The necessity of idealism

January 24, 2008

Though it is hard to imagine, I’m sure I’m not the only person who enjoys the Hoya’s bi-weekly exegesis of the ancient philosophers, penned by the legendary Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. Each edition of the aging Jesuit’s Aristoletian discourse is a treat—like intellectual antiquing—but I can’t help but take issue with the latest dispatch from the Hoya’s correspondent in the 1920s, entitled by their editors “Idealism Root of Political Problems.” (Hopefully, next week Fr. Maher will come back with “Open Minds Lead to Strife.”)

Schall, who is by reputation an excellent professor and a representative of that classic Jesuit strain that we denizens of modern Georgetown have cause to miss, normally eschews temporal matters (Typical column title: “Rediscovering the Role of Thought in Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics,” Typical first line: “Should the vast size of the universe concern us?”). But his latest dispatch begs for rebuttal. Though Schall is coy about what his point is—much more so than the article’s headline—it seems he and Plato agree that the “desire to have the perfect city is the cause of all political evils that do happen in this world.” It may be worth mentioning that Schall is a bit conservative.

Now it’s possible be that the headline writer missed the point of the column, and slotted in idealism when perhaps utopianism would have been a better fit. But it seems throughout that Schall is advocating a withdrawal from worldly affairs. What a sad message to send to college students. Why would he choose this moment, when the world has such an urgent need for the work of young people? Luckily it is possible to find an answer: At eighty, Schall has written more books and articles than most anyone, and a column written earlier this month and published online at Ignation Insight bemoans Georgetown’s “about twenty outside lectures a day from national and international figures. With the upcoming election, it will be a madhouse. May I say it? These are distractions, for the most part. Students are not here this time of their lives to find out about current events. And if that is what they do while in the university, that is all they will know. They will have missed the important things while pursuing the ephemeral ones.”

I wouldn’t dispute with Schall about the necessity of reading Plato and Aristotle. Students ought to share their time between academic contemplation and current events. But I would suggest he rethink his definition of ephemerality. Presumably the current election, where thus far the youth vote has played an important role in determining who our next president will be, is not important to Schall. But as every day people live and die based on decisions that a president makes, I’ll throw my weight on the side of its importance. Schall and other professors seem to think that students ignore their work at the expense of these outside activities, but I believe in our ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

In a pleasing coincidence, I had just seen Schall’s Plato quote referenced in a year-old episode of The Wire, another paean to the difficulties of rightly managing a city. But the heroes of that television series are those that strive onward against these difficulties, not those that walk away.

No doubt this column reads like the folly of youth—oh, they do not understand the time they have! But Schall’s column reads like the condescension of age, filtered through Plato—how so many young men come to Washington with the hope of making things better, and how wiser minds have watched them fail and become thus embittered. But Schall and I might find some common ground yet. I sympathize with his mission of injecting a little morality and truth into each generation of Hoyas since 1978, leaving each one with some kind of moral structure at hand. Would that he would urge current students to go out and put this to good work. I’m not brash enough to quote scripture to a Jesuit, but I might get away with a recent papal encyclical, Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi: “[E]very generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom.”

No doubt to manage a city, or a country for that matter, is difficult to do rightly. But it is incumbent on us to try. Forward, then, the dangerous enthusiasm of young men.

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