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On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs by James Schall

On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing by James V. Schall

Ever since God commanded His creation to rest, humans have managed to busy themselves to near oblivion. James Schall has long been recognized as one of the great masters of the essay. In his most recent collection of essays, Schall tackles the important issue of “what to do when all else is done” (xi). Most reflective people realize that our culture is driven by pragmatism. This idea has even worked its way into the community of the saints.  Maybe even worse than this is that our entire society (and the church) breathe the atmosphere of utilitarianism. Even when it is not affirmed explicitly, it is implicit in virtually all of our pursuits—what is the use of this activity? It is in this setting that Schall plays the role of heretic and questions the reigning orthodoxy of utilitarianism.

Like G.K Chesterton, Schall has an eye for paradox and the ability to move the reader to think differently.  By shifting the angle and turning some phrases, Schall examines topics such as wisdom, joy, leisure, play, happiness, work, conversation, letter writing, reflection, pilgrimage, teaching and being taught. Among the many delights of reading Schall is seeing how apparently unconnected issues or aspects of life are indeed connected.  Dr. Schall frequently demonstrates the medieval truism that “any thing, if we think deeply enough about it, can lead us to everything” (xii).  Herein may reside some of the reason for such fragmentation in our contemporary lives.  It appears that there is not a great deal of thinking about things.  Some may question the value of thinking. The anti-intellectualism prevalent in American culture is also commonplace in church cultures.

While Schall is a political philosopher, he does not blindly accept all the assumptions of the great western philosophical heritage. On the most important matter of sin and evil, Schall, reflecting traditional Christian conviction affirms that “human will and not ignorance is the primary cause of evil” (27). While some may want to claim ignorance regarding the proper Christian view of work, leisure, and the life of the mind our errors seem to be more a matter of our habits shaped by our will rather than us simply not knowing.

There are countless proverbial bits of wisdom throughout this enjoyable collection of essays. As a way of summarizing the proper view of life, work, and leisure, Schall may be at his wisest and wittiest when he asserts, “If we love what we do, we do not work” (163).

In a society characterized by utilitarianism, Christians should be aware of the temptation to make the faith “practical”. In truth, much of Christianity can never be seen as being very practical. Schall even remarks, “Christianity is a religion of ‘wasted’ time.  It is a religion of joy because it is a religion of God who is joy.  And it tells us that our end is serious joy, because this God is our end”  (106).

Readers will certainly not agree with all of Dr. Schall’s particular arguments or conclusions, but Schall is so agreeable in his convictions that one still benefits from having thought through his views on these timely matters.

Books by Fr. James Schall are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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1 reply to this post
  1. Dr. Woods: Fr. Schall’s work sounds intriguing–I confess I haven’t heard of him before, but I’ll seek out his essays immediately. I would point out, though, that your clever opening–“Ever since God commanded His creation to rest, humans have managed to busy themselves to near oblivion”– sidesteps the widely reported unpleasantness in Eden, following which I believe God commanded humans to get busy working, even to the point of “painful toil” and “sweat of your brow” and all that. I’m not saying we didn’t bring all this utilitarian/pragmatic busy-ness on ourselves; I’m just saying that, short of restoring Eden, I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it. Perhaps Fr. Schall will convince me otherwise.

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