“Reasonable Pleasures,” the latest book from scholar Father James Schall, examines the “valuable but subordinate role” pleasure plays and how it can contribute to a life that is both fulfilled and good.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed “that the human being
has a variety of tendencies…all of which have some kind of pleasure
connected with it,” Fr. Schall, emeritus professor of philosophy at
Georgetown University, told CNA.
“So the reasonable man, if he is virtuous, will put the proper pleasure
on the proper ends of his activities, so the pleasure itself is a
consequence of, is involved in every action you do,” he said.
“These pleasures are to be experienced, they are are good things; yet
it's not the pleasure that's important, it's the cause of the pleasure
that's the important thing.
“So you get to the understanding that pleasure is part of the moral
life; that's whats the moral life is partly about: putting the proper
pleasure on the proper activity. And the thesis of this book…is that the
highest pleasure is the one which has to do with thinking, and loving
and a consequence of that.”
Published by Ignatius Press, the book “flows out of Aristotle,” Fr.
Schall said. The philosopher noted that human persons – rational animals
– can experience pleasures related to both their body and soul, and
that when one does not take the time to engage in intellectual acts and
enjoy their pleasures, he will “start to find his pleasures in other
kinds of things, which are deviations from the good.”
Fr. Schall, a priest of the Society of Jesus, reflected on the
importance of the act of reading good books for “the delight we take in
knowing the truth of things” by relating a story about St. Augustine.
“In the Confessions, when he was about 19,” St. Augustine relates how
“he happens to come across a book of Cicero, the Hortensius…a dialogue
on philosophy. And when Augustine finished it, he said, 'I'm going to be
a philosopher. That's what I'm going to do with my life. That's what
I've been looking for.'”
“That is one of the most momentous moments in the history of thought, when Augustine says, 'I am going to be a philosopher.'”
While it took St. Augustine another 15 years “to figure it out,” Cicero –
who had died 400 years earlier – “changed the world” by his writing.
“This tradition comes down to us when we sit down and read a story.
That's what I tell my students: that's what it's all about, when you see
that that's what you want to do – to know the truth.”
In a sense, Fr. Schall said, there is a pleasure connected with seeking
the truth, “and also an angst, a restlessness, as Augustine says,
because you know that any truth you get leads to others, and you're
living a life seeking the truth, but at the same time are unsettled
because you know ultimately you don't have it.”
“And so the subtitle (The Strange Coherences of Catholicism) is
precisely about that point, that it does cohere, once you do have a
clarity with regard to the end as it is presented to you in revelation
and in reason.”
“Reasonable Pleasures” means to show that reality does make sense, and
does make sense as it is explained by the Church; that revelation is an
answer to the questions asked by reason; and that human persons are
ordered to a transcendent destiny in the resurrection of the body and a
Our bodiliness places each of us in a unique situation “in which you
work out your freedom…and carry out your purpose,” and makes possible
for us the pleasures of sport and play.
“I think that sports for example do have a very important place in our
lives,” Fr. Schall said. “The closest a young man comes to contemplation
is watching a good ball game. Why? Aristotle says contemplation is
thinking about the highest things, enjoying them, and being outside of
yourself, because it's not yourself you're talking about; you're
beholding something beyond yourself.”
“It's the same thing in a good game,” he reflected, discussing a college
football game he had watched recently. “You don't know what's going to
happen; you step back and you don't know until it's finished, and you're
absorbed in that, and you say, 'what was I doing those two hours?'”
“Well, I wasn't 'doing' anything. I was contemplating that thing as it
unraveled before me. That kind of experience...you see that's what
Aristotle says is the contemplative act that we are most ordained to.”
Next to Aristotle, the book's most influential thinker is G.K.
Chesterton. Fr. Schall quoted the 19th century writer as saying that
mankind's end when we're together conversing in “the tavern at the end
of the world.”
“That's precisely the highest thing. The end of civilization is a few
people sitting in a room talking. That's exactly what it's all about.
Why talking? It means pursuing the highest things.”
Fr. Schall then went on to discuss Josef Pieper, whom he said “points
out that you can't set out to find joy. Joy is a by-product of doing
something that ought to be done, of doing, or possessing something that
is good…you don't go to out to have joy. Joy is the result of something
you're doing which is right, the good which is in the thing itself which
you are experiencing.”
“The joy of conversation…it's not the conversation, but the conversation
is taking place 'about' things…so that the perfection of human nature
is precisely this common pursuit together of conversations about what
are the most important things,” he added.
“Very often the analogies of heaven are not only of vision, but the
delight of truth also; the delight of knowing, of conversation, speaking
about it, giving it back.”
Fr. Schall put it thus: “The best thing a college has is a pub, where
you go and talk; you know, not going out to be drunk, but to relax and
to talk about the important things. And you more often talk about the
most important things, not with your professors, but with your
colleagues, your buddies, your friends, and for most of us the best part
of college life is precisely this. Why? Because it's precisely what our
Yet our orientation to “the tavern at the end of the world” is just that. The “ultimate inn” is not in this world.
“Unless you realize that's your end, you will be frustrated the rest of
your life trying to find it somewhere else, which is what the history of
mankind is partially about: trying to find it someplace else” than in
The book concludes that man's perfection relies on his accepting his
being and his ordination to sharing in the inner life of the godhead,
and that to accept this is “to find the true location of our home even
when we catch intimation of it in the homes in which we are born, dwell,
and live our mortal lives.”