Reading James Schall is like talking to James Schall. About a decade ago, when I knew intimately the meaning of US ARMY (“Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet!”) and orders deployed me for a week downrange to Washington, D.C., and its environs, I contacted Father Schall, and we agreed to meet at the best place for conversation in Georgetown: Billy Martin’s Pub. We spoke of everything: how Muslims do not worship the same god as Christians; the Army; how Jesuits like Robert Drinan and James Schall managed to live together; and, of course, Chesterton. As was fitting, these conversations were had over beer—and a goodly portion of it. It was for me a glimpse of the “Inn at the End of the World.”
“An essay is not an exercise in ‘thinking out loud.’ Rather, it is thinking while writing, or even perhaps the writing is, in its own way, our thinking things out.” This definition of the essay, found in the beginning of Father Schall’s The Classical Moment, is fitting for the work of the author, who is arguably one of the finest essayists yet living. The revered Georgetown political-science professor thinks about everything, and this small volume testifies to the breadth of his interests. A Jesuit friend of mine once remarked that he envisioned Chesterton writing between drinks, and Schall writing between books.
[Click here to purchase The Classical Moment, by Fr. James Schall]
The task of the intellectual is to see the connections between things and their ultimate end and situation in the cosmos. He observes, he wonders, and he thinks. He knows that common and everyday things—even comic strips—can take on a mysterious and even mystical quality pointing to supernatural realities. Recognition of this may be considered “the classical moment,” which Schall describes as the instant when “a human being [hears or sees] something that simply changes his life, and, perhaps, in changing his life, changes the world.” Such moments are highly personal to each individual and specific to his life. It is upon reflection on these moments that one may conclude that they are classical, “that, in a brief instant, [they] define the highest things—truth, goodness, and beauty—and our response to them.”
Schall considers “[His] Sister’s Piano”:
Christmas to me means, in terms of memory, Jeannie playing the songs of that season on that piano that had belonged to our mother. Sounds somehow can make things more real than sight. . . . Music is not just another “entertainment.” I often realized while listening to my sister that music does move one’s soul. Listening to her play can change one’s whole mood. . . . We are formed by what we hear, whether we know it or not. A disorder in music leads to a disorder in soul.
Listening to one’s sister play a piano can cause one to reflect upon the immortal nature of man. Similarly, hearing a beautiful piece of music can cause one to reflect upon the mystery of beauty itself. In the book’s titular essay, Schall considers a South African 15-year-old overhearing for the first time, through an open window of a neighbor’s house on a summer afternoon, J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier played on a harpsichord. Years later, he described the moment: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen. I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before.”
Ultimate realities and man’s relationship to them are the subject of these essays. Nothing escapes Schall’s glance. Whether he is considering “The One Good Thing to Do With Money,” “The Opposite of Funny,” or “The Mystery of Things,” there is always something to say and always something more to discover. It is this latter point that shows Schall’s brilliance:
I often find philosophic principles in unexpected places. Linus and Charlie Brown are standing on a knoll; the darkest of nights surrounds them. While gazing into the mysterious night sky, Charlie says to Linus, “Have you ever considered the enormity of the universe, Linus?” The question is definitely a new one for Linus, who clearly has not thought of it.
In the next scene, with his arms wide as if taking it all in, Charlie continues, “Nobody knows what lies out there beyond the stars.” This very observation suggests that we do wonder what is “beyond the stars.” The third scene has no words. In awe, both Charlie and Linus continue to stand and stare at the dark night. Finally, Linus, reflecting on the enormity of the question, says to Charlie, “I don’t even know what’s in the next block.”
Schall reflects that this discussion is of the type that men are supposed to have. There is something to be said about becoming children like Charlie and Linus, for the kingdom belongs to such as these.
The depth and breadth of Schall’s thought emerge in these essays, where one meets Chesterton, Belloc, Samuel Johnson, Walker Percy, Camus, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. One also senses the author’s excitement upon opening a new book or discovering something new in an old one. In “The Case for Classical Education,” he makes a significant point that modern pedagogues would do well to explain to their charges (and even to their colleagues):
The careful reading of the classical authors gives us the image of an ordered soul and an ordered city when this ordered life does not exist in the polity or culture to which we belong. This is why it can be said that in the battle of life, the classics free us. This is why we still read them.
In our modern age where patience is a vanishing virtue, these essays may be a gateway for the uninitiated into the world of contemplation of higher things and longer explications of eternal verities. There are, unfortunately, some deficiencies in the volume, including numerous misspellings and copy errors. This is out of step with the usual quality of production and presentation one expects of St. Augustine’s Press. One factual error in particular was curious. In “The Simplest Truth About Man,” Schall begins, “Shortly before his untimely death, I was speaking with Timothy O’Donnell, the President of Christendom College.” I’m pleased to report that Timothy O’Donnell is very much alive. Whether this was an editor’s mistake or Schall’s I cannot say. However, this error might be the impetus for another volume of essays. Perhaps it could include “What Schall Meant to Say,” “On Fallen Editors,” and “The Resurrection of the Dead.” I would eagerly purchase that volume.
[The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures, by James V. Schall, S.J. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) 208 pp., $27.00]
[Click here to purchase The Classical Moment, by Fr. James Schall]