Sense and Nonsense: Conversation and Companionship

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“For an encounter with another person, through acts of knowing and love, in freedom,” the Polish Dominican philosopher Mieczylaw Krapiec wrote, in his remarkable Philosophical Anthropology, “presupposes precisely a personal ‘I’ who actualizes himself through interpersonal communications in the order of being.” This is, no doubt, a complicated way of saying that we are beings who seek a truth we did not make. We want to tell others about it simply because it is and is worth saying. This illuminates our “I”, who we are.

For this, we need leisure and the institutions of leisure — our homes, perhaps most of all, our walks, our places where nothing “useful” takes place, since our highest acts remain “beyond use.” We need a civilization, in other words, in which we can speak freely and honestly to our friends who listen, not forgetful of what Aristotle said about the difficulty of friendship. Nothing, indeed, is more “un-civilizing” than the popular demand for instant friendship, though, as Plato said, it sometimes can happen. Civilization is nothing less, as someone once said, than two or three friends chatting in a room. Societies which lack this possibility, to recall Aristotle again, are already in the hands of a tyrant, one or many.

The great revelation of Christianity, as Eric Voegelin among others, like St. Thomas, has noted, cannot be understood without first grasping the import of Aristotle’s position that we cannot be friends with God. Aristotle had understood that the highest things exist in friendship, not in justice. He also knew that the “activity” of the First Mover consists in thinking and loving. He was not exactly “wrong” on either of these points, but reason had much difficulty in figuring out how he could be both right and wrong. Revelation indicated that there is “otherness” in God, an otherness of persons and that this God of persons has invited us, made it possible for us, to be His friends, a position made visible by the Incarnation itself. The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.

But we will never have the “answers” of revelation if we do not somehow have the experience of the questions.

God insists in treating us as we are. We are given, in other words, a real life in which there is real love, knowledge, and passion, sometimes too, hatred, ignorance, and distaste. Plato, in the Protagoras, recorded an experience which we all ought to repeat. Protagoras, after some argument, had refused to answer Socrates any more. For this refusal, Alcibiades chided Protagoras. This embarrassed Protagoras enough to allow Socrates to ask him:

“Do not imagine, Protagoras, that I have any other interest in asking questions of you but that of clearing up my own problems as they arise. . . . For all men who have a companion are readier indeed, word, and thought, but if a man sees a thing when he is alone, he goes straightway seeking until he finds someone to whom he may show his discoveries and who may confirm him in them.”

We surely do this. We are most in “need” of someone else — neither a companion of use or pleasure — when we least need him or her. In other words, the highest things flow out of non-necessity, out of the wonder and freedom of the truth, of what is, when we understand it, reflect on it.

I have often remarked, to my somewhat dubious students that the pub may be the most important institution on (or more often off) campus. Though I am not opposed to a beer or a good wine, this is not the “metaphysical” purpose of the pub — as the late Charles McCabe in San Francisco used to say, that a good bar is a place that pours a good drink, a place that lets us talk, or even be silent.

I do not mean, of course, that students, processors, and all who presume to think do not need a place just to blow off steam. They need this, surely, but something more profound is at issue here. We need places for conversation, sometimes quiet, sometimes rather raucous. It may be a dinner party at home with friends, a drink in a pub, a walk like those. Socrates and Aristotle used to take. But we do need a place just to talk, to be active in the highest sense.

Immediately before the passage from Plato cited above Socrates had been answering questions Protagoras refused to treat. Socrates, then, asked Hippias, Alcibiades, Protagoras, and Callias to notice that at ordinary banquets, people chatter about poetry and such “because they are not able to converse with or answer one another while they are drinking, with the sound of their voices and conversation.” As a result, they bring on the “flute-girls” and all, for a high price, too. Here is how Socrates continued:

“But where the company are real gentlemen and men of education, you will see no flute-girls, or dancing girls, or harp-girls, and they have no nonsense or games, but are contented with one another’s conversation, of which their own voices are the medium and which they carry on by turns and in an orderly manner, even though they consume a lot of wine.

Needless to say, this confirms my thesis on pubs, while the “dancing girls” are today often happily quite good conversationalists, reflective of being.

Thus, we actualize ourselves, become what we are, through interpersonal communications in “the order of being.” We converse with one another, our friends and companions, not for use or pleasure, but higher, to discover and tell one another about the that which is we have learned and to listen to being as experienced by our companions. For these too are personal “I”s, likewise amazed at the being they did not make, who rush “to confirm” us in its discovery in the freedom of knowing and loving, often in pubs and walks that need not, like creation itself, exist at all.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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