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Political Philosophy Needs Revelation: A Conversation with James V. Schall

By: James V. Schall, Ken Masugi
April 11, 2014

Retired political philosophy professor James V. Schall, S.J., recently published three books whose philosophic and theological themes help us understand Lent and Easter. This interview coincides with the conclusion of a seminar in Claremont on the principal works of Harry V. Jaffa. Returning to my pre-seminar reading, I immediately encountered Fr. Schall’s chapter “Thomism and Atheism,” from his Political Philosophy & Revelation. It begins by reference to Jaffa’s change of mind regarding Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of Aristotle—in other words, the relationship between revelation and philosophy. This subsequent wide-ranging conversation, conducted via e-mail, approaches this theme in a variety of ways. For links to earlier conversations see the previous one. https://www.claremont.org/publications/pubid.826/pub_detail.asp

—Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi (KM): In noting a dimension of Jaffa’s “turn,” which many at the Jaffa seminar observed in his contrasting understandings of Abraham Lincoln and of the founding, you see as well a reconsideration of Aristotelian magnanimity and Christian humility. “Humility and truth are presupposed to each other.” How do this presupposition and the reason-revelation dynamic tension of western civilization figure into the three books you published last year?


James V. Schall (JVS): These three books—1) Reasonable Pleasures: On the Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press), 2) Remembering Belloc, (St. Augustine’s Press), and 3) Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic Reading (The Catholic University of America Press)—were, of course, written over a course of several years. The time it takes to submit manuscripts, have them evaluated, edited, and finally published is usually a couple of years. These books were written at different times and in different ways. It is coincidence that they all came out last Fall, in the year after I retired from Georgetown University, in December 2013.

The Reasonable Pleasures book was written mostly in the Fall of 2010. I had a jaw cancer diagnosed and operated on in June of 2010. That meant that I needed at least six months to recover. The University kindly gave me an emergency leave during the Fall Semester. The whole jaw replacement, new dentures, and the healing of the bone graft took all six months and more, but I was able to teach in the Spring Semester of 2011. As I began to feel better, I had wanted to think through a project that I had been wondering about for some time. So partly to keep busy and partly because the project seemed remarkable to me, I began to write the book. I think that it was finished and submitted to the publishers in January 2011.

The title of the book, of course, is from Aristotle, as is so much of what is sane in this world. Every act is accompanied by an appropriate pleasure—eating, smelling, hearing, touching, seeing. Aristotle adds that thinking itself has its own proper pleasure. Indeed, and this is how this book touches on political philosophy, he said that the politician, if he does not, in some sense, himself experience the delight of thinking, he will  in all likelihood find his pleasures in some other less than noble activity. Aristotle would not deny that the good politician (or even the bad one) experiences a unique pleasure in ruling. But that is not the same as the pleasure of thinking. Still, the goodness or badness of an act does not depend on its pleasure. It depends on the purpose of the act in which pleasure exists or is manifested.

A reasonable life is one that experiences, at the right time and in the right place, the proper pleasure that an act allows or signifies. In an earlier book of mine, The Order of Things, I pointed out that the very meaning of wisdom is to see this order or, in the case of our moral or political lives, to put pleasures into existence but as ruled by reason. In one sense, this present book takes up the old Epicurean issue of the primacy of pleasure. When pleasure, perfectly legitimate in its place, becomes separated from the activity in which it belongs, we are in for trouble, sometimes big trouble, whether we like it or not.

But the main point is that pleasure is itself a good thing. Its natural purpose is to enhance the activity in which it belongs. Pain is also a good thing, though the opposite of pleasure. It is paradoxical to speak of the pleasure of pain. But if we did not have a toothache, we would never know the problem. It is the pain that tells us something is wrong and hence to a relief to us.

But this consideration also leads to the great questions of Greek political philosophy and Christianity; that is, whether it is better to do evil or suffer it? Our civilization is really built on the stance we take on this issue. It even brings us to Callicles in the Gorgias, to his astonishment over Socrates remark that we should want to be punished for our evil deeds. A chapter on this topic is found in Political Philosophy & Revelation.

But the essence of the present book goes back to issues like sport and humor in our lives. I have long been taken by Aristotle’s casual remark—one I have seen confirmed in the lives of many students over the years—that the closest a young man or woman gets to contemplation is in watching, being absorbed by following the action of a good ball game of some sort. Several students have said to me that no one had ever explained to them why watching a good game was not simply frivolous or a waste of time. Aristotle, as you recall, said that it was close to contemplation because it was the unexpected experience of beholding something for its own sake, and not for some useful purpose. It is in the life of leisure within the political order but beyond politics that the highest things take place. Without them, our civilization soon loses its soul.

But the book is primarily about the pleasure of thinking and its relation to beatitude. I covered some of this in The Life of the Mind. Here I am concerned with how revelation belongs to this reality of reasonable pleasures that are, in their being, something we do not concoct for ourselves. We simply find them given in reality. 

In another sense, this book is a reflection on Benedict XVI’s Spei Salvi, a very great document, especially for political philosophy. Benedict sees clearly that modern philosophy is pretty much what Voegelin said it was, the “immanentization of the eschaton,” the attempt to reach by human means the elevated ends that human nature was given at its creation, immortality, resurrection, and eternal life. Strauss was perplexed by this “elevated” sense of nature that revelation implied.


KM: And how does Remi Brague, who wrote what you called “the most important book written in political philosophy” [(The Law of God (2007)], complement what Benedict has written?” I understand he took the place of Pope Benedict as speaker at a conference in Rome.

JS: Benedict carefully points out what happens when we reject hell but try to extend our lives by scientific methods to the point of denying death. These were also topics that I discussed in At the Limits of Political Philosophy. The present book’s subtitle, “On the Strange Coherences of Catholicism” comes from these considerations. Modern political philosophy is in one sense a systematic effort to avoid seeing what it is actually about. It is only when we get the “dogma” right, as the first chapter of this book has it, that we get the rest of it right. And dogma is what the mind does when it is being mind.

That is, it affirms of what is that it is, and states of what is not, that it is not.  Once our “dogma” is that no nature or no objectives of knowledge can be found, we still have unacknowledged “dogmas” but ones that lead us to incoherence. It is the suspicion that the world and our place in it is really not incoherent that runs through this book.

Remembering Belloc is a book that I much love, a real “labor of love.” It is a collection of mostly short essays that I have done over the years. I have written regular essays on Chesterton over the years, some of which are collected in my Schall on Chesterton. I had a briefer series called “Schall on Belloc” and this book contains many of these plus other essays on Belloc, including his very insightful position on Islam.

Belloc was simply the best short essayist in the English language. He walked or sailed everywhere. He has a collection about “everything” and another about “nothing.” He writes children’s tales and has a book on Danton and most of the great figures of English history. Belloc lost one son in World War I and another in World War II. His wife was an American from Napa, California. He was half French and served in the French army. He loved military history and walked every battleground. His Cruise of the Nona around England by himself in his own boat is simply charming.

No books are quite like The Path to Rome and The Four Men, the first a walk, in 1901, from his old army base in Toul in France to Rome, and second, in 1902, a walk with a Poet, a Sailor, an Old Man, and “Myself,” through Sussex County England, his home county. The four men are, of course, all Belloc. He says in The Four Men that the only way you can keep a place you once loved is to write about it, for it will soon disappear as you once knew it. A friend once gave me his Towns of Destiny and later the same friend found in an English book store his collection called Places—both wonderful books.

Belloc walked much of North Africa, Spain, France, and England. He sailed into Patmos, where he noted that all the trees were cut down. He climbed the Pyrenees and the Alps. He loved bacon, eggs, good bread, wine, and cheese. He thought one ought not to drink any strong drink invented after the Reformation. He was a born Catholic and, as he said, never lost the faith, but not without struggle. In many ways, in spite his laughter and wit, he was in many ways a sad man. His essay on Jane Austen in one of the selected collections of his essays is lovely. Belloc can move one’s soul if you let him, so he is only to be read with caution by modern men who are constrained to deal only in little thoughts and have not allowed themselves be touched by any hint of transcendence, a touching that Belloc himself found heavy.

Belloc loved the world, its ordinary things, but he hated liars. He would have considered our “non-judgmental” society to be slightly daft and probably diabolical. When you decide that the mind is not made to know what is and to judge, you decide the mind is not mind. But the title of this book is on target. When you “remember” Belloc, you remember most of the things that are worthwhile remembering in this world, and, yes, also in the next.

The third book on political philosophy and revelation is, in a way, the bringing together of most of what I have thought on these topics that are kept at bay in the academies. It was Strauss and Voegelin who made it not only possible but often necessary to think of reason and revelation, of Athens and Jerusalem, and, as I insist, also on Rome. I call this book “a Catholic reading” of the topic.

I am in part thinking of Harry Jaffa’s remark at Strauss’s funeral that the importance of Aquinas was that he kept Aristotle alive. Indeed he did, but he also saw how Aristotle and revelation were in fact related. It has been my life work, as I look back on the political philosophy essays and books that I have written, to explain how they belong together. We still must keep the proper distinctions and observations.

Without care, it is relatively easy to turn political philosophy into a theology or theology into a political form. It is, I think, the primary effect of revelation to allow politics to be just what it is, and only what it is, that it, politics. Politics is not itself, as Charles N. R. McCoy used to say, a “substitute metaphysics,” or as Voegelin and Benedict XVI say, an attempt to achieve Christian ends by political, economic or scientific means within this world by human means—the famous “immanentization of the eschaton.” This approach was also the burden of my book, The Modern Age.


KM: You refer to Jaffa’s change of mind on Thomas in your chapter on “Thomism and Atheism,” where you maintain that “Humility and truth are presupposed to each other.”  And you relate this to what you say later on, “the purpose of revelation is to free politics to be politics and not a pseudoreligion or metaphysics.”


JVS: As the subtitle of the Reasonable Pleasures book indicated, there are “strange coherences.” What is the relation between Plato’s wonder about whether the world was made in justice and the issue of the immortality of the soul? How and why does this consideration relate to the resurrection of the body? This relationship comes up surprisingly in a context of political philosophy, something Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi. To illustrate his point about resurrection, he surprisingly used, not Christian or Aristotelian sources, but Marxist ones.

The fact is that revelation is directed to reason when it is being most reasonable, when it is most careful in stating what it sees and knows. Revelation is not some sort of irrational assumption or concocted story. It is not just poetry, even when it is expressed in poetic form. Joseph Pieper’s Platonic Myths points out just how closely Plato is related to revelation.

But reason will never recognize revelation unless it (reason) is what it claims it is, that is, reason. In a Catholic view, one cannot argue from reason to revelation. To do this would mean that the mind is already God. But nothing prevents God from communicating with us. God is also Logos. I have dealt with this issue in my book, The Regensburg Lecture, where Benedict brings up the central place Athens played in early Christianity. It is precisely this issue that gets us into the most modern of questions, namely the voluntarist mind of both modern political philosophy and Islam.

But for philosophy to be capable of recognizing that something is addressed to it as mind—faith is an intellectual virtue—that mind has to know what is possible for it to know by itself. Revelation does not bother to explain what the human mind can figure out on its own. This is why the New Testament is not a book of politics. Aristotle already had written on this topic, so it was not necessary to repeat it. It is precisely when reason recognizes that there are questions that, at its best, it cannot answer that philosophy as a search for the whole, in Strauss’s terms, cannot exclude the intelligibility that is found in revelation and how it relates to what the mind knows and does not know in its own reflections on what is.

Actually, a fourth book should be mentioned here. A Festschrift was edited by Marc Guerra, Jerusalem, Athens & Rome: Essays in Honor of James V. Schall, S. J. I did not read any of these essays until the book was published also in 2013. It is, in my view, a remarkable collection of essays, each of which catches some aspect of ideas that I have wondered about. Guerra caught the flow of my thought over the years. When “Rome” is added to Jerusalem and Athens, I mean not only the Republic and the Empire, but also the whole medieval tradition.

Often political philosophy courses are taught as if the middle ages did not exist. As a result, pleas to return to the classics assume that we can cover the rational and political spheres by dealing only with the ancients and the moderns. We can’t. Universities themselves come out of the middle ages largely over the issue of how reason relates to revelation when both are seen as valid and related to each other as coming from the same intellectual source.

The title of one of my earlier books—The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy—argued that all of these traditions must be considered. Likewise, the unique case of philosophy as such, its own universality, needs to be kept in mind lest the cultural relativism which has been a substitute for philosophy make it impossible to deal with man and man or politics as politics. Philosophy is philosophy, not just some odds some curious Greeks used to talk about. Many, if not most, of the political issues of any era, including our own, are theological or metaphysical in nature. One of my constant concerns has been that political philosophy does not isolate itself within itself and thus not be open to issues directed to reason.

It is out of this background that political philosophy came up in the first place, over the issues of the death of Socrates and later the death of Christ, both issues of the best man killed in the  best existing state of his time by an essentially “legal’ process. It was precisely this experience out of which the issue of the best regime arose.

It has been my constant position that politics to be what it is cannot be a substitute religion or metaphysics and still be politics as Aristotle understood it. This is why most of the politics we know today are really, as Chantal Delsol noted in Icarus Fallen, covert ideological efforts to resolve what are essentially Christian ideas by man within this world. No sense of the transcendent and its relation to each existing person remains. This is the significance of the last chapter in Reasonable Pleasures on eternal life.


KM: As we approach Easter, how should we think about the sacrifices/promises that we have already broken? How should we think more in terms of duties rather than personal prohibitions?


JVS: To speak of promises that we have already broken is to bring up the issue of justice and mercy. It also brings up the essential subject of the Republic of Plato. I have always been struck by the fact that the immortality of the soul is a teaching that grew out of political philosophy, out of Plato’s wonderment: “Are all crimes properly punished and are all good deeds rewarded?” In one sense, the ancient city was itself founded to minister justice among the feuding tribes and individuals. A citizen was someone who lived in a polity that sought to see that justice was done. But it is quite clear that no human polity or court has ever managed to reward and punish everything that deserved it.

What are we to make of this fact? For Plato, it was necessary to propose the immortality of the soul and a transcendent judgment if the whole world was not simply unjust at its core. If no judgment existed, then nothing we did made any final difference. Thus, the heaven and hell of the Republic are not as such a religious teaching but one of political philosophy. When Augustine takes up this theme in the City of God, it is not to deny Plato but to clarify further the location, as it were, of this judgment. Political regimes that propose in this world to make right all wrongs and punish all evil in effect make a divine claim. This is ever the temptation of politics. It exists among us.

Aristotle said that if man were the highest being in the universe, politics would be the highest science. But since he is not the highest being, politics is not the highest science. It is not an accident that politics becomes an ideology or pseudo-religion when it comes to be based on a denial of a natural order in the cosmos or in man. This is what I argued in The Modern Age. The modern world is a “rights” world. This comes largely from Hobbes. The logic of a “rights” world is curious. It basically means that what we “ought” to be by “right” is owed to us. If we do not have what we ought to have, we are victims. Someone has the “duty” to give us our “rights.”

This “rights” world is a world in which the notion of gift can no longer exist. Christianity is rooted in gift, not rights. If I do not have what is my “right,” then, when it is supplied to me, it is because of someone else’s “duty.” In a way, such a world bears out the problem that I have always associated with justice, namely, that it is the most terrible of the virtues. When we treat someone “justly,” we return what is “due.” It does not depend on that person’s charm or character. He can be the worst of men and, if we “owe” him something, we must return it. A thoroughly “just” world is a world of cold impersonality. The great things of life—friendship, honor, sacrifice, love, praise—are beyond justice. Aquinas thus said that the world was created in mercy, not justice.

In a paradoxical sense, in a completely “just” world, Christianity itself would have no place to exist. It could not really talk about “giving” or “sacrificing” because what is given is “due.” This is the classical problem with socialism and such forms of “rights”-oriented systems. In the name of justice, they get rid of all the real institutions of love and sacrifice that really deal with individual people in their particularity. The greatest things are beyond justice. When we politicize all the human activities, we really end up with a world in which no one can possibly love another because everything is already “owed.”

The word “prohibition” is clearly a bad one in our world. I am fond of Chesterton’s remark about why most of the ten commandments are stated negatively—“thou shalt not”…. In the eyes of an Aquinas, the commandments were simply affirmation of the law of our nature, its internal order. We might say that it is a “restriction” of our liberty if we cannot kill Jones, who, we think, is a crook and a fool. But this restriction on our liberty allows Jones freely to walk around about his own business. He may just decide freely to reform his ways. He might look around for forgiveness.

In Political Philosophy & Revelation, there is a chapter dealing with Plato’s discussion of forgiveness. In the Phaedo, there is a scene in which a man who killed another is being punished in the rivers of Tartarus. The only way he can get out is if the man he killed forgives him. A Christian, reading such a passage, opens his eyes widely. If the man forgives him, he gets out; if not, he keeps being punished forever. This scene not only emphasizes the issue of justice and the worth of an individual life, but it also causes us to wonder if human beings alone can forgive such evil deeds.

Every sin is not just an attack on one’s neighbor, but also against God. So it is God who forgives the sins of men, who can restore them to order which they violated. This is also the point of Plato in the Gorgias where the one who does the evil deed must acknowledge his act by accepting punishment. That is, he must restore the order or law that he violated. A Christian reading of this situation, then, concerns both political philosophy and revelation. The completion of the natural problem requires both human and divine forgiveness. And this intellectual requirement is how we see the relation of reason and revelation. That revelation does offer a possible answer to issues in reason that do not seem to be settled satisfactorily by reason alone. The one thing I would add is that the revelational gloss on this issue is never “irrational”; it is always a more profound understanding of what is implicit in reason itself.


KM: There are some interesting current events that we might better understand through the teachings of the Church. Such things would be the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, his view on religious liberty, alongside that of the position of Vatican II on the same subject. Then there is the HHS Mandate on forcing citizens to participate in abortion. Some religious conservatives admire Putin’s stance against certain modern ideas, and some even look on him favorably as a defender of faith.   


JVS: Rather than take up each of these issues, each of which presents serious new problems for the polity, let me state what seems to me to be the basic issue. I have briefly argued that we can best understand where our polity is in the order of political things not through our Constitution, both the actual one and the living one, or in modern political philosophy. Rather we must see it through Aristotle’s discussions of virtue and the different forms of polity.

My late colleague and friend George Carey used to argue adamantly that no part of the present American government follows the structure and sense of the written Constitution, not the president, not the legislature, not the courts. The long controversy over the relation of the American founding to the natural law tradition and to classical philosophy is related to this discussion as it the issue of whether America is a modern or republican founding.

If we compare notions of individualism, relativism, freedom, and equality, we see quite clearly that we live in a regime that is rather described rather accurately by Aristotle. A regime is a political order that is formed to facilitate the kind of virtue or vice that the citizens have chosen for their way of life. Thus, I think that the proper title of the present American regime is a classical democracy that has seen its ruling authority to be taken over by a tyrannical type ruler. In the Greek sense, such a ruler is not a brute or madman, but a suave, rather sophisticated, eloquent operator who is personally rather disciplined. But he has no internal principle of order but his own will.

Now we do not and probably cannot bring ourselves to use these classical Greek terms even when they do describe the souls we see. But if we look at the reality, we can see that the Greek idea of a democracy as a deviant regime, that is, one that has no common good, but a “good” that is defined by the actual ruling principle in the souls of the citizens. The key is a concept of virtue that held that the citizens lived in a regime of “liberty.” It sounds rather attractive. But here the word “liberty” means precisely that no standards or norms exist. Freedom does not mean follow reason, but follow whatever we want. Each person chooses his own definition of happiness or the good, as one of our Supreme Court justices is fond of telling us. No one agrees on anything except that no good requires human beings to live according to reason, a reason that is found in human nature itself as expressive of its good.

The purpose of the ruling principle is to guarantee that this form of “liberty” be protected and expanded. Equality means that no criterion of excellence or good exists. The regime then comes to be a systematic dismantling of any residue of a claim in nature that a proper way of man to live can be found. The institutions and virtues that were needed to protect family and personal integrity are now overturned. In Aristotle’s sense, out of this moral chaos we would see a leader arise who could manipulate this moral chaos of the citizens into his own arbitrary power. He would no longer see any reason not to put his own ideas about what was good into effect.

Gradually, civil government becomes an instrument to implement these ideas fashioned by the leader who promises to lead the people to happiness against their enemies, principally those who affirm that there is an order in nature and that the liberty to do anything or live any way is rather a form of self-chosen and eventually government imposed ideology. The HHS mandate in this context is little more than Rousseau’s forcing everyone to be free, free to live by the positive laws of the rulers that have no higher principle than themselves and their own declarations.’


KM: Has Pope Francis’ rhetoric been unnecessarily confusing? Obviously his remarks have been distorted and misunderstood on a variety of issues.


JVS: There would be those who say Pope Francis’ rhetoric has been “necessarily” confusing. He has drawn great attention to himself by many of his remarks on homosexuality, on poverty, on capitalism, on clerical life, and on several other issues. His defenders point out that he never advocates any heresy or real change in teaching. He just never says much about it when he is in the limelight. This practice makes it seem like there are two Pope Francises, a conservative one and a radical one. Several writers have compared the similarity to the effect of Francis to the whole issue of the “Spirit of Vatican II” as opposed to what was actually said. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent much of their time correcting this confusion.

But suddenly, Pope Francis seems to have a whole following who expect him any day now to approve remarriage of divorced, approval of gay life, condemnation of all economic productivity, and finally making abortion to be the virtue that the liberal world claims it is. When asked why they like Pope Francis, many cite such an expectation. “The Church is finally going to join the modern world.” The modern world means approving all these things. But the Pope never says he agrees with any of these things. He is just trying, he seems to say, to get people to pray and love one another.

The Church really is the last major bastion in the world that stands for the sanity of normal mankind. Its enemies, and it has enemies, recognize the importance of capturing the “image” of a Church about to change, about to embrace modernity in all its glory and goriness. I think that Pope Francis has learned a lot in his first year in the papacy. What is missing is what Benedict and John Paul II understood, namely, the importance of intellect in this whole analysis of what needs to be done. Many think that Pope Francis does not need to worry about this side of things as John Paul II and Benedict have pretty well explained everything to those who will listen. This means that the problem that faces us is not so much in the order of intelligence as in the order of will.

Pope Francis understands something of this. The fact that Pope Bergoglio would cite, almost out of nowhere, Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, The Lord of the World, suggests that the Pope recognizes forces of evil and power in the world that are not just intellectual errors or minor moral aberrations. If this is true, then one might well argue that our main recourse is to prayer and fasting. The Apostles wondered why certain devils could not be cast out by their normal preaching. Christ told them that some kinds could only be dislodged by prayer and fasting. One can well wonder if this is now where we are today.

Is this a problem of political philosophy? Actually, I think it is. That is why political philosophy is worth doing. This philosophy always brings us back to the four eschatological myths in Plato—the ones, as Joseph Pieper pointed out in his Platonic Myths. In the Republic, the Phaedo, the Statesman, and the Gorgias. They all bring us back to the question of justice, its rewards and punishments. It is interesting to me that the one modern thinker to point this aspect of justice out most acutely is Benedict XVI. When we understand why that might be so, we can begin to understand the implications of the real relation between reason and revelation.”


KM: Thank you, Fr. Schall. You have given us much food for thought as we go through Lent toward Easter