The Monkish Virtues in Times of Crisis

This essay is part of a symposium on Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought.

In his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume attacked the “the whole train of monkish virtues”—from fasting, penance, self-denial, and humility, to the silence and solitude of a contemplative life. Hume, a prominent member of the Enlightenment vanguard in Scotland, sought to free his fellow Europeans from “the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion” promulgated by “gloomy and hair-brained enthusiasts.” Consequently, he argued that silence and solitude were not virtues at all but “dismal” vices, rejected by men of good sense, since they “neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of enjoyment.” As European man entered a new, scientific era, Hume thought that social utility and pleasure as the only rational measures for determining which qualities of character could possibly help individuals and societies flourish.

Zena Hitz’s delightful and compelling new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, is a welcome rejoinder to Hume’s influential critique. While she is clearly an enthusiast for the value of contemplation, gloomy and hair-brained Hitz is not. She seamlessly weaves together memoir, sharp philosophical analysis, literary and art criticism, and intellectual history, to make the compelling case that the cultivation of our inner lives, which requires many of the monkish virtues that Hume dismissed, is fundamental to authentic human flourishing.

Unlike Hume, Hitz’s treatment of the contemplative life is not wholly abstract and philosophical, but firmly grounded in the particulars of her own experience and the lives of those she thinks we should imitate. She begins with her own love of learning and traces how various childhood fascinations with her world eventually led her to embrace a liberal arts education, which, in turn, led her to study and teach philosophy at some of our most prestigious and elite universities. But Hitz found herself increasingly alienated from academic life, which had trained her to fear rejection and prize prestige and status far more than it had cultivated her thrill for learning or her love for truth—the very impulses that had led her there in the first place. As she traveled the world and enjoyed its delights on the academic conference circuit, she began to worry that her intellectual life was self-indulgent. This led her to leave academia and join a simple, religious community, which was removed from the world of competition and utility and dedicated to loving service for the sake of the common good. It was in her own retreat from the world, which gave her ample solitude and time for reflection, that Hitz realized that the monkish virtues, which sustain our love of learning and nourish a liberal arts education, needed a fair hearing.

Hitz argues that learning begins in a place of retreat from the world, “in the inward thoughts of children and adults, in the quiet life of bookworm, in the secret glances at the morning sky on the way to work, or the casual study of birds from the deck chair.” We ruin education when we take this intrinsic, natural desire to know and understand and bend it to external results, whether they be economic, social, or political. It is central to Hitz’s argument that love of learning is intrinsically, rather than instrumentally, valuable.

Hitz notes that what is intrinsically valuable for a human being is grounded in what a human being is—what it needs in order to flourish as a member of its kind. Even more boldly, Hitz frames her argument in terms of ancient Greek thought about the highest good. Such a good was understood by Plato and Aristotle as that sort of human activity we have a natural affinity for above all others and would be something “in which one’s whole life would culminate.” For Hitz, the highest good structures all of our choices and reveals something about the sort of person we are. It is the good for which, at the end of the day, we will sacrifice all else.

Hitz argues that there must be space in our lives that is beyond work and its measures of utility and productivity, something intrinsically satisfying, without which our work would be in vain. Therefore, we need leisure—which is not mere rest and relaxation, which is necessary for more work, but “an inward space whose use could count as the culmination of all our endeavors.” We experience a true freedom in retreat—when we are not being measured or watched by others, we are unburdened from worldly measures of productivity or usefulness. Here we discover our true value and dignity as human persons.

But leisure and contemplation are not, on Hitz’s vision, reserved for an elite, leisured class with a special kind of elite training or pedigree. Throughout her book, she discusses a rag tag crew of unlikely intellectuals, which include Alice Kober, whose groundbreaking work helped to decipher Linear B—work she managed to eke out in her meagre spare time after teaching five classes at Brooklyn College during the day; and Mendel Nun, a simple fisherman who was so fascinated by the ancient stone anchors he found in the sea of Galilee, he became the world’s foremost expert on ancient fishing practices. She reminds us that even Albert Einstein was once an obscure clerk hidden away in a patent office, which he affectionately called his “worldly cloister,” and where he “hatched his most beautiful ideas.” As her title suggests, it is the hidden character of intellectual life that appeals to Hitz, precisely because she thinks our desire to see and be seen is a threat to the dignity and value of contemplation, which she defines broadly as “seeing and understanding and savoring the world as it is.”

Since we have largely lost sight of the love of learning and the monkish virtues that help to sustain them, Hitz recognizes that we need images and models to imitate—“attractive fantasies” that might help to spark a new appreciation for them. Hitz provides us with a generous and diverse array of such examples, from artistic traditions that depict the Mother of God as a contemplative young woman, lost in study, to W.E.B DuBois, to the fictional lives of two working class, Neopolitan women. Hitz uses many of her examples to underscore the ascetic character of intellectual life. For example, she writes of Malcolm X, who discovered a love of learning while imprisoned as a young man. He described his time in prison—where he studied Latin, German, linguistics, and read widely in both philosophy and in religious texts—as “a blessing in disguise” precisely insofar as it provided him with the solitude that he needed in order to completely change his vision of his own life. In his retreat from the world, Malcolm was able to nurture a devotion to the truth that would drive his actions outside of prison, from being a minister in the nation of Islam, his unapologetic defense of black liberation and self-determination, to his later conversion to a more traditional form of Islamic belief and practice.

As Hitz points out, love of learning finds its fullest expression in friendship and communion with others.

Malcolm’s story highlights the fact that the fruits of solitude require forms of asceticism—self-denial and self-discipline—which are fundamental to our inner dignity and worth. The desire to understand the world is very often at odds with the desire for social acceptance, a comfortable life, or even the advancement of political goals. To pierce the veil of self-deception and see the world as it is takes hard work and dedication. Therefore, we must allow our love of learning to discipline us if it is to be genuinely transformative.

But lest this all sound dour, Hitz points us to back to the example of St. Augustine, who argued that our deepest forms of joy are found in our restless search for the truth—an appreciation for and understanding of what really matters. The story of Augustine as told in his Confessions is a story of each one of us: we can either stay skimming along the surfaces of our lives, lost in the thrall of spectacles, the ambitious drive for status and prestige, and the satisfactions of the flesh, or we can choose to be serious and plunge ourselves into the depths of reality, an activity which calls us out of ourselves and demands a kind of faithful obedience to the task of understanding it more completely.

That the intellectual life has this self-transcendent character is underscored by the fact that our love of learning finds its fullest expression in friendship and communion with others. Her discussion of Dorothy Day—one of the highlights of the book—underscores the deep and important connections between solitude, silence, and solidarity. According to Hitz, Day’s love of the poor and the suffering were the fruits of her love of books. When asked about how she wanted to be remembered, Day responded that “I’d like people to say that ‘she really did love those books!’ I’m always telling people to read Dickens or Tolstoi, or read Orwell, or Silone… That’s the “meaning of my life.”

Hitz’s book has been released during a global pandemic, in which many of us have been forced into a retreat from our everyday lives and made to endure a variety of unexpected hardships. Her book calls for us not to waste this moment lost in entertainment, superficial distractions, or the sheer spectacle of our current unrest; not to fret over our lack of productivity, but to embrace our solitude and indeed our suffering as a gift—for we, like those examples she points to in her book, can choose to seize this moment to cultivate our interior lives and find a renewed dignity and purpose in them. It is here we might discover our deepest forms of joy and transform and renew our world.

While Hitz’s book was written for everyone, it has a special value for professors in the humanities, such as myself. The current pandemic has accelerated the slow death march of many liberal arts colleges across the country, in large part because Hume’s arguments won the day long ago. Humanists have tried valiantly—and failed spectacularly—to convince ordinary people to value the liberal arts on Humean terms. They have insisted that studying poetry, art, music, and philosophy would advance their students’ fortunes in the world; that they were instrumentally valuable to the political aims of liberal democracies, and that they would make those who bothered with them more enjoyable to spend an evening with over cocktails. Hitz will, thankfully, have none of this. The liberal arts are valuable only insofar as they are transformative, redemptive, and central to human flourishing. To allow them to perish is to diminish ourselves and our world.