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Dec 16, 2022

The Impractical Gifts of an Intellectual Life

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Zena Hitz Annapolis Tutor St Johns

Zena Hitz

St. John’s College

Zena Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College.

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The Impractical Gifts of an Intellectual Life

Winslow Homer  Girl In The Hammock

Girl in the Hammock, Winslow Homer, 1873 / Wikipedia

The intellectual life is available to all because it only requires a willingness and an ability to get deeply and profoundly lost in thought. So argues Zena Hitz, a writer, tutor at St. John’s College, and founder of the nonprofit Catherine Project, which aims to bring the study and discussion of great literature to those of all backgrounds. Hitz authored Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, which examines the pleasure and fulfillment that come from pursuing intellectual pursuits born out of one’s own self-directed curiosity. In this interview with Renovatio’s digital editor, Faatimah Knight, she discusses the ways the intellectual life manifests in academia, in service to others, and in the habits of students and religious devotees. The conversation is edited for clarity and length.

Faatimah Knight: I really enjoyed your book Lost in Thought. From the first Bible verse I was invested: “For wisdom is better than rubies; and all that you may desire cannot compare with her,” Proverbs 8:11. Define what you mean by “an intellectual life”: Is it simply our private thoughts sparked by our observations of the world, by reading, by conversing with others? What are the ingredients that make up an intellectual life—and why is it important to have such a life?

Zena Hitz: As you already suggested in your question, I think about intellectual life as an aspect of any life. There is such a thing as an intellectual vocation—that is, a special call to think more intensely or to teach or to study. The type of intellectual life I’m interested in is an aspect of any ordinary life.

It’s recognizable in forms that most people can see—reading, thinking, conversation, reflection, interest in the natural world, mathematical thinking. What all those human activities have in common is the exercise of the mind on reality, on what is. That sounds very general, which is why I like to use examples that people can connect to real life. Pursuing the intellectual life is not necessarily directed toward a particular goal, like building a house or fixing a car or developing one’s career so one’s life is financially sustainable, but is something we do just because it’s one way to grow as human beings. It’s the way we develop, the way we change and are being changed by what we encounter. This type of intellectual life is a way of being more human, of growing in our humanity. That’s at least a start for the conversation.

FK: The idea of becoming more of yourself, more human, is fascinating in the context of the religious characters in your book. One criticism that religion gets is that it makes people less human, that it disconnects people from their humanity. When we dig into the stories of Mary and Abraham, there’s this sense of these individuals living really big lives and tapping into all aspects of their humanity. Not the base aspects, which maybe is the modern criticism, but some of the more powerful aspects of what it means to be a human being.

ZH: I think that’s right—it’s one of the things that’s distorted contemporary perceptions of religion and it’s partly the fault of some of our religious culture, but some of it maybe not. Religion is essentially ascetical. You restrict some of your activities for the sake of others. Everyone understands that playing sports has to be ascetical—you have to make sacrifices, make choices, give up something for the sake of becoming better at something else. People understand the importance of discipline and direction in sports, but they don’t see it the same way in moral or intellectual life.

As far as I’m concerned, the restrictions on a life of faith, the ways in which you can’t do everything that you might be inclined to do, are a prerequisite for entry into the realm of much greater freedom and flourishing. We could all do better at communicating that aspect of a life of faith: You close yourself off like an athlete or an artist or anyone who cares about anything deeply. You close yourself off for the sake of some greater growth or development or freedom or connection.

To the extent that my book has a religious aspect, it’s to look at what asceticism makes possible rather than at what good people don’t do. It’s to hold out the attractive pieces of religion rather than the restrictive part.

FK: A Gallup poll shows Americans read nineteen books a year in 1999 and thirteen books a year in 2021, the second year of the pandemic, when people were still home. The number of books read by college graduates has also declined over the past twenty years. While reading isn’t the only indication of intellectual life, what do you make of the fact that we have easier access to books than ever before but are reading less?

ZH: I find it very alarming. But I also find it understandable: I’m a professional reader and teacher of reading, and I struggle more and more to read a book, especially one that requires some concentration. A main objective for people who are concerned about education is to find a way to reseed reading in the culture.

The way to do that is through the formation of communities. A couple of years ago I founded a nonprofit called the Catherine Project. We hold Zoom tutorials and reading groups based on books that would be quite difficult to read on your own. That bit of social support seems crucial to undertaking reading in the kind of environment we live in.

Although reading is not the only way to learn, the decline in reading is a sign that our ability to concentrate in general is diminishing, and every type of learning requires concentration and focus.

FK: We live in a world of increasing distractibility—more shows streaming, multiple social media platforms, twenty-four-hour news, all instantly available on phones that have become bodily appendages. It’s been said that stillness and silence can breed discomfort, and our instinct is to distract ourselves in order to avoid a problem, anxiety, or fear. The seventeenth-century Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of man’s problems arise from an inability to sit quietly in a room.” How do we begin to cultivate the ability to sit quietly in a room, or even to take a walk by ourselves in the park or on the beach?

ZH: I try to make this case in the book: There’s a part of our nature that longs for distraction. We like to be comfortable. We have an autopilot that chooses the lesser challenge over the greater challenge. This is why we need ascetical practices, discipline, and a community life with structure to do the best things we can do. What’s been going on for, say, the past ten to fifteen years, is a dramatic increase in the degree to which that weakness in our nature is being exploited for profit. Huge industries, whole sectors of economies, are dedicated to preying on our attention and focus.

The first step to counteract this is to be aware of that fact: our desire for convenience can easily bleed into general passivity and the capacity to be manipulated and to have our attention bought and sold in ways that are harmful.

If Pascal, who was a deeply contemplative person and a great mathematician and scientist as well as a beautiful thinker and philosopher, said that in the seventeenth century, it was because he knew from experience how hard it was to sit in an empty room. This is something everyone struggles with. Which is why we need community support.

In the Jewish tradition of Shabbat, people don’t use any devices one day a week. What a source of strength that everyone does this every week! That’s an old tradition in a particular religion, but any of us can devise with our friends, our families, and our smaller communities ways to break free of our devices, to spend more time with ourselves. The more we see how much healthier we are, the easier it becomes.

I’m a bit extreme. For instance, I have a new office on campus, and I didn’t put any computers in it. I’ve never owned a smartphone. As a result, for most of the day, I have no access to any computer, and the quality of my life has gone up astronomically.

Lost In Thought

FK: I think you’ll be a hero to a lot of people when they hear that you don’t have a smartphone and there’s no computer in your office! But something is going on that seems outside of our conscious control. We engage in these entertainment practices that don’t leave us feeling all that entertained or all that happy. What do you make of that? Why do we keep indulging in something that, in the end, does not deliver what we seek?

ZH: Honestly, individuals often have specific problems that they’re avoiding. I don’t want to understate this. It takes an enormous amount of courage to actually sit and wait to see what you’re avoiding thinking about: aging parents, illness, long-term loneliness, work that’s not fulfilling, a lack of connection with different generations, and so on. Even once an issue is recognized, it might feel overwhelming to overcome. I find it overwhelming myself.

I lived in a religious community for a while whose founder was a woman named Catherine Doherty, and one of her sayings was, “If you feel lonely, go and talk to the loneliest person in the room.” You can always imagine someone lonelier; think about the widower, the person in the nursing home. This is part of why leaving the computer out of the office works; on campus, there’s a constant demand for serving others. People want to talk to me all the time. I give myself over to whatever their demands are, and that is what health looks like: service. That’s very countercultural, and it’s very difficult for us to break out of our old habits.

A lot of large-scale forces have conspired against living that way, but we have to trust the old ways, the wisdom of the elders, and continually reach toward an alternate way of life.

FK: Let me ask you about leisure and work. Are they unavoidably intertwined? In The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang claims that automation is coming. We saw a big push toward that during COVID, and it will only continue in that direction until jobs are taken over on a massive scale. If people have a future without jobs, are we prepared for a life of leisure and intellectual pursuits?

ZH: One of the things in the book that doesn’t come off as clearly as I might like is that I actually believe in work—I’m not anti-work. I do think that we work for the sake of leisure, and we can get those things out of balance. Our conception of work is distorted, just like our conception of leisure is distorted; we think of leisure as binging Netflix or what have you, pure distraction instead of doing something in which we’re really focused and alive.

We’re losing the connection between work and service. Work, as I understand it, whether paid or unpaid, is serving others, acting for the good of one’s neighbor, producing some good for our community.

We don’t think of it that way, in part because the people who do that in the most obvious ways are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. People who clean our public bathrooms or pick up the trash or cook and serve food—they are not the most highly regarded people in our culture, even though what they are doing is serving their neighbors and providing things that we all need.

On the other hand, there’s a whole industry of work that ultimately doesn’t make sense. It’s rooted in marketing techniques and fake metrics and PowerPoint presentations for corporate boards, and it’s empty. It doesn’t have any real human content. I find the prospect of a world where we don’t work—where we don’t serve one another—very dystopian. We would lose fundamental aspects of our humanity and—as is already happening—diminish ourselves through self-medication, drug use, distraction, anything to avoid recognizing our plight.

This is just me dreaming, but I would like to see people organize themselves so that they are always serving one another regardless of what the economy is doing. It’s in that context where real leisure can start to take shape because the best leisure is that in which, while you’re working, you’re being fed with material for reflection.

FK: You talk about Albert Einstein’s nine years of work in the patent office—he called that his “worldly cloister” because he was able to contemplate high things. Not getting that university job might have turned out to be good for Einstein. Perhaps not having the strictures of academic life and having the “mindlessness” of his patent work allowed him to cultivate the life of the mind. Eva Brann, your colleague at St. John’s, makes a distinction between people who claim “philosophy as a profession” and actual philosophers, which she is. Are professions in the academy detrimental to an intellectual life?

ZH: That’s a beautiful question. It’s very paradoxical to think that having a profession dedicated to the life of the mind might really harm the thing that it’s meant to protect. But this is relatively common and a bit complicated. Any institutionalization of philosophy or other thinking is going to have some pitfalls. As I see it, you want to be exercising your mind on reality and communicating about it to others. But competition and other external measures of success that institutions induce are going to distract from the intrinsic value of that activity. In every culture, you see something like the Einstein phenomenon, where getting out of the university was the best thing that could have happened to him. Of course, he didn’t stay out of the university his whole life. He had a period of retreat in the desert, so to speak.

Our institutions can be designed to make that tension better or worse. Right now, they’re designed very badly; the research institution and the bureaucratic university are really hostile to the exercise of learning for its own sake. The idea that the number of items you’ve published somehow has any significance in the value of your work is truly crazy and no one really believes it. Yet our institutions are designed to encourage volumes of publications and to deemphasize teaching. Teaching, if you do it right, is fuel for one’s own thinking and a check on getting too far removed from human concerns.

There are real philosophers who are professional philosophers, but there’s a reason why the most inspiring examples I use in my book are people who are not academics. The luminosity and the splendor and the beauty of cultivating an intellectual life really come out when people are getting nothing out of doing it—no big salaries, no fancy names, no titles. They’re just getting the thing itself. That’s why I love those stories so much. They have a purity and a clarity that a professional life doesn’t have.

FK: That paradox is really interesting: when you have a job that requires mental exertion, you can’t really think about things beyond, or you’re not really thinking in an interesting or creative way because your mind’s so busy. But someone doing a household task that requires much less, mentally speaking, is freer to wonder and ponder and think of all sorts of things. We don’t seem to value the jobs that give us that space to think. If we did, maybe some people would choose different jobs. What do you think of that?

ZH: You’re preaching to the choir. Simpler work is much better for thinking than the higher-prestige work that uses the mind, but the use of the mind tends to wear you out so that you lose the mental capacity to really think about something. I agree with everything you just said, and I don’t know if I could have said it better.

The only thing I would add—and this is where I have mixed feelings about going whole-hog anti-academic—is that the best thinking I’ve done has been in periods of intense concentration, when all I was doing was studying and thinking. It’s that leisure that the university is meant to protect. It does a very bad job of it these days, but it is meant to and sometimes does protect work like that, for which you really need total focus. I’m not sure that you can do that work without your life being in some way dedicated to it.

FK: In your book, you draw an interesting analogy between the angel’s news to Mary of a son and God’s command to Abraham to slaughter his son. You use the terms “angel’s proposal” to Mary and “God’s invitation to Abraham.” That’s appropriate language, considering it’s their “profound trust in a goodness beyond” that enables them to submit to what God is doing in their lives. What is it about their inward lives that cultivates this ability to trust in something greater and to distrust social convention?

ZH: I was very surprised when I noticed this parallel, in part because the scriptures are written so differently. Genesis 22, about Abraham, is such a terrifying passage. I think you’re really meant to be thinking with Abraham about what it would mean if God asked you to kill your only son, whom you love. All the little details in there are meant to twist a knife, I think.

Whereas Mary’s story is presented as a joyful invitation, something wonderful. Of course, the two stories have the obvious difference of having a child versus killing a child. But we’re not told that Mary is also facing a contradiction of a moral principle—to be pregnant outside of wedlock. Saying yes to God will result in what looks like a betrayal of the person she’s betrothed to, and in her community that could mean exile or death. She’s facing a very grave fate, one that is not consistent, frankly, with giving birth.

That’s all just background and avoids the more difficult question: How do these people do this? One thread of the tradition I discovered about Mary is that she was dedicated to the temple at a young age and lived and breathed the scriptures. For her, the real world is the world in which God acts, in which God and human beings are intimately connected at all times. That world is not evident to us as we go about our daily lives thinking about social conventions and jobs and families and salaries and so on. We’re just not thinking on that level.

For Abraham, there’s something similar. It’s not the scriptures because they haven’t been written in his time, but he’s spent his life in intimacy with God, which is unprecedented in the Bible. He knows there’s nothing else. Maybe his trust has grown, in part, out of fear; he’s seen Sodom and Gomorrah demolished, for instance. Or out of a sense that God has this enormous tenderness for him. It’s a very famous question: What was it like for him to receive this command, and how did he manage to do it, and what was he thinking? Was he thinking all along to himself, “I’m not going to really have to do this. It’ll be fine”? Or was he thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen”? All we have from scripture is his saying God will provide the sacrifice, so we know he trusts in God’s providence.

Both Abraham and Mary had a very deep inwardness and a sense of the priority of their relationships with God. In Abraham’s case, trust has been tested by experience. Mary’s trust is a little more mysterious. How did such a young woman get that trust? I don’t know. Except that the scriptures must seem like real life to her.

FK: There is a parallel between knowing God and knowing yourself or having that close bond with God and having that close bond with yourself, which goes back to this broader discussion of the intellectual life. In your book you talk about how modern mindfulness is about emptying the mind, whereas Aristotelian mindfulness is about having the mind full of high matters of concern. Religious mindfulness is about contemplating God or godly things. Modern mindfulness practices have basically taken over. Is there an inherent folly in believing we can, or even should, attempt to think about nothing?

ZH: I don’t know a lot about contemporary mindfulness. My inclination is to be less severe in my assessment because I think contemporary life is so toxic that people grasp at all kinds of things believing there’s got to be something better out there. The Buddhist-influenced mindfulness of today, of seeking to empty the mind, is one of those things. I don’t think you want an empty mind for its own sake. If you’re going to empty the mind, it’s because you want to empty the garbage and focus on something else.

Your mind should be full and fully alive. To think about God as creator of and guide to all there is, or to think in the Christian tradition about the incarnation—everything can be reflected on in a fruitful, healthy, good way. Doing that requires taking time to cultivate the right habits and attitudes. The ideal mind is full and joyful because of the richness and the goodness of what it’s looking at. We have to understand that people who are trying to escape this have not found the right thing. People grasp at what they can find.