Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: The Life of the Mind

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As an undergraduate, I studied under Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., taking his classes in Elements of Political Theory, Classical Political Philosophy, St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. It may be a stretch to say that they changed my life, but they certainly changed the course of my intellectual life. Now, more than 12 years into my career, I picked up this little volume of Fr. Schall’s. I found The Life of the Mind enlightening, entertaining and a much-needed reminder of the importance, and yet also the unseriousness, of human life.

Fr. Schall always weaves a wonderful fabric of theology, philosophy, politics, wisdom and reading. In this book, he urges us to lead a vigorous intellectual life, full of great reading and encounters with the great thinkers of history. The book takes us through many of these thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, the Bible, Samuel Johnson, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien loom large, as do lesser-know though no less profound thinkers such as A.D Sertillanges, Hillaire Belloc and E.F. Schumacher. Fr. Schall reminds us that we must take care of our own intellectual lives, which contributes to the health and life of our souls.

He also forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves. If our souls are disordered, he echoes Plato, our work will be disordered. There are (at least) as many disordered polities as there are kinds of disordered souls in humanity. We might say the same thing about business.

Indeed, Fr. Schall has a particular warning about business: “it is quite possible to be enthusiastic about many things and still be half-hearted men when it comes to the higher things. Indeed, pleasure and business, even education, have long served as a kind of escapism, a strategy proven to help us avoid examining our lives.” Or another: “Being skilled or learned in a given profession was considered by them [gentlemen] to not be enough for a complete life no matter how worthy the occupation.” These passages, for me at least, raised an alarm: I should work hard at my career, but must know success in business does not guarantee a healthy life or soul.

This last quote comes from a chapter ‘On the Things That Depend on Philosophy.’ Quite a lot depends on philosophy, according to Fr. Schall, and he makes a compelling case. A complete life must have some philosophical inquiry, about ourselves and the nature of reality. I want to take care: philosophy is not needed or important because it makes our practical lives better, although it has that effect too. Philosophy is needed by human beings because it helps make us what we are; it is part of our true nature. We study philosophy, then, for its own sake.

To conclude this brief review, let me return to the practical effects of philosophy. In my own experience and in my reading on great leaders and successful organizations, it does seem they possess a philosophical kind of reflection about themselves and their place in the world. And, at some level, men and leaders and organizations that fail lack this philosophical frame of mind. The last year has provided ample opportunity to reflect on these questions of why men and organizations fail. And reading the book, a question came to mind, which I may explore in a future post: Did Wall Street fall because its leaders did not study enough finance, or enough philosophy?


Written by Russell S.

January 29, 2010 at 3:05 am

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  1. […] The Life of the Mind – James V. Schall, […]

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