Why the Life of the Mind: A Review of Lost in Thought

September 3, 2020
Title: Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Mind
Author: Zena Hitz
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publishing Date: May 26, 2020
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0691178714

 Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought comes at a moment when two different trajectories are set to overwhelm any retrieval of the joys of an intellectual life. The first is the tyranny of the ephemeral over the durable when it comes to the intellectual life. Since Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a flurry of literature has been warning the public that the transitory and the fleeting were colonizing the very structures of our minds. Unable to sustain our thinking, Americans have given their culture and minds over entirely to the power of “Now This.” We are distracted, and the effects show themselves in our politics, our educational systems, and our economies. Though it slays us, yet shall we praise it.

Secondly, even with the ephemeral ruling the world, there is little appetite for the cloistered intellectual life for two reasons. First, there are the manifold crises affecting the world, from the ecological to epidemiological and the financial, demanding that what thought we have left be mobilized toward doing things. To this end, STEM has taken over the university systems and a spirit of utility pervades the educational process. Here, even where thought is taken seriously, it is prized preeminently when it is social—whether in crowd sourcing, open offices, or the interdisciplinary academic fields, more social connection is preferable to less, especially in the life of the mind. Hitz, in reaching back to a tradition of Plato, Socrates, and Augustine, has her work cut out for her. By way of full disclosure, I come to this as a fellow lover of books, at work in a world of academia which ironically provides little time for the habits of mind Hitz lauds. Having taken a B.A. in Literature before devoting my career to theology, I too believe there are few pleasures in the world like sustained reading in a quiet room. So it is with great sympathy, but some skepticism, that I read this.

Hitz begins the first half of the book by asking two questions: 1) How exactly is hidden learning achieved or nurtured, and 2) If learning is hidden, what use is it? The first—how “hidden learning” or the life of the mind is nurtured—begins by examining the futile nature of modern work. While modern labor frequently solves problems or produces goods, it does so in a circular fashion; we work in order to live, and we live in order to work. Labor becomes us, without remainder. To break out of this, she says we must recapture a deeper sense of happiness, rooted in the use of leisure, to wonder and see beyond the surface of things. This kind of contemplation is not only something for elites with an abundance of time, but something anyone can aim toward in different ways.

In order for this contemplative life to take hold, one must take “refuge from the world.” By this, Hitz means that one must be willing to leave behind the “social and political world” (53), a space governed by ambition, competition, commerce, and ultimately violence. This takes a number of forms. What is key is a space where the inward conversation between the mind and the perceived object—whether the folds of nature or the inner workings of Socratic dialogues—can be pursued with leisure. It is unclear whether she thinks that these modes of inquiry are equal—explorations of nature or the solitude of the library. What is central is the searching out of that which is beyond the surface. The grasping of the universal insight, beyond social class or group, is what matters.

This will inevitably involve sacrifice, for so much of our knowledge acquisition is tied into prestige, money, power, and social capital. We are used to learning in order to do something with it, rather than pursuing that which is true for its own sake. Therefore, becoming seekers of “the True” will mean forging a different road than that which is financially acceptable or which is rewarded by position or power. This detachment, which John of the Cross calls the “night of the soul,” is not a deprivation for its own sake, for we are not after despising the material world, but learning how to value it rightly. It is in this pursuit, which takes us out of the world, that we find a different kind of community: that of the co-pilgrims in search of the True. We find others on the way toward the True, whether from another era in the form of the author, or in the form of co-laborers in intellectual activity.

The second half of the book instructs us in the various pitfalls of wealth, power, and ambition which move us off of the path, using the work of Augustine among others as models. The third makes the case for this pursuit of the True as having no immediate payoff—that the pursuit of the True will, in fact, benefit the world, but only in so far as it is allowed to be itself. These sections largely proceed from the arguments of the first movement of the book, providing a bevy of illustrations from literature and theology to help us see the temptations away from this vision. Rightly arguing that the university must recover this vision, even in times of financial crisis, Hitz makes a passionate case for the intellectual life as creating those who “in fact seek after reality, more and more of it…they seek to get to the bottom of life, to happiness, joy in the truth—or just plain truth, if there is no joy in it” (191).

In 200 pages, Hitz is asking not only if the intellectual life matters, but why it matters. To the first, yes, and amen! Thought, contemplation, and reflection are the antidote to the tyranny of efficiency; not everything in the world is a hammer and a nail. However, on the second, I have the most questions. For those paid for their intellectual labors like myself, such a vision is compelling, but like the ancients on whom it draws,  two criticisms must be attended to. First, such a vision of intellectual delight is compelling, but deeply uneven. While she makes the case that the ones who engage in such a journey find an “egalitarian community” (163), what she means by this is the communion which the reader has with the author, not that this journey is equally available to all human creatures. In her landmark The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt pulled back the curtain on the ancient world to remind us that the ideal of the free political actor lauded by Aristole was made possible only because there were those at home chained to necessary labor.

As a defense of the contemplative over the life of labor, Hitz uses the example of Mary and Martha from Luke’s gospel, lifting up the pursuit of the True by Mary as superior to the labor performed by Martha. While it is  true that Mary has chosen the better thing, it is equally true that it is Martha’s domestic labor which makes possible the conditions of Mary’s contemplation. Hitz offers examples of working classes who have engaged in contemplation while employed as gardeners, bookkeepers, and day laborers, but it is these who—by doing the dishes—make it possible for the contemplatives to retreat to the library. Precursors to this work, such as A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, and before this, Augustine’s Confessions, presuppose a great deal of both disposable time and social detachment to pursue the intellectual life. It is no accident that both were written by priests without families. This does not make the goal of a vibrant intellectual life—the antimony to a scattered mind and a divided soul—any less desirable, but authored with certain unwritten assumptions which are not universally available.

This is related to a second critique. The ideal of the solitary contemplative, intentionally removed from society, produces a new form of community which is the extension of their own reflections, not one which then transfigures the world out of which they have come. The community the contemplative finds is one which is not only supported by the labor of others, but that is cultivated on the basis of the insights discovered in reading. For example, the companionship one might find with the plays of Shakespeare or with the tales of C.S. Lewis ignore that the reader is not actually communing with either, but with their own intimations of those works. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, it is the idea of the person which reality would soon shatter.

To break with the world for the sake of the Good is right, but to pursue the Good is to pursue the Good who became incarnate into the world to live among us. Put differently, the life of the contemplative is one which, as Hitz rightly states, involves a suffering of deprivation and a relentless pursuit of the Good. However, we are no longer able to ignore the embeddedness of such pursuits. If I am to retreat to read in the evening, I must first make sure my children are in bed and tended to. If I close my door to read, I must not neglect the needs of my students. All  of these things are good, as long as it is through them that I learn the universal truth which is rightly to be sought.

It is not so much that the contemplative life which Hitz argues for so eloquently is wrong; rather this vision of wisdom must once again return to the community which has both supported its existence and nurtured the very ability to leave it behind. The Christian intellectual must never forget that Augustine and Bonaventure, in all of their contemplative wisdom, were priests fully immersed in the practice of pastoring, preaching, and ministry. What we gain in pulling back must be returned again to those whose lives do not lend to sustained contemplation. It is not without reason that in his glittering gem Life Together, Bonhoeffer says after the days gathered with other seekers of the Truth, the Christian is one who must be plunged back into the world of “things.” It is through the world of things that I learn what is to be valued and how to value those things well. Even in that day alone, apart from others who also desire the Good, Bonhoeffer states we are  being shaped to be in service to others, for it is in giving that we receive, and in dying that we find new life. This is not so much a negation of Hitz as a challenge to pursue this vision, not with an imagined community of authors, but with the neighbors next to us who we must always assume are those for whom the Truth made flesh has come to make as holy and true as ourselves.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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