The Foreword to F. J. Sheed's Society and Sanity: How to Live Well Together (Ignatius Press, 2013) | Peter Kreeft
is a great honor to be asked to write a foreword to a
The book you hold in your hands is, I firmly believe, the single most useful and important book (outside of the Church’s own official teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the papal encyclicals) that we can possibly read about the single most important field of conflict between the Catholic Church and the increasingly de-Christianized Western world today.
Frank Sheed was one of the three best Catholic apologists of the twentieth century, the others being G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis (a Catholic who thought he was an Anglican). Just as Sheed’s Theology and Sanity remains the very best introduction to Catholic theology, Society and Sanity remains the very best introduction to Catholic social and political philosophy, even now, sixty years later. Like Huxley’s preternaturally prophetic Brave NewWorld, it is astonishingly current, though it was published in 1953.
The Church and the world both face exactly the same most basic problems and issues today as then. These issues are not only the perennial, unchanging ones that are many millennia old (good and evil, God and man, sin and salvation, life and death), but are even the new, distinctively modern ones that are only a century or two old, the new crises.
What are these current civilizational crises? For many centuries the issues that divided the Church and the world were theological issues. But today they are all “social issues”. All the “hot-button” controversies today are about man and marriage and sex and society. This is why the greatest philosopher of modern times, John Paul the Great, focused on anthropology; what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man” follows necessarily upon the abolition of God from any area of life—not only theology but also society, both private (sex, marriage, and family) and the “public square”. The greatest war today is not in the Middle East but in the Middle Earth of Europe and North America. It is a war between two world and life views, especially views of man and society. The new view was summarized most candidly by Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court in his support of abortion in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In other words, “Move over, God; you’re sitting in my seat.”
To explain “the three parts of morality”, C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity used the unforgettable metaphor of humanity as a fleet of ships. Their sailing orders tell them the three practical things they most need to know: (1) how to cooperate, how to work together as a fleet; (2) how each individual ship is to stay shipshape and afloat; and (3) what the mission of the whole fleet is. The first is social morality, the second individual morality, and the third is philosophy, especially “philosophy of man” or philosophical anthropology, and of “the meaning of human life”. It is the third that is studiously ignored today; yet the other two absolutely depend on it. How can we become good individual human beings and how can we build a good human society if we do not know, or even ask, what humanity is and what humanity is for? That is the very first foundational question. Nowhere will you find a book about that question that is more clear and commonsensical, more sane and sagacious, more fundamental and foundational, than this one.
Today it is not the new, advanced stories of the social building but the very simplest and most fundamental foundations that are crumbling; and it is to those foundations that we must first turn if we are to repair the upper stories. Imagine a China that can no longer understand the common sense wisdom of Confucius, the philosopher who sounds most like Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That is today’s China. Imagine a Western educational world that has forgotten the lessons it learned in kindergarten. (See Robert Fulghrum’s wonderfully wise Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.) Imagine bright college students of philosophy who comprehend Hegel and Heidegger, Marx and Nietzsche, even Derrida and Deconstructionism, but find Aristotle, the most commonsensical philosopher who ever lived, to be the very hardest one in history to comprehend and pass exams on. You have just imagined my students. Worse, you have just imagined the world you are living in. The building we live in is big and beautiful but it is collapsing because its foundations are crumbling.
This is a book about those foundations. It is so simple that it is stunning, because it is “radical”, i.e., about the roots. For instance, its very first and most important point, implied in the title, is that (in Sheed’s own words)
our treatment of anything must depend, in the last resort,on what we think it is: for instance, we treat people one way and cats another, because of our idea of what a man is and what a cat is. All our institutions . . . grew out of what those who made them thought a man was. . . . In every field, the test of sanity is what is; in the field of human relations, the special test is what man is. . . . The total ignoring of this question runs all through modern life. . . . Yet it does not strike people as odd. And the depth of their unawareness of its oddness is the measure of the decay of thinking about fundamentals.
The book will be hated and feared, and therefore ignored, by the barbarians who have commandeered the formal and informal educational institutions of our civilization. Why? For the same reason “Great Books” are hated and feared above all things in “progressive” educational circles. It is the same reason cavities hate dentists. It will be feared because it dares to assume that there is such a thing as truth, and that we can and must know the most important truths about ourselves and our true happiness. It dares to ask the great old questions, the currently forbidden questions, like Socrates, or like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. It will therefore be labeled “dogmatic” by those who dogmatically forbid those questions and who call themselves “open-minded” and “progressive”.
If you care about the “Brave New World” our society is moving toward, and if you want to know the minimum that you must know in order to reverse that direction, this is the book you must start with.