On reading books that transform you
Amidst the stacks and stacks – and stacks – of papers I have in my library, I happened across a piece by one of my favorite thinkers, Fr. James Schall. If you are not acquainted with Fr. Schall, I consider him the closest living writer (in keen insight and sheer output) to G.K. Chesterton. He has written over thirty books and hundreds of essays and reviews for entities such as Gilbert Magazine, Crisis Magazine, the University Bookman, and the St. Austin Review. And he did all of this while serving as an award-winning Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University. If, to the uninitiated, I could recommend two masterful works by Fr. Schall, I would choose Another Sort of Learning (a book I have given to no small number of high school graduates) and his valedictory lecture, A Final Gladness.
On the “Hortensius” caught my eye from atop those stacks of papers crushing my desk. It is a beautiful piece written by Fr. Schall for Robert Royal and Brad Miner’s thoughtful website, The Catholic Thing. In it, Fr. Schall reminds us of one of the seminal factors in the conversion of Augustine: A lost work by Roman philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Without question, Augustine became St. Augustine thanks to many influences: the prayers of a long-suffering mother, an ethereal child’s voice admonishing him to “Take up and read; Take up and read” Scripture, and Cicero’s lost dialogue, Hortensius.
As Fr. Schall would write about the young, debauched Augustine,
Then something happened that I have always considered one of the great moments in human history. But no one, including Augustine, knew its significance at the time. Many still don’t. Great events begin in stillness, in what seem to be sheer accidents. But no reason can be found why accidents cannot also be elements of providence.
Augustine is preparing classes. He is following “the normal course of study,” something evidently prescribed by rule or tradition. He chanced on a dialogue of Cicero about a certain Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. In this work, Cicero seeks to convince Hortensius to change his ways.
Evidently, Hortensius was quite an eloquent gentleman with a good reputation. The only drawback was that he made his reputation by defending corrupt governors and politicians. Cicero wanted him to see that human happiness is something greater.
And so, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius. He was moved. And transformed…though slowly. Augustine recognized that even in the face of Cicero’s scintillating wisdom, he dragged his feet hoping to hold on to worldly happiness. Upon later reflection, he sheepishly admitted, he should have devoted himself to
the search for that of which not the finding only but the mere seeking is better than to find all the treasures and kingdoms of men, better than all the bodily pleasures though they were to be had by merely a nod.
Fr. Schall’s reflection got me thinking. Cicero’s Hortensius is lost to history. It remains in fragments and one of its greatest unwitting preservers was Augustine himself (writing about it in his Confessions). It is hard not to lament the loss of a work so powerful so as to assist in the conversion of a saint. But what we lost in the Hortensius, we gained in St. Augustine.
It is also a reminder that while we lament lost books, we should never neglect “found” ones. Just think…The Gospel of Mark, the Catholic Catechism, Augustine’s Confessions, Aquinas’ Summa, Newman’sApologia Pro Vita Sua, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Belloc’s The Four Men, Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, O’Connor’s The Habit of Being and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited all sit on our shelves (or should) waiting to change us.
If only we read them.
The Hortensius helped change Augustine’s life. And now it is lost.
Shall we read the works sitting on our shelves or resting on our stacks of papers that are waiting to change our lives?
Or will we neglect our Hortensius?
Pick up one (or all) of the gems of profound faith and wisdom. Be changed. Nestle yourself in a deeply comfortable chair and open a book that will transform you. As Fr. Schall reminded, “Great events begin in stillness.” Don’t let these guides languish unread as if lost in the sands of our muddled priorities and busy lives.
Surely, let us lament the lost works.
But let us vigorously embrace the found ones.
And be transformed.
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