The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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The Life of the Mind
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/04/08

I was in high school during World War II. I do not remember much of what I read at that time, but I distinctly recall one day finding in the local public library a book written by none other than the infamous Josef Stalin himself. So I decided to read it. It was a heavy tome, needless to say—Josef Stalin was not a humorist. I remember that the English editor of the book had put in footnotes about the number of Russians in concentration camps. But this warning made little impact on me at the time. I was evidently rather vain about the fact that I had managed to read such a book at all. I remember, much to her horror, praising this book to the mother of a young lady I was seeing at the time. Stalin, at that period, was in fact considered an ally of our country. In the book, he made what seemed to me to be almost a poetic case for his system—the only kind, I see now, that could possibly have been made for it. At the time, I really had little experience to know how properly to weigh what Stalin was saying against the truth. In retrospect, this experience was a good lesson, one confirmed by Aristotle himself, who warned that the young are not particularly adept students of political things (1095a2–5).

There are two other things I remember about the time before I was twenty and entered the Jesuit order, a move that subsequently provided me with a lot of time for catching up on my neglected reading. The first recollection is that my father had several novels by the English writers Owen Francis Dudley and Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson. These were, as I recall, rather apocalyptic tales, not unlike the more recent ones written by the Canadian novelist Michael O’Brien (Father Elijah, Strangers and Sojourners, The Plague Journal, installations in a series of six novels O’Brien collectively titles Children of the Last Days). One of Dudley’s titles was The Shadow on the Earth (1928). I must have read it during high school. I recall being quite frightened by it. Though Benson’s Lord of the World was also on the side of the gods, it was, as I recall, quite alarming to read. In retrospect, I think the most frightening book that I ever read was the third of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, but The Shadow on the Earth was unnerving in the same way, in that it presented an unflinching recognition of the power of evil in the world, something probably worth being aware of, even in high school.

The other experience that I recall with regard to books came when I was in the army. At the time I was stationed at the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir, down the Potomac in Virginia, or maybe it was up in Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. World War II was just over, so there was no real pressure on troops. We had time to go to the post library. Once inside, I gazed perplexedly at the stacks and stacks of books. By that time, I had had a semester of college at the University of Santa Clara and was familiar with the Varsi Library there. But what sticks in my mind about the army library was the awareness that I did not know what to read, what to look for, or what was worth reading. Stacks of books are nothing if we have no idea how to choose among them. I suppose someone could go into a library and start with the first shelf and try to read to the end, A to Z in the Library of Congress system, but that would be both impossible and impractical. No one would ever, in a single lifetime, get beyond section “A” in any good-sized library.

But somehow out of all those books in the post library I selected and read a novel by Aldous Huxley. I think it was called Chrome Yellow, or something like that. It was unfortunately not Brave New World, a book that might have served to put Josef Stalin in some context. In fact, Brave New World, as my friend Jerome Hanus at American University has told me, is an extremely good book for students of today to read. It is rather accurate in its depiction of what would happen to our culture if we embraced certain modern principles in genetics and politics, principles that we evidently did embrace. But my point here is to emphasize this vivid sense of wanting to read but having no guidance, no clue about what is worth reading or how one would go about finding it.


It is my experience that many of the most wonderful books are not read simply because the average student has not heard of them. Several years ago, I was teaching a class on Aquinas. Among the books assigned for the course was Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most remarkable books ever written. After the semester, a student told me that he had had the book sitting on his desk after he had purchased it. Now and again, before it was actually assigned, he would, out of curiosity, read a page or two from it. He could not believe what a wonderful book it was. He wanted to know why no one had ever told him about Chesterton. I did not bother to point out that someone had.

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