On the Mystery of Teachers I Have Never Met

JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.

My father, I believe, danced well, a talent that quite pleased the family.

“Things are known in two ways; for some are known to us, some known unconditionally. Presumably, then, the origin we should begin from is what is known to us. This is why we need to have been brought up in fine habits, if we are to be adequate students of what is the fine and just, and of political questions generally. For the origin we begin from is the belief that something is true, and if this is apparent enough to us, we will not, at this stage, need the reason why it is true in addition; and if we have this good upbringing, we have the origins to begin from, or can easily acquire them. Someone who neither has them nor can acquire them should listen to Hesiod: ‘He who understands everything himself is best of all; he is noble also who listens to one who has spoken well; but he who neither understands in himself nor takes to heart what he hears from another is a useless man.’”

— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1095b3-10 (Irwin).

I

In The Apology, Socrates brought up the question of whether he was paid for being a teacher, like the Sophists, who, when they came to town, were paid for their skill in teaching whatever it was that someone wanted to know. Socrates was dubious about the Sophistic claim to teach while, at the same time, being indifferent to the goodness or badness of what was taught. Socrates further maintained that he was not in fact a teacher, nor did he take any money for anything he said. If someone learned from him, it was only indirectly, by listening to his examination of those who claimed to know. And this latter form of imitation of his ways could be dangerous, as he found out when he was called before the Court by fathers who were angry that their sons used Socrates’ methods rather flippantly on their sires.

Properly speaking, then, teachers cannot be “paid” for what they teach. What they teach, if it is true, is not theirs. They do not own it. They did not make it or make it to be true. This fact is why any financial arrangement with a true teacher (I do not mean here just anyone employed by a school system) is not a salary or a wage, but an “honorarium”, something offered — offered why? It is offered merely to keep the teacher alive, not to “pay” him for ownership of a segment of “truth” said to be exclusively his. The motivation of the teacher has to be something in itself, some “love of wisdom” for itself.

What he who teaches knows, then, is known for its own sake, not for his sake, even when the knowing is, as it should be, his. Truth is not like private property, something we should own and cherish. Rather it is something when, on someone else’s coming to know it, both are more, no one less. Truth is of the spirit, the “conformity of mind and reality,” as Aquinas said. Besides, teachers do not need much in the way of material goods, as their delight is really not in financial rewards, or if it is, their teaching is suspect — at least this was the Socratic attitude toward the status of the philosopher. The reason the philosopher was not rich is not because he did not know about how to become rich, as the famous example of Thales and the wine press monopoly showed. The reason the philosopher was poor was because he knew that there was something beyond riches, something that carried a fascination little realized by those immersed in them, until perhaps the rich became old and began to worry about their death and, in its glaring light, about how they have lived, as was narrated to us in the First Book of The Republic.

A teacher, rather, gives an account of truth, his account, but not his truth. “The origin we begin from,” Aristotle said, “is the belief that something is true....” If we are brought up with fine habits, we can be “adequate students of what is fine and just.” Someone else, however, brings us up. We are beholden not only for our very being, but also for our gentle habits, if we have them. We are beholden to those who guided us so that we can easily see and, if we choose, arrive at the first principles on which all truth stands. Teachers and students are in the same condition with regard to truth — they stand before something neither the one nor the other made. The modern idea that the only truth is the “truth” we ourselves make is a narrow view that quickly cuts us off from what is, as we have been cut off. A teacher is content to see that light in the eyes of the student who himself, after some guidance perhaps from parents the teacher does not know, some prodding, some examples, some reflection, begins to see, to delight, in the truth of things. The teacher must, at his core, be unselfish, must rejoice in what is not his. This is the liberty of truth that links the generations, that links friends, one to another.

The human spirit transcends time and space. We are lucky, Leo Strauss said, if one or two of the greatest thinkers who ever lived are alive during the same time in which we are alive. [1] And even if they are alive during our time, we will be quite fortunate to meet them, let alone to recognize them if we do meet them. The philosopher could live privately for a relatively long time in Athens because it was difficult for the citizens of a democracy, in which all opinions are equally true or equally false, to distinguish the fool from the philosopher. And if the few great minds are not alive during our days, we do not despair. We still can find them, meet them, let them teach us, through books, mainly. Indeed, with the new electronic devices, it almost seems that no one who is dead is really dead. We can search before our very eyes the information system and find references, works. We can continue a conversation with someone in the Twelfth Century, with a St. Bernard of Clairvaux, if we so choose.

 

II

Recently, I was at Canisus College, in Buffalo. A fellow Jesuit was in the community’s computer room. I went in to watch him. He showed me how to find on-line the text, the complete text, of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a book written in 1908. Suddenly, there it was, perhaps my favorite book, whole and entire, on the screen before my astonished eyes. But the technology of putting this text before my eyes, be it noted, is not more enchanting than Chesterton’s thoughts themselves. What he said is, as it were, the miracle, not the technology that keeps them alive, though keeping them alive is one of the main functions of civilization itself. In the beginning, the words of what we now know as written Scripture were kept alive by oral voice and memory. It is still in some sense the best way. We are what we choose to remember and to record. Yet, we can forget our very being, again if we choose. Civilization does not depend on memory, but on the choice to remember, on what we choose to remember.

Of course, I already have a couple of printed versions of that wonderful book I saw on the monitor in Buffalo, a book, in fact, among other things, about gratitude, or better about an understanding of the world in which gratitude is even possible. Chesterton, in his Short History of England, defined gratitude in a way that distinguishes our lot and, hopefully, our civilization. “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” [2] Why would Chesterton call thanks precisely “the highest form of thought”? I think it is because he understood that the world was not made by us. We can only give thanks for what we receive that is not ours, even when it is ours. And we can only give thanks to a someone, not to a something. Thanks are always addressed to another. A world in which thanks for the world itself is possible is a world, a cosmos, in which the world is not sufficient to explain itself.

And gratitude — what about gratitude? Obviously, Chesterton thought it was something more than thanks, which he thought to be the highest form of thought. Perhaps thought is not the highest category? Chesterton called gratitude “happiness doubled by wonder.” We need not go too far back in our memory to realize that “wonder” is that very word that Aristotle used in his Metaphysics. What begins our quest for knowledge is not need, not pleasure, not pain, but wonder, something on a much different and higher level. Happiness, that end that explains why we do all that we do, is “doubled” when we already have something that can be doubled. What is this? First, there is the thanks for what we did not ourselves make. Secondly, there is the wonder at the thanks. We are curious, as it were, that such things as the world and thanks in it should exist at all. The initial wonder inaugurates the strange quest that sets us on the journey to find the truth of what is, of what is to be wondered at, since what is, is not ours. And the doubling? That is, we who are the ones who give the thanks, almost as if this is our highest activity, as Plato would have said that it is. We give thanks, all the while knowing that this act of ours is itself appropriate and fitting to give in that there is a someone to thank, hence the exhilaration.

It has been Chesterton, moreover, more than any one else, who has taught me that it is quite all right to acknowledge that there are certain things that I will never do — another way of saying that “man is by nature a social and political animal”. I need not myself discover the North Pole — a discovery Chesterton called “that insidious habit”, nor need I be the Astronomer Royal, though I need not not admire those who do still find the North Pole or the North Star again and again. I can be grateful to them, admire them. But if I am going to do these sorts of technical things, I have to do them well, otherwise I shan’t do them at all. But there are other things, fundamental things, that I want to do, even if I do them badly. “If a thing is worth doing,” Chesterton said, “it’s worth doing badly.” So we better know what is worth doing by ourselves. In What’s Wrong with the World, the example Chesterton used of the things worth doing badly was precisely “dancing”. I have never had a class that, on hearing these words, did not immediately understand what he meant.

In Orthodoxy, the examples Chesterton used for this same principle of things worth doing badly were “writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose,” again examples that no one can fail to comprehend. Chesterton was not against the fine and noble practice of dancing well. He had, I am sure, no objection to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astair. But he realized that for most of the normal men and women who ever lived, dancing badly was their only option if they were to dance at all. Many a touching love has been struck, no doubt, while dancing badly or while writing awkward love-letters. These words of Chesterton were first written some four years after my father’s birth in 1904.

My father, I believe, danced well, a talent that quite pleased the family. But it was Chesterton who taught me the additional philosophic principle about dancing badly. Without my father, I would never have understood the importance of dancing well. As another friend carefully explained to me, on hearing Chesterton’s principle, that there are also things that are worth doing that are worth doing exceedingly well. But to do most things well, as I said, we must begin by doing them badly. There is no other way. Without my father I would not have known the importance of dancing well. Without Chesterton, I would never have understood the importance of dancing badly. I knew my father. I did not know Chesterton.

III

On the Feast of St. Augustine (August 28), I reread in my Breviary the Second Lesson from The Confessions. Augustine died in 430 AD. I read, “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the innermost depth of my soul. I was able to do so because you were my helper. On entering into myself I saw, as it were with the eye of the soul, what was beyond the eye of the soul, beyond my spirit: your immutable light” (Book 7). Is there anyone today who tells me to “reflect upon myself”? And if so, is it, when I do so, with the divine guidance? Is there anyone who tells me that when I reflect on myself, it is not myself that I discover, that I am not the end even of my own desiring, of my own self-reflecting? The “immutable light” is not myself. And for this too, I give thanks and double thanks.

When the philosopher in the Cave, in the Seventh Book of The Republic, was unchained, when he turned about and left the Cave, he was eventually blinded by the light, the light in which he saw the truth of things. There are teachers, like Plato, like Augustine, who still teach us that, however much we want to know, the truth of things is not ourselves, not caused by ourselves. We have heard that light shines and the darkness comprehends it not. Those who teach us about this light mostly do not come from our time or from our place. They do not usually speak our language. If it is all right to dance badly, because dance we should, it is all right to reflect on ourselves badly, in the depth of our souls, because the “immutable light” is not just for the philosophers. This condition is indeed why Thomas Aquinas maintained that philosophy, good as it is, is not enough, because the immutable light is to shine also on the non-philosophers, indeed on sinners.

Eric Voegelin gave a lecture in Montreal in 1976. He was perhaps deliberately provocative. He understood the bravado of students subject to professors who had lost their souls, who did not see beyond the light of their own minds, students who did not have good habits and therefore could not easily find first principles. “I find students are frequently flabbergasted, especially those who are agnostics, when I tell them that they all act, whether agnostics or not, as if they were immortal,” Voegelin explained.

Only under the assumption of immortality, of the fulfillment beyond life, is the seriousness of action intelligible which they actually put into their work and which has a fulfillment nowhere in this life no matter how long they may live. They all act as if their lives made sense immortally, even if they deny immortality, deny the existence of a psyche, deny the existence of a Divinity — in brief, if they are just the sort of fairly corrupt average agnostics that you find among college students today. One should not take their agnosticism too seriously, because in fact, they act as if they were not agnostics. [3]

The Memorial Service for Eric Voegelin was at the Stanford Chapel in 1985. A friend of mine from San Francisco copied for me his recording of this moving service.

I never met Voegelin, though, like Chesterton, I have heard his voice on tape. It is good to be reminded by Eric Voegelin, in a lecture I did not attend, in a city in which I have only visited once, of something, to be sure, that was also in Aristotle, namely, that we should not look at what people say, but on what they do, how they act. When our words and our actions contradict each other, the philosopher knows that we have not found the truth, have not found the origin of our thoughts, have not reflected on the seriousness of our actions. Our actions do have a seriousness about them, the seriousness from which the seriousness we have originated derives in the first place, as Plato reminded us in The Laws (803). If our actions are serious, if we can give thanks, then our lives are full of risk, of drama, because we can choose against the immutable light, otherwise we would not be what we are.

Charlie Brown can be encountered rather regularly, almost daily, as can that rather great theologian of The Fall, his sister, Lucy. [4] Charlie is on the mound yelling to the outfield, “All right team, this is our last game of the season! Let’s all do our best!” We next see Lucy in baseball cap out in right field, yelling back provocatively, “What if we do our worst?” Charlie, somewhat perturbed, snaps back, “You’ve already done your worst!” And with surprising humility, Lucy admits, “I can’t argue with that....” We cannot but speculate on this phrase about our already having done “our worst” as a response to the encouragement to do “our best”. We cannot argue about the fact that doing our best and our worst are possible to us. This is not to say that, having done our worst, we have no evil things left to do, but it does recall The Fall, Genesis, the teaching about why things go wrong, the honesty to admit that they do go wrong and that we have done something that caused the wrong to happen.

IV

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964 in Georgia. I never met her, or heard of her, or even read anything by her, while she was alive. But some friends from Athens drove me into the yard of her farm, Andalusia, outside Milledgeville one Sunday afternoon, about twenty years after she died. Flannery O’Connor wrote to Cecil Dawkins on December 9, 1958, that she had broken her rib coughing and advised Dawkins that if she ever got a cough, to buy some cough syrup in time. Evidently, Dawkins had, in a previous letter, asked O’Connor something about the Church having too many sinners in it for her comfort. Flannery replied that she did not want to be too glib in responding to such a query, but she would offer her “perspective” on the topic.

“All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin,” Flannery told Cecil Dawkins.

This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God crated him in; you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. [5]

Thus, in a way, Flannery agreed with Charlie Brown, that the worst had already happened and continues to happen. Lucy is never going to catch the fly ball on the last game of the season. Pride, “terrible radical human pride”, is always going to be with us, in part because we underestimate sin, in part because we are free and fallen. Because of these two things, pride and freedom, the world is at risk, a risk without which there would be neither happiness nor damnation, without which there could not be a finite rational being at all.

To want to have the perfect game, to want to have the Holy Ghost come along and transform all flesh into the Kingdom of God on earth yesterday afternoon is thus to ask that we live in another kind of world from the one we are given. It is implicitly to ask that we cease being what we are. Things worth doing are going to continue to be done badly, by human beings, by believers, by clerics even, who are all sinners. Someone, I forget who it was, I think perhaps my friend Joseph McCarroll in Ireland, once said that the real agenda of the liberal was to change human nature so it would be perfect. No real Christian, nor anyone else who really thinks on these things, wants to change human nature which is created good and continues to be good in spite of The Fall. However, any Christian worth his salt wants to stop sinning, something that can only be done freely. The sign of the liberal mind is always the Kingdom of God on earth, as soon as possible, something brought about by our own powers and according to our own image of what is the good. Augustine said that we find “immutable light”; we do not cause it to be either light or immutable.

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623. The Second Century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a most memorable book called simply, Meditations. I once did a little book, following Marcus Aurelius, called Unexpected Meditations Late in the Century. [6] The Roman Emperor taught me, not exactly to meditate, but to see things, observe carefully, note what it is that things cause in us. Blaise Pascal’s book, I believe he did not really finish it, is called simply “Thoughts” — though we still prefer the French Pensées. His book is very much like that of Marcus Aurelius in form. We cannot resist the irony of an emperor “meditating”, while a Christian apologist has “thoughts.” Number Eight Hundred and Forty-Seven of Pascal’s Pensées reads: “If the compassion of God is so great that He instructs us to our benefit, even when He hides Himself, what light ought we not to expect from Him when He reveals Himself?” What “light” ought we not expect? Of course, as Augustine would say, “the immutable light” is what we will find, even though we can in no way “expect” it.

The mystery of teachers we have not met, I think, lies here in these relationships and overtones. Our gratitude to which we testify seems to have no limits because we are all bound together in time. We can still feel the force of those we never met, often because someone else felt it before us. Augustine explains that he once read a now lost dialogue of Cicero, the Hortensius, and it changed his life, a life that needed changing, to be sure. I explain to my students that Aristotle has read Plato. I explain that Augustine knew Plato. I tell them that Augustine read Cicero, who sent his son to study in Athens so he too could read Plato. Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle carefully. Pascal knew his Augustine. Even Charlie Brown knows that the worst has already happened, while Flannery O’Connor, who read Aquinas, recalls The Fall and our “terrible radical human pride”.

 

V

In 1906, Hilaire Belloc published a set of essays he called Hills and the Sea. [7] We are with Belloc as he crosses the Channel in his small boat. We walk with him into the Pyrenees. We muse with him about great Inns, like “The Griffin”, which may have never existed. We are with him at Carcassonne and Lynn. We see the Valley of the Rother as he does. We know his horse “Monster”. We march with French troops. We go to Andorra, to Ely, and to Arles. One of his essays — the essay, as I say, is still my favorite of literary form [8] — is entitled “The Idea of a Pilgrimage.” The pilgrimage, of course, is the symbol of our lot. We are wayfarers and pilgrims on this very earth, as Scripture reminds us. But it is a real earth, a real lot, a real way.

Belloc explained the true outlook of the man who goes on pilgrimage. The true pilgrim will go “into everything with curiosity and pleasure, and be a brother to the streets and trees and to all the new world he finds,” Belloc wrote.

The Alps that he sees with his eyes will be as much more than the names he reads about, the Florence of his desires as much more than the Florence of sickly drawing rooms; as beauty loved is more than beauty heard of, or as our own taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight are more than the vague relations of others. Nor does religion exercise in our common life any function more temporarily valuable than this, that it makes us be sure at least of realities, and look very much askance at philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies. [9]

Beauty loved is more than beauty heard of? Why would Belloc say this?

Clearly, in these observations, Belloc is telling us not only to read about things, but to know them, experience them, even desire them. Christianity is a very earthy thing, after all. It encourages taste, smell, touch, and sight. Only if we know what these things are will we suspect the reality they imply as their source, “the immutable light”. Each existing thing is a word made flesh, as it were. We are, consequently, to be certain of the “realities” before us, but we are to look askance at “philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies.” How odd it is to hear a Belloc say to us that the most important function that religion can perform in time is that it makes us sure of “realities”, as if our philosophies are often mostly imaginary and mere whimsy, as if they teach us that nothing is real.

 

VI

I read something from Boswell’s Life of Johnson almost every day. I am familiar with the Mitre Tavern and St. Paul’s, with Litchfield and Oxford. I know Lucy Porter and Mrs. Williams and the handsome Quaker lady, Mrs. Knowles. I am aware of the tension that exists with Mrs. Boswell. There is here in Boswell an unending account of human life, of intense delight and of poignant sadness. I have never quite forgotten the Journey to the Western Isles that Boswell and Johnson took in 1773. Even yet, I can never come across the name of the Isle of Sky and not want to go there — but I want to go there for Belloc’s reasons, about the sight, the sounds, the touch, the smells. But neither Boswell nor Johnson, when they wrote their respective accounts would have disagreed with Belloc’s principle about how to see while on pilgrimages. Indeed, Belloc no doubt read Boswell and Johnson. Chesterton, for his part, wrote essays on both Boswell and Johnson.

Johnson was never a teacher, that is, an academic, neither, to be sure, was Socrates, neither was Christ, neither was Chesterton. What is it about Johnson, I frequently wonder? What is it that Boswell sees, as sees he does? The day is a Friday. It is April 20, 1781. David Garrick, the great actor and their mutual friend, has died. His widow has been in mourning, but the period is over. This evening was the first time since her husband’s death, which, Boswell notes, she seems to have truly felt, that Mrs. Garrick had a select party of his friends to dine with her. Who was there? Boswell, of course, Dr. Johnson, Miss Hannah More, “who lived with her (Mrs. Garrick) and whom she called her Chaplain”, Mrs. Boscawen, Mrs. Elizabeth Cooper, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Dr. Burney.

Of this particular evening — all good things happen in a particular time, in a particular place — Boswell said, “I spent with him (Johnson) one of the happiest days that I remember to have enjoyed in the whole course of my life.” They dined, of course. “We found ourselves very elegantly entertained in her house in the Adelphi.” They spoke of her grief, but without morbidity. “She talked of her husband with complacency.” She remarked poignantly that “death was now the most agreeable object to her.” A painting of Garrick was on the wall, on which Johnson’s friend Mr. Beauclerk had once inscribed in honor of Garrick the lines from Shakespeare that began, “A merrier man, / Within the limit of becoming mirth, / I never spent an hour’s talk withal. / His eye begets occasion for his wit....”

We might, on reading this context, wonder about its sentiment, of its being the happiest day in the course of a life. And yet, as we read on, we realize that here we hear spoken of the ultimate, the fine, and the ordinary things of our human lot. “We were all in fine spirits,” Boswell continued, for the death of their friend was now put into place in their lives, its mystery accepted. Boswell next turned to Mrs. Boscawen and whispered, “I believe this is as much as can be made of life.” Boswell concluded his description of this happy day in this surprising manner: “In addition to a splendid entertainment, we were regaled with Litchfield ale, which had a peculiar appropriated value. Sir Joshua, and Dr. Burney, and I, drank cordially of it to Dr. Johnson’s health; and though he would not join us, he as cordially answered, ‘Gentlemen, I wish you all as well as you do me.’” [10]

We might ask ourselves, at this point, was Boswell wrong, can more be made of life? Are we perturbed that on this happy day, a widow spoke complacently of her late husband, the actor, a merry man? Are we scandalized by the Litchfield ale with its peculiar appropriated value? No, I think here Boswell is right. He has sensed civilization at its best, the civilization of Shakespeare, of Johnson, of Garrick, of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. Burney, of Hannah More and Mrs. Boscawen, where elegant things are served and the ends of live and transcendence have their place in delight and the sort of joy we are allotted in this vale of tears. “Gentlemen, I wish you all as well as you do me.”

On the Seven Hundredth Anniversary of the death of Thomas Aquinas with other members of the faculty of the Gregorian University in Rome, where I was teaching at the time, I got into a bus at our Piazza, just up the street from the Trevi Fountains, the Piazza della Pilotta. We drove South along the main highway towards Naples. We were near Arpinum, the home of Cicero. Not far away was Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict founded the first monastery in the West, a commanding hillside now with tombs of Polish soldiers from World War II. Across the valley from Monte Cassino, where Thomas had himself begun school, was the little fortress town of Roccaseca, where Aquinas was born. There was a Mass, a goodly crowd. There, one thinks of this man. I remember vividly the day at Mt. St. Michael’s College in Spokane, when I first realized that I could read and understand Aquinas in Latin, that I did not have to “translate” him. St. Thomas’ Latin, of course, is neat, simple, and clear.

Boswell told us about human life as good as we can expect it in this life. Question Forty-Eight of the Third Book of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles is entitled, “Quod Ultima Hominis Felicitas Non Sit in Hac Vita.” This sentence simply is the proposition to be proved; namely, that man’s ultimate happiness is not found in this life. This, with numerous arguments, is what Aquinas is demonstrating at this point. The following, in the light of Boswell’s happy day spent with friends at the Adelphi when David Garrick’s widow had returned to society, is one of the many answers Aquinas gives in this chapter:

Quanto aliquid est magis desideratum et dilectum, tanta eius amissio maiorem dolorem vel tristitiam affert. Felicitas autem maxime desideratur et amatur. Maxime igitur eius amissio tristitiam habet. Sed si sit in hac vita ultima felicitas, certum est quod amitteretur, saltem per mortem. Et non est certum utrum duratura sit usque at mortem: cum cuilibet homini possibile sit in hac vita accidere morbos quibus totaliter ad operatione virtutis impeditur, sicut phrenesim et alios huiusmodi, quibus impeditur rationis usus. Semper igitur talis felicitas habebit tristitiam naturaliter annexam. Non erit igitur perfecta felicitas. [11]

Notice, on reading these lines how Aquinas and Boswell are in the same universe, the discourse of happiness, of happy days, of what this life is like, what it is not like.

The essential issue is not, be it noted, whether we can have a happy day, with some excellent Litchfield ale, toasting Dr. Johnson, who returned his compliments to us. The issue is what is the status of our happiest day without denying that it is happy, without denying that, as Boswell whispered to Mrs. Boscawen, “this is as much as can be made of life.” It is indeed. Our happiest day, however, is not just itself, but itself both as promise and as symbol. Our greatest happiness in this life will not, in all probability, be lasting. But what is not denied in the tradition that we inherit is that we shall have happiness, perfect happiness, even double happiness. This teaching is true even when, on trying to do our best, we have already done our worst.

 

VII

My friend, Father Joseph Fessio, S. J., has been steadily republishing English translations of the works of Josef Pieper. I do not have all of Pieper’s works, but I have many of them. One of the books that Ignatius Press published was a little book called Josef Pieper — an Anthology. In my own book, Another Sort of Learning, I have provided a number of what I consider useful book lists on various topics or by various authors, things that most of us would not come across unless someone told us of them. In it, I have a list of fourteen books of Josef Pieper, who is, not unlike Thomas Aquinas about whom he has written so much, perhaps the most clear and concise writer on philosophical things I have ever read. Many have read Pieper’s little book Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

In Another Sort of Learning, I also have a list of twenty-five books, entitled, “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By — Selected for Those to Whom Making Sense Is a Prior Consideration, but a Minority Opinion.” Well, on this list there are two books by Pieper, his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity and his The End of Time. Pieper’s Anthology is a book of selections that Pieper chose himself, a book originally published in German under the title, Josef Pieper: Lesebuch.

In this Lesebuch, this book of things to be read, there are many beautiful chapters. I did not include this book in my list of twenty-five books “to keep sane by” because it was not yet translated when Another Sort of Learning was written. No book is quite like this Anthology. Pieper, I believe, is still alive, but I have never met him. In the Anthology, there is a chapter called, “Joy Is a By-Product.” The subject of joy, of course, is at the highest reaches of our being. Joy is not something that we can go out and pursue. It never comes that way. It is always, as Pieper points out, a by-product. It comes from doing something else, from doing what is right and good. What is the nature of joy then? The common denominator of what joy is, Pieper observes, is “our receiving or possessing something we love — even though this receiving or possession may only be hoped for as a future good or remembered as something already past. Consequently, one who loves nothing and no one cannot rejoice, no matter how desperately he wishes to....” [12]

How to love? What is love? — these are questions of every day perplexity and of ultimate import, because they do occur every day in the risk of daily life. It is Pieper who, for me, identified in a graphic way the relation of love and joy. Belloc’s told us to be moved by things, the things we see walking through the Alps or in the Valley of the Rother. Our minds and souls feed on reality. Pieper says, shockingly to me, but truly, I know, that “the true antithesis of love is not hate, but despairing indifference, the feeling that nothing is important.” [13] For those who are alive, for those who are attentive to the tastes, smells, sights, sounds, alive to one another, everything is important because it is. We do not find complete happiness or the immutable light in this life, as Aquinas and Augustine told us. But we find real things, finite things, that do exist. We spend with Boswell days that do not get any better. Their very completeness is a sign of their leading us on to what is complete, to what is joy, to possessing what we love. This too is our tradition. This too is taught by someone I never met.

A book, to continue my encounter with those I never met, that has gone through more printings and translations that almost any other one besides the Bible is The Imitation of Christ by the Fifteenth Century Monk, Thomas à Kempis. A friend of mine once found in a used book store someplace a copy of some sermons that Thomas à Kempis gave to the Novices of his Order at Mt. St. Agnes, which is, I believe, in Holland. These sermons cover the various virtues and vices of monastic or, indeed, of any human life. At the end of each sermon, à Kempis would add a little homely example to illustrate his point. One of the Sermons, the Sixth, is entitled, “On the Night Watches against the Assault of Sleepiness.” “What on earth is this topic about?” we might ask. The monks each day sing the Divine Office in choir. These are the Church’s official prayers — psalms, prayers, readings, usually chanted by monks. Moreover, these are said in five parts, some of the parts in the evening or even late at night or very early in the morning. Obviously, sleepiness is a problem in such circumstances. It is considered a virtue to keep awake and attended to the praises.

This is the delightful little example that à Kempis gave to illustrate this point: “A certain brother began to sleep a little at Matins (the early morning part of the Office). Noticing which, the brother seated next to him cast into his ear just this word: ‘Hell!’ On hearing this, suddenly terrified and awakened, he cast off all drowsiness from him. Think therefore, slothful one, of hell, and thou wilt not slumber in choir, tired through weariness.” [14] No doubt, there is something charmingly amusing about this story as a cure for sloth and drowsiness. Hell or its equivalent is, in fact, found in much of our great literature and in our philosophy. It is, in part, the subject of the last book of The Republic. It is a book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is a prominent factor in the Brothers Karamazov. It is not talked about today. We might wonder why? Is it because we too, like the monk, are drowsy? Is it that we too think nothing is really important?

Thus I go back to what Pieper said about the opposite of love being not hatred but a kind of “despairing indifference, the feeling that nothing is important.” Usually, and not unjustly, we do associate the notion of hell with hatred. It has been defined as a choice to love ourselves alone. Pride is the terrible sin, as Flannery O’Connor recalled. It locates the cause of all things in ourselves. We can have no gift or no love in such a world ruled by pride. Lucifer is said to hate what is not himself. Probably, by contrast, no other sentence epitomizes the core of our civilization better than that of Socrates, in The Apology, in which he said that “I do know that to do wrong and to disobey my superior, whether God or man, is wicked and dishonourable; and so I shall never feel more fear or aversion for something (death) which, for all I know, may really be a blessing, than for those evils which I know to be evils” 29. The Second American President said that the doctrine of hell was the most politically important of the theological doctrines. Why would he say this? He would say it for the same reason that Plato said it, namely, that there are crimes that cannot be adequately known about or punished by existing polities, so that the meaning of justice is incomplete without a final sanction.

Without a doctrine of hell, furthermore, our individual actions have no real risk or no real meaning. If there is nothing that we can do that results in such a dire possibility, then nothing we do is really of much importance. On the hypothesis of no ultimate sanction, to do evil and to do well have the same effects and the same meaning — just the opposite of Socrates’ foundational statement. If you will, then, I have always, thanks to John Adams, Plato, and Dante, looked upon the doctrine of hell as the guarantee of the importance of each of our actions. [15] It is not that we cannot do frivolous things. There is indeed, as Boswell hinted, a certain lightsomeness to our condition. But it is a fact that at any moment we can be and often are faced with a choice that involves ultimate consequences because of the very exalted status of each person we meet, no matter how simple or how poor or how tiny. In a sense, the doctrine of hell is the most romantic of teachings because it confirms what we already suspect that our loves touch eternity and touch it because of the fact that something, someone is important, transcendently important.

 

VIII

Socrates, as I said in the beginning and return to it now in my conclusion, maintained that he is not himself a teacher. We know of Socrates because of another man, Plato, who was a teacher. In the Crito, Socrates testified that he was brought up by the laws of Athens. In The Apology, his vocation to be a philosopher came from outside Athens, from the Oracle at Delphi who said that he was the wisest man in Greece. This unexpected information set him to inquiring about Athens, to see who was wise. But if Socrates was not a teacher, however paradoxical this sounds to us, there is one passage in which he admits that he was taught. This is the famous scene in the Symposium with Diotima, the prophetess form Mantineia. And about what did she teach Socrates? She taught him about love, something evidently that he needed to learn from someone else, perhaps because love always has to do with someone else, not only with ourselves.

“Then,” she said, “the simple truth is, that men love the good?” “Yes,” I said. “To which must be added that they love the possession of the good?” “Yes, that must be added.” “And not only the possession, but the everlasting possession of the good?” “That must be added too.” ....

“Then if this be the nature of love, can you tell me further,” she said, “what is the manner of the pursuit? what are they doing who show all this eagerness and heat which is called love? and what is the object which they have in view? Answer me.” “Nay, Diotima,” I replied, “if I had known, I should not have wondered at your wisdom, neither should I have come to learn from you about this very matter.” “Well,” she said, “I will teach you: — The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or soul .... All men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls” (206).

As I read and reread these lines in Plato, I realize that in some germinal sense, much of what I have been saying about the mystery of teachers I never met is already here. I began to read The Symposium rather late in my life. I met Adeimantus and Glaucon long before I met Phaedrus, Agathon, Alcibiades, and Diotima. To be sure, I had previously met Alcibiades in Thucydides. Likewise, I was introduced to Phaedrus, the Master of Ceremonies at the Symposium, some years ago, thanks again to Josef Pieper. [16] I have often told drowsy students, moreover, that the uncanny thing about Plato and Aristotle, about Aquinas and Augustine, is that that they still make the best reading they will ever encounter. I tell them, solemnly, provocatively, that if they do not read them, little else will be intelligible to them. For the most part, in the beginning, most students are sure this praise of ancient thinkers cannot be valid. Yet, we will not understand the romance of revelation if we do not understand the romance of reason — and there are some, I know, who want, that is, choose to understand neither romance. If we are to be grateful, to understand what a world in which gratitude exists must be like, we will begin, if we are fortunate, with Plato, even though we know that Plato himself, like Aristotle, read Hesiod and Homer, whom we should also read.

Aristotle pointed out in the Sixth Book of The Ethics that we are given a mind as part of our constitutive being, from nature, a mind not given in vain. This mind is capable of knowing all things, a mind that is somehow capax universi, as E. F. Schumacher recalled the Latin phrasing of this notion. Schumacher did this in a wonderful book entitled, The Guide for the Perplexed, a title taken from the medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who like Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas, carefully read Aristotle. [17] We find ourselves wondering about things that are, on our walks with Belloc, in our conversations with Samuel Johnson, in our thoughts and meditations with Pascal and Marcus Aurelius. It is indeed mysterious that we can still be taught by those whom we never met, the connection of mind to mind that leads to the good which we desire and which, when possessed, gives us joy.

We can indeed reject all the things about which we can wonder. We can refuse to acknowledge what is because it is not of us. The fact that we can do such things is the other side of the risk of existence itself, the fact that thanks can be withheld even from what is. The risk of existence, our existence, includes, besides that which the monk whispered into his drowsy friend’s ear at Matins at Mt. St. Agnes, an Augustine confessing, seeking the “immutable light”. It includes an Aquinas reminding us that happiness is not fully in this life. Boswell was not wrong to wonder if some days can ever be better because he was in the sober presence of mourning that prevented him from placing the Kingdom of God on this earth, something Flannery O’Connor warned us not to do. We are to marvel at Charlie Brown because he tells us that we have already done our worst.

In the end, Aristotle was right when he said that “who understands everything himself is best of all.” Chesterton too was right when he affirmed that “thanks are the highest form of thought and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” None of these teachers have I ever met. The mystery is how one person whom I never met, through the recountings down the ages of how many others whom I also have never met, could, without me, shed light on each other, eventually to enlighten me. Surely this mystery has its origin in Augustine’s “immutable light”, in the Good which, when possessed, gives us joy. The Socrates who told the Jury at Athens that he did know whether death was evil also knew that what was evil he must not do. This is the same Socrates to whom Diotima replied generously, “I will teach you.” Diotima taught him that love, if it is to be love, must be everlasting.

ENDNOTES

  1. Leo Strauss, "What Is Liberal Education?" Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 3 Back to text.
  2. G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England (New York: Phoenix Library, 1951), p. 59. Back to text.
  3. Conversations with Eric Voegelin (Montreal: Thomas More Institute Papers, 1980), p. 6. Back to text.
  4. Charles M. Schluz, If Beagles Could Fly (New York: Topper, 1990). Back to text.
  5. Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 307. Back to text.
  6. James V. Schall, Unexpected Meditations Late in the XXth Century (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985). Back to text.
  7. Hilaire Belloc, Hills and the Sea (Marlboro, VT.: 1906 [Reprint]). Back to text.
  8. James V. Schall, Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994). Back to text.
  9. Belloc, ibid., 187-88. Back to text.
  10. Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Oxford, 1931(, II, p. 404. Back to text.
  11. "The more something is desirable and loveable, so much more will its loss bring greater grief and sadness. The greatest happiness, however, is desired and loved. Its loss, therefore, will have the greatest sadness. But if the highest happiness were in this life, it is certain that it would be lost, at least by death. And it is not certain that it would last even to death since it is possible that there happen, to any sort of man in this life, sicknesses which completely impede the function of his reason, such as madness and other sorts of disease by which the use of reason is impeded. Such a happiness will have sadness naturally connected with it. Therefore, there will not be perfect happiness (in this life)." Back to text.
  12. Josef Pieper -- an Anthology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 33. Back to text.
  13. Ibid., p. 35. Back to text.
  14. Thomas à Kempis, Sermons to the Novices Regular, Translated by Vincent Scully (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Co., 1909), pp. 41-42. Back to text.
  15. James V Schall, "On the Neglect of Hell in Political Theory," The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 83-106; "Regarding the Inattentiveness to Hell in Political Philosophy," At the Limits of Political Philosophy: From 'Brilliant Errors' to Things of Uncommon Importance (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 89- 104. Back to text.
  16. Josef Pieper, Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue 'Phaedrus' (New York: Harcourt, 1964. Back to text.
  17. E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), p. 132. Back to text.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Schall, S. J., James V. “On the Mystery of Teachers I Never Met.” A shorter version of this essay appeared in Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, 37 (Summer, 1995), 366-73.

Published with permission of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review and James V. Schall, S.J. Modern Age can be subscribed to from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc. web site.

THE AUTHOR

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 1995 Modern Age


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