Where ought the life of the mind lead us?
This essay is part of a symposium on Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought.
A point will come in every professor’s semester when she will decide to drill her students about why they are in college. For the most part, students answer that they enrolled in college without much thought to the reason. When they find themselves sitting in a desk in my classroom, being assigned The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy, they can only answer that they hope to get a job and make money. Why do you want money? I press them. To buy things—a house, a car, clothes, food, basics. And, if I push them further for why they want these things, they try to answer, “So we can be happy.” Now we have reached a goal worth talking about. At the end of a series of questions, students uncover the reason they are in college is to be happy. If you flip the question and ask, “Do you think you can buy happiness with cars and clothes and a house?” Most of them will say, “No.” Yet, they cannot tell you of what happiness consists and why they assumed that college, a job, and money would get them to that happiness. Hence, their utter confusion about why they are reading Homer and Dante.
Our culture has lost the distinction between use and enjoyment. We begin with a nearly ingrained assumption that all beneficial things are useful things. I love to write “God is useless” on my white board and watch as students protest and flail through a series of responses that attempt to disprove this assertion. They have been so trained by their consumerist culture to assume that “useful” is the highest good, that to write such a statement sounds blasphemous. In fact, I’m not insulting but praising God when I make this claim; what I am refuting is the assumption of my students that “useful” is “godly.” If we are ever to recover the source of human happiness and become a society that needs not apologize for teaching the greatest books in Western civilization, then we must become comfortable with the enjoyment of useless things.
Zena Hitz begins Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life with a homage to Dante: “Midway through the journey of my life, I found myself in the woods of eastern Ontario, living in a remote Catholic religious community called Madonna House.” Those of us well-versed in the Western tradition will anticipate a spiritual reckoning is about to befall this narrator, if she is anything like the 14th-century Italian politician who was exiled and later penned his imaginative journey to the beatific vision. What version of success led to her volitional exile, what are the steps of her journey, and how will she define a happy ending?
Hitz begins her treatise on the intellectual life in her own story because she claims that wisdom is lived out, not merely stored or contained. She seeks to answer the question, “What does the authentic exercise of the love of learning look like in real life? How might that exercise shape a person’s life?” Thus, she needs her story and the stories of others to share what she has discovered. “Good fiction resonates in truth; good history tells affecting stories,” Hitz argues. “So, too, literary images inspire real-life models, and vice-versa. Our lives are responsive to books; books in turn reflect our lives.” She moves seamlessly from reflections on Augustine, Viktor Frankl, Aquinas, and Elena Ferrante, those who have written stories about the intellectual life.
While Hitz had achieved the height of success, she found that mountaintop unsatisfactory. One thinks of David Brooks’ The Second Mountain: success is the mountain that our American culture tells us to climb, but the summit is vacuous. Only the second mountain, that one where we live for others and for something beyond ourselves, is a peak worth reaching. So too does Hitz argue. She desired a happiness that would be a summum bonum: “Such a good would be something in which one’s whole life would culminate, a form of secure happiness built into who we are and who we want to be.” Hitz unapologetically claims to have found this happiness in the Catholic Church, though she does not compel her readers to follow the same journey. What she does depict is that such happiness will compel someone’s desires towards a transcendent end, as well as downwards into a deeper inwardness, and outwards towards those around them.
Hitz wrestles with the purpose of an intellectual life that only leads to fame or money and does little to serve others. Although the intellectual life appears useless, its greatest function is derived from its uselessness. It apexes in enjoyment. For Hitz, enjoyment does not mean mere pleasure or temporary recreation. Steeped in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, Hitz employs words like “enjoy” and “leisure” with their traditional senses of rest, contemplation, and ultimate happiness. If we only see the intellectual life as a luxury for the elite, we will miss its “transformative,” “redemptive,” and “central” purpose for our happiness. “Our humanity,” Hitz writes, “is not a profession to be left to the accomplished few.” We give up too much if we misappropriate the intellectual life to the privilege of the wealthy and not the necessity of every human being.
Josef Pieper, who Hitz does not quote explicitly, but who lies dormant in most of her argument, defines education as that which “concerns the whole [person]; an educated [person] is [one] with a point of view from which [s]he takes in the whole world.” By substituting technical training for education, we are producing citizens specialized in a particular task but without any knowledge for what makes one free, what makes one virtuous, what makes one happy. The ancient Greeks knew that one worked so one could have leisure. We work, Pieper writes, “in order to do—to enable us to do—something other than work,” which, in Pieper’s and Hitz’s minds, is something higher and deeper: the contemplation of the true, good, or beautiful.
Socrates defined education as teaching one to love what is beautiful. Yet, our culture finds nothing so useless as beauty. What then happens to education? Hitz insists, “If intellectual life is not left to rest in its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit.” The paradoxical conclusion expresses the unquantifiable, mysterious nature of the intellectual life.
In college, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and was profoundly moved by his conclusions about human nature. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps to author this book, which is part memoir and part psychological case study. Whereas we might assume that those who were most physically fit would fare the best under such brutal conditions, Frankl observed that those with the strongest interior life were more likely to endure. From his position as a fellow sufferer, Frankl witnessed that the survivors drew strength from their investment in a source of authentic hope beyond the camps, from their love for something that filled them with a sense of meaning. For Frankl, it was his wife. For others, it was their faith or a duty or calling that could not be stripped away by the Nazi guards. But those who lacked this level of rich interior life lost even their physical strength at a much quicker rate. Without a deep spiritual or mental well to draw from, these prisoners—beat down by suffering and torture—lost a reason to keep living.
Our society has lost any sense of meaning for education; we do not know the reason for an intellectual life. Without it, we are each left to our own whims and devices. We are alienated consumers. We are surface-level reactors to every headline and news story. We are workers in a hive, keeping busy to avoid confronting the meaninglessness of our existence. It is a sad story that has been told hundreds of times before, but Hitz reminds us that it does not have to be the only story. There is a way out of the dark woods we find ourselves in, a journey that draws us upwards and out of our isolated selves. Through her book Lost in Thought, Hitz invites readers to seek the hidden pleasures of the intellectual life that we may again envision a happy ending.