by Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
We have, with the publication of Fr. Robert Spitzer's quartet of books on "Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence”, a major event in Catholic intellectual history, indeed in the history of philosophy.
We began…by noting that our view of consciousness is the new field upon which the academic and cultural battle between materialism, panpsychism, and transcendentalism is being waged. We now see that the outcome of this battle will not only affect our personal view of life’s purpose, the world, human dignity, and human value, but also the culture’s outlook on these important ideas and ideals. Jesus’ proclamation that ‘the truth will make you free’ (Jn. 8:32) is particularly important here—for if we and the culture falsely underestimate our purpose, dignity, value, and destiny, we will also unnecessarily restrict our freedom and potential to reach beyond the material world into the domain of perfect truth, love, goodness, and beauty.” — Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), p. 267.
Let me begin by saying that these remarks are not properly a “review” of the extraordinarily brilliant book cited above. Robert Spitzer is a Jesuit colleague from many years; we taught together at Georgetown for a number of years where he was a most popular and effective teacher. He studied at Gonzaga University, St. Louis University, the Gregorian University in Rome, the Weston School of Theology and the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America under Paul Weiss and other members of that most distinguished faculty. His dissertation on the objective nature of time remains something of a classic.
Spitzer is currently at the Magis Center in Southern California where he has continued to develop a coherent overall synthesis of all branches of knowledge into one intelligible whole. I know that sounds impossible but no other way is adequate to describe the work and mind of Robert Spitzer. His academic background covers almost every field from business to science to literature to metaphysics to studies in Scripture. His earlier books, especially his Cosmological Proofs for the Existence of God along with his work in questions of life and ethics, are themselves testimony to a most comprehensive mind. He is frequently on EWTN and runs the Napa Institute; he lectures widely to business and professional audiences. Besides these accomplishments, Fr. Spitzer’s eyesight has been such that he can barely see. He has learned to remember what he needs to know. Yet, he seems to remember everything by being read to or using various devices on the computer.
Robert Spitzer, in addition to being a mesmerizing speaker and teacher, has, as this book attests, a clear and organized mind that knows, like Aquinas, where everything belongs in its proper order. One of the pleasures in reading The Soul’s Upward Yearning is surely its awareness of the reader who can be overwhelmed with the technical language and demonstrations necessary to make its points. Everything is repeated, reduced to clear argument—then said in another way, then repeated, later summarized. Spitzer deals with the most difficult of concepts in physics, cosmology, psychology, and philosophy. To read him is itself a philosophical education of a kind that few teach anymore, not merely because they do not have Spitzer’s range of knowledge, but they do not see how things from differing disciplines fit together. Spitzer was also, to add another dimension to his career, president of Gonzaga University. He can recount vividly the continued rise of its famous basketball team in which he had a hand.
This book is Volume II of a Quartet of four books under the general heading of “Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence”. Volume I is titled Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts (Ignatius Press, 2015). What I deal with here is the second volume of this quartet of books. The first volume is on happiness, a thorough and complete analysis of this reality in our lives. The second volume deals with what goes on inside of us, what do we know and how do we know it. The third volume addresses revelation, that is: What is it that is revealed to us and how does it relate to what we are and know? The final volume concerns the consequences of our freedom, both the questions of suffering and those of evil, along with the opposite of what our final destiny looks like. All together they simply provide a liberal education the likes of which can be found in few if any colleges today.
The first thing to note in reading Spitzer is that the word “clue” often appears in what he is presenting. The word appears in the sub-title of this book on Yearning, a word he takes (as his introductory passage indicates) from St. John of the Cross. But, as the similar introductory passage in Volume I attests, the theme also comes from Augustine’s “restless hearts”. The questions of most concern to human beings begin here—inside of us. Spitzer’s approach commences with what we experience in ourselves and how we explain what we find. Unlike Aquinas and Aristotle, though not opposed to them, he begins with introspective desires and longings which we all have whether we like it or now, the desire for happiness, the longing for an explanation of things, ourselves, our existence, included.
But Spitzer is nothing if he is not at the same time thoroughly scientific and reasonable. This is where the word “clue” comes in. Spitzer knows scientific method backwards and forwards; he respects what it is and what it claims for itself. In this sense, this book is a thoroughly scientific book, provided with all the daunting scientific evidence needed to make his points. But these books are not only “scientific arguments”. They are also meditative reflections, even catechetical lessons and apologetic inquires. These books are thus multi-layered. They are meant for the scholar, the well-educated, and the common man, as well as for those who doubt that any case can be made for reason or the coherence of the Catholic understanding of things. Yet, it all fits together. There is something quite exhilarating in seeing these relationships spelled out in a manner that, with a little effort, we can follow.
Spitzer follows Newman’s famous notion that many strands of thought, many different arguments and experiences can come together to provide a “proof” that each of the arguments by itself may not be able to provide.