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Fortifying the Intellectual Life

I recently read Zena Hitz's book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, 2020). I highly recommend it. It might seem ironic to readers of the book that its only real audience comprises people who are somewhat well-read and who would probably think of themselves, or be thought of by others, as intellectuals. Her rich discussions of great authors from Aristotle to Elena Ferrante demand a literary attentiveness usually associated with those who have already cultivated an intellectual life. In this sense I can't see the book working as a wake-up call to grown-ups who just aren't into getting lost in thought. But if it's a book about the intellectual life for intellectuals, what's the point of the book?


Well, this essay isn’t exactly a review of the book as it is some reflections on what the book has got me thinking about recently, tied up with what I've been thinking about for twenty-odd years, roughly since the time I pointed my helm at academic instead of ministerial life. Nevertheless I follow the spirit of the book, I hope. The point, or points, of the book, are to correct common abuses of the intellectual life and offer a vision of intellectual life that is contemplative, that is, not wholly ordered to the pursuit of other sorts of goods, such as wealth, honors, and fixing society or fighting culture wars.


Very few academics become rich or famous from their academic work, as the world counts wealth or fame, anyway. But if you're an academic who has to work for a living, then the income you receive as wages for your intellectual labor is the income you need to support yourself and your family. In this sense the temptation to make your own labor merely a tool for making money is as strong in the academic field as it is in any other line of work. And as for honors, as my late colleague Stuart Rosenbaum once told me, the tenured professorial class is the closest thing we have to a true aristocracy among those who work for a living, given the freedom we have over how we spend our time. And within that aristocracy is a firmly entrenched honors system, in which those who publish in the right venues, work at the right departments, receive the right invitations to give lectures, or win the right prizes, enjoy the prestige of being an elite among elite.

So one sort of abuse of intellectual life is to make it wholly subordinate to, and instrumental for, the achievement of wealth and honors. I emphasize “wholly” here because it is practically impossible, for academic intellectuals at least, not to treat one’s intellectual work as a means to these good things. Avoiding abuse here does not require unrealistic high-mindedness. What it does require is a recognition that the intellectual life is worth pursuing for its own sake, as well as for the sake of these other good things. Here is an analogy: when I put my two-year-old son to bed at night, I always sing to him: these days, a sung Our Father and four verses of Amazing Grace. Undeniably, and obviously, I’m singing to him in part to get him to sleep. But, except at my most exhausted or cynical, I’m emphatically not singing to him only to get him to sleep. It’s a special moment of communion, in which we both enjoy the closest intimacy we can have at this stage of our lives together. Usually he puts his head on my shoulder and hums. It’s special. It’s not a gimmick to get him to bed. So while it’s true that I’m singing to him in part to get him to go to bed, I’m not doing it only for this reason, or even mainly for this reason. I think it ought to be like this with the intellectual life too: for some of us, intellectual activity can result in a paycheck or some social esteem; achieving these things by that means is a good thing; but that’s not what the intellectual life is for.


So what is it for? In my own parlance, extending my bed-time metaphor, it’s for a communion with what is real. My intellectual activity is one way in which I get in touch with the truth about myself, and the world, and God, and so come to understand things better, to grow in wisdom, to contemplate reality, enjoying but also longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful.


If the first sort of abuse of intellectual life is to make it wholly subordinate to the pursuit of wealth and honors, the second might seem relatively noble, not abusive at all. This second sort of abuse is to wield one’s intellectual activity wholly in service to some social cause: promoting justice and eradicating evil, or convincing others of your own take on the gospel truth. This sort of abuse cuts across left and right, conservative and progressive, secular and religious. There are two different sorts of dangers here. One is to view intellectual effort as worthless unless it is exerted for the sake of the cause. The typical disposition here is one which is genuinely attracted to non-practical intellectual interests, but is beset by a sense of guilt or pointlessness in pursuing those interests insofar as there is no clear path between indulging them and fixing some social problem by means of them. The other is to put the success of the cause so much in the driver’s seat of the intellectual life that victory of the cause is more important than getting things right about the nature of reality. The typical disposition here is viewing literature, arguments, scientific or social-scientific studies, and “established facts” as so much ammunition against your opponents, so many tools to realize your vision of the way the world ought to be.


In one important sense, the guilt-ridden intellectual with a conscience, and the hard-bitten warrior for culture or social justice, are very far apart from one another: the former loves the truth but feels, however reluctantly, that so much of it is not worth pursuing because doing so seems to serve no practical purpose; the latter loves the truth, if at all, only insofar as it advances the cause. The former disposition we associate with sensitive souls, the latter with cynical. But in an equally or perhaps more important sense, these two types are dismayingly alike.


Both have got it into their heads that the truth is not worth pursuing for its own sake, just because it’s true. We have minds which, we suppose, can search out what is real, and make some progress toward distinguishing the false from the true. The sorts of questions we find ourselves interested in stretch far beyond biological or economic necessity; they reach down into the natures of things, seeking how things really are, not just how to make things advantageous for us. This inquiring animal, homo quaerens, is the sort of thing we are. We have various expressions for modes of life which take their names from non-human animal behavior: monkey-brain, rat-race, running like a chicken with its head cut off, feeling wooly. These expressions are instructive, I think, about how our everyday evaluations of the sort of life we should be living is tied up with an ideal about a distinctively human sort of life, where that ideal takes as its prerogative habits like reflectiveness and serenity. So that intellectual pivot away from discovery to merely practical solutions is a kind of rejection of our distinctively human nature. It’s to leave truth behind, or put truth in a subordinate place, valuable just for the sake of practical solutions to practical problems. And even where some of the truth remains valued, wistfully, it is seen as off-limits to serious investigation and enjoyment precisely because it is seen as practically pointless. In this sense, both types reject something deep about what they, and their neighbors, are, while claiming to work for the benefit of those very neighbors whose deep, truth-seeking, nature they refuse to acknowledge as worthy of cultivation.


And yet, of course, there are enormous problems to be addressed, even by intellectuals. It does seem precious at best, clueless and careless at worst, to be so oblivious to our suffering neighbors as not to care and do something about their lot, so in love are we with the truth. So how do we make some progress toward embracing our truth-seeking and truth-loving nature, however arcane the truth we seek and love, while remaining appropriately concerned about the welfare of our neighbors?


Part of the answer has to do with the way in which the cultivation of a “hidden” intellectual life sustains us not only in the sense that it promotes something like mental health or spiritual well-being, but keeps us fit for service in complex and ever-shifting conditions. An intellectual life wholly subordinate to fixing problems one sees here and now, might not be fit to help out with problems one does not foresee, or never recognized until too late to respond to timely. Patient and hidden intellectual life is a kind of investment the returns of which are not precisely guaranteed but which nevertheless can be reasonably hoped will be for the good. I have not spent long hours with the Republic, or the Divine Comedy, for the sake of having something wise to say to a neighbor in need, let alone to influence public policy or public opinion. But I have a sort of trust that the investment of hours is not just for my own good but for the good of those who come, or may come, my way.


But a bigger part of the answer, I think, has to do with the way in which the cultivation of an intellectual life helps the individual to transcend his or her quotidian experience. The logistics of ordinary life often range from dull to degrading. Is this all there is? is a common exasperated sentiment. An expansive inner life is a sort of fortress against this ennui, where the inside can be bigger than the outside. It is “hidden” not in the sense that it is wholly private, but in the sense that it does not reside out in the open for all to see. Because it is not wholly private, it is the sort of thing to which others can be drawn, by which others can be fortified.


If our biological and economic conditions are the only conditions we have, an inner fortress to which we can invite others for refuge probably is merely a castle in the clouds. But the very fact of a cultivated intellectual life resists the thesis that biological and economic facts are the only facts there are. It sustains a hope, not just for the intellectual but also for those whom she would draw into her fortress, that there is more to the meaning of life than getting and spending and entertainment.


This invitation to come inside is often experienced through a wise and loving teacher; but it need not be a strictly academic enterprise. Socrates in the Republic speculated that philosophers are most fit to be kings because what they really love is not ruling but the deep truth about reality. Possessed by the vision of the real, they’re best positioned to help society order things aright. I won’t commit myself to the details of the surface-level political program of the Republic (duh), but in some general way I think Socrates is right. By stepping out of the logistics of quotidian life and focusing on the way things really are, the philosopher maxes out what it means to be distinctively human and not merely animal. But precisely because of that extraction the philosopher gains the sort of perspective which enables him to help others.


In the end, the “what is for the sake of what?” question cannot be easily answered. Does the compassionate intellectual pursue the truth for the sake of helping his neighbor, or does he pursue it for its own sake? It can’t be easily answered because it’s not the right question. The compassionate intellectual is in love with what is real, and seeks union with it as much as his powers and training equip him. Because of that love for the real, he is well-equipped to help others with the help they most need; but this “because” does not mean that the cultivation of the intellectual life was all along for the sake of helping others. My desire to sing to my son helps him to go to bed; but if sleepy-time were the only thing I cared about, my singing would probably not be as effective. And if the only I thing I cared about was my son, I’d have nothing to sing to him about.


I am left, at the end of this rather personal not-review of Zena Hitz’s book, thinking about the possibilities of non-intellectuals cultivating this inner fortress sufficiently that it becomes a place of refuge for themselves and others from the otherwise degrading conditions of merely quotidian affairs. I think of wise people I have known whom it would be a semantic stretch to call intellectuals. This makes me wonder whether what we call intellectual life is just one sort of inner-fortress-building which can sustain a distinctively human form of life. Perhaps there are other forms, as I’m inclined to think. In earlier posts on this blog I’ve talked about the goal of philosophy as conformity to the real, conformity of the whole person, heart, soul, body, and strength. It may well be, as I think is the case, that there is a non-cerebral sort of conformity to the real which is comparably fortifying to what I have here been describing as the intellectual life.