Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life; by Zena Hitz; Princeton University Press; 240 pp., $22.95
“What do I need to know for the test?” This common refrain, repeated endlessly by high school and undergraduate students, sums up one of the great heresies of our age: the view that learning is a purely pragmatic or utilitarian enterprise. Unfortunately, such an attitude is not simply restricted to students; it is also the prevailing attitude of parents and academics.
The last century has witnessed a dramatic shift in education in the West. Formerly, educators sought to cultivate habits of mind, to give students the tools to reason well, choose wisely, and contribute to the commonweal. It was understood that there were things worth knowing for their own sake and questions that transcended the purely practical. It is this sublime and supremely human undertaking that occupies Zena Hitz in Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.
A profusion of books in the last 20 years has acknowledged in one way or another that modern life has become one-dimensional and superficial. Life is lived on the surface—with our addictions to spectacle and the technological devices that deliver it—and, increasingly, in a posture of servility. The fact that a human person, alone among the creatures on this earth, can abstract and reflect has been a source of man’s wonder from time immemorial. In other words, he is the only animal who can think about thinking. As the ancients often acknowledged, man is capax mundi (possessing the capacity for understanding the world).
above: 9th century ivory relief made by an unknown Carolingian artist depicting Pope Saint Gregory I “The Great” (540 – 604 A.D.) and scribes (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria)
It seems that every generation needs to be aroused from an ever-recurrent torpor that clouds the life of the mind. For those attached to authentic religious tradition, this torpor may be explained by the concupiscence resulting from original sin; for those without any metaphysical loyalties, oftentimes the life of the mind is sublimated by excessive concerns for scratching out an existence on this third rock from the sun, or by the worship of a pantheon of new gods that demand earthly fealty, such as political causes du jour.
Yet even for purely secular individuals, there will always be the tragedies of life, disease, disasters, death, that drive to the forefront of the mind the question, “Why?” While Hitz does not attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question, her calm, refl ective, and serious consideration of the intellectual life is an attempt to rouse her readers from their slumber with a gentle but firm nudge.
She opens her reflections by recounting her own intellectual development. She began, as children do, by gazing out upon the world in wide-eyed wonder; then, as she chose to pursue an intellectual life and to climb the academic ladder, she succumbed to the sometimes cut-throat and “cookie cutter” expectations of modern higher education. But some of her old passion and wonder about the truth of things remained, along with a memory of those early years when she had experienced the joy of intellectual discovery. Reversing course, she began to question the orthodoxy of the modern academy, and embarked upon a journey that ultimately stripped away the professional assumptions that had lulled her into mental lethargy.
Hitz observes that the cultivation of the intellectual life begins in “inwardness,” or in a “hidden place.” The life of the mind must not begin in pretense and noise, but in silence and reflection. One must sequester oneself—sometimes even physically—in order to think. Hitz acknowledges, drawing on earlier thinkers, that leisure is required for deep thought. Her examples of persons who cultivated the intellectual life in such “hiddenness,” are as disparate as they are interesting: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Malcom X, Antonio Gramsci, and the heroines of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, among others.
A striking example is that of Alice Kober. Certainly not a household name, Kober was the pioneering linguist who, by day, taught five classes at Brooklyn College in the 1940s; and, by night, made pioneering efforts to decipher the ancient language known as Linear B—the Mycenaean precursor to ancient Greek. Through slow, steady, and serious study, this daughter of immigrants paved the way toward a watershed moment in the study of linguistics and philology. Such philological and linguistic advances could not have occurred but for the hiddenness that was the setting for deep thought.
The thoughts of others—both ancient and modern—and the thematic commonalities that unite them over the ages, are springboards for Hitz’s own excursions. She is especially eloquent about the perennial human condition of restlessness and, indeed, her own restlessness.
It is no surprise, then, that she dedicated a portion of the book to an examination of Augustine’s thought and, in particular, to an extended discussion of the notions of curiositas vs. studium. The curiosus (the man driven by curiosity) is in “love with spectacle,” something which may inflame the passions or provide a temporary satsatisfaction of some desire: to satisfy lust, to be “in the know” in order to be a member of the elite, or to make money for the sake of making money. While curiositas is not to be praised in itself, the experiences one encounters as the result of such pursuits can become occasions for deeper reflection.
The studiosus (the student), on the other hand, is not content to rest at the level of spectacle. His seriousness is not dourness. As Hitz states, his desire is “to seek out what is most important, to get to the bottom of things, to stay focused on what matters.” Yet in so doing, the studiosus risks a tremendous danger. He may discover that his assumptions are not true; that his convictions rest on flimsy premises; and that his embrace of truth may cause deeply unfortunate results—alienation from friends, family and an accustomed way of life.
By way of compensation, the studiosus, in penetrating to the heart of things, can also understand his own dignity and the dignity of others. His finer perception permits him to better respect and even love his fellow men; not in the abstract as “humanity,” but as real individuals with their own dignity and worth.
Since human nature doesn’t change, the discussion of curiositas and studium is always relevant, especially regarding cognitive and intellectual pursuits. It is particularly relevant today amidst the prevailing instrumentalist or pragmatic atmosphere of learning, where getting ahead or securing comfort is the highest good, while a seemingly unending restlessness remains.
A review of a praiseworthy book is always and necessarily an hors d’oeuvre and, in the judgment of this reviewer, Lost in Thought is a feast that should be enjoyed by anyone who cares about the life of the mind or who wants “to get to the bottom of things.” It is a book to be savored and discussed and is not for the impatient. While the subject matter is indeed intellectual, it is not the preserve of intellectuals. It is meant for anyone concerned with thinking but is accessible to the non-professional. As an educator, I would heartily recommend this book as a corrective to academics caught in a prison of their own unexamined assumptions and as required reading for new undergraduates.
Hitz, who is a tutor in the Liberal Arts program at St. John’s College, does a masterful job from within the academy of criticizing the sometimes dogmatic shibboleths of those seeking to ascend the academic ranks of most colleges and universities. Yet her criticism invites one to think rather than impose a way of thinking; it is Socratic, not dogmatic. In this, Hitz respects her readers, their dignity, their freedom, and their ability to find that which will put their hearts at rest.