The Risk of Not Knowing

Earlier this summer I stumbled upon the work of Roman Catholic priest and professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, James V. Schall. I have been making my way through two collections of his essays on learning, the earlier Another Sort of Learning and the more recent The Life of the Mind. Schall is concerned to bring us back to a kind of learning that leads to wisdom and well lived lives — a learning which is sometimes hindered rather than furthered by formal education.

The blessings of reading Schall arise from both his own insights and the deep and wide array of authors he puts in our way. One will not read Schall for long without coming across Aquinas, Plato, Chesterton, Belloc, Aristotle, and Augustine — and you can’t help but feel a deep gratitude for having been guided to these sources of wisdom. For what I’m sure will not be the last time in these pages, I’ll throw in your way some of what I’ve happily come across.

Here are some of Schall’s reflections on the distinctly human capacity for learning:

“Chesterton once said, in a memorable phrase of which I am inordinately fond, that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject, only uninterested people. Nothing is so unimportant that it is not worth knowing. Everything reveals something. Our minds cannot fully exhaust the reality contained in even the smallest existing thing.

The condition of our being human, then, is the risk of not knowing something worth knowing. The ‘whole universe may dwell in our minds,’ as Aquinas remarked …. What makes it all right to be a particular, finite human being, such as each of us is, is that, because of intelligence, the universe is also given back to each of us. Our knowing does not take anything away from what is known. Nor does our individual knowing take anything away from others knowing the same thing in the same universe.”

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