On the Dullness of the World

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PAINTING:  The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell by Winston Churchill, 1932 [private collection]

By The Catholic Thing, August 15, 2017

James V. Schall, S.J.The world, of course, is not dull. What makes the world seem dull is our philosophy, not the world itself. We see the world as a function of what we think it is in the light of what we think we are.

Among the duller philosophies is the one that tells us that nothing we do, good or bad, makes any ultimate difference to ourselves, to the world, or to any supposed transcendent deity. Freedom is not presented to us under the guise of the man who is so free that he can obey the commandments. Rather, the defiant man is so free that he need obey nothing but himself. Yet, that anyone would ever want to live in a world in which everything in it was only what he put there seems distinctly odd, if not mad.

The world that I prefer to live in is the one that, in the beginning, I knew nothing about, except that something was out there besides Schall. On my unexpected arrival in this world, I was glad that someone was already there to look after my sundry needs. But in such an unknown world, I would want to be, indeed I seemed to be, a creature that had some capacity for knowing what was really going on out there. Why did anything, including me, exist in the first place?

Some philosophies affirm that only chaos and chance are found in the cosmos. All is accidental. No footsteps, except our own, are found in the sands of time. If such is our philosophical presupposition, we will not likely see any order that might, in fact, be out there. We have to deny it because our philosophy directs us in what we do or do not see.

We do not begin with what is out there, but with what is already inside our minds. And what is inside of us, in fact, is an “empty slate.” Our minds are already there, evidently to know what is not ourselves. We cannot even comprehend the words chaos or chance without, at the same time, contrasting them to the words order and cause.

What does all this philosophy have to do with the dullness of the world? It serves to locate the immediate source of the dullness, which is not in things out there but in us. What is being implied here?

If we do not want to know what is out there, it is probably because the knowledge of it may impose certain demands on us, which we suspect will cramp our style, will prevent us from doing what we want. Behind our theories of the world, we usually find lurking somewhere our theories of morality.

We thus must invent an explanation that allows us to think that nothing in the world, not even what we already are as human beings, can make any demands on us. But if nothing can touch us, nothing can be given to us either. The supreme wonder about human existence in particular is its given-ness. We cannot help but know that what we are is not a product of our own minds. We do not even know that we have minds until they actually are knowing what is not ourselves. We know that we exist by our affirmation that something else exists and we know that it does.

We are given life and being in human, not angelic, canine, or equine, form. This given form implies that we are made to complete ourselves. This project is what constitutes our essential dignity. Aquinas called it our “second nature.” We are not free to become what we are not. We are responsibly free to become either a good or bad what we are.

This latter endeavor is the real locus of our life in this world. And our lives must be told in the form of stories involving accidents and choices. Our lives are not as deductions from some universal form of what it is to be human.

In this sense, no human life, in its living out, is dull. It is a drama played out for the highest stakes against the background of the cosmos itself. The story that each human life reveals in its living out is never dull. It is just not accurately told. Both the beginning and conclusion of any human life reach into what brought forth and sustains its existence.

P.G. Wodehouse’s character, Gussie Fink-Nottle, spent his life studying newts. Lord Marshmoreton preferred a life puttering in his garden. We laugh thinking that such lives are wasted on insignificant things. But newts and gardens, along with everything else, especially ourselves, are connected with the inexhaustible wellspring of being. Gussie and the English Lord, I suspect, were closer to the heart of things than those folks who find this world merely dull.


James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine’s Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.