To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.


An Email from David Bentley Hart

Earlier this year I got the idea to email the acclaimed theologian David Bentley Hart about books. Hart, as you may know, is arguably one of America’s greatest living theologians. While sitting firmly within the Orthodox tradition, Hart evinces thoughtful ecumenical sensibilities and has written powerfully and persuasively on an array of subjects as wide as the Trinity, consciousness and the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, church history, and travel literature. By all accounts Hart is a polymath whose mind is an irreducible gift to the Church catholic. This is my opinion, at least.

Anyway, due to my deep respect for Hart and his work, I desired to know what books he’d recommend to people like myself who are keen to learn more about philosophy and theology and their relationship to one another. So, on a whim, I found his email address and asked him what he’d recommend. He was kind enough to send me the following response which I’ve posted below for your enjoyment.

Dear Ben,
I assume you want basic guides to metaphysics to begin with. Richard Taylor’s Metaphysics (4th edition) is a good introduction to certain classic questions. Two volumes by E. L. Mascall–He Who Is and Existence and Analogy–are excellent guides to Christian metaphysics in the West, as is W. Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many. Avoid Peter van Inwagen: he’s brilliant at confusing things. Perhaps William Hasker’s Metaphysics is good, but I haven’t read it.

As for theology, always start with the fathers: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man and On the Soul and Resurrection, Ps-Dionysius Complete Works (a short volume), Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ, Athanasius On the Incarnation, St Isaac of Ninevah’s treatises (especially the “Second Volume”), Maximus the Confessor’s Chapters on Love and the SVS volume “The Cosmic Mystery of Christ.” Don’t bother with Augustine until later, because for all his genius he got so much wrong (because he couldn’t read Greek, in large part). For mediaeval and early modern theology, Symeon the New Theologian’s Mystical Discourses (or whatever it’s called in English), Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God, and the Paulist Press volume of Nicholas of Cusa. Thomas Traherne’s Centuries and all three volumes of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are indispensable masterpieces. As for modern theologians, Bulgakov’s Bride of the Lamb, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, part IV of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Henri de Lubac’s Supernatural (currently being translated I believe, but if you read French go ahead), Rowan Williams’ Resurrection (2nd edition).

I hope this helps,

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read any of Hart’s books, allow me to suggest the following two: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, and his little book of essays entitled, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. I hope to review both books, as well as the others in Hart’s repertoire, in the near future.
Happy reading!