Father James V. Schall, S.J., taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for more than five decades. He continues to be one of our nation’s most prolific writers on life’s most important questions. In 2012 he retired from university life and now lives in the Jesuit community in Los Gatos, California. This year he turned ninety. Cana Academy is grateful and honored that Father Schall agreed to an interview with our president, Andrew Zwerneman.
AZ: Let’s start with a question about the integration of liberal studies. John Paul II, for one, thought that scientific insights could be useful to theology and vice versa, even though he did not envision disciplinary unity between them. I especially have in mind his letter to the director of the Vatican observatory in 1988. How integrated should a liberal arts curriculum be?
JVS: A liberal education is about the things that are worthwhile in themselves, for their own sakes. Some things are worth knowing just because they have no utilitarian purpose. The old liberal arts curricula used to include courses in science, history, the classics, literature, poetry, and drama. This background would include music, opera, painting, and the theater. Pretty soon it becomes clear that much is there to be known. A liberal education is a lifetime enterprise. We may not come across, say, Samuel Johnson or G. K. Chesterton until we are late in years. Reading such writers at any age can suddenly awaken us to how much we have missed.
If someone tells us that Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, or Newman is not worth studying, know that the giver of such advice does not have a clue about the essence of liberal education. While it is probably true that we can find something worthwhile in most any book or writer, the fact is that some writers and some books are better than others.
One might say that liberal education is, in part, the formation of a series of habits that discipline our time and remind us to examine the worthwhileness of what we read. A liberal education includes setting aside regular periods of time in which we can read and reflect on what is important in human knowing and living. It usually includes friends who do the same.
AZ: Integration, then, has largely to do with anthropology: we study the things that are most important to our humanity. What if we press the questioning to the matter of what we can know? Aristotle pointed out that different sciences produce differing degrees of certitude. Ethics and politics usually deal with things that are true for the most part. The exact sciences, with mathematical and quantitative roots, can expect greater certitude. As Maritain argued, should not our human interests include them all?
JVS: Yes, any science can only conclude to the truths that the methods of the science allow. Some things cannot be otherwise, but other things can be. We need to know the limits of methods. We need to realize that we also have some direct insight into things. A scientific education is not a liberal education, but a liberal education includes knowing something basic about what the sciences are about, what they can and cannot demonstrate.
In the classic sense, a liberal education was a preparation for and an introduction to a free life. Here the word “free life” did not mean a life allowing us to do whatever we wanted to do. This latter view is the one that is now more prevalent. Such a life is really more related to license than to education, which always has a sense of gravity, of awareness that an order exists in things, including in human things.
In Aristotle’s sense, to live a “free” life meant to rule oneself so that he was prepared to do noble things and to know what was true. This life was characterized by the virtues, moral, intellectual, and later Christian virtues. We can speak of “life-time” education, but this never-ending educational prospect can be misleading. A liberal education had more the sense of a master-craftsman, of someone who has learned the skills necessary to produce a fine work. Once this capacity has been perfected, the master craftsman goes on to make many lovely things because he has the trained capacity to do so.
In like manner, a liberally educated man is one who has spent enough time acquiring the moral virtues to be able also to approach the intellectual virtues. A “liberal life” in the classical sense meant that, once educated, a person had sufficient background to be wise, to know how things in general fit together, how to judge what was true and what was not.
AZ: Some practitioners of classical education do not devote much space to the study of history. What is your mind on that? What is the place of history in a liberal education? What is the best way to think about history in the context of a classical education?
JVS: We are beings born in a given time and place. We are the “mortals,” that is, finite beings who know that they will die. One way to find out what it is to be a human being is to know and look at the record of how those before us have lived. History is the story of our lives and what we thought about them, did with them.
A liberal education includes much attention to history because it wants to know how men actually lived and acted. There is not yet a “history” of those who will come after us in time. We can imagine what might follow, but we cannot meet some future author who will explain what he did during his brief time in this world.
Our knowledge of history and what it is comes from the Bible, from Herodotus and Thucydides, from Tacitus and Augustine. With Hegel and others we hear that history is philosophy, or even the unfolding of the march of God through the world. Our libraries are now full of “histories of” books—The History of the Incas, the History of the Confederacy, the History of China, the History of Science, the History of Arms, the History of the Dominican Order, and Machiavelli’s History of Florence. History is the endeavor to account for what goes on in human lives during the time given to each.
Attempts to write the History of the World run up against the massive amount of evidence we have. The millions of volumes in the Library of Congress and other libraries is amazing. We now have electronic sources that make almost any fact or date available to us. History will tell us what man did and sometimes why he did it. What it will not tell us is who we are and why we exist. For this latter we need, in addition, philosophy and theology, science and exploration.
One of the big temptations of a liberal arts education is to identify itself with the “great books.” Just reading presumably “great books” in chronological order is not in itself a liberal education. As many have pointed out, the great books often contradict each other. Students of great books’ programs often come out as skeptics without themselves having reflected on the philosophy of what is, the philosophy of being. Gilson once remarked: “Philosophy is not the history of philosophy.”
The truth of history is often a difficult thing to come by because truth itself is difficult to come by. Both are necessary to each other. By studying history, as Chesterton once wrote, we look backwards to actual people who lived and spoke in this actual world. They had flesh and blood. If human nature were just a blank future with no record of how any inhabitants of this world actually lived, we could only speculate on what to expect of human nature. If we know our history, we have some very good grounds wherein we can know of the ills and greatness, the ordinariness of the different members of our human race.
AZ: You spoke earlier about thinking of the liberal arts away from matters of utility. What about thinking of them in relation to the longest perspective—eternity? Does a liberal education prepare us for eternal life? The resurrection from the dead is a central doctrine of the faith, the reality in Christ’s life that confirms his mission among us. Christian art and literature seem to concern themselves with these issues more than regular educational courses are willing to investigate. Does education prepare us for more human activity than contemplation and worship?
JVS: This is a very perceptive question. No existing human person is created for this mortal life alone. Rather each of us is created to choose, freely, the eternal life offered to us. Whether we choose to accept or reject this invitation is the main drama of cosmic existence. In a real way, the world exists in order that such a choice might be possible.
The relation between the Greek idea of an immortal soul and the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the body has always fascinated me. The two teachings are related to each other. Plato seemed to make us mostly soul. But if we read Aristotle, it was quite clear that the human person is not complete without the two related to each other in one being. What seemed perplexing to both Plato and Aristotle was the evident impossibility of any permanent relation of body and soul.
Christian revelation entered our contemplative considerations at this point. The resurrection of the body, a revealed truth through Christ, is in fact the answer to the incompleteness of philosophy as experienced by the Greeks. It is the sign that the world is not incoherent, a concern of Plato, who was afraid that without the immortality of the soul, all crimes would not be punished and all good acts not rewarded. In this sense, the resurrection of the body is an offshoot of political philosophy.
We can do many things to approach the issue of what our final destiny is to be like. Josef Pieper’s book, The End of Time, is probably the best way to see what is at issue. But C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy and his Narnia stories, along with Tolkien, will give us the best way to wonder about these things. And I should also mention the fundamental place of Aquinas in any liberal education. One perhaps should begin with Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. What Aquinas does best is put things together. This concern of what-belongs-to-what-and-why? is the trademark of anyone who knows Aquinas. He has the advantage of having at his disposal both the reaches of reason and the truths of revelation to work with. Most modern liberal education thinks that it can explain the essential things by philosophy or theology alone. It cannot happen.
AZ: Thank you, Father Schall.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy. Father James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University and continues to be one of our nation’s most prolific writers on life’s most important questions.
Image of Father Schall courtesy of Georgetown University. Header image of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Augustine created by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman using images by Walter Maderbacher (used under CC BY-SA 3.0) and Didier Descouens (used under CC BY-SA 4.0).