Sense and Nonsense: Our Personal Philosophy

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In an old “peanuts” cartoon, Charlie is sitting in a big comfortable chair, quietly reading a book, when his little sister, Sally, walks by, also reading a book. She announces, “We have to write a short piece for school that expresses our personal philosophy….” Charlie turns around with considerable perplexity as she continues: “So far, I’ve written ‘Who Cares?’ and ‘Forget it!'” In the last scene, an obviously concerned Charlie proposes his own “personal philosophy”: “How about, ‘Why me?'” Sally responds, “That’s good. I’ll fit it in.” The very idea of a “personal philosophy” is probably a contradiction in terms. If I have a philosophy personal to me and you have one personal to you, there is no possibility of either of us having a philosophy that states the truth about the things we hold in common.

Sally seems to understand this. After all, if my personal philosophy is “Who cares?” that means that whatever I might come up with makes no real difference to anyone else. Or if I am to “forget it”—that is, forget the whole business of finding a philosophy—this again implies that such heavy stuff is not worth anyone’s attention.

Charlie’s suggestion reflects his status as a perennial victim. The motto “Why me?” can be made to fit any “personal” philosophy. It reflects, after all, the ubiquitous complaint that the world is not “fair,” especially to me. To answer the question “Just who said it should be fair?” requires another philosophy, one that hints that perhaps the world is not well made. And if indeed the world is not fair, what is it? Is fairness the ultimate criterion of reality? Could the world be, in our perception, “not fair” and still be eminently good?

C.S. Lewis once suggested that when and if we get to heaven, everyone will be in the process of becoming more and more unlike one another at every moment. We are most alike in our sins and least alike in our virtues, gifts, and glories. I am not presenting a theory that counts diversity as the highest good. Yet as Chesterton remarked, the greatest saints are very unlike one another. Criminals are much more alike than saints. Though saints do not become “gods” in any proper sense of that term, they do become more themselves. They become what they were created to be from the moment of their individual beginning in conception. Though they are perfected, they remain men and women, particular and finite. This is in part what the Incarnation means for us: that it is all right not to be God.

 

Who cares? Why me?

My own “personal” philosophy is that I do not have, and ought not to have, any purely “personal” philosophy. Where, after all, would I get my own philosophy? From myself, right? If I, or anyone else, should not concoct a personal philosophy, one meant for and dependent on myself alone, then there is nothing wrong or dangerous with my getting my philosophy from someone else.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy is sometimes called the philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy). That means that what Thomas held was not necessarily something he thought up solely by himself. No doubt he did have insights that added to our understanding of the truth—as any of us might, on a lesser scale. But he did not think of the truth he taught as something he, “owned.” If it was true, anyone could have it, hold it. Truth was a gift, even to Thomas, Aristotle, and Plato.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Parker’s Back,” the hero, Parker, goes to a local county fair where he sees a man covered with tattoos. This sight has an astonishing effect on Parker: “Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”

If someone should ask me—which, thank goodness, no one does—what is my “personal” philosophy, I would have to respond with the very Thomist idea about the extraordinariness of my own, and anyone else’s, existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is this thing not that thing?

Who cares? Forget it? Why me?

The fact is that Someone cares. Nothing will be forgotten, except, we hope, our sins. Why me? Because, like everyone else, I do not cause myself, yet I am. The most extraordinary fact of all, the most extraordinary philosophy, is that we exist, but not of ourselves.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

By

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).

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