The Politics of Heaven and Hell
Shortly after I arrived in Washington years ago, I reviewed a book with the same title as this column. A friend warned about reviewing books by that particular author – our late lamented colleague James V. Schall, S.J. – because if you start, he said, you won’t have time for anything else. And that was before the supernova of titles that Schall the Great turned out in his seventies, eighties, and even nineties.
Ignatius Press is republishing The Politics of Heaven and Hell this fall with an introduction by another incisive and prolific writer, Robert Reilly. A good thing, too, because in our current chaos, when it seems almost impossible to get sure footing about anything, this relatively neglected volume not only uncovers sure foundations. It explains the ways by which we’ve mixed up eternal and temporal things – and put the times out of joint.
Schall’s central insight is that our classic traditions of both faith and reason agree that politics is an important, but circumscribed realm. If we were the highest beings, politics would be the highest science, said Aristotle. That wise pagan – Dante calls him “the master of those who know” – knew that we are not the highest beings. There’s God, for starters, and His Creation, to which we owe deference. Ignore them, and the inevitable result is chaos, suffering, servitude, tyranny, and death.
The ancient Hebrews learned this well before Aristotle. Schall notes how little attention political theorists pay to the Old Testament, the history of a small and obscure nation – Israel – that survived, improbably, down to our own time, with incalculable influence on the history of the whole world. It did so not because of any special policies or virtues: Jewish history is a record of graces given and refused, of return and consequent flourishing, of many rounds of ignoring God, decline, and renewal through Him.