- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

By James V. Schall
ISI Books, $24.95, 189 pages

"Truth," writes James V. Schall in the introduction to his "On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs," "can only exist in conversation." The thought is borrowed from Plato, but its verity resonates throughout this fine collection of essays, which are, in both their composition and tone, conversational.
One would expect that an author, having written a book entitled "On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs," might wish to revise the title of his work to reflect the unrelenting seriousness of events in our post-September 11 world. Not so in this case. For these are essays that, at a time when we would rather ponder anything else, call us to consider both the insignificance of what we deem critical, and the significance of what we deem "unserious." As such, they make for good reading in these straitened circumstances.
"[I]n spite of all that might be said about death, evil, pain, and even Hell," the author writes in an essay entitled "On the Teaching of Political Philosophy," "pleasure, happiness, and joy are much more intellectually difficult and profound things to account for and even defend than any of these more dire topics. When we realize this, we really will have begun to come to grips with the realities about which political philosophy causes us to wonder. It is no accident that these topics are found in Plato and Aristotle, in the Gospels, in St. Augustine and St. Thomas, even in modernity."
The assertion is at once obvious and profound so much so that one is almost unsettled by it. (To unsettle, or at least to challenge, is surely one of the author's aims, reflecting his lifetime's worth of engagement with political philosophy as a scholar and a teacher: He is on the faculty at Georgetown University.) Evil is surely the "sexier" topic, and our times have proved an inexhaustible storehouse of exemplars, which perhaps explains why academic careers continue to be made writing and teaching about what we are told is "The Problem of Evil." Nevertheless, the assertion here about the "intellectual difficulty" posed by happiness has an unmistakable ring of truth.
In wrestling with this and other problems, Father Schall, like the best essayists, introduces us to what he terms "the mystery of teachers I never met." That is to say, he weaves into his own writing wisdom gleaned from that of others. Thus, offering one response to the "intellectual difficulty" of happiness, the writer retells a tale first set forth in James Boswell's "Life of Johnson," in which Boswell and Samuel Johnson pay a visit to the widow of the recently deceased actor, David Garrick. There, the assembled friends joined with the widow Garrick and dined, "were regaled with Litchfield ale," and discussed what the essayist calls "the ultimate, the fine, and the ordinary things of our human lot." In the midst of this gathering, Boswell leans over to one of the assembled guests and remarks, "I believe this is as much as can be made of life."
"Ought we be perturbed" by this scene and by Boswell's remark, the author asks? "No," he writes, "I think here Boswell is right. He had sensed civilization at its best, where elegant things are served and the ends of life and transcendence have their place in the delight and joy we are allotted in this vale of tears."
I will not pretend to improve upon such a statement, for it needs no improving; nor will I burden it with analysis: It is, quite simply, true. But it is not the end of the matter, as far as Father Schall is concerned. A scholar he is, to be sure, but he is also a Jesuit priest, unabashed in his belief that "ur happiest day … is not just itself, but is also a promise and symbol. It will not, in all probability, be lasting. But the tradition that we inherit does not deny that we shall have happiness, perfect happiness, even double happiness."
One may quibble with the writer at this intrusion of the theological, but it is indispensable to any understanding of Father Schall's thought, as set forth in these essays. The study of political philosophy returns him again and again to the notion, borrowed from Jacques Maritain, that "'philosophy purely philosophical' always reveals itself to be somehow incomplete, even for its own purposes." Indeed, the essayist's ease and facility with the things of this world derive from his confidence in the next: Christianity, according to him is "a very earthy thing" that "encourages taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight," which is to say that it is a lived faith, not a cloistered one, for "only if we know what these things are will we suspect the reality they imply as their source."
Readers who do not share Father Schall's faith, however, will find wisdom enough to make the reading of these essays worthwhile, as when the writer remarks: "Someone needs to protect us from the urgency of immediate things… . Perhaps there is something to be said not merely for wasting time but also for just waiting. Some things can be had too soon, when we are not ready for them." This collection of essays is not one of those things that "can be had too soon"; it is, however, a welcome aid in protecting oneself from "the urgency of immediate things." Its timing could not have been better.

Kevin Driscoll is a writer and critic in Stanford, Calif.

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