DECEMBER 20, 2020
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. […] Our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.
EVERY SEMESTER, I begin my courses by reminding students why intellectual life still matters in the age of Twitter and Facebook. To this effect, I use a letter Niccolò Machiavelli sent to Francesco Vettori in December 1513. Here is what the Florentine thinker wrote:
When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; before I go in, I remove my everyday clothes, which are very muddy and soiled, and put on cloths that are fit for a royal court. Being thus properly clad, I enter the ancient courts of the men of old, in which I am received affectionately by them and partake of the food that properly belongs to me, and for which I was born. There I do not hesitate to converse with them, and ask them why they acted as they did; and out of kindness they respond. For four hours I experience no boredom, I forget all my troubles and my fear of poverty, and death holds no more terrors for me: I am completely absorbed in them.
I was reminded of Machiavelli’s letter while reading Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, a persuasive defense of learning and intellectual life. Hitz teaches at St. John’s College, where the life of the mind and the great books approach are still taken seriously. Professors are expected there to be able to teach anything from Pythagoras, Thucydides, and Plato to opera, math, and the natural sciences. Hitz’s breadth of knowledge is on display in her book, which consists of three chapters preceded by a personal prologue and an introduction (the book also has a short epilogue). By drawing on an eclectic array of philosophical, theological, scientific, and literary sources, Hitz combines ideas, insights, and stories from authors as diverse as Aristophanes, Plato, St. Augustine, Goethe, Einstein, Elena Ferrante, Malcolm X, Primo Levi, and Simone Weil to make a strong case for the life of the mind.
In some regards, Lost in Thought follows in the footsteps of A. D. Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (1921). The life of the mind, Sertillanges argued, must follow a certain discipline and method, combining simplicity, attention, and openness to the world around us with silence, humility, and patience. In his view, intellectual life requires a certain form of asceticism, which is the opposite of sloth, vainglory, or mere curiosity. It involves a capacity to admire and discern what is noble, true, and beautiful.
Although Hitz shares Sertillanges’s Catholic sensibility, Lost in Thought has a different tone, content, and focus. She has written it not only to share the account of her own pursuit of the life of the mind, but also because she is disturbed by current trends in our universities. As the third chapter (“The Uses of Uselessness”) demonstrates, Hitz worries that our universities have settled for the “narrow, superficial, the political, and the divisive.” She is also concerned about the degradation of intellectual life that is the outcome of the rise of professional schools at the expense of liberal arts institutions. While true education should always serve our communities, Hitz believes that “the value of intellectual life lies in its broadening and deepening of our humanity,” which should remain its priority. In her view, “[p]olitics on campus should be rare, and almost always extracurricular,” leaving space for “[o]pen-ended inquiry, rather than rationalizing to suit preexisting conclusions.”
Not surprisingly, the life of the mind is often at odds with the narrow categories and priorities of political life. An excessive interest and preoccupation with politics may sometimes be a sign of a general decay of society. “A universal preoccupation with rights, interests, affairs of government, political questions in general,” the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, “is fatal to the public peace and individual happiness.” Politics can foster division and faction, and remain at the surface of things, feeding on superficial headlines and temporary victories or setbacks.
In Hitz’s view, the search for learning, understanding, and truth should be (and remain) above the political bloodbath and media fights. Her book highlights the benefits of pursuing a genuine intellectual life that provides solace and refuge against the endless noise of everyday life. “[I]ntellectual life properly understood,” Hitz writes (in the footsteps of Montaigne), “cultivates a space of retreat within a human being, a place where real reflection takes place. We step back from concerns of practical benefit, personal or public.” The small rooms, literal or internal, into which we withdraw allow us to defend and recover our dignity endangered by the incessant demands and humdrum of daily life.
Above all, the life of the mind puts us in touch with the best minds of mankind and allows us to travel freely across time and space. None of the giants of the past will be too busy to see us, and none will allow us to depart empty-handed. In Seneca’s words, “they are at home to all mortals by night and day.” By engaging with their writings, we participate in centuries-old conversations on the meaning of life, the good society, the nature of the cosmos, and such like. Thus, those who pursue the life of the mind can transcend their limited viewpoint and gain access to larger vistas. Then “the walls of the world fly apart,” in Cicero’s words, and we receive the precious gift of the panoramic view from above.
Intellectual life, as described by Hitz in the first chapter (“A Refuge from the World”) has its own discipline and involves hard work. Learning of any kind does not guarantee genuine understanding or immediate access to truth. Some forms of learning may, in fact, be nefarious; instead of nourishing us, they may poison us. The pursuit of knowledge is not without vanity and risks. To practice the life of the mind properly, Hitz writes, “is to flee what is worst in us for the sake of the better.” It cultivates our capacity to perceive the splendor of life and humanity and the ability to overcome artificial barriers, conventions, and differences.
Thus defined, the life of the mind is different from mere recreation. It requires a certain form of self-denial and an effort to direct our will and desires toward what is true and noble. The love of learning demands seriousness and self-restraint, two virtues that make us able to resist the attraction of “the superficial and the selfishly useful.” The genuine intellectual life is animated by the desire to get to the bottom of things. It needs leisure and depends on certain skills and habits that can be developed in reclusive spaces: bookstores, seminar rooms, libraries, labs.
Yet, the life of learning can also flourish in unexpected open spaces, where we may establish profound connections with other human beings. In Hitz’s ecumenical view, intellectual life also “belongs in taxicabs, at the beach house or the book club, in the break room at work, in the backyard of the amateur botanist, in thoughtful reflection whether scattered or disciplined, as much as or more than it does at universities.” Even prison, she notes, may sometimes prove fertile ground for intellectual endeavors.
In the end, the love of learning as defined by Hitz is a universal drive not confined to academic circles. Paradoxically, the constraints posed by the university often tend to stifle curiosity and engender conformity. Academics may be the natural stewards of intellectual life, but their marriage to the life of the mind can sometimes grow “stale and lifeless.” To avoid that, Hitz insists, intellectual life must be sheltered from the pressure to produce immediate tangible economic, social, or political outcomes. The life of the mind gives us a chance to pursue things for their own sake and to engage in activities that make possible personal growth. As such, she concludes, intellectual life is a good in itself, and its value lies in its apparent uselessness, a topic discussed in the third chapter of the book.
While reading Lost in Thought, I was reminded of an unforgettable experience I had as an undergraduate student in communist Romania several decades ago. As I was struggling with uninspiring courses and professors, I was privileged to know privately a real philosopher, Mihai Şora (b. 1916), who was not part of the formal university system. He encouraged me to read widely, not only philosophy, but also literature, history, theology, and economics. Through my apprenticeship I became a dilettante in the true sense of the word: I learned to enjoy the pleasures of the intellectual life. Philosophy became a spiritual exercise from which we derived tangible benefits and developed strong bonds. The authors and texts we read allowed us to transcend the limited and precarious space in which we lived. By cultivating our little humanistic garden, we created an island of freedom in a closed and oppressive world.
Younger readers may find it difficult to comprehend how we did it, but those who resonate with Hitz’s defense of intellectual life will understand this paradox. Like Machiavelli in his study, we managed to forget, if only for a while, all our worries as we discovered, read, and commented on the great books. Entering into a conversation with their authors was a way for us to maintain our dignity. The recipe remains relevant today. We may not be able to choose the society or age in which we live, but we can still choose whose “children” we want to be. That can be the beginning of our salvation and one of the most important lessons of Hitz’s book.