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On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs
by James V. Schall
Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2001
(189 pages; $24.95, cloth)
reviewed by Eric Scheske
Shortly before he was martyred with others in 203, St. Saturus related a vision he had had of heaven. He said he and the other martyrs were carried eastward to a garden, where a handful of angels started exclaiming, “Here they are! Here they are!” They were taken to a group of elders and an aged man with a youthful face. The martyrs kissed the aged man, and he touched their faces with his hand. Then the elders told them, “Go and play.”
Fr. James Schall understands why the martyrs were told to go and play.
On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs explores the unseriousness of serious human affairs and the seriousness of unserious human affairs. Yes, it is a paradoxical book, but that’s only to be expected from Schall—a devoted reader of G. K. Chesterton.
Schall’s book is a series of loosely connected essays that revolve around a very basic question: How ought we to live our lives? He never tries to offer a direct answer to the question, but he provides guidance in an array of areas, as evidenced by the book’s subtitle: “Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing.” To these I would add Writing and Receiving Letters, Watching Sporting Events, and Spending Time with Friends.
It is a book lightly written, laced with references to Charlie Brown and other cartoons, but deceptively heavy. I found myself inclined—almost forced—to pause after every section and think about Schall’s words. He never belabors a point and often makes statements without going forward and offering conclusions. Rather, he points to the truth and invites the reader to think about implications (a trait, I suspect, Schall takes from one of his heroes, the German philosopher Josef Pieper, whose love of laconism forces readers constantly to stop and ponder).
Consider Schall’s observation about wasting time. Amusement, he says, might be the great and ultimate end of mankind. Amusement, after all, is a short distance from joy, which is our ultimate lot. And we are only amused when wasting time. “In wasted time, in amusement, in laughter, we find breaking into our lives intimations that perhaps the sadness we experience is deceptive, however genuine it may be.” Schall could then have
continued the essay, talking about any number of related things, like the sin of sadness or how people who take themselves seriously are the ones really wasting their lives, but he doesn’t. He leaves such thoughts for the reader to mull over. Schall keeps his points brief, and he rarely preaches or condemns.
It is a light and fun book.
A condensation of everything Schall teaches us in this book is impossible, so I’ve prepared the following Top Ten List of Schallian Points. If this seems trite, I would respond that such an approach fits Schall’s lighthearted style and the loosely connected nature of the book’s chapters. I would also point out that Schall himself is a fan of lists, as evidenced by the top twenty-five list of “These-People-Tell-the-Truth Books” that he sets forth in the appendix (if you’re curious, Pieper’s Anthology and Chesterton’s Orthodoxy rank one and two) and numerous lists that he set forth in his earlier book, Another Sort of Learning (a book that ought to be given to every young adult as a graduation present).
So, listed in reverse order, here is my Top Ten List of Schallian Points:
10. Higher education is today largely a matter of private enterprise, good fortune, and reading things that few assign or praise.
9. We must first ask to see before we shall see.
8. We must philosophize with our whole soul.
7. At any moment we can be, and often are, faced with a choice that involves ultimate consequences because of the exalted status of each person we meet.
6. The experiences of watching high-level sporting events might cause the viewer to see how something is good and exists for its own sake, and if he sees this, he can understand something about God.
5. The two most significant words in the English language are nearly homophonic—to “wonder” and to “wander.”
4. No one has time in one lifetime to study all the great thinkers, but we shouldn’t despair. Many paths lead from something to everything.
3. We are homines risibiles, the laughing animals. The ability to laugh is a sign of metaphysical intelligence because laughter results from our ability to see relationships and the ability to see relations is the first requirement of the metaphysician.
2. In Greek mythology, after the gods created the world, they noticed that there was no one to praise what was created—so they sent the muses and they inspired song, poetry, dance, and art.
1. We can do nothing for God. We are ultimately “useless,” but this is the best thing about us because we can, in good conscience, spend our lives in “useless” activities, like philosophizing, singing, sacrificing, and dancing.
A top ten list of authors might also be appropriate, for Schall always gives credit to the people he has read. And he has read a lot. In the process of giving credit, he quietly—and convincingly—pushes us to read other writers—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Johnson and Boswell, Chesterton, Belloc, Pieper, Voegelin (that’s ten). As I read Schall’s book, I found myself anxious to get through it so I could read Cicero’s On Duties and Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
And I have no doubt that Schall himself would be pleased to learn of my anxiousness to put him down. For that is what Schall’s writings are about: pushing readers toward the great writers, the higher things, and the nobler pursuits. And now he has pushed readers toward the amusing activities. Fr. Schall would be happy to hear of my eagerness to read Cicero and Boswell—as long as I didn’t take my desire so seriously that I neglected the finer things in life, like playing with my children and lounging around with my friends.
Eric Scheske works as an attorney in Sturgis, Michigan, where he attends Holy Angels Catholic Church. He is a contributing editor of Gilbert! The Magazine of G. K. Chesterton, and his articles have also appeared in New Oxford Review, Culture Wars, Lay Witness, and The Catholic Faith, among other publications.