When Fr. James V. Schall (January 20, 1928–April 17, 2019) retired from teaching political philosophy at Georgetown University in December 2012, he experienced both consolation and desolation.
One the one hand, by leaving Georgetown and moving to the Jesuit infirmary at Los Gatos, California, he found himself reunited with his beloved novice classmates—in the building where they began their Jesuit lives in 1948, working in the vineyards of the old Jesuit winery. On the other hand, as he told me during a visit in 2016, he found himself grieving as he watched his brothers grow ill and die—and found himself growing old and dying alongside them.
After 35 years teaching classical philosophy at Georgetown, however, Fr. Schall faced this decline with characteristic perspective. As he told me in an online interview for America Media in 2014, he looked to Plato as the touchstone of all life lessons. Speaking of his interactions with students, he said:
You tell them that one of the things you want them to learn from your course is that the most exciting things they will ever encounter came from hundreds and thousands of years ago. They will find nothing quite like it and they know it. When they see this, your job as a professor is basically over. That is always why I tried to end my classes with Plato. As I say, there is no such thing as a university in which the reading of Plato is not constantly going on.
In the Phaedo, of course, Plato’s mentor accepts the honorable death of suicide by hemlock, drinking down a poisonous beverage rather than admit to charges of corrupting Athenian youths and introducing strange gods. Although Fr. Schall (who referred to himself in writing as “Schall”) practiced the Socratic method of teaching, walking the classroom as he asked thought-provoking questions that made students engage rather than sit passively, he did not advocate suicide. Nor did he corrupt youths or worship false idols. While many priests in our sad times have committed the latter offenses in unspeakable ways, Schall remained a gentleman until the end, well-loved by his students and fellow Jesuits as a pleasant companion.
He learned these values of hard work, fraternal respect, and scholarship in his youth. Raised in Iowa public schools, he served from 1946 to 1947 in the U.S. Army after high school, and then joined the California Jesuits in 1948. Schall earned a BA from Santa Clara University, an MA in philosophy from Gonzaga University, an MA in Sacred Theology from Santa Clara University, and a PhD in political theory from Georgetown University in the course of his Jesuit formation. Ordained a priest in 1963, he taught social sciences at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1964 to 1977, and concurrently taught in the government department of the University of San Francisco from 1968 to 1977, before moving to Georgetown. The U.S. government, the Vatican, and various Catholic institutions sought him out for service on committees and boards during his long career.
Yet people remember Schall for presenting his deep learning with lightness. He read the funny pages daily and often mixed references to the cartoon character Charlie Brown—describing his creator Charles Schulz as “a very good philosopher”—into his lectures alongside Aristotle, Plato, Sacred Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, and Chesterton. Like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, his intellectual soulmate, Schall exuded a Ronald Knox-like quality of taking things lightly even as he critiqued various impulses toward moral relativism in contemporary Western culture.
Because of this intellectual and spiritual balance, retirement did not frighten or disturb him in the least, even as his health slowly declined. In October 2018, a few months before he died, Schall graciously sent me a replacement copy of his essay collection On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, in which he reflects on themes inspired by Josef Pieper’s notion of leisure—i.e., teaching, writing, playing, believing, and other forms of “wasting time”—as the basis of culture. The paperback version of that book appeared in January 2012, quite intentionally just a few months before his retirement in December of that year, at which point he made leisure his full-time occupation.
But leisure for Schall, as for Pieper, meant continuing to write and lecture even in retirement. Living in a small infirmary room at the old Jesuit novitiate, most of his books given away, he kept corresponding with fellow Jesuits like myself and writing his Ignatius Insight column, as well as various books of essay collections. Author of more than 30 books, he nevertheless remained an essayist at heart, a modern-day Montaigne who wrote fluidly and elegantly as master of both the long and short essay forms.
Although he left us at age 91 on Spy Wednesday, slipping away as quietly as Judas from the Last Supper in an irony he would not fail to appreciate, Schall remains present to us in his prolific writings—in classically-rooted words which breathe his learned spirit and provide mini-courses on Ignatian adaptability of first principles to the storms of our ever-changing world. Famed for providing appendices to his books with lists of other books he wanted to share with readers, giving them titles like “Schall’s Five Books to Stay Sane,” he now deserves his own list. So here I offer, at the end of this reflection on the life of my brother Jesuit, three “Schall Books to Stay Holy” for First Things readers: Another Sort of Learning, on the lessons students teach us; The Life of the Mind, on forming ourselves to think critically; and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.
Thus we conclude the liturgy of Schall’s life. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Now in the words of St. Augustine: Tolle, lege.
Fr. Sean Salai, S.J., is a special contributor at America Media.