- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

Among some students at Georgetown University, it's called majoring in Schall: trying to squeeze in as many courses with the noted Christian political philosopher the Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., as their four short years will permit.
"I took six," boasts Ian McGinley, a recent graduate. He ranks among the most hard-core Schallies students so devoted to the man and his teachings that they are known to sit in on the Schall courses they already have taken.
"Schall is Socrates," says Tom Johnson, a 21-year-old government major from New Jersey. "He rescued me from the cave," he adds, alluding to Plato's famous allegory.
"He takes the myths and makes them understandable by relating them to a modern-day example," notes senior Lori King, referring to Father Schall's uncanny knack for incorporating horse racing, the legal profession, and mentions of Miami Heat center and former Georgetown student Alonzo Mourning into the study of classical political philosophy.
For more than 20 years at Georgetown, "20 Questions" Schall, as he is known by some Jesuits, has been the professor with the Midas touch. Students the "potential philosophers" he calls them flock to his courses in political theory, Aristotle, Plato and St. Augustine.
At a time when Georgetown's course catalogs have broadened to include fare such as "Representations of Lesbians, Gays in Popular Culture," Father Schall hews to the standards of the classical academy. Classes are conducted in the traditional Socratic method of rigorous interrogation. Students are addressed as Mister and Miss. The goal is objective truth, and he is the intellectual shaman who will guide them there.
To begin, one must first address the order of one's own soul. The virtue of any state, Father Schall argues, hinges on the sum of its parts.
"We are made to know the truth and the truth can be known," he asserts over coffee at Georgetown's Jesuit residence. So what is truth? "Truth is knowing what reality is about and knowing that you know what reality is about."
Getting there requires a combination of study, questioning and desire to get at "the right order of things," he says.
"Very often you do that by reading Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Chesterton," he says. "Once you read it, you think, 'Oh my God, this is incredible and it happened long ago.'
"Universities do not have a fair representation of, I would call it, the basic Christian moral background," he says. "It's not presented fairly, it's not presented often and it's not presented well.
"I always like to quote Alan Bloom that the most unhappy students in the world are [those] at the 20 most expensive and so-called best universities. And the reason they're unhappy is that they're all relativists and have not been presented with the truth and kind of know it in their souls."
Skeptical students, less than enthusiastic about slugging through a semester of the ancient Greeks, usually come around to seeing things his way. Father Schall's inimitable charm is hard to resist. He remembers students' names and is forever suggesting must-read material, slipping personalized reading suggestions between the pages of their exam blue books. The last day of class, he walks up and down the rows, stopping at each desk with a parting message for the occupant.
"He shows us that there is some kind of objective standard to these philosophical debates and that we [can] find answers, even though it's tough to get at these answers," Mr. McGinley says. "He is against moral relativism and [just accepting] whatever the majority says is right."
Die-hard Schallies can't seem to forget the lessons learned at his feet.
"My friends and I still discuss [the things he taught us]," says Dan Kaufman, now a day trader at a Manhattan brokerage firm. "We'll be sitting at work trading stocks and get bored and start talking about Aristotle."
"After graduating from Georgetown, I don't think I've ever had a thought that wasn't influenced by Father Schall," said former student Scott Walter, an editor at the American Enterprise magazine, who credits the priest with having influenced his conversion to Catholicism.
As Georgetown struggles to reconcile its Catholic heritage with present-day secularism, Father Schall remains a constant nonpareil. Teaching fads come and go, but in Father Schall's sanctum, only the timeless has a place.
"He's now looked upon as conservative, but he hasn't changed in his fundamental center of gravity. It's they who have changed," says American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Michael Novak, referring to liberal Catholic elites and university leaders.
"Like Socrates, he's persistently critical of the culture around him, whether it be Athens or Washington," says the Rev. Stephen Fields, an associate theology professor at Georgetown and a Jesuit.
Like the philosophers of old, Father Schall follows a rigorous schedule of study and contemplation. He is usually up by 5 or 6 a.m. for a walk, followed by prayer, breakfast, then a full day of reading and writing. He rarely skips a day without a dose of James Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson," which chronicles the life of England's foremost 18th century scholar.
This same indomitable spirit has girded him though life's challenging moments. In 1989, he lost sight in his left eye, after five operations failed to correct damage done to the retina by a burst blood vessel. He now wears glasses with a smoked left lens to mask the bad eye.
"I have not suffered from it, I think," he says calmly. "Other than vanity or something like that. I mean, I still see everybody."
Born in Pocahontas, Iowa, in 1928, Father Schall attended Santa Clara University, leaving after one semester for a brief stint in the Army. When his tour of duty finished, he returned to Santa Clara and entered the Society of Jesus (S.J.) at Los Gatos, Calif. He earned graduate degrees from Gonzaga and Santa Clara Universities and a doctorate of philosophy from Georgetown.
His doctoral thesis, written under the direction of the great Catholic political philosopher Heinrich Rommen, focused on the connection between immortality and the foundations of political philosophy.
Assigned to the Gregorian University in Rome in the mid-1960s, Father Schall taught courses in economics and development. He added an assistant professorship at the University of San Francisco (USF) to his professorial load in 1969. After eight years of trans-Atlantic commuting (he divided his time between USF in the fall and the Gregorian in the spring), Father Schall settled in the government department at Georgetown in the late 1970s.
"There's nothing that comes within his purview that's unrelated to the structure and meaning of the universe. That's what the S.J. means," says columnist George Will.
At 73, Father Schall shows no signs of slowing down. He writes five columns, two of them monthly. He churns out books of essays at breakneck speed. His latest literary undertaking, "On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Dancing," is due for release in October.
"It's hard to keep up with his writing," Mr. Will says. "He's a reproach to us all, he's so prolific."


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