Sense and Nonsense: The Rational Animal

The last day of the fall semester was the feast of the Immaculate Conception—not a holy day that trumps class on our university calendar. For this occasion, however, in a class devoted to Aristotle himself, I read the first chapters of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He explains that “all men by nature desire to know.” Proof of this is the delight we take in our senses, especially sight, which “brings to light many differences between things.”

The origin of our desire to know, Aristotle observes, is neither need nor necessity, but “wonder.” We are puzzled about why things are this way, not that way. Only after the normal needs and necessities were met were men free enough to want to know things “for their own sakes.” Man is a “rational animal.” He is constantly asking questions and, more importantly, giving answers. He just wants to know. Delight occurs in just knowing. If we do not experience it, we will turn back to other pleasures. We will miss the pleasure that comes simply from knowing.

This was heady stuff. So after class I decided to take a walk. It was a warm day, and I had not had lunch. I thought I would have a hamburger at Sugar’s, a hangout a couple of blocks from the front gate of the university. When I got there, students from Trinity grammar school began to inundate the place. Older grammar-school students are marvelously noisy.

Prudently I passed up Sugar’s. The alternative was Wingo’s, a carry-out place. I had never entered the place before. A rather burly man waited on me, and I ordered a burger. “Chips or fries?” “Neither,” I told him, “just a cheeseburger.” “Five dollars.” About 15 minutes later, the order appeared.

Where to eat it? I recalled a park off of Volta Place, two blocks away, a park I had often walked by but had never entered. An iron fence enclosed the side closest to the university. When I went in, I noticed that the ground was covered with straw. Moreover, several people in the park had dogs that were zipping around the lot.

After surveying the place, I saw a bench at the side. I walked over to have my cheeseburger quietly. On opening the box, I found a hefty product without cheese but with unordered chips. I began to eat. At this point, one of the dogs trotted over to gaze at Schall eating his belated lunch. I did not shush him away, hoping he would get bored. I am coldhearted when it comes to sharing my lunch with an unknown mutt. But he just stayed there wagging his tail and staring at the hamburger.

Three or four other dogs came running over, nudging against me, two of these dogs were rather persistent. I waited for their human keepers to come to my rescue. No one budged. Finally, a frisky Doberman came bounding over. He took a couple of greedy jumps at Wingo’s best product in my hands. At last, the owners came over and tried to pull the dogs off. The dogs, however, are not rational. They do not obey commands to desist from Schall’s lunch. When another lady entered the park with yet another dog, suddenly the dogs raced after the new presence in the park.

After finishing three-quarters of my five-dollar hamburger, I decided it would not be prudent to give it to any of the panting dogs. Suddenly, a light—I realized where I was: namely, in the local dog run. Schall, admirer of Aristotle, decided to eat his lunch in a straw-covered compound of frolicking canines. The owners must have “wondered” about the “rationality” of a man dumb enough to eat a hamburger in an official dog run.

Fortunately, I had changed to old clothes. I bore no telltale signs of being either a cleric or professor. Yet the thought did cross my clouded mind about which species in that dog run was really rational.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    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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