Lost in Thought

Zena Hitz
Princeton University Press, 2020


Review by Derek van Zoonen, PhD Candidate Philosophy, University of Groningen

If the life of the mind receives any support at all these days, its defenders will typically point to the instrumental value of spending your days lost in thought. Reading Proust will make you a more empathetic and compassionate human being; unravelling the ultimate structure of the universe might at some point pave the way for new smartphone technologies; and even a philosophy degree – obviously the pinnacle of uselessness – can help you land a well-paid, high-status job at a flashy consultancy firm because it teaches you how to think, talk, and write decently.

In Lost in Thought. The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz – an American philosopher specialised in ancient philosophy, turned nun, turned tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland – pushes back against these instrumental defences of the life of the mind. Instead, she offers a much-needed, stimulating defence of the intrinsic value of intellectual activity. Her message is simple: ‘a rich life is a life rich in thought.’ Because human beings live worthwhile lives ‘from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results,’ intellectual activity – the inward project par excellence – is fundamental to human happiness: ‘Anyone seeking a good human life benefits from learning in all its breadth and depth.’

Lost in Thought is not easy to summarize. The book is a heady mix of many different genres – ranging from memoir and philosophical argument to biography, textual exegesis, and political manifesto – and Hitz does not attempt to supply one sweeping, easy-to-summarize, knock-down argument against those who are cynical about the life of the mind. Instead, she diagnoses such cynicism as ‘a matter of affect and a loss of imagination.’ Such affective and imaginative impoverishment cannot be solved, Hitz proposes, but should be dissolved by means of ‘attractive fantasies’: images, examples, and models which will ‘set us in a certain direction and (…) draw us on to something more,’ all along kindling – or rekindling – our imaginative powers and the visceral feeling that intellectual activity is uniquely valuable and fundamental to a life worth living.

Despite this approach, we can discern a main argumentative thread in Lost in Thought.  The thrust of the book is predicated on an ancient way of thinking about the structure of good human lives: like most Greek and Roman philosophers, but especially Aristotle, Hitz believes that a life worth living should ultimately be organized around intrinsic rather than instrumental pursuits. As the joke goes, there is something not quite right about a life in which someone buys a car to get to the job they need to pay for their car so they can get to their job. In sharp contrast, the ancients realized that the good should at some point come home to us: whatever its other features might be, a life worth living will culminate in something satisfying and leisurely which is intrinsically rather than instrumentally valuable because we pursue it purely for its own sake rather than its effects. So what we are looking for in our attempt to craft a good life, Hitz writes, is ‘a way of being that lies beyond work, a form of activity that is worthwhile for its own sake and that could constitute the culmination of a life.’

This is an obvious place for the life of the mind to enter the frame. Like Aristotle – who cheekily argued in his Protrepticus that intellectual activity is valuable precisely because it is useless – Hitz celebrates the ‘splendid uselessness’ of the life of the mind. Throughout the book, she repeatedly stresses that ‘[our] challenge is to distinguish means from ends, tools from goals.’ Although she refrains – deliberately but somewhat frustratingly – from pinning down an exact definition of the intellectual life or intellectual activity, she roughly seems to understand it as a way to cultivate and nurture our inner life and fully develop our ‘human core.’ This means that learning or thinking for its own sake is particularly well placed to disclose human dignity and to create the space for connection and communion between otherwise isolated human beings.

Most importantly, though, the life of the mind is valuable because it allows us to escape from ‘the world,’ here understood in the wake of Plato and Augustine as the locus of cut-throat competition and ruthless struggles for the zero-sum goods of wealth, prestige, and status. Upon closer scrutiny, it turns out that this opposition between the dangerous, suspicious world out there and the safe, reliable space of retreat in here runs right through the very centre of who we are: because we are divided creatures – neither animals nor angels – the fault line between these two worlds erupts in our very own psyches, Hitz suggests, where it manifests itself as the fundamental conflict between our desire for surfaces and our desire for depth. As she puts it:

‘The world’ that we sought initially to escape turns out to be in us, part of our inbuilt motivations – not outside us. To exercise the love of learning is to flee what is worst in us for the sake of the better, to reach for more in the face of what is not enough.

Put differently, you can remove yourself from the world but you cannot remove the world from yourself: our lower desires will always haunt us and if they cannot exert their influence directly they will try to express themselves by taking control of our higher desires for learning and understanding. Unexpectedly, then, the escape from the world becomes an escape from ourselves and the life of the mind turns out to be a form of asceticism: ‘a turning away from things within ourselves’ and ‘a cultivation of ourselves that involves uprooting and drying up parts of ourselves as much as it requires sunlight, soil, and seed.’

There is much to like about this. Despite its bad reputation, asceticism deserves to be rehabilitated as the indispensable tool for creating good and meaningful lives it really is. More interestingly, though, this picture of human nature as a battleground between higher and lower orientations fuels Hitz’ incisive analysis of the forces that corrupt the love of learning, such as our greed for wealth, our desire for social status, and our burning wish to make a practical difference. One of the book’s most interesting (yet most disturbing) insights can be found in Hitz’ extension of Plato’s tripartite psychology. Plato understood that our lower desires for wealth and social approval often compete with our higher desire for knowledge and understanding: one of his many strokes of genius, later adopted by Freud, is the insight that there is only a fixed amount of psychological energy we can spend. Hitz argues, however, that this Platonic model of the human mind is not quite labyrinthine enough: the lower, darker strata of our psyche do not just compete with our higher self, she argues, they tend to infect or hijack our higher desires and, to make things even worse, this often happens underneath the radar of our conscious awareness.

We tell ourselves that we solely care about the pursuit of truth, but we actually misuse our fancy degree and impressive publication record to feel better than others. We think that we take part in a collaborative Socratic enterprise – collectively searching for truth, goodness, and beauty – but Q&A sessions often turn into an arena, red in tooth and claw, where we display our intellectual dominance by humiliating a speaker. When this happens, intrinsic values are surreptitiously corrupted and replaced by extrinsic, fake values and it takes hard work to identify, let alone dispel these forms of self-deception – especially for those of us who find themselves in the context of contemporary academia where the inversion of intrinsic and extrinsic values is widespread and even encouraged.

Notice that, so far, we have been dealing with a purely negative description of the life of the mind, as Hitz herself is willing to admit. The inner life of intellectual activity is ‘defined by what it is not’: it is a place of escape, a running away from ‘competition and ranking, using and instrumentalizing’ and ‘poverty, drabness, suffering, confinement, boredom, and humiliation.’ Although Hitz focuses on our desire for wealth, status, and practical relevance as forms of intellectual self-deception and sources of corruption, it strikes me that this negative defence of the life of the mind gives us another, even more tragic form of self-deception. For if this is all there this is all there is to the life of the mind, cynics might actually be onto something with their claim that intellectual activity is nothing more than ‘a means of self-anaesthetisation,’ as Nietzsche describes it in The Genealogy of Morals, or when they hold that the intellectual’s retreat from and devaluation of the real world is just another psychological trick played by those who are ‘too inexperienced in everything a man who wants to be admirable and good and well thought of is supposed to be,’ as Callicles puts it in Plato’s Gorgias.

Although not as all-pervasive as Nietzsche and Callicles suggest, this narcissistic reflex – the attempt to close off all sources of pain, lack of control, inadequacy, and fragility by making yourself omnipotent and invulnerable in your private phantasy world of ideas and books – is a widespread form of intellectual self-deception. Plato, Proust, and Pessoa suffer from it – to mention just three examples. So does Richard Rorty: in a poignant interview with the Dutch documentary filmmaker Wim Kayzer, the famous American philosopher describes how, at some point during his youth, his private world became more important than the world beyond his head. He describes himself as a child who was ‘shy, withdrawn, ingrown, awkward, and constantly afraid of being beaten up in the schoolyard.’ Fortunately, he managed to escape from the schoolyard into his books which allowed him to create phantasies of ‘power, control, and omnipotence’: ‘Basically, I was looking for some way to get back at the schoolyard bullies by turning into some kind of intellectual and by acquiring some kind of intellectual power.’

You do not have to be a cynic about the life of the mind of the likes of Nietzsche or Callicles to feel that something goes wrong here: we want to be able to say that using your intellect as an instrument to numb pain, boredom, and depression or to cover up feelings of weakness, fragility, and inadequacy is not really, intrinsically valuable, even though Hitz seemingly equates intrinsic value with anything that has a positive effect on the intellectual, as long as they do not fall into the trap of abusing their intellect for material, social, or political success. There is something unattractive, something uncomfortable about the type of intellectual activity where it is difficult to tell whether there is something truly valuable going on or whether, as Iris Murdoch puts it in The Sovereignty of Good, ‘one is (…) merely erecting a barrier, special to own’s temperament, against one’s own personal fears.’

To be sure, the other half of Hitz’ story defines or describes the life of the mind as something more positive. Intellectual life, she argues, does not have a distinct and determined object – it has a direction. Unlike non-intellectual activities, intellectual pursuits are directed:

(…) towards the general past the specific, the universal beyond the particular, the reality behind the illusion, the beauty beneath the ugliness, the peace underneath violence – we seek the pattern in instance, the instance hidden by pattern.

This is a fairly elastic definition – if it even counts as such. The well-tempered intellect craves necessary and sufficient conditions it can use to carve the nature of human pursuits at its joints – putting intellectual activities in one box and non-intellectual activities in another – but Hitz is not concerned with assuaging the fears of well-tempered intellects. Fully in line with her diagnosis of our loss of faith in the life of the mind, she tries to show rather than tell: her wide-ranging collection of people living the life of the mind – Virgin Mary, the physicist Albert Einstein, the political activist Malcolm X, the philosopher and church father Saint Augustine, the bird watcher and poet John Baker, the chemist Primo Levi, the mystic Saint John of the Cross – must be meant to give us a feel for both the nature and the value of learning and thinking for its own sake. One wonders, though, whether some of these people would even self-identify as intellectuals: as the examples of St. Augustine and St. John of the Cross suggest, one way to reach the depths – rather than the surface – is to adopt a religious, spiritual, or even mystic way of life, which is typically organized around the insight that our intellect is a beautiful servant but a terrible master.

To be sure, Hitz is willing to treat ‘a nun’s singing the Psalms five times a day’ and John Baker’s bird-watching as instances of intellectual activity. She even seems to consider equanimity in the face of our mortality and the brute fact of one’s own impending death as an intellectual feat. This points to something else: part of Hitz’ project strikes me as ameliorative rather than descriptive, as contemporary philosophers call projects which aim to reveal the concepts we should be using. Her elastic, emphatically (and refreshingly) non-academic take on what makes for an intellectual way of life does not just capture how we do understand and evaluate the life of the mind, it tells us how we should understand and evaluate it. The best compliment I can give the author of this excellent book is to note that Lost is Thought itself counts as a perfect example of the elusive thing it tries to capture: splendidly useless yet intrinsically valuable thinking in action.