RIP James V. Schall, S. J.

By Thomas M. Johnson, Jr.

At a Knights of Columbus meeting my freshman year at Georgetown University, a fellow student gave me one piece of advice: Major in Fr. Schall. Take as many of his classes as you can. All seven if possible. Intrigued, I asked, What does he teach? He answered simply: Truth. This elicited a bewildered response, unwittingly echoing the words of Pilate to Christ: What is Truth?

James V. Schall, S.J.—the erudite political philosopher, commentator, and professor who died last week at the age of ninety-one—devoted his life to exploring that question. More precisely, he sought to awaken his students’ souls to the possibility of knowing unchanging truth, the charm of studying the highest things, the joy of discovering “What Is.” When Pilate asks Christ about truth, we hear the skeptical sneer of the politician. He is narrowly focused on practical concerns, weighing how to deal with a potential threat to Rome’s social order and his own ambition. But could Pilate’s words also reflect the universal human desire for meaning that transcends the merely expedient, seeks to understand the nature of existence, and even longs for encounter and dialogue with the Word of God personified? Confronted with a conflict between truth and convenience, which would he choose?

Fr. Schall spent his ministry opening students to this same choice in their own lives. As moldable undergraduate clay, they were still “potential philosophers,” potential truth-seekers, even if they imagined themselves future politicians. In his class on Plato, Schall lingered on the character of Callicles, the acclaimed Athenian orator, from the Gorgias. Callicles admires Socrates and studied philosophy in his youth, but cast it aside in adulthood like a tattered plaything, unconducive to achieving wealth and distinction. When pressed by Socrates on the need for justice to instruct the practice of rhetoric, Callicles ultimately abandons the dialogue. Callicles chooses not to confront the truth, because it might require him to change his way of life, to renounce pleasure, power, or prestige. The truth makes demands on us; it convicts as well as charms. For this reason, as Schall explores in his Limits of Political Philosophy, regimes opt to preserve the existing social order by putting the philosopher to death (as occurred with Socrates and Christ) or at least rendering philosophy harmless.

The answer, for Schall, was not to abandon the polis; indeed, the state’s corruption makes the political project even more urgent. But Schall wanted his students to understand that reforming government did not simply mean pursuing a law degree or higher office as if these were ends in themselves. St. Ignatius, the founder of Schall’s Jesuit Order, warned against those who “first want to have benefices, and then to serve God in them,” and thus “want God to come straight to their disordered tendencies.” Rather, the cure to the state’s disorder is ordering one’s own soul. Only then, through the practice of virtue, can healthy citizens develop, leading organically to a healthy family, a healthy community, a healthy Republic. Only then can public service become a means to further the common good, rather than a means to pad a resume.

Rejecting the useful or expedient in exchange for the eternal and true also means cultivating those things that are “useless”—those distinctly human activities like singing, dancing, playing, and literature. As Schall describes in his Unseriousness of Human Affairs, these endeavors awaken us to the existence of things that are intrinsically valuable, not merely functional, and can thus lead us to see the inherent worth of philosophy—what Socrates considered the supreme art. Indeed, the poets and playwrights can render their service to philosophy by making it charming to the youth, helping it break through the din of pop culture.

Fr. Schall’s classes were unerringly charming. He welcomed students’ parents in class, and always asked them the same trivia on the subject of the day: “What year did [Plato, Aristotle, Augustine] die?”, eliciting laughter when they came prepared with the answer. (My mother and I did not anticipate the follow-up: On what continent was Augustine born?) He delighted in assigning papers on obscure topics. “Mr. Johnson, write a paper on David Knowles’s contribution to Essays in Honour of Sir Herbert Butterfield.” “Write an essay on Hannah Arendt’s doctoral dissertation on Augustine. Now, it might not be available in English.” (Luckily, you could change topics.) He shared with us his “Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found,” as he subtitled his Another Sort of Learning, knowing our lives are finite and that we needed direction on what to spend our limited time reading.

I happily thought to write him last fall, after returning from a trip to Greece. I had retraced some of Socrates’s steps, including his descent to the Piraeus seaport at the start of the Republic, the sojourn of the philosopher into the city. Schall graciously replied, remarking that he had never made it to Greece, but “of course I never made it to Greenland or Latvia either,” and “heaven must in part mean seeing what you missed.” The philosopher does not need to visit Greece to converse with Greek philosophers. Inside each person, regardless of birthplace or time in history, is a soul capable of the same appeal to reason and naturally ordered to the good. As Fr. Schall wrote at the end of his “Death of Plato,” “All true philosophers, when they die, die in the same city.”

Until we meet him again in the Eternal City and see with him the Truth entire—what we missed on Earth—we can honor Fr. Schall here and now by continuing the Socratic dialogue. Plato’s Socrates converses mainly with the young because adults have hardened in their choices. But if God is merciful, hearts can never harden beyond repair. We are called to conversion throughout our lives, constantly forced to confront the choice between doing what is easy and what is right. Will we choose the expedient or will we seek the good for its own sake? Through decades of educating the young, Fr. Schall consistently chose the latter. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.  

Thomas M. Johnson, Jr., is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter at @TomMJohnsonJr.