Schall was born January 20, 1928, on a farm in Pocahontas County, Iowa. You cannot get more American than that. My mother was Bohemian and my father German-Irish. To my Jesuit colleagues at breakfast on my birthday I hint that this memorable event happened in a log cabin. Most doubt this as too picturesque, while others are sure Schall confuses himself with Abraham Lincoln.
Previously, I did columns on "Schall at Seventy" and "Schall at Seventy-Five." So the fates decree "Schall at Eighty." A wonderful old Jesuit died here this year at 105. You need not anticipate.
Of late, whenever I come across Psalm 90 in the office, I do my calculations: "The years of our life are threescore and ten (70), or even by reason of strength fourscore (80)." Not bad, but the next line reads: "Yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away." The "soon gone" is the very condition of human life. The Psalm is on target; "toil and trouble" are known.
In some educational journal, I saw an essay titled, "The Aging Professorate." We are the only country in the world that by law allows people my age to continue to teach, provided we do not babble or otherwise show signs of dementia.
The ancients associated wisdom with age, as the name "Senate," a body of old — that is, wise — men implies. Are all the elderly, including Schall, therefore wise? Hardly.
Old age was the topic that began the conversation of Plato’s Republic. "Indeed, Cephalus," Socrates says,
I enjoy talking with the very old, for we should ask them, as we might ask those who have traveled a road that we too will probably have to follow, what kind of road it is, whether rough and difficult or smooth and easy. And I’d gladly find out from you what you think about this, as you have reached the point in life the poets call "the threshold of old age" (Odyssey, xvi, 218). Is it a difficult time? What is your report about it? (328d-e)
So what does Schall "report" about it?
The Greeks thought that only the gods were wise. The philosopher sought wisdom, but he would never be a god. "To know that he did not know" was the mark of the wise man. That is not a bad criterion, provided it is not a formula for skepticism.
The human mind is made to know, to know what is. One looks back with a certain amusement about what he knew at 20 or so, the same age as Schall’s present students. I have of late been haunted by the following passage from book seven of The Republic: "At present, those who study philosophy do so as young men who have just left childhood behind and have yet to take up household management and money-making," Socrates says.
But just when these reach the hardest part — I mean the part that has to do with giving a rational account — they abandon it and are regarded as fully trained in philosophy. In later life, they think they’re doing well if they are willing to be in an invited audience when others are doing philosophy, for they think they should do this only as a sideline. And, with few exceptions, by the time they reach old age, their eagerness for philosophy is quenched . . . .
To study philosophy too soon is a dangerous occupation.
The most difficult part, as Socrates says, is "giving a rational account." I am struck by this phrase. It intimates that very few are philosophers. Recently, I published a book titled The Regensburg Lecture, concerning Benedict’s reminder that the Christian faith is directed to logos, to reason, which it needs and respects. Indeed, Christians from G. K. Chesterton to Pope John Paul II maintain that the common man can know some philosophy. Often he is closer to the truth than the academic philosopher.
Yet Plato is right: The "eagerness for philosophy" can be quenched or redirected away from what is. Of late, such things have interested me — the "rational account," that it is revelation that cures or completes reason. The work of reason is more often considered in the Church than in politics — more carefully considered, too.
The year 2008 is the 100th anniversary of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a book I dearly love. The book was 20 years old when I was born in a log cabin in Iowa. Chesterton too spoke of what is, probably the only thing worth talking about. It would be unnatural of Schall not to conclude with Orthodoxy:
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as some thing heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.
This is what Schall has to report at 80. Both the peril and the excitement are there, for we are free. We are sane, not mad. We know the difference. For this, we give a "rational account," even at 80.
Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Order of Things, is recently published by Ignatius Press.