As our poor usage of words attests, we do not know what “virtuous” means, let alone how to live it, but reading can help.
A professor, agonized by the slaughter of innocents at the church in Texas, tweeted that he’d concluded that the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association must want mass shootings because it helps them politically. After attention was brought to this anonymous professor’s tweet, he apologized profusely, reflected on the problem of argument on social media, but said: “I think any realistic appraisal of the current situation would have to conclude that the country is, in fact, quite badly divided along ideological lines. Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine what language could unify us.”
Alan Jacobs’ How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds tries to imagine and characterize just that language and the state of mind that would lead to its adoption. That is to say it intends to be an edifying book. And it is, which I mean in a descriptive and positive way, not with the sneer that accompanies the term’s use in much contemporary intellectual discourse.
How to Think is directed to an audience that has become immoderate and overly passionate in what it thinks thinking is—to the educated, political class in this country today. It is brief and matter-of-fact in tone, and it invokes simple examples, reminiscent of Carl Becker’s once well-known explanation, in “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931), of what a historian does by means of the homely example of a man paying his coal bill. What Jacobs tells us about how to be thoughtful isn’t, for the most part, new. There are plenty of echoes of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, but he references current psychological studies and makes the case for intellectual probity in a way that the college-educated, or possibly mis-educated, are likely readily to comprehend.
Jacobs, a Christian theologian and literary critic at Baylor University, begins with contemporary psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, who catalog a host of errors people make in thinking—from confirmation bias to something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. He adopts from these writers a division of thought into two kinds: snap judgments and conscious reflection. His conscious reflections are mostly about conscious reflection. The main problem he encounters is letting our emotions, triggered by group loyalties, get in the way of listening. We enter “Refutation Mode” quasi-instinctively so we often don’t understand what is being said. He writes as a Christian academic used to hearing Christians and academics denouncing each other without paying attention to what the other is actually saying.
He first offers, therefore, the sensible Millian advice to enter into the viewpoint of your opponent. He adduces the case of a bigoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church who, having been engaged in conversation by an activist Jew, eventually changed her views and left the church her grandfather had founded. It isn’t just rational argument but human feeling, produced by human contact, which allows for such listening. And the listening itself goes beyond assessing arguments to inhabiting the other’s moral and emotional situation. That explains, says Jacobs, why Wilt Chamberlain didn’t shoot free throws underhanded even though he was bad at shooting them any other way—he was too proud and manly to do such a girly thing, which also might have gotten in the way of his womanizing. We need to become, in the words of Henry James that are quoted here, “finely aware and richly responsible.”
To this end Jacobs recommends a technique, also frequently employed in therapy, whereby before you can refute your opponent in a debate, you have to state the opponent’s case sufficiently well to meet the opponent’s approval. This can create not just a better understanding but even a willingness to change one’s views in a community where “losing” an argument may be rewarded by group approval for one’s intellectual honesty and courage.
Following C.S. Lewis, the author warns against the ambition to be part of the “Inner Ring,” the arbiters of thought in any given group. While feeling group loyalty can help in standing up against a hostile majority, it also can give rise to what Roger Scruton calls “unscrupulous optimism”: that fanatical utopianism which is so set on its goal that it ignores difficulties and despises anyone who dares to raise them. Jacobs’ instances of “unscrupulous optimism” come mostly from contemporary Progressives, the kind of people who, as he points out, allowed themselves unseemly glee about the death of Margaret Thatcher. This fanaticism also produces the dogmatism that has a ready-made explanation for why those who disagree are so foolish as to do so.
He assures us, however, that he is not making a case for a desiccated rationalism. We need emotions, those intuitive judgments that enable us to engage fully with the other. “We just want them to be the right ones,” though.
There follows a chapter, which appropriately cites Thomas Hobbes, warning against the misuse of words. Improperly applied metaphors and deceitfully deployed myths are a threat to clear thinking. Jacobs goes on, in the chapter after that, to assail “lumping,” which is the failure to make necessary distinctions. Thus would Jacobs distinguish between an iconoclast like John C. Calhoun, a real stinker whom Yale probably should cut ties with (or, for balance, one like Margaret Sanger, whose views on eugenics were genuinely repulsive) from the more venial historical sinners whom we should probably spare. (Of these, he does not give any examples.)
He then invokes the Aristotelian mean as the measure of virtue. What he invokes it for, however, is to warn against bad influences on calculation, like considering sunk costs in future plans, or closing oneself in a cult-like echo chamber in which anything, including the failure of the world to end on the predicted date, can be explained away.
While the concluding pages of How to Think make a case for compiling pros and cons when deliberating (complete with a useful checklist), its substantive argument concludes with a citation of David Foster Wallace’s definition of the “Democratic Spirit.” The late novelist characterized that spirit as “combin[ing] rigor and humility,” and possessing “a 100 percent intellectual integrity.” This, Jacobs says, is what “this book is all about.”
It should be hard to disagree either with that message or the book as a whole. But there are some obvious questions that arise.
Jacobs teaches us how to think well if we have the right intuitive judgments. So, as he points out, good thinking is connected (again a la Aristotle) to good character. Some of the examples of bad thinking might be counteracted by the rational lessons this book and others provide—see the helpful pointer, mentioned above, about sunk costs. There are some situations, that is to say, where awareness of the problem can lead to its solution. But bad thinking of the “unscrupulously optimistic” or “inner ring” kinds are motivated by weaknesses of character that reinforce themselves by rationalization. The bad thinking there is symptom, not cause, and the cure is moral.
Thus Lewis in That Hideous Strength (1945), his classic description of someone lured by his love of belonging to the elite to the brink of joining the forces of the Devil. Lewis has him cured by a Christian conversion brought on by deep emotional forces involving his love of his wife and repressed memories of his life before it was wholly corrupted by ambition.
So How to Think, while it alludes to them, does not really grapple directly with the real, old questions about how we get the right intuitions. It does not grapple with character-formation. As the author is probably only too aware, the traditions that make that question central are now very much out of fashion among the educated. So it may be that in writing about “thinking,” and referencing the findings of contemporary psychology, Jacobs is trying to slip some old wine into new bottles.
In the West there are two major traditions and one lesser one that address character-formation centrally. One is Christian, another is classical. But in addition to Jerusalem and Athens there is 18th century Weimar—that is, the aesthetic education approach.
The first at its deepest teaches a full realization of our unhappiness and inadequacy which, in the dark night of the soul, can call out for forgiveness and may possibly be rewarded with grace. The second teaches that good habits, based on what the late Martin Diamond called “laws with teeth,” are necessary to tame the passions to the point where a trained and perfected reason can ultimately control them. At less extreme levels than the saint and the philosopher, these two can merge in that ambiguous phenomenon, the Christian gentleman. The third, aimed more at the modern bourgeoisie, says that it is the passions that must be taught through art, by showing the base as disgusting and the morally noble as attractive.
None of these seems to be as generally attractive to contemporaries as, say, varieties of Buddhism. Still, it is to these traditions, especially the first two, which one would for the most part have to go in order to get to grips with much of the bad thinking Jacobs describes.
That said, it might be worthwhile to think of this book as in effect engaging in the third tradition, aesthetic education. Somewhat like a similar and philosophically deeper book on the general subject, Harry M. Clor’s On Moderation (2008), Jacobs makes the moderate soul that is capable of engaging in good thinking attractive by his own example. Most readers are likely to get the sense that the author is a reasonable, engaging person whom one might not just like to know but perhaps even want to be more like. What is not reasoned out is suggested, implicitly, by the easy tone and modest style of the book. It is in this sense that it really is edifying, in a good way, in not only making its case at an introductory level but fostering a taste for being the kind of person who would be fair-minded and have good instincts.
The question of how to amend bad character, if not already formed by good laws and good habits, is a perennial one. Precisely because of the link between good thinking and good character, mere reasoning, as Jacob himself points out, isn’t enough. As Friedrich Schiller observed, the passions are good at reasoning when they want to, but only for their own ends. That is where aesthetic and moral taste come in as a possible aid to reasoning. Jacobs does not give us the argument for that, but his book, likely quite intentionally, indicates how it might work.