Sense and Nonsense: Schall at 75

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Five years ago, the title of this Crisis column was—you guessed it!—”Schall at 70.” Time, as they say, marches on—or, to cite an old song, it “changes everything.” Actually, if time literally changed everything, including “what it is to be Schall,” Schall would not still be here. Though shaky, evidence supports the thesis that he is still about. Three-quarters of a century (on January 20) is no doubt more time than most human beings are given on this green earth. My last aunt died in Iowa a year ago last May. She was 98. Her youngest sister died at 90 several years earlier. My own mother was in between these two aunts, but she died in 1937 at the age of 33.

At 75, one can legitimately call oneself an old man. Yet, in our com­munity here at Georgetown, we have one man over 100, one 99, and one 94, all pretty active. Their mere existence puts a different spin on aging. A man of 100 years makes a man of 75 seem, at least to himself, young. (The operative word here is “seem.”)

In ancient times, the term “wise” was reserved for elderly citizens, those with the experience that comes from having lived a long time amid human things. Recalling one’s own follies, as no honest man at 75 can fail to do, makes it very difficult to see one’s life as full of wisdom, experience or not. No one who teaches Plato every semester, as I do, can fail to notice that Socrates died at 70, while here you are at 75, never even having been offered any hemlock. When one recalls Aquinas died at 49, comparisons become even more dubious. To think of what Aquinas might have written had he lived as long as I have is rather sober­ing. Actually, to think of what Aquinas did write in his short life is even more sobering. Plato himself died at 81; whether this fact will harbor any con­solation remains to be seen.

The last year of Samuel Johnson’s life was 1784. He was 74 years old. On May 15 of that year, Boswell recorded the following incident in Johnson’s life:

 

When I told him that a young and handsome Countess had said to me, “I should think that to be praised by Dr. Johnson would make one a fool all one’s life;” and that I answered, “Madam, I shall make him a fool today, by repeating this to him,” he (Johnson) said, “I am too old to be made a fool; but if you say I am made a fool, I shall not deny it. I am much pleased with a compliment, especially from a pretty woman.”

The mutually appreciative compliments of Johnson and the pretty young Countess make “fools” of each. But on reading such a passage at 75, one feels that it is all right to be a fool.

In Cicero’s famous essay De Senectute (On Old Age) we read: “When I [Cato] was a young man, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who captured Tarentum (209 B.C.), was already old. Yet I was fond of him as if we had been contemporaries. His natural dignity had a sociable streak, and age had not changed his character.” Then as now, old age was popularly assumed to be a cantankerous and selfish period. To preserve a worthy character even into old age was considered a mark of virtue, even of heroism.

One of the things that I have done during these past five years is to present copies of my books, articles, man­uscripts, and other memorabilia to the Special Collections section of Georgetown’s Lauinger Library. With the help of friends and the organizing ability of a professional library, this material now constitutes “The James V. Schall, S.J., Papers.” The Library Catalogue lists 152 pages of items—columns, essays, papers. The first “published” Schall essay appeared in 1954 in Commonweal; it was titled, “The Necessity of Government.” Seeing one’s “written” life stretched out like this is by no means a calming experience. However, there is consolation. I am pretty good with titles. Next perhaps to the sub­title of Another Sort of Learning, my best title is from my “English” book—The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men. Even though we are “fallen,” sinful, finite, we can still worship and praise God, as He has directed us to do. There is little else we need to know.

Fr. James V. Schall

By

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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