In his first interview since his retirement from Georgetown University, where he taught political theory for 36 years, James V. Schall, S.J., reflects on his teaching career, how he prepared almost 40 books, what political philosophy is, the future of the Catholic Church, and the election of Pope Francis. This is the most recent of several conversations Schall and Claremont Institute senior fellow Ken Masugi have conducted over the years, going back to 2002. Earlier interviews may be found here.
Ken Masugi: You certainly shaped Georgetown in your 36 years of teaching there. But how did Georgetown shape you and your writing? And does the American university, in the version you knew years ago, have a future?
James V. Schall, S.J.: Actually, Georgetown went its own way. I was able to teach there what I thought was important. I was free to do that. A university at its best is one that seeks wisdom and realizes that it lies in the ability of its professoriate to reflect and teach what is true. I think that the desire and need to know what one's field is, the emphasis on knowing and keeping up with a field is a primary way that a school will influence us.
Does the university in its earlier versions have a future. Everyone is tending to on-line versions. Universities are telling us that they have fifty or sixty thousand on-line students for a course. The cost of plants and faculty seems to encourage this trend. Whether we are able to get by without human-sized classes and personal presence I doubt. We are after all real persons dealing with real persons. I suspect that smaller institutions will survive precisely because human nature itself seems abandoned without the living presence of actual persons. The difference between a training to do some practical thing to make a living and a liberal education that is designed to meet ultimate questions remains. If the latter disappears, the civilization disappears.
KM: Which do you prefer as a guide in political philosophy, Leo Strauss or Eric Voegelin?
JVS: We are indebted to both Strauss and Voegelin for their role and inspiration in reintroducing into academia a serious study of political things, one that was willing to take the whole tradition of classical and medieval thought into consideration. Though there is some correspondence between them, I think that each had a different perspective. Yet, in a way, each of these men seemed to deal with something the other neglected or ignored.
My own take on Strauss and Voegelin was that there was a third party that both of them neglected. I would put it as "Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome," not just "Jerusalem and/or Athens." Of course, it is clear that Voegelin was much concerned with Christian revelation and Strauss always seemed to have Jewish revelation hovering in his mind. But I have thought that a more harmonious relation existed between reason and revelation than I found in either. This difference must be delicately put. Essentially, it is that revelation, while not ceasing to be revelation, had the effect of making philosophy more philosophical. The two were not haphazardly related.
One could not, logically, argue from reason to faith without being himself a god. But revelation was clearly directed to intellect, including human intellect. It demanded that intellect be itself first intellect before revelation's own content and meaning could be understood. Revelation was not opposed to reason, as it sometimes seemed to be presented in Strauss. Strauss sought to protect both reason and revelation by separating them. Voegelin seemed to me to make revelation less definite than it really was. Hence, he seemed to hesitate not about its truth but about the particulars of what it meant. God might reveal Himself in all sorts of ways but He would never do anything so rash as to establish a Church.
KM: What is the political future of natural right?
JVS: The key question is: "What do we mean by natural right?" No idea has caused more trouble in actual politics than this seemingly noble phrase. Words like "human rights" and "natural rights" come easily to our tongues. Both in ecclesiastical and modern political philosophy, this term, natural right, almost defines what we are supposed to be about. The terms "natural right" and "human right" are used univocally with natural law and natural reason.
Yet, the term "natural right" comes to us in modern thought from Thomas Hobbes, though it has origins in medieval nominalism. In the state of nature, man has the "right" to whatever is necessary for his survival. At first sight, if there is something that is "naturally" right, we should also find things that are "naturally" wrong. This latter way of thinking implies that what is naturally right and what wrong are there to be discovered by man not made such by his will. Modern natural right theory is a theory of will, a will presupposed to nothing but itself. In its politicized formulation, it has been the most enduring and dangerous alternative to a natural law that is based in the ontological reality of what man is.
Once natural right becomes the understood foundation of political life, the state is free to place any content into it that it wants, including the rewriting or elimination of natural law. The older constitutional tradition thought that the state was itself both a natural result of man's nature and, in that capacity, a check on the state. But if man has no "nature," he is freed from this restriction. Modern natural right means that nothing limits man or the state except what he wills. He can will whatever he can bring about whether or not it was held to be contrary to natural law.
In this sense, then, the future of modern natural right is very bright because it is now nearing completion of the "modern project," as Strauss called it, to eliminate any vestige of natural reason from politics, ethics, or culture. Man is whatever he or his polity says he is. He is not "bound" by any god or any intrinsic distinction between good and evil. The Socratic principle that founded our civilization, namely that it is "never right to do wrong," is replaced by the modern principle that what is right and what is wrong is whatever we decide it is.
Thus, I suppose, your real question should be whether natural law has any "future." The rise of "natural right" is itself a function of severing a direct relation between mind and reality. Once mind is seen as independent from the intelligible reality that is out there, it is free to formulate all natural forms or things, including man himself, as it wants. This is where we are today. This is why the continual invoking of "natural rights" talk only makes things worse as it prevents an honest look at "natural rights."
KM: With your enormous publication record—now approaching forty books and over a thousand articles, columns, and reviews—what are your writing habits? Do you have a daily routine?
JVS: It never occurred to me that I had "writing" habits. Once we acquire our habits, we never notice that we have them. But I have written regularly ever since I realized that I enjoyed writing sometime in my early college days at Santa Clara. One does not write just because he "enjoys" it. All writing should be rooted in what is worth saying, in what is the truth of things. That is what urges us to write.
Writing, furthermore, is not viewing. At a speech or on television, we see the man talking immediately before us. In writing we do not. The writer never knows if or who will read what he writes. It may be nobody; it may be everybody, usually it is some few. Nor does he know when it will be read. Much of the best things we will ever read were written by men long dead. The writer thus writes for the ages, for an audience he does not know.
When I was teaching in San Francisco years ago, I read an essay of Rebecca West called, I think, "The Strange Necessity." That necessity is the need to bring forth either in speech or writing what we hold, what we stand for. We are beings who speak, as Aristotle said. Writing is a silent word. Today's technology allows us to talk into a machine that translates our words into script without our typing or writing the words first on paper or screen.
We do not always know what we will say before we say it. In fact, we do not know exactly what we will write or say when we compose what we have in mind. I am always somewhat astonished by what I have written. It is almost never what I thought I would say before I began. We find out what we hold by writing it out. Yet it flows out of a germ of an idea or thought. Our words are designed to state and bring forth to whoever can read the reality of what is.
I do not have a daily routine. Ralph McInerny once remarked that he wrote his ‘two pages' a day, every day. I tend to want to finish what I start. I do notice that after I begin and have some things down on paper or screen, that, if I walk away or sleep on it, things seem to come together when I return to the matter. I sometimes have the feeling that I am not really doing the writing of what I write. Somehow if we are on the right track, reality itself writes it for us. I do not mean that mystically. It is just that once you begin to see how things fit together, they do. I have never written a novel, but I am sure at some point the author of the novel sees the logic of what he is writing. The conclusion follows.
KM: What was the most difficult book for you to write?
JVS: I have never found writing "difficult." Indeed, it is a pleasure but the kind of pleasure that is involved in playing a strenuous game. Getting what one writes published is usually more difficult. Books are often developments from beginning essays or ideas. I have found that once you begin to think of something, all sorts of related ideas come into your mind, even seemingly in sleep. You find that you begin to see connections, ways that the argument goes. You also see what does not belong.
Writing, as I have said, is rather a pleasure for the most part. The computer has taken much of the chore aspects of writing out of the effort. We have spell checks that need to be themselves checked, all sorts of devices to help us. But the machine cannot write what we want to say unless we tell it. And telling it is what writing is about at its first step. Once the thing is written and present in some form to the public, it sits there waiting, calling out for a reader. Writing is only completed in its being read and pondered.
KM: What will your next books be?
JVS: St. Augustine's Press is to bring out a book of essays called, The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures and another book called Remembering Belloc. Belloc has been an inspiration to me. I still think the best essayist in the English language. Later on in the year, Ignatius Press is publishing a book that I wrote while recovering from a cancer operation called Reasonable Pleasures. The Catholic University of America Press is doing, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading. I would like to add a short book that develops the themes that I discussed in a short essay entitled "The World We Think In."
KM: With regard to your reading lists that appear in numerous of your books, aside from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Chesterton, which author/book appears most often?
JVS: I do not have any exacts statistics on this, but I would suspect the most frequently recommended book is Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed. The most influential author is Josef Pieper. In recent years, I have learned very much from Joseph Ratzinger. Another book that I have turned to is Robert Spitzer's New Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God, a remarkable work. Another writer of great importance is Robert Sokolowski. His books, The God of Faith and Reason, Christian Faith & Human Understanding, Phenomenology of the Human Person, and Pictures, Quotations, and Distinctions are remarkable and provide an introduction and education in philosophy in a direct and forceful way. I have also found the work of David Walsh to be of great moment, his Modern Philosophical Revolution and After Ideology are excellent works.
I suppose I should add that I like P.G. Wodehouse very much. I would not like to pass over Ralph McInerny's book on Notre Dame, I Alone Am Left to Tell the Story. Ignatius Press has just reissued Frank Sheed's Society and Sanity. I had forgotten how insightful Sheed really is. This book and his Theology and Sanity remain classics. Two final books I would add are George Weigel's later biography of John Paul II, The End and the Beginning and Tracey Rowland's writings on Benedict and modern culture.
KM: So now you give us another list! Why choose a Pope from a particular Order? Are some Orders "more Catholic" than others?
JVS: Well, Ignatius of Loyola told the Jesuits to consider themselves to be the least. I am not sure that they always did. But this business of differing Orders and their relation to the universal Church needs clarification. I doubt if Pope Francis was chosen because he was a Jesuit rather than because he was an archbishop. Not a few have suggested that he was chosen because he was very unlike most Jesuits. Be that as it may, a pope is the pastor of all the faithful. He cannot afford to be narrowly identified with one or other religious tradition. On the other hand, he should want Franciscans to be good Franciscans and Jesuits to be good Jesuits, and so for all the Orders and diocesan clergy. Everyone's primary loyalty is to God, to the truth and to the revelation that is handed down to us in the Church.
KM: Benedict's legacy? Doesn't Benedict's resignation mean that the Pope must die in office—otherwise the Office will be subject to terrible pressures as the Pontiff ages?
JVS: You have two questions here, one about Benedict's legacy and the other about the effects of his resignation. As to his legacy, Benedict was the most erudite man ever on the Chair of Peter. The world did not much aver to what he was doing, but he literally rethought the whole modern world. Benedict is a man of profound insight. It was good that someone of his intellectual status be seen in the papacy.
You are no doubt right about the possible effects of this resignation. I am sure that Benedict did not intend to make the office a political football. But intentions and deeds are not always perceived the same way. If two or three popes in a row resign early, it certainly will set a precedent that puts a shadow on the much longer tradition that popes die in office for the good of the Church. Benedict obviously resigned knowing the issues at stake. He thought what he did was for the good of the Church. He was not trying to undermine it or change its nature. Pope Francis is a relatively old man on his election. Leo XIII was a little older than Francis when elected but he went on to reign for another quarter century.
I admit to being rather confounded by Benedict's resignation. I was content to let him rule as long as possible. I thought that John Paul II's death was such a powerful example of how to die, one that practically no one else could teach in the same way. Benedict evidently drew the opposite conclusion, namely that a pope must be in charge and, if he is unable to do much, it is not good for the Church. That view can be defended, but it need not be conclusive.
But we have a new pope already in office who seems lively enough. We have no reason to think that the Holy Spirit is any less present with a retired pope about than he was when the popes died in office. And if you do not believe in the Holy Spirit, it really does not make much difference to you whether a pope resigns or dies in bed. The world has not figured out why there are popes anyhow. It is curious that this centuries-long papal office is still here and, as the previous popes have shown, still makes a difference in the world. The papacy is now the main voice of reason in the world, that metaphysical reason that knows something about what is.
KM: Reason and faith require one another. Thank you, Fr. Schall. We'll check back in with you after your next books appear.