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On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 26, 2005

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"For praise is given to virtue, since it makes us do fine actions, but celebrations are for successful achievement, either of body or of soul."
— Aristotle (Ethics, 1101b32-33)


We can, if we so choose, reasonably approach what Catholicism is about from the angle of the Fall, of original sin, of the dire consequences of both natural and human disasters. Such things abide and repeat themselves over the centuries. They recur in most times and places, even under the best regimes, certainly under the worst.

Any careful reading of Scripture, moreover, can be a sobering exercise, making us aware of the dark side of human existence. We recall the chastisements of the Hebrews, the "Woe to you, Capernaum" of the New Testament. We are not spared God’s warnings and His wrath, however much these are downplayed or not even mentioned these days. No doubt, we must ask questions about the prevalence of evil in the world, about God’s, at times, seeing indifference to human fate, indeed about His anger over the deviant deeds of men. On the other hand, we do not want a universe in which our deeds, good or bad, mean absolutely nothing and cannot be properly attributed to us.

We can also read in Thucydides, or Augustine, or Machiavelli, or even in Aristotle and Aquinas for that matter, just how disordered human life can be, not only at a personal level but also at a social and corporate level. Any reading of almost any major newspaper anywhere in the world during any day of the whole modern era would reveal, in spite of "enlightenment," a steady diet of wars and rumors of war, of economic and natural disaster, of corruption, inefficiency, and downright degradation. There are no doubt glimmers of light, but no sober reading of the history of our race can ignore the more puzzling pessimistic side.

The first point I want to emphasize here is that it is not any part of the Catholic tradition to deny or minimize this depressing reality. We are warned to prepare for it, to expect it, to suffer under it. A naive utopianism that refuses to see these possibilities, that thinks that they can be totally eliminated by some rearrangement of property, family, or state is probably the most dangerous ideological background we can imagine, one that causes more grief and sorrow than any other single view.

Secondly, it is also part of the Catholic tradition to insist that this bleak picture is not the only side of reality – far from it. But this contrasting, more positive affirmation is not to be seen, in any sense, as obscuring what happens in the history of our kind. The other side of this realistic approach, however, is to wonder about the happier aspect of things, about, as I like to say, "what is to be done when all else is done?" Aristotle, in using a medical analogy, noted that the purpose of a doctor is defined by health, which the doctor does not himself create or define, but only restores or serves, according to what health already is. The last person we want to see when we are healthy is the doctor, qua doctor.

The more important question is not what is it to be healthy when we are sick, however admittedly important this question is. But, we want to know, once we are healthy, what are the "activities" of health? of normalcy? Indeed, I would suggest, that it is perhaps more important to get it right about what are these higher activities than it is to have an adequate understanding of evil and disaster and pain, or even of what it is to be physically and mentally healthy. We are a people obsessed with health rather than what to do with it when we have it. Both sides are necessary in a complete picture, but we are more likely to miss the activities of well-being and what that means than we are to miss considering the suffering and disorder of soul that occur all about us. I have long contended that it is much more difficult in theory to explain joy than sadness, more difficult to understand delight than pain. And it is to this latter observation that I want to extend these remarks on praise and celebration.


On Monday, March 30, 1778, James Boswell was at Streatham, at Samuel Johnson’s friends, the Thrales. It was a Monday. Boswell was down at breakfast before Johnson. There he chanced to encounter the lady of the house, Mrs. Thrale, a woman of some literary repute in her own right. Hannah Thrale remarked to Boswell, "I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise anything, even what he likes, extravagantly."

This remark was obviously meant to compliment, yes, to praise of Dr. Johnson. But it also contained a philosophic insight into the very conditions of our well-being, a reminder of Aristotle’s mean in finding the norm or standard of any virtue. There can be a too much and a too little, both of which were inappropriate. Aristotle said that there could be a too much or a too little, but not too much of the mean. Not even the things we like are to be praised too much, out of proportion, though they are indeed to be highly praised in proportion. We conclude that Johnson did not object to due praise, but delighted in it when he knew that it was deserved, right time, right place.

As in the case of flattery, we do not want too much of a good thing. But we should want good things. Good things exist to be wanted, to be desired. We are constituted with appetitive powers to achieve this purpose – to possess as ours what is good. We should want what is worth wanting. We want what is appropriate, neither too much nor too little. Oftentimes we think that another virtue, humility, means that we never acknowledge anything good, especially in ourselves, especially when noticed by others. But humility, in fact, means giving and receiving proper acknowledgment to what is, in its own order. Humility is founded on truth. We are to praise what is to be praised, and this generously. Nothing gets us outside of ourselves more than our genuine notice, appreciation, and praise of what is not ourselves. We are beings who know ourselves first by knowing what is not ourselves.

The vice of envy, a most subtle vice whose consequences are too often neglected, arises precisely from our willing refusal to acknowledge what is good in something, particularly in another human person. This very vice suggests the too little noticed existence of a spiritual world, as it were, beyond the surface of the visible world, something with its own order and exigencies. This spiritual world, in which praise and envy are elemental functions, indicates that the world and the things in it require for their completion their own existence, their own standing outside of nothingness. But they also demand, somehow, the proper acknowledgment of their existence by us, almost as if to say that we are challenged at every turn to say of what is that existence is worthy. We are to know and acknowledge the relative and absolute worth of things. We are to live and know that we live in an ultimately ordered world.

Catholicism is a religion whose essence directly concerns praise and celebration – not too much praise, not inappropriate praise, but still praise. Indeed, the very structure of our lives concerns our capacity to praise what is to be praised. And, as Aristotle has indicated, there is curiously something beyond praise. Praise is given for virtue accomplished, whereas celebration is in a way beyond praise, an acknowledgment of something already in existence beyond ourselves or given to ourselves. It is no accident, for example, that Catholics say of the Mass that the priest "celebrates" it, that it contains within itself both a call to praise on our part and a call to celebration, a rejoicing in what is. Let us see if we can make sense of these remarks as something worthy of consideration for what we are about both in this world and in the next.


We tend to look upon religion and philosophy as if they were merely aids for our living, whereas more properly our living, at its deepest meaning, is that we may worship, praise, philosophize, and celebrate. We can find descriptions of heaven that limit themselves to the dark-eyed virgins, to eating, drinking, and being merry. But without denying the reality of our corporeal being, even in the Resurrection, we suspect that the activities of praise and celebration are nearer to what it is all about, to what C. S. Lewis in Perelandra described as the "Great Dance." The "Great Dance" is before and within creation not primarily as something originating from our own making, but as responding to the discovery and beholding of what is the glory of God in Himself and in all things, including things fallen and redeemed.

Praises are considered "valuable" in so far as they incite us to do something worthy. Aristotle himself noted that praise "makes us do fine actions." By the word "make" here, however, he did not mean that it "forces" us to do fine actions. An action that is performed out of strict necessity is not really even a human action. A human action requires our doing the action because of knowing, of choice, and in freedom. Aristotle means praise "inspires" us to fine actions; it encourages us to know that they are fine. It is true that we praise certain apparently necessary things — a sunset, for instance, or the beauty of a rainbow trout freshly out of the clear water. Yet it is quite possible, as Chesterton remarked, for such things not to exist. At the same time, it is quite possible for us to observe before our very eyes beautiful or noble things and be totally unaffected by them. "Tell me what you praise, and I will tell you what you are" might be an apt formula for what I am trying to get at. Education and culture in part consist not only in learning what is worthy to be praised but to acquire the discipline or virtue that actually enables or incites to do so.


In a Peanuts cartoon for April, 23, 1994, we see Charlie Brown in bed at night lying on his back under his thick, stripped comforter. Snoopy is sleeping contentedly on Charlie’s stomach. Charlie, however, is wide awake, pondering the ultimate questions. "Sometimes I lay awake at night," he says out loud to himself and the sleeping Snoopy, "and I ask myself, ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ‘Does my life have any meaning?’" Sober, ultimate questions indeed, questions found in many a great mind from Leibniz to Eric Voegelin to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

But in the second scene, with a frown on his face, Charlie continues, "Then a voice comes to me that says, ‘Forget it! I hate questions like that.’" But when we laugh at Charlie’s predicament, we realize that the questions he asks himself in the night are pretty fundamental ones that we all should address at one time or another. Why are we here, indeed? What is the purpose of it all? Does our life have any meaning? The reason we "hate" questions like that is that they imply that we are here for a purpose, that meaning can be found if we look and are ready to live according to this purpose and meaning. We are not free simply to ignore such questions and remain the kind of beings we are made to be.

Read Part 2 of "On Praise and Celebration"


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