Book Review: On The Unseriousness Of Human Affairs

On The Unseriousness Of Human Affairs:  Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, by James V. Schall

If unseriousness is not a word, it deserves to be.  A great deal of that which is worthwhile in life is unserious, and our contemporary world does a good job at reminding us that if we take ourselves too seriously, there will always be people who view us as worthy of insults and ridicule, regardless of our own opinion in the matter.  Perhaps the most notable success of this book is simply the way he praises that which is not necessary and that which is consequently not serious [1].  Even the way the book is constructed helps to reinforce the author’s points about the celebration of that which does not have to be taken seriously, about that which can and should be enjoyed in life, and about the way that we can be too consumed about seeking utilitarian use and not nearly interested enough in questions of pleasure and beauty and ultimate importance.  By and large I found this a very likable book, more than a little bit eccentric, and filled with the author’s characteristic Thomism and love of Peanuts cartoons.

The structure of this almost 200 page book is something very odd but also very intriguing.  For one, the author manages to write eleven chapters that are broken up by five smaller chapters that are called interludes.  After beginning with an introduction the author talks about the unseriousness of human affairs and the importance of contemplation in play (1).  After that there is a discussion on the importance of being teachable so that one may learn (2).  Then comes the first interlude on the fate of academic men (I-1).  Following this there are chapters on the relationship between truth and one’s choice of college (3) and the education of young men and women (4), a subject of importance, to be sure, if one that also involves a good deal of pleasure (hopefully).  After another interlude on the Thomist belief in sharing one’s knowledge with others (I-2), there is a chapter showing gratitude for teachers the author has never met, largely because he learned about them in books (5) and the importance of order (I-3).  There are chapters on intellectual poverty (6), wasting the best years of our lives (7) and the importance of self-discipline (I-4).  After this there are chapters on the teaching of political philosophy (8) and the pleasure of walking about Derby (9), followed by the final interlude on the end of all things (I-5), and two final chapters on essays and letters (10) and why what is useless–namely philosophy–is the best thing about us (11).

It is clear that this author is a firm believer in Hellenistic Christianity and the alliance between Athens and Rome/Jerusalem.  I must admit that while I am a student of philosophy and am deeply interested in theological matters, that I am less sanguine about the closeness between Socrates and Christ, even if both of them were legitimately martyrs of an unjust political system.  All too often this book seems to praise the idea that philosophy gives one an inside track when it comes to salvation, and although this book is a much-needed praise of not being serious–something that needs to be emphasized in our overly serious age–the author’s approach is a bit too different from my own to be entirely congenial.  I get the feeling the author would make a great teacher and would likely be a fun conversation partner, but the author’s arguments and the basis for his positions are just one ones I can get fully on board with, although this book is an enjoyable one and well worth reading, especially if you are a Thomist and/or a Catholic.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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