Where ought the life of the mind lead us?
This essay is part of a symposium on Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought.
I like intellectual and (some) spiritual autobiographies. I thrilled to read Pierre Manent’s, and I teach St. Augustine’s Confessions. I like the genre. I therefore was predisposed to like Zena Hitz’s new book, Lost in Thought, based on what I’d heard about it and seen of her in a couple of videos. She’s like Chaucer’s Clerk: gladly would she learn and gladly would she teach. I was disposed to like her book for other, more personal, reasons as well. She’s a Catholic – a convert – as am I. She’s a fan of classical philosophy, a Ph.D. in fact, and so am I. And her vocation, as she came to discover, is teaching, and so is mine. Like me, she likes the Dominicans and their motto, contemplata aliis tradere, pass along to others the fruits of your study and prayer. In fact, that’s what her book largely is. In it, she passes along her discovery (and rediscovery) of the intrinsic worth, the nature, and solid satisfactions of the life of the mind, of “hidden learning,” and of contemplative attention to the world and one’s soul. She’s found a pearl of great price and wants to share it as widely as possible. “Hear, hear!”
There are a thousand things to agree with and even admire in this heart-felt, well-written, very thoughtful, and (dare I say?) learned book. There are even more things – observations, quotations, portraits, even epigrams – that are intriguing or interesting. For those concerned with liberal learning, with the place of study and learning in a worthwhile life, this is a must-read book. You’ll also want to give it to young people just finding their way in life. All that being said, all that being true, I still wasn’t completely convinced by its portrait of its central theme. So, in the interest of learning – my learning, to start with – I thought I would venture my two main reservations. They’re offered in the spirit of the title.
To state my reservations directly: I think the life of the mind needs more definite structure and focus than Dr. Hitz seems inclined to acknowledge. It also needs more defined content. To put it succinctly: it needs to focus on the big Three: God/world/man. And it better get those more right than wrong. Khaled Al-Asaad, Mendel Nun, and the Herschels (three of her examples) were all admirable human beings, and made signal contributions to knowledge. However, I find them too narrowly focused and would not put them forward as even third-tiered exemplars of the life of the mind. Too many important human questions were left out by their single-minded focuses. Deep narrowness is still human narrowness. There are intrinsic exigencies of the mind, it’s built to attend to wholes and the Whole. One can’t rest content with one area of intense interest and study – the stars, falcons, ancient navigation, Middle Eastern antiquities – and leave the rest unattended or taken for granted. If one does, then one’s mind is (I speak harshly) only marginally better off for that.
I think she dismisses her normal guide and authority, Aristotle, too precipitously. She probably does so out of a Christian desire to make the most valuable things of life available to all. I’m not against offering them to all, but I don’t want to democratize the thing as the means to do so. And if Aristotle’s conception of the philosophical life of the mind is too demanding or impracticable, one can repair to his discussion of “liberal education” at the end of the Politics. Under that rubric, one can enlist the great poets and their human and humanizing wisdom. Man, after all, should be the privileged study of man. The main thing is not to confuse deep and intense partialness of study or learning with the humanizing life of the mind. “Humanizing” presupposes an adequate view of the human, does it not? And – a great paradox! – centrally includes a search for it. Nil humanum mihi alienum sit. De te res locuntur. Let nothing human be alien to me. These things speak of you.
I also think that Dr. Hitz needs to include political philosophy in the essentials of the life of the mind – or huge factors in thinking will be relegated to the implicit or taken for granted, with untoward consequences. By “political philosophy” I mean some combination of Socrates, Aristotle, Leo Strauss, and Pierre Manent. That’s probably less-than-helpful as a formula. The Socratic part is intended to express the need to dialectically consider one’s own passions and moral criteria as they are brought to bear on one’s judgment of, and participation in, the city. The Aristotle part means, it’s the regime, stupid! And watch out for extreme versions of the regime principle(s). Learn sobriety in political judgment, in part by doing comparative regime-analysis, in part by studying the constitution of Athens (i. e., political history). As for Strauss and Manent, they’re the best analysts of modern political philosophy and of modern politics we have.
Dr. Hitz, however, it seems to me (I could be wrong!), would prefer Dorothy Day and Malcolm X to Socrates, Aristotle, Strauss, and Manent; she seems to prefer “prophets” to political philosophers. There’s a (sensitive) issue here, one that goes deep into the soul. Her preferences are probably bound up with her Christian faith, her view of “the world,” and her sensitivity to suffering. These, however, are the sorts of things that political philosophy as I envisage it deals with in a self-critical – and liberating – way. I’ll come back to them in a moment. First, I think it would be helpful to say a few words about where I’m coming from, since I doubt that what I’ve said so far has been as clear as it needs to be.
It will come as little surprise to hear that I’m a philosophy professor, whose professional expertise is in political philosophy, and that I teach in a Roman Catholic seminary (just up the road from where she teaches), which has a rather structured, a very coherent, philosophy curriculum. My students really appreciate the coherence of the program, which has two tracks: a history track, which considers ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary philosophy, and a systematic track, which studies a number of philosophical disciplines. The history track also does subordinate duty as (something of) an introduction to western civilization, something they know they should know better, but to which most haven’t been systematically exposed. They love learning about the polis, they love learning about the contests between emperors and Popes, and they instinctively see that the rise of the nation-state and the Treaty of Westphalia have contemporary relevance. These broader vistas help them understand the journey of the Church through western history and they help situate liberal democracy in what Manent calls a series of “political forms.” They thus shed important light on their own two great “communities of belonging.”
The philosophical disciplines build upon one another. Philosophy of nature leads to metaphysics and the philosophy of God; or it leads to philosophical anthropology, epistemology (man as knower), philosophical ethics (man as agent), and, in lieu of political philosophy (man as member of communities), we conclude with a course devoted to “contemporary issues,” which brings their acquired philosophical learning to bear upon the contemporary world. I do introduce political philosophy in that course, so they see how essential it is to understand our country and the world.
As I said, the guys do not experience this course of study as a straitjacket, but as a systematic consideration that has enjoyable variety but which cumulatively builds upon itself. There’s usually a huge advance from year one to year two, and by the end of the program, they have knowledge and habits that allow them to engage profitably in more philosophy, in theology, or whatever else they want to revisit or engage, including the social sciences, literature, and history. They’ve had a powerful experience of the life of the mind, one that has been very coherently presented to them, whose coherence they see, whose learning they recognize as humanly important. Of course, in their case, it will have theological and pastoral or ministerial applications. But first, it’s their own minds’ adventure and improvement.
Now, I’m not proposing this for St. John’s College (although I think it would work well in Catholic liberal arts colleges). But the idea of a coherent curriculum, oriented to engaging all of reality in an ordered way, with definite doctrinal content and essential intellectual habits – that’s what I’m proposing as an alternative, and as a criterion, of the life of the mind. I think that every candidate for “life of the mind” should be judged in its light. It’s an old Aristotelian thought: the telos defines the species, the end, the means, the finished specimen, lesser instantiations. Hitz’s was a bit too laissez-faire, and a bit too broad for me. She hoped people would become interested in “the Transcendent,” she even suggested they should, but I’d make the God-question an essential criterion of the life of the mind and of serious learning. And some others.
One more personal word in order to preface what I have to say about the need for political philosophy. As a Catholic Socratic, when I read a book I try to see the person at work in it, how she maps the world, her dominant passions, and the criteria of evaluation at work, either explicitly or tacitly, in the text. Here’s (part of) what I saw in Lost in Thought. My clues were Dr. Hitz’s self-description and her expressions of admiration for others when it came to political matters. Political philosophy itself was absent, so I need alternative indications.
Early on, she applied the phrase “Catholic anarchist” to herself. That self-identification came out in her admiring portrait of Dorothy Day, and in her explicit agreement with Day that the “case” against nuclear weapons is a “blinding moral truth.” Really? In a connected vein, I was struck by her extolling of Malcom X and not, say, Frederick Douglass, on race in America. Douglass had at least as admirable a life of learning, personal liberation, and addressing racial injustice as did “Detroit Red.” But he did so in a very different way.
Dr. Hitz calls both Malcom X and Dorothy Day “prophets” (or at least “prophetic”). While we’re told on good authority that a prophet is not without honor except in his own land, I’ve also read that there are false prophets. It seems that discernment is still called for. Or perhaps a gentler way of putting the point is that prophets and law need to coexist. Political philosophy can help in that regard, and keep each from growing rigid or crazy. It tells law about equity and the prophet about the natural order of things, or at least the hard-earned lessons of experience. Even within biblical thought, while Walter Brueggemann reduces Hebrew prophecy to acts of memory and imagination in order to fuel and justify his condemnations of “Babylon,” Joseph Ratzinger maintains that prophecy must be kept in contact with the logos inherent in creation. I think Ratzinger has the more biblical understanding, but, at the least, the two should be brought into dialogue with one another.
These things, as I said, are difficult and sensitive to talk about, and in Dr. Hitz’s case are likely bound up with ultimate matters – her (understanding of her) faith, her negative view of “the world” (drawn from Plato’s Cave? St. John’s Gospel? Augustine’s City of man?), and of the “cosmic force” of suffering and the Christian imperative of not ignoring it. Here, after extolling political philosophy, I’m compelled to acknowledge its limits. It can’t fully address everything raised by her deepest views. For that, we’d need philosophy and theology, and other venues.