. The novel was about a rather dysfunctional English aristocratic family. The only child dies in a hunting accident. The couple breaks up. The husband goes on a scientific expedition to South America with a German scientist. In the course of things, they wend their way from Guyana to the Amazon. Everyone leaves or is killed except the Englishman. He stumbles on a very remote outpost in which there was a man who saved him from the jungle. The man was peculiar. The only thing he had was the complete works of Dickens, which he wanted read out loud to him over and over again. It became the function of the Englishman to read Dickens day after day for a few hours.

At first, the Englishman enjoyed rereading Bleak House and Pickwick. But he began to think that he should try to get back to England. It was then that he discovered that he was in prison. The Guyanan gentleman had a gun. He had evidently killed a previous reader who tried to escape. One night, the Englishman was deliberately drugged. When he came to, he found that three Englishmen had come to the outpost to find him. But the Guyanan Dickens listener did not tell them where he was. The searchers returned to England to report that the man was dead. In the meantime the only future that the captive Englishman had to look forward to was death and the endless rereading of Dickens to his jailor. This ending is ironic to the enterprise of reading great books, to be sure.

Not too long ago, I gave a lecture at a parish in Arlington, Virginia. I told this Waugh story. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from a gentleman who heard the lecture. He sent me a copy of a chapter of a book entitled Great Fishing Stories. The story was about a man who was a great fly fisherman. The man died and went to heaven. When he got there, St. Peter had to look over his record. He saw that he was an avid fisherman. He asked him what he wanted to do in heaven. The man told him that he wanted always to fish in a perfect trout stream; that would be his idea of heaven. Peter thought that could be arranged.

So Peter provided the best fly fishing equipment. The man found himself by a very lovely trout stream. He saw a trout rising. He grabbed is rod and cast out. Sure enough he had a strike and brought in a very plump three pound Dolly Varden. The man thought, "Well, this is terrific." Just as he started to leave, he saw another trout rising in the same spot. He cast again. Bingo, another beauty. As he left again, he noticed a third ripple. Yet another fine trout was reeled in. The man began to be bored with this same spot so he began to move on. Peter asked him where he was going. The man suddenly found out that he could not go anywhere else in his own chosen heaven. The man said to Peter, "I got what I asked for but it is not heaven, it's more like hell." Peter said, "That's right; hell is where you are."

I tell you these stories only to explain to you what Schall learned one summer from his own reading. Hell is getting want you want over and over again, but nothing else. Heaven is not just what you want, but what God offers to you, the scope of which you only begin to imagine. This is, in fact, a rather rough summary of what the Book of Genesis is about. I would tell you also of the western story that I once read. It took place in Dodge City about a fighter with the symbolic name Mr. Littlejohn. Its essence was that if a man did a cowardly thing to the woman he loved, he would spend the rest of his life seeking to do something brave that would save her. This too is right out of Aristotle.


The classic Jesuit schools, those that followed the Ratio Studiorum, looked overall to eloquence, to the ability to speak and know how to deal with the world. They could not do this unless they first knew what the world was intended to be. This curriculum was much influenced by Aristotle's Rhetoric and Cicero's De Oratore. It was not enough to know. One had to be able to speak, to convince, and to persuade. Students were to understand that knowledge was not effective if it could not be spoken or written well. Truth not only existed in judgment, but in knowing how to make this judgment persuasive in terms of words and speech, this without being mere sophists. There is a world of words as well as a world of things. Both worlds are intimately related. Following the norms of liberal arts education itself that knew both of action that was right and wrong, noble and ignoble, classic Jesuit education was aware of the effects on truth and action when our souls were formed by vices, pride, and vanity.

Excerpted from Political Philosophy and Revelation by JAMES V. SCHALL. Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction....................     ix     

PART I. The Principle of All Reality....................          

1. Books That Are "Great"—Books That Are "True"....................     3     

2. On Rereading the Apology of Socrates....................     15     

3. The Purpose of Creation....................     24     

PART II. On Something or Other Really Existing....................          

4. On the Things That Depend on Philosophy....................     33     

5. On the Conquest of Human Nature: Ancients, Moderns—Medievals, Futures...     47     

6. Why Political Philosophy Is Not a Natural Science....................     57     

PART III. Sufficient Understanding to See the Truth....................          

7. The Rational Animal....................     75     

8. Liberal Education—"Missing Many Allusions": On Why Not to Study the
Bible and the Classics....................     83     

9. On Praise and Celebration....................     93     

PART IV. On Finding a Natural Explanation for Mysteries....................          

10. Thomism and Atheism....................     107     

11. The Definitive Kingdom....................     118     

12. A Roman Catholic Reading of Plato's Gorgias....................     132     

PART V. At the Calling of All Nations....................          

13. Ratzinger on the Modern Mind....................     151     

14. From Cambridge to Regensburg: On Intellectual Courage..................     164     

15. "Intellectual Charity"....................     178     

PART VI. Much That Is Fair....................          

16. "Plato's Charm": On the "Audience" of Political Philosophy.............     189     

17. On That by Which Human Things Are Measured....................     203     

18. On the "Right" to Be Born....................     217     

PART VII. On Following the Pull of the Divine Nous....................          

19. On Political Philosophy and the Understanding of Things: Reflections
on Fifty Years of Writing....................     227     

20. Revelation and Political Philosophy: On Locating the Best City.........     240     

21. "A Plan of Surpassing Beauty"....................     253     

Conclusion: What Is "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy"?.................     265     

Bibliography....................     273     

Index....................     279     

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