James V. Schall, S. J. has had a venerable career in teaching and publishing. He is Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His books include: Another Sort of Learning, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, Schall on Chesterton, Idylls and Rambles, What Is God Like? and Jacques Maritain: A Philosopher in Society. His writings are posted here. Last December, the Claremont Institute's Ken Masugi interviewed Fr. Schall at length. He picked up the conversation again, earlier this December.
KM: You are still teaching at an advanced age while in most other countries, and even in Roman Church institutions, one is forced to retire at your age. Why are you still teaching when you should be enjoying retirement or otherwise turned out to pasture?
JVS: But I still enjoy teaching. There is something to be said for enjoying what is to be enjoyed, as Aristotle said. And there is also something to be said for dying with your boots on. Besides, we live in almost the only country in the world in which the elderly are not discriminated against. They are allowed to do what they can, even legally.
Actually, I have all my students read Cicero's wonderful, politically wise essay, "On Old Age." I tell them to give it to their grandfathers. Likewise, my students are familiar with the elderly Cephalus in the beginning of the Republic. Socrates wanted to talk to him because he has been down a path we will all have to follow, so it is good to know what it is like along this path. Too, we are aware, as Scripture often tells us, that some correlation exists between a certain amount of age and a certain amount of wisdom. But anyone, with a certain amount of humility, needs to read this implied praise of old age carefully. He does well to keep in mind, as not totally impossible for himself, the famous adage, "there is no fool like an old fool."
Samuel Johnson, however, said somewhere that as we become older, many of our friends die so that we should be constantly making new friends. Cicero said that we are fortunate if we can surround ourselves with the young. They give us an opportunity to speak what we know, listen to what they know. Of all places in the world, a university is often most congenial to the normal occurrence of this relationship.
Ralph McInerny had a wonderful column on this topic of academic retirement in the December Crisis. "Plato said that philosophizing was learning how to die. He did not say learning how to retire," McInerny quipped. When and if McInerny retires, I figure that it will be a greater blow to Notre Dame's intellectual standing than the combined defeats of Faust, Davies, and Willingham to its football standing.
In this matter, I am, in fact, rather partial to the view of Coach Joe Gagliardi, the most winning football coach in college history (414 victories). After his team at St. John's University in Minnesota won the Division III national championship over a heavily favored, and rarely defeated, Mount Union College, Gagliardi, 77, four years younger than Plato when he died, was asked about retiring. "I'm not going into the sunset," Gagliradi affirmed, "because I'd miss all these guys [players]. What, go on a park bench and play checkers with some guy that can't hear me?" (Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2003). Cicero, less colorfully, said the same thing. Athens killed Socrates rather than letting him go on further into old age. And Christ was executed as a young man.
KM: Tell us about your Plato course last semester?
JVS: There is simply nothing like Plato. There is no such thing as a university in which Plato is not constantly being read by both professors and students, and not just in the philosophy department, especially not in the philosophy department. This emphasis is not in any way to downplay Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, or Aquinas, each of whom I love dearly, but none of them would be what he is without Plato.
Plato still turns us around, makes us examine our souls, tells us that we have souls when no one else, even psychology departments, will. No other philosopher comes near to him in this dramatic capacity of turning us around, except perhaps Augustine, and that for the same reason. The two young potential philosophers in the Republic, Plato's brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and their friends had it about right. They could figure out what was wrong by themselves, but knew not how to get the whole picture right. For this latter, they needed to talk with Socrates. We still need him. I think now that anyone who graduates from college or graduate school without a serious, sympathetic, and genuine reading of Plato has pretty much wasted his time. He deserves a refund."
KM: Tell us about your new book.
JVS: Well, to tell you about a new one probably entails telling you about the old ones. But I will spare you Schall's version of Schall. You couldn't bear it. Actually, I have several projects in mind. One is called The Life of the Mind, the second The Sum Total of Human Happiness, the third a collection of essays called, That All Tales May Come True, and finally something I want to call The Order of Things, which I hope to get to next year, if I can put order in my own days.
However, the present book has a succinct, terse, even provocative title. I call it, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books, May 2004). It won't make the style section, let alone the book review section, too dicey. That Roman Catholicism is also a revelation of intelligence to intelligence shocks many. But that communication of mind to mind, of course, is what it also is, among other things. At first sight, the topic will seem like mixing apples and oranges. But there is a point to it. At some level, these peculiar apples and oranges do belong together.
The thesis is very straight-forward. It is not intended overly to scandalize the pagans, the pious, or the tepid, let alone the Muslims, the Baptists, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Mormons, the Unitarians, the Confucianists, the Latitudinarians, the hierarchy, the thinktankites, or the college professors. The book does not intend to invent a new brand of political philosophy, even less a radically divergent version of Roman Catholicism, which already has enough of these. I find both Roman Catholicism and political philosophy in their classic statements about themselves and their intellectual dimensions to be rather persuasive, indeed exciting. I, for one, would like to keep them both. I think the "keeping" of them has something to do with seeing them together.
KM: What do you mean, "seeing them together?"
JVS: First, I conceive this to be a book in political philosophy. My concern is what the mind knows. Political philosophy has a certain breath that allows, indeed requires, it to know more than itself to be itself. To understand this "discipline," if I might call it that, one not only needs to know the "brilliant errors" from the history of political thought, about which Strauss spoke, but also theology, philosophy itself, practical and theoretical, history, literature ("the ancient struggle between poetry and philosophy," of which Plato spoke in book 10 of the Republic), science, and just about anything else.
Of course, one needs to be something more than a genius to know such things well, and it would be rash to suspect that one knows them all. But still, philosophy is a knowledge of the whole and political philosophy ends up, at its highest level, with the question of the activities of leisure that are allowed freely to happen in certain existing regimes. I think that Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, David Walsh, and others have also shown that sometimes we can only see, are only willing to see, the highest things after suffering in the worst regimes or better because of them. Plato taught that same lesson too in his own way when he finally concluded that the tyrant could not really be happy, and Glaucon agreed with him.
In any case, by "seeing them together," I mean that there are two bodies of explication about reality, one whose source is in reason, best exemplified, I think, by Aristotle, and one in revelation, best exemplified, in summary from Scripture, by the Nicene Creed. The truth of one is not necessarily in contradiction to the truth of the other. What I argue is that political philosophy and philosophy are human spiritual activities that seek to know the truth of things. In order to find out this truth, they systematically and intuitively pose questions to themselves and seek to discover coherent answers to them.
In this sense, I argue that we will not know, intellectually, if revelation has happened, unless we have first taken the trouble to examine the questions that arise in the experience of political and human things together with the varieties of answers that have been given to these questions by the philosophers—this effort recalls what Aristotle did in book two of his Politics. What I conclude is that a number of central questions that do arise in the classical political philosophy books have answers to them. But the answers, on reflection, are either inadequate or implausible. I like to say that the study of political philosophy ought to bring such questions forward in our souls so that there is a kind of longing or searching that arises from the suspicion that none of the answers so given have been complete or adequate.
In the case of Plato, I generally argue that even when Plato was wrong in his answers, he was always disturbingly close to the truth, so much so that I am in much sympathy with those ancients or moderns who wonder if Plato himself did not receive some kind of revelation. Indeed, it is revelation that generally makes us see how very close to the truth that Plato actually was. I have argued an aspect of this point many long years ago in Human Dignity and Human Numbers and more particularly in an essay in the Downside Review entitled "The Christian Guardians." (This essay is found in my The Politics of Heaven and Hell). The essay deals with the prophetic book V of the Republic. That book, when taken literally, and I think erroneously so taken, makes Plato almost the cause or inspiration for what is happening to family and moral life in contemporary society from genetic engineering, to women soldiers and state controlled day care centers. I do not think Plato to be the origin of "fascism" or other ills. But, as I said in my essay "On Teaching the Political Thought of Plato," in Another Sort of Learning, "that one cannot refute Plato without Plato." He has uncannily already seem all the alternatives. Reading Machiavelli is dÃ©jÃ¢ vu if we have read the Apology, the Gorgias or books one, eight, and nine of the Republic. (See my "Augustine and Machiavelli," Perspectives in Political Science, Summer, 1996)."
KM: Some might suppose that philosophy or reason is "autonomous," so what is this odd business of seeing philosophy and revelation together?
JVS: John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, a discussion of which encyclical is the final chapter of this book, dealt quite well with this question of the relative autonomy of philosophy. If philosophy is not what it is, that is, a statement or illumination of what the mind can know "by itself," it is of absolutely no use to revelation, or anything else, for that matter. Plato and Aristotle still occupy that unique place in philosophy of having thought about what is before revelation, as we normally conceive of it, was a major factor. This very fact makes some of us, at least, wonder about the timing of revelation itself, the problem of the philosophy or theology of history. We wonder, that is, if it was "timed"—"and it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed," as we read in the King James version of Luke (2,1) about the world's most peculiar use of the taxing powers of the state.
One still must be careful not to be a Pelagian or a fideist in these matters—there are rather more of both about than either of the peculiar names we give such ideas would indicate. That is, the theoretical openness and empirical incompleteness of philosophy ought to make us suspicious of any closed philosophical system that claims the absolute human autonomy to decide everything, including being itself, and particularly human being and that to which it is open. The openness of philosophy to any truth, no matter what its source, is not compatible with a system that, on narrow rationalist grounds, refuses to consider something, however implausible, proposed as true from whatever source, a point Josef Pieper tellingly made in his brilliant In Defense of Philosophy.
At the same time, however insightful and even authoritative revelation might be in itself, however much it is also addressed to the non-philosopher as itself a separate philosophic problem, the problem of the destiny of every human person, not just the philosopher, still it needs some basic grounding of a philosophical nature that would allow us to grant not just its theoretic coherence within itself but also its relation to what we do know of reality. One of the basic positions that revelation must hold if it is to have any claim on our minds at all is the principle of contradiction which flows into Aquinas's famous dictum that faith does not contradict reason but, as he implies, causes it to flourish, perfects it.
Moreover, if our personal philosophy makes us doubt the existence or intelligibility of a real world, the general dimensions of which we can know by our own powers of sensation and intelligence, we have no business wondering whether the Son of God was born into such a world. Our prior philosophy, in this case, makes it impossible for us really to understand what is at issue in the reason and revelation relationship. One even suspects that, at times, such anti-realist philosophies are invented or held precisely so that those who hold them would not have to take seriously the claims of revelation on reason.
KM: You've written extensively on these themes before. What did you teach yourself in writing this book?
JVS: That is an interesting expression—"what did Schall teach Schall in writing this book?" The skeptics will recall the famous philosophic phrase, "nemo dat quod non habet!" But this question reminds me of the observation that Rebecca West once made when she was asked about how long it took to write a book. She replied, "a couple of years and all of my life." In some sense, this present book goes back to the old age question of whether a basic thing that we thought was true when we were twenty is still true when we are past the age of Socrates at his trial.
The very first serious academic essay that I ever wrote, itself part of an M. A. Thesis under the late Clifford Kossel, S. J., one of the most intelligent men I ever met, was published in January 1957, in The Thomist. It was entitled, "The Totality of Society: From Justice to Friendship." That maddening, unsettling, glorious theme of justice and friendship appeared again in my first book, Redeeming the Time. And it is, in fact, what is behind the thesis of the present book. So perhaps I may not have changed very much. Schall may not have evolved into Schall at all. The relation of justice to friendship is at the heart of Aristotle's Ethics, not to mention the heart of Plato, though I did not know Plato that well at the time. I have returned to this theme often as it is one of the most fertile and fascinating of all human and divine topics. There is a chapter on friendship in my What Is God Like?, in At the Limits of Political Philosophy, and also an essay, "Aristotle on Friendship," in The Classical Bulletin, #3, 1989.
In the Ethics, there are two questions asked by the man whom Aquinas called simply "the Philosopher," that must be asked again and again by anyone who even begins to examine himself -- "the unexamined life is not worth living," to recall a famous passage—about what is, the great metaphysical question. One question is whether we would want our friend to become someone else, a god or a king, perhaps? The other is Aristotle's wonder about whether God is lonely, and therefore whether He lacks some perfection that human beings seem to possess. The thesis of this book is essentially that no human mind can fail to ponder these questions and still be loyal to itself, to philosophy.
What I suggest is that, without implying in any manner that we can conclude from philosophy to revelation, these two questions, arising in philosophy, do have plausible answers in revelation. Then going back to the sub-title of my book At the Limits of Political Philosophy, namely, From Brilliant Errors (Strauss) to The Things of Uncommon Importance," I suggest that the history of philosophy and indeed religion, subsequent to rejecting the Christian answers at any level of encounter, results in a record of sometimes interesting, often silly, rarely satisfying, answers to the questions as posed. Such tentative answers explain or try to make us accept an answer to these questions that arise in political philosophy but are not adequately answered there.
Aristotle himself, to his credit, as Aquinas saw, both asked the proper questions and suggested tentative, sensible answers. Aquinas' view was that such Aristotelian answers were about the best that the human mind, by itself, could come up with. In that regard, Aquinas was most respectful of Aristotle. He did him the honor of taking his views seriously, an honor that entailed disagreeing with Aristotle on certain points when reasonable. Indeed, the proper relation of Aquinas to Aristotle is not that Aquinas is great because he kept Aristotle alive for subsequent philosophical consideration, though he did that. Rather it is that Aquinas carefully corrected Aristotle's few philosophic errors not in the order of theology, but in the order of philosophy itself. There are some who think that Aristotle would have been annoyed by Aquinas' corrections. I suspect that he would have been delighted, as he would have been on learning that Aquinas agreed with him on the question of the theoretic possibility of the eternal existence of the finite world, even if in fact the world was creates ex nihilo.
The point I make in the present book, as I have touched also in Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is the only real response, qua response, even though it comes from revelation, to Aristotle's question about the loneliness of God. As I tried to show in Redeeming the Time, "God is not alone." Therefore, what is not God does not exist because of any lack in God. This is what the Trinity means.
Likewise, the central teaching of the Last Supper was that "I no longer call you servants but friends." Thus, the question of our not being able to be friends with God was answered not on the philosophic side but on the revelational side with the reality and doctrine of the Incarnation, the man-God. This latter doctrine is also the only possible satisfying response to Aristotle's suggestion that we want our friends to remain what they are, not just souls, but complete persons. The fact that Aristotle's First Mover could move by "knowledge and desire" is something that both Aquinas and Augustine could deal with. Plato's discussion of Eros, moreover, seems only fully intelligible in terms of the dimensions of revelation. (Incidentally, I do not argue from the fact that a thing might seem fitting to its being therefore true, a version of the ontological argument. There always must be grounds for accepting the truth suggested by fittingness").
KM: You don't think anyone besides you believes this stuff, do you?
JVS: That is rather a different question, of course. I suppose I could say that if the argument is anywhere close to the truth, I don't particularly care. I do think that you will spend a rather lonely life in modern academia if you do think there is something to these views, but that is not any really any reason not to hold them. In fact, it may be an argument in its favor. Amicus Plato, Amicus Aristoteles, Magis Amicus Veritas. But the spirit of this book is not polemic. I wanted to spell out what I thought of this topic.
Indeed, after I had finished this manuscript, I taught a course with the same title, something I had never done before. It dealt a good number of books or authors that were more or less in the same general area, ones that do not directly enter this book. Without being exhaustive, they were the Hittingers, Kraynak, Walsh, Schindler, Lawler, Sokolowski, Rowland, Slade, Nicgorski, Novak, Royal, Haggerty, the O'Donovans, Fortin, Manet, Goerner, Canavan, Pickstock, Budiziszewski, Mahoney, Tom Smith, Nichols, Redpath, Schrems, Hanus, Orr, Rhodes, McInerny, Neuhaus, not to mention the older generation of Maritain, Simon, Gurian, Percy, O'Connor, Rommen, Molnar, Wilhelmsen, Dawson, Murray, Briefs, Hallowell, Gilson, deKoninck, and, of course, my favorites, Lewis and Tolkien, Chesterton and Belloc.
To me, the two most important thinkers on specifically political philosophy have been Kossel, whose studies on the metaphysical category of relations are so important for understanding the being of society and the life of the Trinity, and Charles N. R. McCoy, whose The Structure of Political Theory, remains fundamental. I have to put in a special word of admiration both for the late Ernest Fortin and for Josef Pieper, whose book On Love, is unsurpassed on that noble topic. Nor here, though it is not my purpose to examine their views, do I intend to overlook my debt to Voegelin and Strauss, and their schools, who have largely made consideration of reason and revelation, not to mention political philosophy itself, at least a feasible, and certainly lively, topic in academia, or sometimes, in spite of it.
And I must confess a covert attraction to Nietzsche who seems to have pointed out better than anyone else that in modern philosophy, what could go wrong, did go wrong. Nietzsche, as I see it, did not really reject Plato or Christianity. He was more a disappointed lover because no one seemed to be willing to follow Christ or Plato. He thought Christ came to make us sinless, not to redeem us from our sins, which upsettingly go on in every age, obviously in our own. "The last Christian died on the Cross" seems a rather appropriate witticism for an age seemingly upset by a movie on "The Passion," of which, as Peggy Noonan reported, the Pope, when he saw it, simply said, "It is as it was."
In one sense, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy is what the world looks like if this is true, "if it is as it was," if the Incarnation and Redemption on the Cross happened to a man who was indeed the Son of God, if the inner life of the Godhead is Trinitarian, not monolithic as our Muslim friends keep insisting with rather too much force to make their alternative seem feasible. When we hold the revelational account is not true, for whatever reason, and there are millions of them that we can conceive if we choose, we fill the world with myriads of theories, movements, polities, and life styles, with "brilliant errors," all of which are worthy of examination, but none of which really answers the real questions posed by political philosophy to philosophy and to the sources of truth that may be addressing us, even our minds.
By this argument, I am not particularly trying to "convince" anyone of anything in any pejorative sense of that word. It is not a polemic with, say, Islam or Buddhism, or Judaism, or whatever, even though we need someplace where such differences can be confronted and met, something actually John Paul II has sought to do in various ways by his consultations with anyone who will peacefully consult with him. It is interesting that it is the Pope, not academia, who is doing this mutual exchange of ideas.
Intellectual freedom, in the end, means that we are at liberty to make an argument in our own terms and seek to make it plausible and intelligible to others, because it is plausible and intelligible to us. We need not claim that we make no errors of fact or logic, only that we will correct them if they are pointed out and are valid. At the level I am dealing with here, I think political philosophy and its dimensions and relation to philosophy are pretty much unknown among the theologians. The whole, even ongoing, saga of theologians and liberation theology even makes one want to weep in this regard they were so naive about what stood behind Marxism. (See my Liberation Theology). The current enthusiasm for "justice" and "rights" is almost as bad if not worse to the degree that modern concepts of these terms, thanks largely to Hobbes, can undermine any possibility of either dignity or transcendence.
Ernest Fortin was particularly good in indicating the dangers of both of these issues. This lack of a dimension in political philosophy is why, I suspect, we find cardinals, even, making so many outlandish mistakes and errors of judgment about everything from war to development to family to scandal. Academic life is pretty generally known for being a rather closed shop, in any case, in spite of its protestations to the contrary. But the ignorance of theology in academia is, likewise, legendary and mostly chosen. One should thus be content here with this minority report about what seems to be the real relation of revelation and philosophy—"notes from the underground" would be too pretentious.
KM: Is this a correct summary of your point: that one can know the natural only when one accepts the supernatural—that is, revelation in a sense precedes reason?
JVS: Not quite. There are two famous and classical sentences that are pertinent here: The first is "Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est." The second is: "Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit." I found both of these statements, in Latin yet, in E. F. Schumacher's very useful book, A Guide for the Perplexed. The first is, I believe, from St. Thomas and the second from the 19th book of Augustine's City of God. Man, as we know him, (including ourselves) was never in fact in any purely "natural" state, with a purely natural destiny. His end was always directed to something higher than his own natural powers could in fact have ordered him. This situation implies that any truth that he acquires by the use of his reason, and this is not a little, always points to something more, something further. It is Augustine's "restless heart," and Chesterton's "homesickness at home." Why do we go about thinking all these questions out anyhow? Because we want to know the truth, to be happy. Chesterton remarks somewhere that whenever man starts out to be purely natural, he ends up being somehow precisely "unnatural"—and, I would add, insisting on calling it normal. This is, I suspect, the explanation of our time.
I would not say that 'revelation precedes' reason. They both have the same source. I am comfortable with the idea that in the dispensation we have, as far as we are concerned, reason came first, hence Plato and Aristotle. But this is a reason related to what is known as the Fall, the account of Genesis remains amazingly insightful when it comes to the question of what man is doing when he chooses himself, chooses to make him self the cause of the distinction between "good and evil." He is never, contrary to Nietzsche, "beyond" good and evil, but, like Nietzsche and Machiavelli, someone who claims that it is his duty to establish an alternate view, alternate to the one found in his being—Socrates' "it is never right to do wrong." This alternative, repeated again and again, in personal and corporate existence, allows autonomous will to establish the distinction between good and evil on whatever basis it chooses.
Revelation, in fact, is addressed to reason, but to a reason with its own questions, hence philosophy and political philosophy. Philosophy, and this is the thesis of the book, cannot deny its own unanswered questions. Nor can it, a priori, exclude any answers proposed to it simply on the grounds that they are proposed by what is called revelation. This conclusion on strictly philosophical terms only necessarily concludes to the fact that here is a "feasible" or "interesting" alternative, not to a necessary conclusion as to its truth, which, even in theological terms, requires faith, itself containing its own criteria of credibility.
Thus, what one "knows" when one accepts the supernatural, to use your terms, is how the whole fits together, at least in its general outlines. So when I speak of a "Roman Catholic Political Philosophy," I do not imply that Roman Catholics are sinless—God save us. I do imply that, crucial to their own concept of revelation, is that one of its purposes was the forgiveness, not the elimination, of our sins. When Chesterton, a man who seems particularly good and even sinless by most of our standards, became a Catholic, he was asked why he did so. His answer was simply, "I wanted to get rid of my sins." So the notion that we can reject revelation because of the splendidly bad example of particular Catholics, clerical or lay, is simply a failure to understand what in fact revelation is about on this score. We have here no lasting or sinless city, but that does not necessarily mean, as Augustine taught us, that there is no such city.
A Roman Catholic Political Philosophy is the mildest effort to suggest that certain fundamental coherences do exist if we are willing to look at them. Revelation does "precede" reason merely in the sense that it includes within itself the order of all things, all things being originally intended for an end higher than we might expect. These ends in fact have to do with the curious questions or observations that Aristotle, among others, posed about whether God is lonely or whether we want our friends to become gods, or whether our loves, as Plato intimated, have a touch of immortality about them.
But this "touch," as it were, since the Incarnation, includes not just the immortality of the soul, but the Resurrection of the body, a doctrine that St. Paul, no mean philosopher in his own right, implied was indeed foolish to the philosophers even though it made perfectly good sense to want it if we could have it. From my point of view, after watching frantic clone research or the recent controversy over the baseball star Ted Williams being frozen in Phoenix in the hope that science will someday find a formula to bring him back, still swatting the ball, the orthodox view is no more silly than what else is going on about us. After taking a look at the alternatives, in fact, the orthodox view looks better and better, whatever else one might think of it.
What about the question that you cannot expect a philosopher or believer in another faith to know or even be concerned about the incredible intricacies of Catholic positions? Briefly, if I, as a Catholic, talk about a Hindu position, or a Hegelian one, I can be expected to have the basics of the position down fairly accurately. All I ask here for the purposes of this book is that, when agreeing or disagreeing with a typically Catholic position, that what that position is be stated carefully and accurately.
Thus, one might say, for instance, that "all those stories about miracles in the New Testament must be silly because no mere man could perform them." No Catholic would have the slightest problem in agreeing with such a statement as a principle. The only problem with it is if that is the reason one does not agree with a Catholic position, then he must realize that Catholics also agree in rejecting such a view. The problem is not whether a man could do it, but rather "who was this Man?" One need not be a Catholic (or Marxist) to state accurately what it holds, even if one does not "agree" with it. It may be quite unlikely that there are "persons" in the Godhead, in the inner life of God. But, in the logic of things, both historically and philosophically, if there are no persons in the Godhead, it is highly unlikely there are any anywhere else, for our origin of what it is to be a person has such theological roots in the explication of the inner life of the Trinity.
And we may reject all this silliness about a hell, even if Plato talked about it. But when we do reject it, we have to suffer the intellectual consequences of undermining any ultimate meaningfulness to our individual actions. When Plato dealt with this topic, and revelation merely repeated its essentials, it was to confront what is essentially a problem in political philosophy. This dilemma is stated as follows: either, without a doctrine of hell, many unjust actions ultimately go unpunished, as they are not punished in this life, and therefore the world is created in injustice, or that we license the state take it on itself, like the recent Belgian courts, to punish all crimes in this world. Hence, in this latter case, we create an incipient tyranny because we cannot acquire that sort of knowledge sufficient to carry out the task of knowing and punishing all crimes. Aquinas was much wiser—the state can only deal with certain obviously dangerous external crimes that would undermine the possibility of civil living, those that the generality of men can observe. The rest we should leave to freedom and virtue and the practical and fallible prudence of existing states, a prudence not all have, to be sure. Ultimate justice is found only in the transcendent order.
KM: What is the most revealing comment you've ever heard a student make?
JVS: It is, after having dutifully passed out, on the first day of class, a syllabus with all the pertinent information on this very subject, to get, during the last week of class, an email from a student wanting to know "whether there would be a final and when it would be held?" From this brief exchange, one concludes either a) the student cannot read, or b) that he chooses not to read.
KM: What is the most interesting comment you've ever heard a student make?
JVS: "When I taught in Rome, during the Communist era, I was teaching a class on Plato. There was a Hungarian cleric in the class, along with several would be liberation theologians, then a current fad. After the class, the Hungarian student calmly told me, "In my country, they would never allow you to teach that class." "Why?" I asked. "Because you cannot ask about the best regime in an already perfect state." No observation reveals more of what political philosophy is about than this one.
KM: What is the most profound remark you've ever heard a student make?
JVS: A student from a very good and happy family returned home for school vacation. It seems that, while she was away at college, her old room, remembered from childhood, was taken over by her younger sister. Even though she had a place to stay in her own home, she suddenly realized that "this is no longer my room, my home. I no longer really live here," she realized. Then she added, "I also know that the college is not my home even though I live there for a while." This experience is all in Aristotle, of course, and repeated in Jennifer Roback Morse's insightful book, Love and Economics, about seeking a friend for life with whom to live, about the purpose of parental authority to disappear, about founding new homes, about growing up, becoming a citizen, leaving home, finding a worldly task, wondering about the ultimate things, making decisions, knowing that we too will, soon enough, have to travel down that path about which Socrates spoke to Cephalus, about the mystery of Chesterton's "homesickness at home," and Augustine's "restless heart."