“It Belongs to the Wise Man to Order”: James Schall on Politics and Revelation

The wise man not only has the right order in his mind, but in his soul as well; he not only knows how he ought to live, but, more importantly, he does, in fact, live this way, in accord with what he is.

Fr. Norris Clarke, the renowned Jesuit professor at Fordham University, once remarked, quite humorously, that there are three kinds of philosophers: those who, at first glance, seem clear, but upon further reading become all the more obscure; those who, at first, may seem obscure, but become clearer and clearer upon every read; and, finally, there are those who seem obscure at first, and remain as such. To provide additional weight to Clarke’s idea, I would add that there are some professors who can teach and write well, some who can do only one or the other, but many who can do neither. Moreover, we even had those occasions of having professors who are prolific writers and, yet, if they were prevented from ever writing again, would amount to almost nothing as teachers.

And then there was Schall. The more one reads the works of Fr. James Schall, the clearer he becomes, and the more enjoyable he is to read, something that is a rarity in most reading of academic and scholarly work. Looking at his CV is nothing short of humbling for any aspiring teacher and/or writer. He has written over 30 books, edited seven others, written more than 500 essays and periodicals, numerous editorials and op-ed pieces, and has been a regular contributor to some of the finest publications around, namely: Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Catholic World Report, Ignatius Insight, Crisis, University Bookman, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Review of Politics, First Principles, Gilbert, The Catholic Thing, and St. Austin Review, to name just a few.

In December 2012, Fr. Schall retired from his teaching duties at Georgetown University, a position that he held since 1978. However, when we hear the word “retire,” we think of having the opportunity to do nothing, the ability to now do what one wants, perhaps spending more time on the greens, or maybe even playing chess in the local park with one’s fellow retirees. Ralph McInerny once wrote the following on the question of academic retirement, something which is reminiscent of Fr. Schall: “Plato said that philosophizing was learning how to die. He did not say learning how to retire.” To say of Fr. Schall that he is “retiring” is only to affirm that you either don’t know him, never read anything he has written, or both. He will still be writing prolifically, teaching, and showing us how we ought to philosophize, as is his wont, just no longer in the formalized setting of an academic classroom.

The purpose of these reflections is not only humble pietas, but more importantly, to ask the question that every student should inquire about their professors and teachers: “what does he hold?” We could pose the same question in a different manner, namely, what is it that Fr. Schall holds as true, that he, in turn, wants us to know as well? This will be my task here, and I do so with some trepidation for the simple fact that what I offer here is rather brief, and won’t do justice to the unity and totality of Fr. Schall’s thought and work, let alone to the man himself. Nonetheless, I hope to highlight some components of his thoughts that are now more necessary to know and to be disseminated, than perhaps at any time during his writing and teaching endeavors.

The first point to call attention to is Fr. Schall’s architectonic understanding and analysis of modern democratic societies, particularly their theoretic conceptions of themselves as they have come to be in the Western world. Following our teaching popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), Fr. Schall has not only been worried about democracy as a political ideology, but also, in a connected fashion, the degree to which a number of Catholics, and fellow religious believers, too readily attempt to smooth over the inherent problems of modern democratic principles and its compatibility with Catholicism. It has frequently been the case that Catholicism and democracy are seen and understood to presuppose each other, that one necessarily entails the existence of the other. Yet, for Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, democracy was considered to be the best of the worst regimes, how most polities would order themselves, but still a deviant constitution nevertheless. This was not due to some qualm with liberty, but the all too-often manifestation of disordered liberty, where, to cite Aristotle’s Politics, the common good of society…

is held to be something equal; equality requires that whatever the multitude resolves is authoritative, and freedom and equality involve doing whatever one wants. So in democracies of this sort everyone lives as he wants and toward whatever end he craves, as Euripides says … To live with a view to the regime should not be supposed to be slavery, but preservation. (1310a30-35)

We live in a society that wants to ensure that democracy “works,” meaning that the processes whereby our institutions establish laws, the manner in which citizens bring about referendums, and the election of our politicians, must be in such a way that is thoroughly “democratic.” Furthermore, modern democracies are grounded, in principle, in the philosophic mindset of tolerance, wherein truth is denied, and this is for the purpose of enabling all citizens to live as they so choose, with no other standard than their own choices and self-legislating wills. The content and substances of these choices, whether they are, in fact, good or evil, is not only unacknowledged, but firmly denied. To claim that one’s actions and living are immoral or disordered is now seen to be politically, and socially, dangerous. Such a person who defends the existence of truth, a mind-independent reality that does not rely upon what one thinks or feels about it, is now a threat, a danger to the polity, and its commitment to justice and equality. This was exactly Justice Antonin Scalia’s point in his dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision on June 26: “it is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.”

The greatest sin in modern democracy is the man who professes that truth exists, and that man can not only know this truth, but is so designed to live and order his life in union with it. Truth is the real victim, for it is hurtful, fanatical, and intolerant, an acknowledgment that, as Fr. Schall states:

All things are not possible. As democratic politicians and citizens, we may want all things to be possible to us because we do not want to admit that any truth can limit our wills and hence our political actions or ways of living. The democrat of this persuasion can be intolerant of only one thing, that is, the philosophic argument that there is truth. The autonomous wills presupposed in this sort of democratic theory of absolute tolerance must embrace in principle what is implicitly self-contradictory: the theoretic position that it is true that there is no truth. The modern democratic man lives uneasily on this paradox, if it is a paradox. (See “Truth as a Democratic Project,” Modern Age 40; 33-43)

This brings us to the second point, connected with the first, upon which Schall’s wisdom requires serious reflection. In his classic work, Philosophy of Democratic Government, Yves Simon sought to provide an Aristotelian-Thomist analysis of modern liberal democracy. While Simon saw certain good and necessary elements within democratic political theory, he, nonetheless, cautioned against an all-embracing attitude that overlooked some of the inherent flaws of democratic order, an order that frequently sees nothing beyond itself, something Schall himself often reiterates. Simon stated modern democracies were open to instability, to a self-enclosed philosophical and theological worldview…

since preserving principles is more difficult in democracy than in any other regime as a result of liberalism, which implies that the principles of society and what its end is are not above deliberation and must be thrown into the universal competition of opinions. This is the jeopardizing of the principles without which social life no longer has an end or form. (124)

The health and flourishing of democracy—certainly a real possibility—required political safeguards that were exterior to democratic principles, namely, the integration of elements from other various regimes in order that the common good could be more properly secured, since no regime, in itself, fully encapsulates the entirety of the common good. However, what is needed beyond these necessary political safeguards is a principle that transcends the polity, one which affirms the necessity of man’s political nature, but points to the reality of his being suprapolitical, more than merely human. To neglect this point is to reduce man to something less than he is, and often results in the elevation of politics to something other than it is, a substitution to become metaphysics or theology, as Aristotle warned in Book VI of his Ethics. “If politics becomes this sort of truth in its understanding of itself,” Schall writes:

if the polity “makes” truth because nothing higher than it exists, we lose our capacity, by right, to oppose any structure of the city except on the basis of another, more powerful will. Thus, nothing can, strictly speaking, be “wrong” with any polity as such, since its origin lies exclusively in will and political will dependent on no order outside itself. In this sense, Machiavelli could rightly suggest that the only bad prince was one who did not succeed. In this way, transcendence, of whatever form, has disappeared into politics. (“Transcendence and Political Philosophy,” in The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, 228).

Man’s ontological structure as a political animal necessitates that he so organize himself into a community, not only so that he can acquire the basic goods for life, but more importantly, that he can become virtuous, and achieve authentic happiness as man. And yet, for Schall, man’s existence as a political animal does not express the totality of what he is, and what he is meant for. This is the recognition that man’s true gladness, his completion and highest perfection, while needing political society, ultimately resides in a transcendent order that reaches beyond the political and, therefore, demonstrates the necessity and goodness of revelation. We are in need of the right ordering of the polity, as a help to point us beyond it, towards the beatitude that can only be satisfied by grace. Aquinas is worth quoting here:

Besides the natural and the human law, it was necessary for the directing of human conduct to have a Divine law … since it is by law that man is directed how to perform his proper acts in view of his last end. And, indeed, if man were ordained to no other end than that which is proportionate to his natural faculty, there would be no need for man to have any further direction of the part of his reason, besides the natural law, and human law, which is derived from it. But since man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness which is disproportionate to man’s natural faculty, as stated above; therefore, it was necessary that, besides the natural and the human law, man should be directed to his end by a law given by God. (ST, I-II, 91.4)

The title of this essay comes from the beginning sentence of Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, where he writes: “Sicut philosophus dicit in principio metaphysicae, sapientis est ordinare.” It belongs to the wise man to order. The wise man not only has the right order in his mind, but in his soul as well; he not only knows how he ought to live, but, more importantly, he does, in fact, live this way, in accord with what he is. A former student said that Fr. Schall would often remind his classes that his vocation as a teacher was to make it so that “he was no longer needed.” This is classic Aquinas, and the essence of the teacher-student relation, the reality that when we are wise, when we know and live according to the truth, we no longer are in need of our teachers, for we go to school, Augustine tells us, to know the truth, not what the teacher thinks. However, let us make it known that, in as much as we seek to strive for the truth, and seek to become saints, we are still in need of the wisdom that is Schall’s, leading us to pursue and love what he has showed us so well, and joyfully, namely, the highest things.

Brian Jones About Brian Jones

Brian Jones graduated from the Franciscan University with an M.A. in theology. He taught seventh grade science at Entrepreneurship Preparatory School in Cleveland, Ohio. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is married to Michelle, and they have one daughter, Therese Maria.