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Two Cheers for Politics

The intellectual life and political life are distinct elements of the human good, but they mutually support one another.

I remember reading an interview during the Great Recession in which a medievalist employed at a public university admitted he’d have trouble explaining to taxpayers why they should continue to support his salary. How could he possibly convince his fellow Americans, who were struggling to keep their homes and put food on their tables, that they should pay even a fractional amount to support poorly attended seminars on obscure topics in medieval history?

Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought is roughly ten years too late to help that man, but it comes just in time for those of us living through COVID-19. Our institutions of higher education suffer from a series of pre-existing conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the economic ravages of the current pandemic. But, in truth, times of crisis merely bring to the fore questions that we should be able to answer at any time: Why should human beings commit time and resources to the intellectual life? Should societies support people who devote their lives to intellectual activity, and, if so, why? Can we justify using our leisure for contemplation when there always seem to be more pressing needs in the world?

As Nathaniel Peters points out in his Public Discourse review of the book, Hitz argues that those engaged in intellectual work should account for ourselves as follows: the intellectual life is a natural good and fulfills a general human need. As such, it is an inherently worthwhile activity, one available to every human being, and—like playing or loving or worshipping—a natural part of human flourishing. Those of us with a primary vocation to the intellectual life are its stewards, keeping it alive and helping other members of our community to enjoy it. We offer our work as “a form of loving service,” just as other kinds of work are a service to the community, and, thereby, make an essential contribution to the common good.

It’s clear from the book, which is partly confessional in nature, that Hitz has arrived at this answer through years of thoughtful reflection and personal struggle. Her own story, which she details in the Prologue, shapes her account of the intellectual life in the rest of the book. She argues that the intellectual life is a retreat or escape from “the world,” i.e., “the social and political world,” which “is governed by ambition, competition, and idle thrill seeking.” Her characterization of the world is devastating:

It is a marketplace where everything can be bought and sold. Even the most precious goods are reduced to products or to spectacles. Human beings are primarily vehicles to achieve the ends of others. Violence waits at the end of every downward spiral and lurks hidden behind every apparent success.

Participation in the world is the “human default,” but the intellectual life offers a way to withdraw “from the pressure to produce economic, social, or political outcomes.” In contrast to the evil and falsity of the world, “intellectual activity nurtures an inner life, a human core that is a refuge from suffering as much as it is a resource for reflection for its own sake.” When we turn toward the “hidden life of learning” we move in the direction of truth and reality, beauty and goodness. The intellectual life is therefore a “source of dignity” and “opens space for communion” and “genuine community” with others.

Hitz also argues for an egalitarian vision of the intellectual life. She eloquently discusses “the humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, the contemplative taxi driver,” and writes that “higher study is pointless if literature or philosophy or mathematics or the nature of nature has ultimately nothing to do with the human good of ordinary people or with the paths of understanding one might follow in daily life.” She suggests that we should “promote sufficient time for all workers to think, to savor, to reflect, to pursue wholesome pastimes—not simply a lucky and special few.”

Egalitarianism and the Intellectual Life

Hitz is right to argue that the intellectual life is in principle for everyone, but there’s a tension between her account of the intellectual life and her egalitarianism. She offers a beautiful and inspiring account of human beings from every walk of life participating in the love of learning. But she also argues that retreating into the intellectual life is a deviation from the norm. During one of her previous academic appointments, she writes, “it was a rare student who chose to break through the culture of anonymity to seek out person-to-person collaboration and guidance.”

Hitz argues the intellectual life is “open to anyone who has a desire for it,” but her own account of “the world” suggests that few people actually want it. It would be lovely if the average person would spend a couple hours a day engaged in intellectual activity, as she mentions in her discussion of A.E. Sertillanges, but the reality is that most of us spend our free time watching TV or staring at our smartphones. The intellectual life is democratic in the sense that every human being is by definition capable of it and flourishes in part through participation in it. Yet, it is consistently aristocratic in the sense that even a modest intellectual life requires a desire and capacity for excellence that most of us struggle to attain.

The tension is exacerbated by Hitz’s anti-political account of the intellectual life. Focusing on the tendency of the world to lead us astray, she mentions but does not adequately acknowledge the intellectual life’s dependence on political and economic life, and, in particular, the degree to which the democratization of intellectual life owes something to the democratic economic and political conditions of modernity. As Hitz notes, “pursuing the necessities of life can be utterly overwhelming,” and the capacity for intellectual activity can be all but eliminated by an “exploitative job.” We should recognize that a far smaller percentage of Americans are subject to such conditions relative to the past and even to other contemporary societies. It is in part our prosperity that allows us to imagine and implement a much more democratic vision of education. There is “moral ugliness” in Aristotle’s aristocratic account of the intellectual life insofar as it excludes whole groups of people because of their sex or socio-economic status, but we should also acknowledge that it is grounded in a reasonable estimate of the general human interest in virtue and the relative poverty of the societies he knew.

The Political Community and the Intellectual Life

Hitz wants to replace “the idea that real and serious learning is something practiced only by a small elite” with her claim that “the love of learning is general among human beings and pursued in a variety of ways and degrees.” This is a noble goal, but it is also a political one. Therefore, she needs a more positive assessment of political community and its relationship to the intellectual life. How do we convince our fellow citizens to support and join us—and we ask exactly that, whether we teach at private or public institutions—if we argue that what we do is a retreat or an escape from the community? How can we seek to democratize a traditionally and essentially aristocratic practice if we believe that the political world is fundamentally corrupt?

Just as Hitz is prepared to accept and celebrate more modest forms of the intellectual life, perhaps she could also consider the real value of imperfect political communities that hover between justice and injustice. Between an attitude of retreat and prophetic or heroic efforts to end suffering and injustice, there is the latitudinarian political life in which average people live together—sometimes cooperating, sometimes arguing and fighting, but always held together by a modicum of justice and common advantage. These are the concrete political communities that sometimes make the intellectual life possible, even if they do so inadequately.

A crucial step toward such a reevaluation is Hitz’s insight that “the world” is actually something we all have inside us. This means we’re not trying to escape a world “out there,” but, rather, the abyss of ignorance, vice, and nonbeing that we all experience within ourselves. It also means that retreat or escape is ultimately impossible, at least in this life; we carry the evil we’re trying to evade within us wherever we go. Moreover, just as each one of us is a mix of good and bad, so is the world. While it can and often does have the corrupting influence Hitz details, it’s also true that insofar as we do escape, we always do so in cooperation with others. This seems to necessitate a positive account of political life.

Hitz acknowledges that community is part of the complete human good; she writes, for instance, that “the solitary excellence of the individual . . . does feel somehow incomplete.” She also argues that the intellectual life is the basis of true community, offering, for example, a wonderful discussion of how Dorothy Day’s intellectual life shaped her “desire for communion with all human beings.” Thus, Hitz sees that community is an essential human good that is tied to the intellectual life. But she also rejects the politics that makes community possible when she pits the intellectual life against the active life. Rather than characterizing the intellectual life as a retreat or an escape from politics, perhaps it would be better to say that the intellectual life is one of political life’s crowning achievements, as well as a source of any community’s vitality. Political life has its own end, the common good, but it also serves and, in turn, is leavened by the intellectual life. Truth and politics may often be at odds with one another in a fallen world, but they are not so in principle.

We can learn this from St. Augustine, an important interlocutor for Hitz. Rather than beginning from the broken world in which we find ourselves, St. Augustine begins from an account of our final end, which must satisfy both the intellectual and the political elements of our nature. We are destined for community in truth rather than one at the expense of the other. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Augustine, unlike the pagans, does not feel compelled to choose between the intellectual and the active life. The point is to live one’s vocation well and thereby contribute to the common good that includes both. That, it seems to me, is not only consistent with, but more supportive of Hitz’s argument that professional intellectuals provide an essential service to the community. Rather than contrasting the virtues of the intellectual life with the vices of political life, it shows how both are essential parts of the complete human good, working together toward that same end.

To illustrate this point, consider Hitz’s claim that defenses of liberal education that “justify intellectual activity in terms of its economic and political benefits” are “false and destructively so.” This is an important correction aimed at those who reduce the purpose of liberal education to such ends. But perhaps Hitz overstates the case in the other direction, unduly separating the intellectual life from these other parts of human existence. Would it not be truer to say that liberal education is an end in itself that must be pursued for its own sake, but that it also has other potential benefits indirectly? This seems compatible with Hitz’s observation that “for intellectual life to deliver the human benefits it provides, it must be in fact withdrawn from considerations of economic benefit or of social and political efficacy.” These other benefits are peripheral to liberal education and cannot be made its central focus without destroying it, but they are nevertheless benefits that potentially accrue from its practice.

The epigraph of Hitz’s first chapter comes from Plato’s Republic, where Socrates says the philosopher is quite happy if he can shelter himself from the madness of the city and “somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content.” The immediate sequel is also essential. Adeimantus remarks, “he would leave having accomplished not the least of things,” to which Socrates responds, “But not the greatest either . . . if he didn’t chance upon a suitable regime. For in a suitable one he himself will grow more and save the common things along with the private.” Plato did not expect to find such a regime, but he recognized that political life was in principle an essential component of the good life. Zena Hitz has a written a wonderful and thoughtful book on the intellectual life, one that will benefit anyone who wants to think about why it matters. But she too readily identifies political life with its corruptions, rather than with the natural good toward which it is ordered. As a result, she doesn’t properly describe the mutually supportive relationship between intellectual and political activity or the essential role that political life plays in our pursuit of the complete human good. Moreover, while she argues beautifully for an egalitarian vision of the intellectual life, her book doesn’t convey enough appreciation for the virtues of the democratic economic and political world that makes participation in the intellectual life possible for so many human beings.

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