The last class for the world’s greatest Jesuit

You can’t really be a compassionate person, or fully understand yourself, or even master basic logic, unless you read the classics of philosophy and Western literature. It also helps to be a Christian.

Father James V. Schall, the legendary Jesuit and Georgetown professor, would never put things so bluntly. But those are the main themes of Schall’s work, which is coming to a close at Georgetown after 35 years. Fr. Schall, 84, is retiring from teaching, and on Friday, December 7, he will give his last lecture, “The Final Gladness.” He has written over 40 books, countless articles and pamphlets, and taught thousands of students.

Schall teaches political philosophy. His writing is the opposite of academic jargon. He can range from Aristotle on the virtues to Chesterton on the Catholic Church, and toss in a quick exegesis on a “Peanuts” cartoon for clarity, and never lose the reader (last year I made a video of Fr. Schall teaching; it can be found here).

While Fr. Schall can write about any topic, certain themes run through all of his work. The main one seems to be that in order to truly understand what the human person is, and to perform actions (even if the action is contemplation) that would make you a virtuous person, and thus give you freedom, it is essential to absorb and understand the classic Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle. When I had lunch with Fr. Schall last year, he drove the point home further, saying that in order to truly help the homeless, aid drug addicts, stop AIDS, and perform other acts of “social justice,” you have to truly understand what virtue, mercy, and compassion are. If you are ladling in a soup kitchen for political and social justice reasons, that’s fine, but it may not get you to the full truth. If you are doing so because you see inherent divine dignity in every human soul, that’s something quite different. I would argue that the latter is much closer to the truth of things.

When people meet Fr. Schall, the main thing that comes across is how tightly in love with human reason the man is. Five years ago he published “The Regensburg Lecture,” a book that explores the meaning of Pope Benedict’s famous lecture that made a reference to Islam and violence. Fr. Schall did not use invective to make his point. He simply laid out a logical argument that gets to the heart of the irreducible differences between Christianity and Islam. In Christianity, or at least its Catholic wing, God is reasonable. He created the world and universe in such a way that human beings can discern his will. We see evidence of God in logic and beauty. (This argument is magnificently laid out in my favorite Schall book, “The Order of Things.”)

In contrast, the God of Islam cannot be contained in reason. He can be capricious, making good evil and evil good whenever he wants. In “The Order of Things,” Schall recounts how after the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, Muslim aid was slow to arrive, despite the fact that most victims of the flood were Muslim. He then heard an explanation: relief was late because according to Islam, all things are a result of God’s will. And according to Koranic law, it was God’s will that people drown in the flood. Therefore, helping them would be blasphemy. “It is clear,” Schall wrote of the incident, “that our actions are ultimately shaped by what we understand the Godhead, or its equivalent in our own philosophy, to be like.” In that gracefully worded sentence is more truth, and more courage, than 10 years’ worth of columns in The New York Times.