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Volume 47, Number 3–4 (Fall 2010)

Mystery Bathed in Light

book cover imageThe Mind that Is Catholic. Philosophical and Political Essays,
by James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC)
337 pp, $34.95, 2008

José Yulo

. . . but nobody thought the whole commonwealth fell with the king, or that he alone had ultimate authority there . . . There was an idea of refuge, which was generally an idea of sanctuary. In short, in a hundred strange and subtle ways, as we should think them, there was a sort of escape upwards. There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God. —G. K. Chesterton, “The Well and the Shallows”

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. —St. Augustine, “The City of God”

In 1966’s A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More stressed the importance of his convictions to a concerned, but uncomprehending Norfolk. “It is not that I believe it, but that I believe it.” To More, his adherence to God’s law remained steadfast not only because of this loyalty per se, but because of all individuals involved, there would be a greater cost, daresay fall if More himself gave into political pressure. This subtle caveat against the earthly and expedient, coupled with the charge to be as near as possibly worthy to grace bestowed, serves as the foundation of Fr. James V. Schall’s 2008 work, The Mind that Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays.

Published by The Catholic University of America Press, the book contains writings on Catholic philosophy vis à vis Jacques Maritain and G. K. Chesterton, political “realism” in the works of Augustine and Machiavelli, and friendship as discussed by Aristotle. Unique amongst this set is an early piece by Schall, “The Totality of Society: From Justice to Friendship.” This essay dates to 1955, when it was presented by the author as his master’s thesis in philosophy at Gonzaga University. Reading Schall while still at university, along with the rigorous attendant demands made of such work at this period in time, is reason enough not to pass on this compilation.

In his first chapter, Schall discussed the observable qualities that distinguished Catholic thought. Among these was a line borrowed from Thomas More himself, as the Englishman wrote in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies. More stressed the dual need for both reason and faith in scriptural interpretation: “God helpeth us to eat also, but yet not without our mouth.” Schall called this “the classic Catholic mind at work.” In it, we can see both Christ performing the miracle of multiplying loaves, and His Father, “what caused us to be what we are,” providing humanity with the means of receiving such a gift. Thus, though we may read scripture sifting, comparing, and gleaning, we are continuously aware of it being absent of contradiction. Manifesting intellectually that it is indeed so falls to us in our capacity as rational beings.

Following this vein, Schall next pursued where rational thought, even the lofty paradigm born of the Greeks, at times left itself open to the presence of something beyond its province. The Greeks did not hold themselves high because their intellectual progeny was merely native to Greece. Rather, they were admirable “because they were mind.” Citing Aquinas, Schall writes that Greek philosophy could at times be proven to be incorrect on particular points. However, he emphasized that the error, if one did exist, would concern whether a particular point of debate was or was not truly philosophical, and not whether it was or was not Greek. The Greeks themselves allowed for corrections to their debates, without the need to renounce fruitful Hellas.

Likewise, that mouths and bodies grew famished for lack of food, as mentioned by More, and the need for Christ’s producing such sustenance, did not lead to the rejection of heavenly allotted mouths and bodies. Instead, it pointed to something beyond itself to provide for this and other moments of need. It should be noted that here Schall is hinting at the importance of not rejecting our rational means to apprehend, as well as what we are, as we are. It is natural for the mouth to eat, and the mind to understand, as well as for the person to at times feel hunger. When we curse minds, we deny our means of understanding, contorting our knowledge of “what is.” Striking at the human condition because one, after the fall, feels hunger, opens the door to the “remaking” of humanity.

This thing beyond human understanding giving aid to humans is divine revelation, something which could provide support during moments of confusion and doubt occasionally spawned from unaided reason. As rationally contemplating on the divinity is the most difficult of reflections, revealed truth came as welcome succor. Along with this was the knowledge of how one was to engage with God: “The very purpose of revelation was not only properly to define God, but to establish forms of response to the divine reality in terms of beauty and order that were worthy of Him.”

Aside from the Mass, “designed to show mankind what it has so long sought to know, namely how God is to be worshipped,” what other means were there to properly respond to Him? This, Schall elaborated on in his seventh chapter: “What is Piety?” As a telling paradigm, he made use of Socrates’ conversation with Euthyphro, from the Platonic dialogue of the same name. Piety is an elusive ideal, as Euthyphro, a purported master of it, has trouble describing it to Socrates. This failure to comprehend is augmented by his actions, as he is later chastised by Socrates for prosecuting his own father for binding up a slave, who has murdered another slave, before seeking out the authorities. The slave subsequently dies in a ditch and Euthyphro, pious to what he does not truly understand, seeks to bring his father to justice.

This is considerably more odd since Schall related, “Piety is an aspect of justice.” Yet, unlike justice, which ever demands giving and receiving what one deserves, piety “is something of a paradox, something ‘owed’ when nothing specific can be determined about the content of what is indeed owed.” This explanation rises too high for the capabilities of Euthyphro. In addition, if the gods were in fact owed something, there may appear an aspect of neediness emanating from the heights of Olympus. Thus, if we could assuage this divine need, we perhaps could ascend the mount itself and be gods, as stated by Schall. Though even Socrates knew full well of the limitations implicit in this scenario, he could not route his way out of it, because “In Christian terms, not yet known to Plato, the Trinity is the only real doctrine that explains satisfactorily this factor of why God does not require anything but Himself.”

Why then be pious? In response to this, Schall has already suggested that God was not Himself lacking in anything which we may provide. Nevertheless, there were, and are things that went “”beyond need.” Likening the situation to a husband telling his wife of her beauty, Schall stressed the lack of necessity in piety. Though a husband need not remind his wife of her encompassing allure, should he not acknowledge it, the result would be tantamount to denying what was chief about her. With her womanly grace, she is deserving of notice, yet this would seem strained should it arrive born of necessity. Similarly, this freely given praise to God “means a response that is ‘due’ without justice, that is, without being able to say exactly what is owed.”

From a number of occasions over the years before the compilation of this book, Schall has acutely noted justice as being the most terrible of the virtues. One need look no further than the supposed treason and punishment of Thomas More to see the potentially self-contorted wages of justice. There is a cold inescapability to it, one perhaps which may lead its advocates, strangely enough, into the vice of pride. Mercy of course has been the medieval Christian answer to pagan justice, the former a freely given gift that is not deserved. Piety, as discussed by Schall, illumines the fullness of Catholic thought through its relationship with justice and mercy. The austerity of justice makes way for cries of mercy; cries ultimately addressed to God. As has been previously noted, after said mercy has been given in the person of Christ who fed the hungry, we realize as rational beings that we cannot repay this gift. It is then left to humanity to, with humility, pursue piety; freely giving what is due without being able to say, or repay the amount owed.

José Yulo, Ed.D. teaches philosophy, western civilization, and United States history at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master’s degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Posted: November 14, 2010

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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