Since 2002 Ken Masugi, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and lecturer in Government at Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, has conducted Advent interviews with James V. Schall, S.J., author of thirty two books on political theory and theology. Earlier interviews may be found here. Fr. Schall teaches in the Government Department of Georgetown University. The Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University has recognized his award-winning teaching with its annual Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. Award for Teaching and Humane Letters. His websites, a portal into his writings and course syllabi, are here and here. This interview was conducted by email in early December 2010.
Ken Masugi: Congratulations on the publication of your thirty-second book, The Modern Age (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press). How does this book differ from others of the same title?
James V. Schall: Thank you. I read somewhere once that any author, no matter how many books he produces, mostly says the same thing. There is truth in that. This is why you can usually tell that the same author abides through all of his books. The title, as I mentioned in the text, is the title also of a famous ISI journal, founded by Russell Kirk in 1957, in which I have written myself. One thinks too of Romano Guardini's The End of the Modern World, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and Leo Strauss' felicitous phrase, "the modern project." Actually, if you check Google, you would be astonished at the variety of things that are labeled "modern age"—tobacco, musical groups, hairstyles, learned books, a move with Joan Crawford. Lots of folks want to get into the modern age, get out of it, or figure out what in blazes it is!
But I think it incumbent on everyone who thinks on these things to come to terms with what he means by "modern times" or "the modern age." So with this book, I further reflect on issues that I have taken up before. The title of Chapter 3 of At the Limits of Political Philosophy was "What Is Modernity?" Though the term has origins in literature and theology, it is of particular importance to political philosophy to grasp clearly the intellectual relationships of classical, medieval, and modern philosophy. I always write with Gilson's Unity of Philosophic Experience in the background of my mind. That is, ideas can be related to each other in content even when they seem far apart in time.
The efforts of Strauss and Eric Voegelin to argue that the classics were needed to save us from modern turns shocked many. But Strauss and Voegelin had a point with which we still have not sufficiently come to terms, the suspicion that something is inherently disordered about our modern souls. As Robert Sokolowski showed in his Phenomenology of the Human Person, we need to rediscover the basics of philosophy itself, not just its history, not just modern philosophy, as if modern philosophy is intelligible without reference to classical or medieval philosophy. We need actively to think them all through in our own minds, before we can further understand what and where we are.
The feeling that we have taken a radically wrong turn pervades our culture. We are, none the less, unwilling to take a cold look at what we have brought about precisely because we do not want to admit that the turn, in spite of some good things, was wrong at its core. That would require a change in the way we live. It is all, as I like to say, in Aristotle, the rejection of who, as Henry Veatch remarked, was at the founding of the modern age. Aristotle hovers over any return home.
KM: You maintain that "The modern age is characterized by the claim that man can propose his own final end, can decide the content of his own happiness." No doubt, in a manner he can do this, but is what he defines worth having?
JVS: Your question—"Is it worth having?"—in its own way, brings out the central theme of this book. Indeed, this "Is it worth having?" theme is why Benedict XVI's encyclical, Spe Salvi, is so fundamental for understanding the nature of political philosophy. We have had intimations all along from Nietzsche to Bury to Voegelin that the modern world is not nearly as "secular" in inspiration as it pretends to be. Rather it is an effort to accomplish the lofty goals that were found in the revelational tradition by means other than suggested there. Without this elevated background, our political ideologies and enthusiasms would simply never have happened.
KM: You proceed to show how such ambition leads to corruption of human reason and an assertion of divinity. This is what Voegelin called Gnosticism. Strauss, you argue, "notes that the elevated understanding of human nature from revelation remained even when its means of achievement were politicized."
JVS: Yes, the fundamental "corruption" of the human intellect is based on the assumption that nothing is found in the universe to which our minds are related. Gnosticism is what follows, namely, the use of our own practical intellects to propose what the world and our lives within it should look like. The Gnostic mind has nothing to "conform to" but itself.
The Strauss remark—similar things can be found in Voegelin—is extraordinarily perceptive. Quiet like Benedict, Strauss sees that the ends of everlasting life in happiness are proposed in Christian revelation. Their achievement requires grace. But their accomplishment is not to be found in this world. Yet, when faith is gone, these elevated ends remain demanding a "practical" response. The optimism of progress or utopianism ultimately comes from this forgotten grace's original addendum, as it were, to nature. Christianity in this sense has not been rejected. It has been relocated with a motivating force no longer dependent on faith, prayer, and good works. It depends rather on the technical/biological transformation of man and polity so that such ends are now produced in this world by man himself, by his "science." This is, as you put it, "an assertion of divinity."
KM: Wouldn't an American say that "the pursuit of happiness" is what being an American is all about? Aren't Americans, one argument goes, the quintessentially modern people, always innovating, always restive? Yet, too, isn't American modernity tempered by our roots in the "ancient faith," as Lincoln put it? How is America an example of the ills you see while at the same time it defies the modern world?
JVS: The relation of America to modernity is indeed a central intellectual issue. My colleague George Carey put the problem well several years ago in an essay in the University of Tulsa Law Review in which he argued that none of the branches of the government as described by the Constitution operate with any recognition to the limits the Constitution placed on them. Chesterton, with good reason, called America "the last of the medieval monarchies" precisely because, like medieval kings, its political institutions never claimed "divine right," which is a modern, not medieval, idea. I would be quite delighted if we still operated as if the Constitution mattered. No doubt, we still have folks who think that we should so operate, but these are seldom elected to office or appointed to positions of rule in the three branches or in the states.
The moral overturning of traditions rooted in reason and revelation has been logical and systematic, once we reordered our souls on the model of modernity. We did this abandoning of virtue and natural law, I think, precisely so that we could act "as if God did not exist," to cite a famous phrase from Grotius. Those who would act as if God did exist or as if there was a real relation between mind and what is are more and more marginalized.
A good deal of the intellectual manipulation that allowed this to happen has to do with whether the "ancient faith" and the classical tradition, including the medieval \tradition, had anything to do with our founding. The "pursuit of happiness" has been transposed into a "right to happiness," a concept with heavy statist overtones. C. S. Lewis rightly remarked that we have no "right" to happiness. The word happiness meant, in Aristotle, the best we mortals could do in this world. The "improvement of our estate," which is often seen to be what modernity is about, is better understood as an aspect of reason and charity than of a theory of man without limit.
The Aristotelian-Thomist approach, as I see it, would better serve to encourage improvement through virtue and practical reason than the approach through self-interest, greed, and the "right" to everything we want. I have never particularly liked the stress the popes place on what they call "consumerism." They see it as a core disorder of modernity. I do not see how you can have production, distribution, or service to others without markets that provide goods to be "consumed." Of course, the popes talk of "excessive" consumption, and a habit of mind that eschews the discipline needed to control all desires.
What America has learned at its best is how to create a city for mortal men while recognizing their passing thorough this world. It does not offer a this-worldly heaven but simply a way to rule themselves, provide for families, a sense of self-achievement, and service to others. It is precisely these virtues that seem to be under fire within America itself. The government and its elites have a different agenda, that of worldly happiness itself as an alternative to living a responsible, disciplined life in this world, knowing that four score years are about right. It is not an accident that the point of controversy is most often over the nature of the family, over begetting, virtue, and standards of integrity.
KM: Your definition of what is the modern age seems to include post-modern as well. Some have described President Obama as post-modern, in some sense of their kinder criticism. Modern politics is eschatology—critics of him have argued that he displays an eschatological fanaticism in his domestic policy as least.
JVS: We have two issues here: the relation of modernity to post-modernity and whether we can describe the president in eschatological terms. I decided early on that I agreed with Eric Voegelin in his 1976 conversations in Montreal. In the twentieth century, everything, in its intellectual origins, was already present by the beginning of that century. Nothing in what is called post-modernity is nor already there in modernity. Post-modernity is simply the carrying out, as Gilson implied in the Unity of Philosophical Experience, of the logic of ideas that were already formulated.
I can well remember the enthusiasm that greeted the fall of the Nazi regime. Many thinkers from Maritain to Walter Lippmann sensed that a new opportunity had dawned. The same mistakes of vengeance would not be made that were made after World War I. We could return to the sane natural law traditions that modern unlimited totalitarian ideology had rejected. Nazism was a return to paganism. It rejected Christianity as well as Judaism. The only reason the same slaughter did not occur among the Christians, except the Poles, was lack of time before it fell.
But it did not turn out that way. It was Nietzsche who ruled, not St. Thomas. Nietzsche seems to have been right all along. Modern thought believed in nothing. It was simply illogical. It did not have the courage of its convictions. This included the weak-believing, secularized Christians. We have among us today those willing to carry out Nietzsche's challenge in an ever more sophisticated manner. That we do not recognize them is our peril.
With regard to the president's "post-modernity" or his eschatology, I am aware that he commented on Niebuhr. Many have referred to him as "the messiah" or "the redeemer." I have never found much American in his thought or actions. Some call him a European liberal, or a secularized Muslim, or simply a utopian. I have been inclined to see him in terms of classical political philosophy. He is like the young man who comes to Socrates to learn how to rule, only to be exposed as someone with nothing else in his soul but this raw ambition. Aristotle's "leader of the people," or Plato's democratic man out of whom comes the young leader able to manipulate a people without virtue often seems to me to be close. (See my "The Young Tyrant," Inside Catholic, July 8, 2008, "What Is a Leader?" Inside Catholic, October 7, 2008, and the comment on the Gorgias at First Principles Journal, March 4, 2020). I have even toyed with Robert Hugh Benson's "The Lord of the World" (Inside Catholic, March 9, 2009).
The president's pejorative comments in the campaign on religious and working people who need to be ruled along with his massive taking over of things private leads one to wonder if he has any real idea how wealth is produced and distributed. He seems to desire complete control of the economy and the people for some grandiose compassionate purpose that can only be described as "messianic." It could have Muslim origins in a universal caliphate or a socialist vision of some vintage. In any case, I see little American in this president and even less that comes from the limits of government tradition found in the Constitution, in Christianity, and in classical thought. The president is everywhere talking. His idea of solving a crisis appears to be to give yet another speech. Politics does require rhetoric but not that rhetoric associated with Callicles whose purpose was to justify whatever the ruler wanted.
KM: How does theology enable the philosopher, the man of reason, or a modern person, to "see" better?
JVS: Theology means the use of reason to understand what is contained in the tradition and texts of revelation. Already here, we have an implicit assumption that such a thing as philosophy exists, not just a number of incompatible philosophies. A philosophy (or theology) that did not accept the reality of things or the reality of what happened in history would, from this point of view, be an inadequate or erroneous philosophy. The meaning of philosophy is that all philosophical claims have to be locked together in one world with a common appeal to reason.
Theology or better revelation is itself directed to reason. It is directed to a reason that is not itself closed in such a way that it forbids entry to any appeal to reason from any source. Modern philosophy often closes itself off on methodological grounds from considering the import of revelation. The cost of this closing off is the denial of its claim to be a real philosophy, a real opening to all that is. There is no a priori way to close off reason in such a way that what comes from revelation must be of its very nature unreasonable.
Reason will not know that revelation is directed to it unless reason itself is reasoning about the most important things to see what it knows about man, nature, and God. Reason discovers that it can formulate and answer many important questions, but others it cannot. It then tries to respond in terms of myth or speculation or planning. But when a properly posed philosophical question cannot find a solution in its own terms, it must at least consider what is proposed by revelation in answer to the same question. This relationship already suggests that the sources of reason and revelation are the same, but offered from different perspectives for different purposes. One cannot argue from philosophy to revelation. Revelation does not propose to replace philosophy. Theology needs philosophy to explain revelation more fully.
In practice, philosophic reason is confronted by the reason contained in revelation. That is, when philosophy thinks about revelation, it finds that philosophy itself becomes more "reasonable" in seeking to understand what is contained in revelation as a response to reason's own unanswered questions. (The two appendices of The Modern Age are on philosophy and theology).
KM: "The modern age, briefly, was a secular effort to resolve theoretical and theological problems unavoidably brought up in the course of human living in this planet." How can Christian humility help contain radical politics—whether fascist, communist, Islamist, or progressive? Isn't it easy for the advocates of Christian moderation to be labeled as the fanatics? And aren't the temptations great as well?
JVS: Making sense of our existence and purpose is a legitimate and necessary human endeavor. We are hardly human if we do not make this effort. The modern secular effort did not arise in a vacuum. It rose as an effort to achieve goals that had already been proposed in Greek and Christian thought. In this sense, it was not original. The Greeks were original. The Christians, with their own newness, did not disdain the Greeks. Anyone who reads Plato will have a hard time forgetting him. Nor should he do so. And no one can forget Augustine's own reaction to his reading the Platonists. He found there, he tells us, the Word, but not the Word made flesh. And when any one puts down his copy of the Republic, he cannot but wonder about the true location of the City in Speech. No Christian ever doubted that Plato was on to something there.
The "fanaticism" if you will contained in modernity relates to its rejection of Christian humility, in its accepting the fact that it could not itself provide the best answer to what it really wanted. This is why Christians see modernity, if we must give it a vice, as pride. It is prideful to claim that what is proposed in revelation can be achieved by human political, scientific, biological, or economic means. This very effort requires that we know what politics, science, biology, and economics really are. When they become servants of a utopianism, they themselves change the limited nature of their proper being.
The temptations are indeed great. This is why within both the classical and Christian traditions that the most dangerous man was precisely the intellectual, the scientist. As I like to put it, all disorders in the world begin in the hearts of the intellectual and clerical dons. This is why, I suppose, Christ said that some devils are only driven out by prayer and fasting. Though I do not forget Frodo, the real issue lies within the hearts of those who are capable of doing the most good. It was not by accident that the devil is the most intelligent of the angels. Temptations of the flesh are bad enough, I suppose, but they pale before those who have no temptations of the flesh but who do want to rule the world in their own name and set out to do so.
KM: Could you elaborate on your intriguing comments on the Pangle book, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham? "What particularly struck me about the Pangle's moving book, and it is something that arises in political philosophy as such, is what I might call the relation of evil to friendship. In salvation history some of those who do evil are redeemed and friendship is guaranteed. Both of these acts, redemption and friendship, in their highest sense, flow from Trinity and Incarnation" (93).
JVS: Pangle's book was the best introduction to Christianity that I had ever read. The Christian considers the Old Testament to be his book, but his because it is a Jewish book. After seeing what the Christian explication the Old Testament is about, the believing Jew has to come up with an understanding of the Bible that would conclude in another way what Christians see in the Incarnation and Redemption. The Jew, I think, has no trouble in seeing that the Christian understanding of the Bible has its roots in this same Bible. But since this explication is considered to be wrong, an alternate explanation must be forthcoming.
The Bible is full of instances of Chosen People who reject God, but God continues to love them and to protect them. The Covenant abides. I have dealt with this in a couple of places. ("Maritain on the ‘Mystery of Israel,'" in my Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society and "The Old Testament and the New Testament," Ignatius Insight, June 25, 2009). Men were created ultimately to be friends of God, something even Aristotle wondered about. However, as we know, the worst of betrayals is that of a friend by a friend. The question is whether there is any repentance or forgiveness in the universe. This is really what the Redemption is about, the dealing with the consequences of sin in such a way that sin is not denied and freedom of the creature is respected.
This background is already present in political philosophy. Aristotle spent more time with friendship than with justice for a reason. Aristotle did not have the vivid scenes of the Fall in Genesis, but he did understand some bondage of human nature, some abiding wickedness that circled human endeavors. Cities were established that some mitigation of evil could be brought about. But no city could properly punish all evils or reward all good deeds witnessed within them. This is why Plato, almost desperately, posits the City in Speech as the proper location of justice in order that the world be not ill-made. The drama of the unity and difference of the Old and New Testaments addresses this final issue of whether and how we can be friends of God and of one another when evil is caused also by our free choices and not by some matter outside of us. In an odd way, I found the Pangle book vividly to underline that Christian reading of the Old Testament that results in a solution to evil and friendship that transcends politics while recognizing its place.
KM: Strange, I always thought of Pangle as reflecting a kind of Nietzscheanism—not that Nietzsche couldn't teach us a great deal about theology.
JVS: I read the Pangle book in the light of the God of Abraham's relation to the New Testament. It seemed to me that the Christian answers to the issues raised in the Old Testament were not really confronted. The alternative answers were not persuasive. I have always understood Strauss as taking pains to be sure that Jewish relation is not touched or undermined by philosophy. Hence, they cannot refute each other. Both remain valid. Whether this entails an Averroes-type response, I can see where it is possible. David Walsh sees Nietzsche as seeking reality and being wise enough to understand that modern philosophies do not uphold reality. That is in part the thesis of my book. I think the notion that revelation and reason are directed to each other is the more cogent way to deal with these divergencies. The God of Abraham can deal with Nietzsche insofar as the primary of the "I am" is recognized in both testaments and, as Benedict pointed out in the Regensburg Lecture, both see the Logos which in turn grounds a philosophy of what is.
KM: Averroes! You argue that the early Church regarded philosophy as an ally. Is this why St. Paul went to Greece? You cited a passage from Benedict XVI "to the sarcophagi of the early Church actually depicted Christ as a philosopher." We are not used to seeing Him in this role. Clearly, Christ was not a modern philosopher with tenure in some high-priced research institution.
JVS: Both the Greeks and the Christians held that pride was the worst sin. They both saw it as something more proper to the learned than to the simple. Literary tradition is not wrong to see in the worst men a Lucifer-like pride. But this is the temptation of the wise, not a condemnation of intelligence. Christ is properly described as Logos, as Word. Benedict specifically says that Christ is not in the tradition of an academic with tenure, but rather as a more ancient concept of a philosopher as a wise man, more like Socrates than, say, Hegel. But Paul's warning of the foolishness of the wise and the learned did not mean that we denigrate wisdom, the wisdom of Solomon or of Aristotle. Aquinas and Augustine are unabashedly praised for their learning, even academic learning. We have no reason in principle why university professors cannot be saints, as not a few were.
Benedict states explicitly that Paul went into Macedonia because of reason as it is developed by the Greeks and that this reason is already found incipiently in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Revelation, as I mentioned before, is directed to the intelligence of the most intelligent, without neglecting the common sense of the ordinary. Aristotle and John Paul II, along with Chesterton, were alert to the wisdom that can exist outside of academia, in ordinary people. They often did see the foolishness of the tenured flock. Peter Kreeft's little book The Philosophy of Jesus is useful here. He shows how it is quite possible to find a careful realist philosophy in the actions and words of Christ. If the ancient description of Christ as a philosopher means anything, it means that the reason of the Logos and the reason both of the wise man and the common man are related. It also means that the pursuit of intelligence in faith leads to an expansion of intelligence in philosophy itself.
KM: Thanks very much. Merry Christmas.