Sense and Nonsense: On Being Sheared

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Once I asked Scott Walter about where to find available books by Josef Pieper, who remains, I think, the best, certainly the clearest, of Christian philosophers. Scott told me to try Thomas and Karen Loome, Booksellers. “All you need to tell them is what you want.” This procedure was generous enough, of course, but what really sold me on trying was the address of this till then unknown bookshop, namely, “Old Swedish Covenant Church, Stillwater, Minnesota.” That was one of the best addresses I had seen of late, equaled only by David Bovenizer’s address at “Willie Pie’s Store, Crozier, Virginia,” where I will attend a Conference on Chesterton, and another address I found on first picking up again my Boswell after summer break, where Johnson wrote a letter to a Mr. Cave, who live in “Greenwich, next to the Golden Heart, Churchstreet.”

One of the good books I found by this process was Pieper’s wonderful Happiness and Contemplation, in the Pantheon edition. The particular book I was sent was, evidently, previously owned by the Library at St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary, in Belleville, Illinois. And it had the distinguished American address of 5901 West Main Street. I had once lived on Main Street myself as a boy in Knoxville, Iowa. Well, I hope this St. Henry’s Seminary is now closed, because any seminary that gets rid of such a great Pieper book does not deserve to stay open — unless, of course, it has a dozen copies of Happiness and Contemplation already.

As I was reading this Pieper book, I chanced to find on page 49, a small piece of paper on which was some irregular hand script. There was no name on it or identification as to what it was, class notes, musings of writer, copy from another book, nor did it have any direct relationship to the Pieper book who had not cited Cervantes. The note read: “Don Quixote — Grand satire on two classes of people, the idealists and the practicalists — Don’t take Don seriously — he is a sad character, mentally off.” Again I thought to myself, “Well, if this is a class note, I am glad if they closed this seminary!” I suppose I could look it up to see if the seminary is open or closed, but I do not want to know. But it could just have been the view of a very young man on first encountering the perplexing Don Quixote.

As it happened, I had been reading Don Quixote in San Francisco from where I had ordered the Pieper books from Stillwater to be shipped to Washington. Don Quixote mentally off? Don’t take seriously? Two classes of people, the idealists and the practicalists? It was strange, but the whole of the Pieper book in which this note was found was about the right order of relationship between idealists and practicalists, about joy and not sadness.

Early in Don Quixote, when he is discussing with his niece the venture into the great world, Don Quixote describes how he will handle the evil magician Freston. Don Quixote figured he would fight it out in a single battle against a knight of Freston’s choice. However, Don Quixote, even then, realized that he could not “prevail against what has been ordained by heaven.”

Then the practical young woman replied: “Who has any doubts on that score? But, dear Uncle, what have you to do with such quarrels? Is it not better to stay peacefully at home instead of roaming the world in search of trouble, not to mention that many who go for wool come home sheared?”

But Don Quixote defended himself: “My dear niece, how completely mistaken you are! Before they ever shear me, I shall have plucked and lopped off the beards of all those who think they can touch the tip of a single hair of mine.”

Sadness? Don’t take Don Quixote seriously? The practicalist niece wanted Don Quixote to stay in home peacefully and not go out looking for trouble. But Don Quixote, urged on by that unsettling pursuit of the great world, troubled as it always is, boasted that he was ready for anything.

And Don Quixote knew he could not prevail against Providence — is that sad?, we wonder, this heaven and our not prevailing against it.

The dedicatory page of Pieper’s book, which presumably the writer of the note on Don Quixote might have read, contains a brief quotation from Konrad Weiss. This particular quotation, Pieper told us, he got from Weiss’s widow, who assured Pieper that Weiss had reworked this particular sentence nine times. He called it “Poverty in the Soul.”

The ninth rewritten sentence is as follows, in English: “Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object which dazzles it.”

In the context of the Quest in the world in which Don Quixote was about to set out, it is remarkable, as Pieper told us, that in Western Christian tradition there is more unsettlement in our lives caused by contemplation than in action, than in discovering a new world. Thomas Aquinas is more important than Don Quixote, or Columbus, or Alexander, or Newton, or even than the final order of this world. The dazzlement has a particular object, both for the practicalist and for the idealist, both for the niece who stayed peacefully at home and for Don Quixote who defied anyone to shear his beard. These are strange doctrines, once taught in the schools, where the end of action was contemplation, where once having arrived at the inner heart, the intellectus, the real Quest began.


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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