From Publishers Weekly
Although Schall's title might seem to promise a romp through the Elysian Fields with Epicurus and Nietzsche, nothing could be further from the truth. Recruiting philosophy and literary theory into an inspirational narrative, Father Schall (A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning), who teaches at Georgetown University, contends that "unseriousness" derives from the realization that while humankind is not the highest thing in existence, human beings are good. Humanity's joy, then, comes in its celebration of being-in-the-world; those enjoyable activities, which might seem like wasting time, are in fact related to "our transcendent destiny," our spirituality. Taking passages from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante and Chesterton, Schall argues that our lives have a particular gravity, but that they are unserious compared to the seriousness of God. Our lives are merely, then, responses to an order that exists beyond us, and Schall demonstrates through readings of philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Peanuts' Charlie Brown that various unserious behaviors playing, dancing, singing, writing provide the skills to connect to that transcendent order. For example, he observes that "[e]ssays keep us alert to the wonder of things," and "[l]etters keep us in touch when we are not literally before those whom we would see face to face." Schall weaves together his meditations with theological interludes in which he explores briefly such topics as redemption, salvation and eschatology. Although these reflections do not break any new ground or open up any radically different channels of discussion, Schall's book will appeal to fans of C.S. Lewis, Chesterton and Peter Kreeft.
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Letters and essays are Schall's favorite reading, and the leisurely concentration characteristic of those forms distinguishes his own writings, which both entrance and infuriate. What is entrancing about them stems from the religiously informed perspective suggested by the book's title--that the most human actions (see the subtitle) aren't necessary but recreational--and from Schall's citing and reciting of ideas that his career as a teacher has verified, such as the observation of Saint-Exupery's Little Prince that the only time that counts is the time we "waste" with friends. His essays infuriate when they don't seem to come to the point; "On the Teaching of Political Philosophy," for instance, Schall talks little about statecraft but much about ascertaining the truth--the object of philosophy per se. They also infuriate by recommending self-discipline, rejecting moral relativism, holding with Samuel Johnson that the highest truths "are too important to be new," and taking other positions that bespeak Schall's status as a priest as well as a professor. On the other hand, they delight for the same reasons. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved