The Nature of Political Philosophy and other Studies and Commentaries
By James V. Schall, S.J. Edited by William McCormick.
The Catholic University of America Press, 2022.
Paperback, 240 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by David Beer.

Fr. James Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) was a Jesuit of the old-school, having entered into the Society of Jesus in 1948. Generations of Georgetown University students like me regarded him as a quintessential feature of our education and the birth or development of the life of the mind. I read his brief A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning (ISI, 2000) as a high school student and was captivated. As students we could see that his life was an example of faithfulness and fortitude, particularly in his later years as he endured various health challenges. I remember him continuing to teach even while going through chemotherapy, and the only time he ever ended class a few minutes early, he dismissed the class before calmly asking me to get him to the emergency room. 

One of the consolations since his death is that Schall’s writings remain with us. Along with the books his admirers and students have read and re-read over the long years since his passing, there have also appeared several new editions or reprints of works published years ago as well as new collections of essays that first appeared in diverse sources and publications. The Nature of Political Philosophy and other Studies and Commentaries (CUA, 2022) is one such new collection of essays almost all of which were previously published but gathered here and organized around the title’s theme. The unifying essence of this volume is an assurance that this is not a collection of disparate and occasional writings, though Fr. Schall must certainly rank among the greatest of contemporary Catholic writers of occasional essays.  This volume collects essays where Schall has reflected on questions of political philosophy that were at the very heart of his vocation as a Catholic teacher. 

For academic readers or those looking for a systematic treatment of political philosophy, this volume will supplement rather than replace the works Fr. Schall published on this topic in his lifetime. I think particularly of Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (LSU, 1987) or At the Limits of Political Philosophy (CUA, 1998). For those generally familiar with Fr. Schall’s many books, The Nature of Political Philosophy is structurally similar to his Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington, 2004) or Political Philosophy and Revelation (CUA, 2013). 

This volume does not feature the same comprehensiveness as some prior works, but the opening “Autobiographical Memoir” and first seven chapters provide an excellent overview of Schall’s approach to the subject. Other essays in the book are typical products of Schall’s mind, which is to say that they are brilliant gems that delight and inspire. Among the important essays, I would also highlight chapter fourteen on “Luther and Political Philosophy: The Rise of Autonomous Man,” as an older essay of which many readers may not have been previously aware. 

Fr. Schall’s unique voice in political philosophy was grounded in his constant reminder that, “Political philosophy begins with the trials of Socrates and Christ – that is, with the presence before the laws of an existing state of the philosopher or prophet for being what he claimed to be.” Schall always insisted political philosophy was about keeping the philosopher alive, but he did not advocate for hiding away in abstract discussions or developing esoteric teachings. He openly invited students to read the great works of the western tradition and see how philosophy connected to our present concerns, even, and perhaps most importantly, for his many students who would go into public service and not academia. As he notes, “By adding the word ‘political’ to the word ‘philosophy,’ we do not intend to change the nature of either politics or philosophy. We can say that ‘politics’ is a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry. Likewise, we can say that the politician needs to know what intelligence and mind are about lest he misunderstand the nature and good of the citizens who are to be ruled and guided to the many ends to which they are open.” 

As a Christian, Fr. Schall was also keenly sensitive to what he called the “limits of political philosophy,” how human life lived in community opened up questions that the human mind on its own resources is unable to finally answer. “Political philosophy is not a substitute for philosophy or revelation. What it does is explain to the politician why certain transcendent questions must be faced for the good of the polity itself, even though they are not as such political questions. But they are pertinent to every citizen and will eventually destroy any polity if they are not properly addressed.” It is therefore self-defeating tyranny to attempt “the subsumption of philosophy into a politics that allows no purpose but itself.” Against such closure, Fr. Schall was a persistent voice advocating against a secular impulse to ignore matters connected with transcendence. He writes, “Openness to questions that cannot be answered by human philosophy or politics is the indirect reason why revelation is legitimately related to these two areas of human life. Politics awaits the City of God. Philosophy awaits the encounter with the Logos.”

While the coming years may continue to bring other useful collections or compendiums of Schall’s essays and printed columns, there is one area where his absence of authorial or editorial oversight has certainly deprived us, and the present volume is no exception, namely: subtitles. As a very minor critique of this work, I think a great opportunity was missed with this volume’s subtitle. Fr. Schall was known for his fondness for subtitles that ranged from unique – “From ‘Brilliant Errors’ to Things of Uncommon Importance”—to the charmingly outlandish—“Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in 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 Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.” These little details showed not only the unique calling of Fr. Schall as a man of literature and letters, but also of his delightful sense of humor and wit. While there may be some resistance to the idea of editors being overly creative in titling (or in this case subtitling) a volume which they themselves have not written, I think that future editors should be inspired by the overall tenor of Schall’s writings to undertake some proper attempt at what he would have imagined. Just as Fr. Schall almost invariably would begin a book or essay with one or more epigraphs, and it would be inappropriate for a collection of his essays to not continue this approach, so too should future editors be encouraged to select charming and delightful phrases out of his included essays to serve as a subtitle with which to convey something of the attitude of Fr. Schall’s delightful mind.  

David Beer is Associate Professor of Political Science at Malone University.

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