The Value of a Last Lecture

Today I am remembering Fr. James V. Schall – Jesuit priest, longtime professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, and the author of more than thirty books. He died around this time two years ago.

I had heard that he had given a Last Lecture at Georgetown entitled “The Final Gladness,” but I only listened to it for my first time this evening.

Here is the video of the lecture and below are some highlights in summary as well as some brief thoughts on the value of a last lecture.

Of such a lecture, Fr. Schall sketches what he considers to be the criteria: “A lecture is an opportunity when someone invites you. A lecture should be written and spoken and listened to. It should have a certain gravitas to it. And I always begin my lectures with two or three quotations.”

In his Last Lecture, Fr. Schall begins by situating the lecture in its context, noting that it is: Pearl Harbour Day, the 70th anniversary of the death of his Grandmother Schall who raised him and his siblings after the death of their mother, and the Feast of St. Ambrose.

By weaving together quotations from his historical friends and by situating the lecture in its historical and liturgical context, Fr. Schall exemplified his message about rejoicing in the experience of “intellectual continuity” that he says he hopes each student will have in his own soul. “Real education is not about current events or jobs, but about those permanent things of the human spirit – things found best, for most of us, in the obscure ancients like Plato and Aristotle and Thucydides, Cicero, St. John, Augustine, and Aquinas,” he says.

The whole lecture is quite beautiful and worthwhile. I especially appreciate his succinct articulation of what he hopes stays with his students after his death:

“What, in the end, does a professor most want his students to remember? Not himself, but what is true and the search for it. Above all, he wants them to remember the Socratic foundations of our culture – that it is never right to do wrong, that death is not the worst evil, and that ultimately our lives are about eternal life.”

The value of a Last Lecture is that it challenges the speaker to discern what matters ultimately and then to distill it for his or her listeners. It demands judicious selection on the basis of relevance. It provokes questions about what aspects of life contain the greatest meaning and depth. And it reveals whether a person has paid attention to first and last things or has, unfortunately, concerned him or herself only with matters of secondary and instrumental importance.

Could anyone be capable of giving a Last Lecture? Certainly not everyone would be capable of giving an equally good one. Fr. Schall’s Last Lecture presents a standard by which to measure. That his lecture about friendship, gratitude, and immortality can still be savoured and appreciated years after he gave it is a testament to its truthfulness and enduring value.

Photo: With Fr. James V. Schall at the American Political Science Association Meeting in San Francisco in 2015

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