Sense and Nonsense: The Great Dance

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Aristotle suggests that there is something higher than praise, even though praise is perhaps one of our highest acts. Praise results from our capacity and willingness to acknowledge that someone else, besides ourselves, has actually accomplished something worthwhile. Praise is, in this sense, our highest reward from others and the most precious gift. Yet, there seems to be something higher even than praise.

Praise not only is a recognition of fine things someone has done, but it also encourages us to do fine things. In this sense, a desire to be praised is one of the great tools of education. To praise and to celebrate, however, have different emphases. Virtue is something we may or may not accomplish even though we should seek to be virtuous. If we do, it is worthy and merits praise, which is a response not of ourselves to ourselves but of others to what is worthy in ourselves. Praise implies that its recipients have a certain humility and a certain honesty about what they have done.

However, celebrations, Aristotle argues, are for successful achievements. We celebrate not when we are striving to do something but when we have accomplished it. Happiness, the end of all our activities and all our longings, once achieved, is no longer to be praised but to be celebrated. Or to put it another way, the activity of happiness is celebration. And this word has the connotation of a certain abundance and fullness, a largesse. The Latin word, celebrare, means a great concourse of people coming to honor and delight about a person or a place. And the Greek word can also note a touch of, to use a good old English word, the revel.

Celebration is something more than joy, the enjoyment in having what we rightly desire. Celebration implies that our highest activities have to do with more than ourselves. We can hardly imagine what it would mean to celebrate by ourselves. That would be not merely anti-social, but anti-reality. This world is not a parsimonious place, in spite of what the ecologists like to tell us. But celebration is itself an image of something more than itself.


We can only celebrate, I think, if we live in a world other than the one we claim to have made by and for ourselves, over against the world that is. Envy refuses to acknowledge the good that we see in others. Pride refuses to acknowledge any other world but our own, one in which we, not God, give all the meaning and all the norms. We cannot really celebrate in such a world of our own exclusive making, and in fact there are no celebrations in self-contained worlds. Celebration includes the surprise that the world makes sense.

“The Great Dance . . . has begun from before always,” it says in C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. “There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the center and for the dance all things were made.” There is, I think, no way to describe the meaning of celebration better than this, though Plato and Aristotle, in their own ways, came remarkably close. We do not, in the end, celebrate ourselves, but we ourselves celebrate that which caused in us our capacity to praise. With the great concourse of our kind before His face, we celebrate in order to respond to the great achievement of having received that for which we were created.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (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 including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).