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Chesterton, Sports, and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3 | Carl E. Olson | August 16, 2005

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. Information about Fr. Schall's books, classes, and essays are available on his website.

In this three-part interview, Fr. Schall talks at length about learning and education (Part 1), writing and reading (Part 2), and Chesterton, sports, and politics (Part 3). Here is Part 3 of the interview.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve written numerous essays on G. K. Chesterton. What is your debt to Chesterton and why does he continue to be so relevant today?

Fr. Schall:
Back in June, I gave a paper at the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul. It was called "Chesterton: The Real Heretic," and will be published later in Logos. The title of the essay rather says what I have in mind when I read Chesterton. He had an uncanny capacity to see where ideas led. I can sit down and read an essay he wrote in 1905 and suddenly realize that he is talking about something that happened yesterday afternoon, or when he talks of Islam, what probably will happen tomorrow afternoon.

No one is more delightful or more insightful than Chesterton. He is the great mind of the 20th Century simply because he saw it before it unfolded pretty much as he saw it would. You cannot read What’s Wrong with the World without realizing that the kinds of family aberrations that he saw on the horizon are in place almost everywhere we look. His book on Eugenics and Other Evils was on target. Orthodoxy remains the single most important book to read. It is short, pithy, amusing, delightful, profound. He tells us that he almost discovered Christianity by himself, but looked around and found that it was already invented. He was glad of this, as befits a humble man.

I find it impossible to read a couple of pages of almost anything in Chesterton, even Father Brown, and not shake my head in amazement at the insight it provides. I have been doing the column "Schall on Chesterton" every month since the 1980's and have barely scratched the surface of his wit and wisdom. He is the man of sanity. I did a Crisis, "Sense and Nonsense" column — the very title comes from Chesterton — not too long ago entitled "The Right to Be Obese." The government is now caught in yet another social justice crusade of making us thin.

In any case, four of my heroes are Aristotle, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, and Chesterton, each of whom, with the exception of Aristotle, was probably obese, by current government standards. So I consider this anti-obese movement to be a direct attack on sanity and the huge bodies that proclaimed it! Chesterton always laughed at his size and probably died relatively young as did Aquinas. But how he or Aquinas could have done more than he did is beyond me.

Chesterton has in fact produced a "city in the mind." Once we come to see that it exists, we see that it is more "real" than our actual cities and judges them. This is why he is relevant. Relevance in any case can only mean what is related to the truth. Relevance related to what is disordered is simply a furtherance of disorder. Ignatiusinsight.com recently published by "Chesterton and the Delight of Truth," which pretty much tells us what he is about.

One of my favorite teacher stories of Chesterton has to do with a course I was doing on Aquinas in which I had assigned his biography of Aquinas, but as the last book to be read. A student after the course was over came up to me to tell me that he had the slim Chesterton book on his shelf from the beginning of the semester. He did not know what it was or who this Chesterton was. He never heard of him. But, out of curiosity, he began to read here and there in the book. He said to me, "how come no one ever told me of this man? Who is he?" I did not bother to remind him that at least I had told him because I had assigned the book. But the point is that he was simply taken with Chesterton.

This is the book, St. Thomas Aquinas, that Gilson said that he despaired writing as it was so good. And Chesterton seemed simply to understand Aquinas as if they both were always talking about the same things. This book contains his amazing description of Aquinas defense of ordinary things — a topic that I used in a lecture that I gave several years age at the University of St. Thomas at Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada (published in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 27 [Winter, 2004]). This is the book in which Chesterton reminds of the extraordinary fact that "eggs is eggs," that none of could have imagined them were they not already there for us to wonder about.

Chesterton could see the way things are. I have always loved his apology for writing Orthodoxy — somebody challenged him to tell us what he held. He loved such a challenge. But he tells that he did not discover "orthodoxy" by reading what the Catholics said of themselves. He never touched such documents. What he read was the heretics — his book Heretics is one hundred years old this very year — that is to say, he read the advocates of modern thought in various forms, only to find that they said the strangest and most contradictory things both about reality and about Catholicism. He found that what was disordered was not Catholicism but the modern mind in its explanation of why it rejected orthodoxy. This is when he was tempted to invent his own "heresy," namely Christianity, only to find it was already invented.

Speaking of original sin, Chesterton remarked that it is the one Christian doctrine about which we need no proof — all we have to do is go out in the streets and open our eyes. He recalls that a London journalist once requested answers to the question, "What’s Wrong with the World?" On reading it, he immediately sat down and wrote a one line reply that the paper, much to its credit, printed verbatim: "Sir: ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ I am. Signed, G. K. Chesterton." That is to say, contrary to so many social justice theories, Chesterton knew, with Plato, that the locus of all disorder is not external to us, but is found in our own souls. If we do not begin there, we cannot begin."

IgnatiusInsight.com: A theme that you’ve written about often including in your recent book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing (ISI Books, 2001), is that of play, sport, and leisure. How does a proper view of leisure and sports differ from what we see in the world of recreation and sports today?

Fr. Schall:
About the only thing I read carefully each day after breakfast is the sports page. That is almost the only place left in which you can still come to grips with the drama of life as most people live it. On sports pages we still find cheating to be cheating, we find glory in what is earned, we find corruption and repentance, honor and competence, vanity and genuine humility.

In this morning’s sports page, for instance, (Post, 26 July), there was an article about the two coaches, Frank Robinson and Eddie Rodriquez, of the new Washington Nationals baseball team, a surprising success. Robinson, the veteran, is the boss. The two have different styles but get along. They discussed the sequence of left- and right-handed pitchers, a topic on which they differed. Then they came to the ideal batting order, which the Florida Marlins are said to have. Rodriquez, a sort of Latino Platonist, thought it important to think about this ideal. Robinson, the Aristotelian, replied that "I don’t waste my time thinking about what I haven’t got." Now, of a morning, that is a great response, but so is Rodriquez’s worry about finding a better batting order.

I did a book years ago called Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation, and Festivity in which I tried to spell these things out. There is a chapter in Another Sort of Learning called "On the Seriousness of Sports." This essay often brings comments from students who never thought that there was anything to be said for sports but a kind of goofing off. They are delighted to learn that what fascinated them about sports is not so frivolous but brings them to the heart of the highest things, something they always suspected but did not know how to articulate.

In fact, it all begins with Plato and Aristotle. The seminal modern books in all of this field are Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, his In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, and Hugo Rahner’s Men at Play. None of these books are to be missed. I should have mention sooner the importance of Josef Pieper to all branches of knowledge, including this one. He is the clearest mind of our time in so many ways and by himself (the same is true of Chesterton) can give us almost all we need to see how things are, to see, what is.

But it all goes back to Plato and Aristotle, as I said, and some passages in Scripture. They are the ones who discovered the delight in things to which we respond, as Chesterton said, by being grateful. Plato said in the Laws that we should spend our lives "singing, dancing, and sacrificing." How remarkable! And Aristotle, in an idea that I often state in my own words, implies that the closest the average man comes to pure contemplation — something to which we are ordered by our very being — is to watch, not play, a good game. This does not mean that there is anything wrong also with playing it.

Students wonder why games fascinate them because they do. It is because they behold there something that need not exist, that could be otherwise, but which exists according to the rules, according to the drama of the game. We do not know how it will turn out. Our lives themselves are exactly like this if we think about it.

So play is both an introduction to ethics — play fairly — and to metaphysics, to the fascination of the things that are but need not be. Msgr. Sokolowski often makes the point, as does Pieper, and Aquinas for that matter, that the world need not exist, but does. Games need not exist but do. Life cannot be properly lived and games cannot be properly played unless we know their order, how they proceed. As spectators we behold something unfold before us, how things will turn out, according to the rules of play that need not be, but are.

Drama itself is like this unfolding also. Bloom in his Shakespeare’s Politics, another fine book, observes, speaking of Greek and English drama, that while watching a drama before us, we actually live a higher life than we do ordinarily, when we are mainly brushing our teeth or figuring out taxes. It is there in the unfolding plot that we see what is the human condition played out before us. We are struck by awe and pity and even fear as we see our lot. Aristotle says that games are not so exalted as drama, but none the less they are like unto it. They take place in freedom. We can see in them that there really are things that are worthy for their own sakes," we suspect that there might be other things even more worthy."

IgnatiusInsight.com: As a professor of political science, what do you think is the current health of the American republic today? What changes need to take place if the United States is going to be around in centuries to come?

Fr. Schall:
This country is engaged in a war that it is only barely willing to understand. It is a world war, declared against us, and it is possible to lose it. It does not come from within anything in our own society and is in fact alien to it. However, what appeared as our internal moral weakness, and that of Europe, did attempt radical Islam to see its world historic opportunity. But with Belloc, I think what we are witnessing is a revival of something that has always been present in Islam, a mission literally to conquer the world for religious purposes. The problem with us is a fear or reluctance to face what we deal with. The question within Islam is who are the real ‘heretics,’ the terrorists or those who deny this methodology.

But in the United States and Europe, the real problem is connected with population decline and a lack of confidence in the future that comes from a society that sees the future only in terms of present life. Humanae Vitae, as I have said all along, is a prophetic document and almost every problem leads back to the essence of what it stood for. The most invisible manifestation is the widespread destruction of children and the most visible the replacement of this loss is the growing presence Muslims in Europe and Latinos in the United States. We are most fortunate in this regard. Much is to be said on this score in terms of statistics, but the more interesting aspect is the broader metaphysical background.

Behind this issue of population decline is the proper understanding of what is meant by social justice and human rights, both of which terms are, at best, highly ambiguous in modern philosophy. The Church’s widespread use of both of these terms has, in my view, been a cause of serious concern since both have a double meaning, one of which, what I call the modern one, simply undermines the other.

Social justice is used as an alternative to personal autonomy and dignity so that our virtue becomes what movement we belong to. Human rights have origins in Hobbes and mean whatever we want them to mean. Their content is provided by will alone. Unraveling the confusions such concepts cause is mind-boggling. But there is little doubt in my mind that the usage of both of these terms is the primary avenue for undermining any Christian concept of the person and a common good. It is all well and good to say that there are defensible meanings to these terms, but they are not the dominant ones or the operative terms in the public order.

On the other hand, I sometimes marvel at the Republic on which we stand. We are expected to be generous. We fight in effect everyone’s wars and receive little credit. We at least have some sense of the limits of the bureaucratic and socialist state. But I do believe that there are two cultures among us now that more and more are not simply diverse ways of doing the right thing. They two different understandings of what is right, one of which is, by Christian standards, definitely not right. Little about Europe and Canada even seems overly reassuring. Many nations are simply disappearing.

It is not difficult to understand why Muslim activists see us to be easy prey or see how easy it is to undermine our public confidence. They were not prepared for Mr. Bush, but they are prepared to influence our nightly media. The present war’s main battlefield is the nightly television. And the war it fights is over minds that will or will not see a real threat. This issue, of course, goes back to the central Platonic issue of the relation between the soul and the city. Nothing less, I suspect, is at stake in how we choose to live, in how we choose to kill our infants and elderly, in how we choose to decide if we are going to make the effort to see what we are.

There is such a thing as a democracy that has evaporated any sense of right order from its center. James Hitchcock’s book on the Supreme Court has pretty well explained how we got here. It is not surprising in these days, when seemingly everyone goes to law school, that the path of our decline was often via the law imposing what was disordered onto our lives with little effective resistence from the churches. One has to confess that the Catholic Church in this country has been largely practically silenced because of its own internal problems in this country, problems not unrelated the condition of the culture. I can see why themes of "decline and fall" are prevalent.

However, changes in human affairs begin in individual souls, no doubt under grace, in out of the way places like Bethlehem or in the small German town in which Benedict XVI was born. We are getting extraordinary popes for some reason. In Pope Ratzinger we easily have the most acute mind in public life in the world today. But the world and the country are dramas of acceptance and rejection. Nothing is automatic. In the end, this is a blessing and a hope.

Previous installments of this interview:

The rest of the interview:
On Learning and Education
| Part 1 of 3
On Reading and Writing | Part 2 of 3

Recent IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Wars Without Violence?
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

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