Reflections on the Intellectual Life by Irina S.

In one of my classes, we are reading a variety of books on the love of learning. I asked Irina (a nom de plume) if she’d be willing to share a few reflections on Zena Hitz’s recent book, Lost in Thought, given that Irina was reading Dorothy Day, who features prominently at the end of Hitz’s book. In what follows, I am happy to share most of Irina’s letter with you.

Dear Professor,

I apologize for my anticipated absence at the upcoming class. […] Our gatherings are consistently spaces in time where – albeit briefly – room is created for a somewhat different way of being; they are a breath of fresh air.

In an effort to contribute to the next class despite my absence, I attempted to synthesize my notes on the second two chapters in Hitz’s book. I am of two minds about her book.  On the one hand, I enjoy the personalities that she highlights, and benefit from my reflections on each individual section. On the other hand, I often lose the train of her argument in the book, and find myself wondering what, precisely, she is attempting to argue.

I suspect, however, that responsibility for the latter conundrum rests with my poor addled brain, and is not due to any particular defect in Hitz’s writing. In any event, the smaller, more focused sub-sections of her overarching thesis are very compelling. I have enjoyed reading the book.

To focus my thoughts and perhaps contribute something of modest value to the upcoming class, I outlined what seem to be the main points in Hitz’s argument, and documented some of the observations that occurred to me while reading. I hope it is not too cumbersome to proceed now to sharing my scribblings on those topics with you here.

1) End, Not a Means

For Hitz, an intellectual life is an end in itself, rather than a means. Her book is replete with examples of how an intellectual life can be perverted, used for inappropriate reasons, made less than what it can be. Perhaps the most obvious example includes the obtainment of a university education for the primary purpose of securing a job. Hitz does not deemthis goal to be meritless, but she stresses that education for the sake of job placement is a poor second to the lofty heights that can be achieved by education for its own sake.

This, in turn, reminds me of the origins of education in the West. Recent reading causes me to think that prior to the mid-1800s – roughly around the time of the Industrial Revolution – a classical education focused on the cultivation of the human being as a morally good actor in the world. That focus gradually shifted over time, with education instead fixing its goals on worldly ideals (obtaining employment, advancing the “progress” of civilization, and – more recently – “making a difference”). I undoubtedly make gross generalizations here, but the main point is that Hitz seems to advocate for an intellectual existence as being a stand-alone moral good which does not need the achievement of any additional outcomes for the bestowal of merit.

2) Detachment from Wealth; Asceticism Combined with Discipline

Hitz appears to believe that an intellectual life is most likely to occur in a society that has a sufficient economic base to allow for the possibility of leisure (in the Greek sense of the word). Wealth alone, however, does not necessitate the emergence of an intellectual life. Rather, the presence of wealth, paradoxically combined with what seems to be almost a fear of that wealth (and its frequent companion, ambition), creates the necessary space and tension for intellectual pursuits to arise: that is, a wealthy society that is disciplined, that fears its own success, and that recognizes the ephemerality of material wealth, is a precursor to living in an intellectual culture.

This calls to mind Hitz’s reference to King David in a previous chapter. A rich man during his time, King David nevertheless proclaimed himself to be poor. Hitz observed that King David’s detachment from material wealth, in the sense propounded by St. John of the Cross, is what allowed him to be poor while wealthy; having a king’s wealth was a non-issue for him in terms of how he lived his life.

A detachment from material wealth, in turn, leads to a form of ascetic existence, both individually and across the general culture. Recognition that “this too shall pass” leads to an acknowledgment that worldly riches are temporal, and must be sacrificed so as to make advances in the realms that lay beyond physical reach.

In order to practice asceticism, the virtue of seriousness must be cultivated, accompanied with a rigorous exercise of discipline. Here, I am reminded of the Catholic phrase ora et labora (pray and labor), which in turn causes me to think of the title of a book I recently obtained: Holy Work: Towards a Benedictine Theology of Manual Labor, by Dom Rembert Sorg, OSB. I learned of this book through Dorothy Day’s autobiography, as she seemed to have been influenced by it. The general idea is simple, with profound consequences: manual labor grounds us in the material world, bringing us into tangible contact with the real, thereby informing our minds and our inquiry, which soars upward in search of questions and answers. Much like the roots of a tree anchor it into the ground, physical labor roots a person in place, while his or her mind – like the tree’s branches – stretches heavenward, in search of the light of Truth. (I am reminded of the quote by Hölderlin: “Man kann auch in die Höhe fallen, so wie in die Tiefe. [One can also fall into the heights, as well as into the depths.]” Or, to quote Hitz in her reference to Aristophanes’ play The Clouds: “Like Strepsiades, we have lost contact with our rustic roots — our roots in simple, natural goods, in hard work and embodied practical excellence, and in the basic pleasures.” Or, perhaps a bit further afield, Dorothy Day: “Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity . . .”)

While reflecting on these combined virtues (detachment from wealth, asceticism developed through manual labor, and seriousness accompanied by discipline), it is distressing to diagnose the world around us as one that lacks all these qualities. Our surrounding culture emphasizes the persistent acquisition of more, whether it be new possessions, the right friends, or the right experiences, so as to broadcast our sophistication and savvy worldliness. (How many times have I heard someone say they don’t want an object as a gift, but an “experience”? Our tourism sector is based on this drivel:visit a farm for “agritourism,” purchase the sensation of communing with the land, buy your way back to what your ancestors did to survive from one day to the next). Our wealth defines us and provides us our identities. We are not detached.

Manual labor does still exist in some sectors of the larger culture, but it grows harder and harder to find. Traditional sectors of manual labor have been outsourced to machines, rendering humans less and less relevant to ancestral crafts (farming immediately comes to mind as an example). Paradoxically, the corners where craft manual labor still persists are often those vilified by our country’s intellectuals. God-fearing, gun-toting, redneck Trump lovers are still out there gardening, farming, hunting, fishing, wood-working, quilting, car-refurbing, horse-driving, and what have you, while those of us with degrees advance ever upward in the rarified thought-based economy, creating marketing and development strategies, fomenting desires, reporting news on markets, development strategies, and fomented desires, etc. One gets the sense that the world around us grows increasingly out of touch with the real.

The trouble, of course, is that manual labor alone does not breed asceticism. The belt-tightening values of grandparents who lived through the Depression are replaced by a new generation that perhaps remembers “the old ways,” but declines to practice them. While that observation applies only to one particular demographic in the country, I nevertheless suspect, though I could be mistaken, that this applies across the board to all economic classes, made so in large part by the way in which the economy is currently structured (lack of access to land, an economy built on disposable products, which in turn breeds a disposable mindset).

As Hitz puts it while discussing the wildly non-ascetic qualities on display today: “Intellectual life is artisanal toast for the mind.” [. . .] The pastiche of intelligence sold by coffee shops in the city [Chicago] was unrelenting, a cultivated atmosphere of sophistication, grounded in nothing beyond marketing an illusion to a demographic who was delighted to purchase that mirage for five dollars per cup of coffee. Walk through downtown Chicago, and you see a whole world of people performing for one another, from the suits they wear, to the coffee they drink, to the self-important stride they adopt as they walk briskly to skyscraper elevators that will whisk them up to their offices. (I am perhaps too harsh. Many of these people are kind, doing the best they can in the hustle of the world, and the coffee does taste quite good . . . and yet the collective mania that the atmosphere produces . . .)

As for the qualities of seriousness and discipline, one need not look far to see that those virtues flee from our collective gaze. In support of this statement, I turn your attention to the bizarre sight of a cosplay fashion show at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Japanese Festival. A festival originally founded to honor the noble traditions of an ancient culture, hosted by a venerable organization dedicated to the advancement of botanical knowledge, now panders to the inane fantasies of grown adults who seem to think their identities might be better expressed by flouncing around in bizarre outfits. (I know – judge not, that ye be not judged. But mustn’t one draw a line somewhere?) Stateliness is a dwindling quality; childishness is now acceptable in adults. Meanwhile, the real world continues to exist, and it happens to contain nation-states with nuclear armaments that hate the country where we live. Nero fiddled in his cosplay outfit while Rome burned.

As a bookend to this section, Hitz notes that while wealth is necessary for the leisure that can produce an intellectual life, the allure of social ambition can produce a startling disdain for one’s origins, and the inculcation of a particular snobbishness, which draws one further afield from an intellectual life. Advanced degrees become stepping-stones to flee one’s confines. Once the degrees have been obtained, the graduate turns back around to judge that which is now seen as provincial, outmoded, unenlightened, while boldly proceeding forward as the new standard-bearer for illuminated thought. I suspect this occurs both consciously and unconsciously, both with and without preconceived intent. 


Hitz also posits that a certain snobbishness emerges from social ambition – the desire to believe in the universality of learning and intellectuality, while enjoying access as one of the elite few who truly understand how to tap in to such ways of living. We simply cannot help but wanting to feel special.

3) Truth v. Spectacle

Hitz proposes that the intellectual life is characterized by a pursuit of Truth, rather than by a pursuit of spectacle. She suggests that discerning between the two is a matter of orientation – that which moves ever toward the real, versus that which skitters over the surface of life, hastily moving from one object to the next. Vague terms, but I agree there is something here to be considered.

In support of her position, Hitz lays out a wonderful discussion on the concept of curiositas, or, using a description that I think is spot-on: “the lust of the eyes”. What a phrase! And we all know what that feels like, even if we do not wish to admit it. Allow me to share a term in Spanish that perfectly encapsulates this concept: el morbo

The official Spanish-language dictionary of Spain states as follows:


  1. m. enfermedad (alteración de un órgano o de todo el organismo)
    [sickness (alteration of an organ or of the entire organism)]
  1. m. Interés malsano por personas o cosas
    [unhealthy interest in persons or things]
  1. m. Atracción hacia acontecimientos desagradables.
    [an attraction toward disagreeable events]

Allow me to direct your attention to definition #2, and further refine terms. Malsano, which I have translated as unhealthy, is defined as follows:


  1. adj. Dañoso a la salud
    [harmful to health]
  1. adj. Moralmente dañoso
    [morally harmful]
  1. adj. p. us. enfermizo (que tiene poca salud)
    [sickly (with little health)]

Morbo thus encapsulates an unhealthy (morally harmful) interest in persons or things. It recognizes a certain grasping quality in one’s sight, an inappropriate desire to see things that are damaging to one’s moral interiority. Hitz’s examination of Augustine’s curiositas invokes the same sensation that I feel when hearing the word morbo.

And we see it on display in the gleeful nature with which Alypius’s companions entice him to watch human death matches in the gladiator ring. We see the delight they take in corrupting his innocence, debasing both him and themselves. 

Not all spectacle, however, needs to rise to the level of encouraging an acquaintance to watch human slaughter. The desire to see and be seen, the performative aspect of spectacle – no matter how small the audience – fulfills the same urge. […]

Spectacle tends to be self-indulgent; Truth does not. By way of example, Augustine laments his performative tears at the passing of a friend. Yet here I think Augustine may be a bit harsh on himself; I wonder if the performative nature of tears could simply be a natural part of the grieving process (with the potential self-disgust it produces perhaps an aid toward moving forward in mourning). I call to mind a statement made by C.S. Lewis, writing in A Grief Observed, in notes that he published under a separate name regarding the grieving and spiritual crisis he underwent following the death of his wife:

“On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest. But the bath of self-pity, the wallow, the loathsome sticky-sweet pleasure of indulging in it – that disgusts me. And even while I’m doing it I know it leads me to misrepresent H. herself. Give that mood its head and in a few minutes I shall have substituted for the real woman a mere doll to be blubbered over. Thank God the memory of her is still too strong (will it always be too strong?) to let me get away with it.”

All the same, whether a natural part of grieving or not, “maudlin tears” certainly do meet the criteria for being self-indulgent, generative of spectacle, even if it is for an audience of one.

Hitz notes that “[t]here is still a mystery in the role of the crowd, the gang, the band of brothers without which . . . the means to ends, the surfaces of things, have no hold on us. It is as if our love of acting for its own sake is tied up with another’s love of a spectacle.” And so it is. The role of the crowd, even a small crowd, exercises a peculiar control over our imagination. Hence, Augustine’s participation in the theft of inedible, unwanted pears to satisfy the thrill-seeking urges of his friends. 


Truth, by comparison, needs no such self-serving environment in which to flourish; indeed, self-interest appears to move us further from, rather than closer to, Truth. While in recent conversation with a Dominican Sister, she observed that, “a friend is someone who draws us closer to God.” By this definition, Augustine and his cohorts were decidedly the antithesis of being friends to Alypius, serving their own wicked interests in watching their friend fall, rather than protecting his irreplaceable innocence.

Hitz references Augustine’s contrast between the person who is curiosus with the person who is studiosus, arguing that Truth is more closely approached by exercising the virtue of being studiosus. She translates this term to mean “seriousness”, and it is well-worth considering what the implications of this virtue mean. 

In her discussion of seriousness, Hitz states that,

“Augustine describes the ultimate desire of human beings as not just for truth, nor for any old pleasure, but for pleasure in the truth. Since God is truth, in God lies our happiness. We all desire happiness, and we all know that we desire it; but we do not all at bottom pursue joy in the truth, so we do not all pursue God.”

Along similar lines, priest Bruno Scott James states in his devotional, Seeking God:

“Nothing muddles like muddled thinking except perhaps not thinking at all! It is quite vital that we should get into our heads and work into our lives that we are made for God and can find no rest until we find our rest in him. Only in this way lies happiness, only in this way lies sanity.”

If Augustine’s argument, and if Hitz’s and James’s assertions, are accepted as true, then that for which humans inherently long – pleasure in the truth – means we must attempt to come ever closer to God. But how does one pursue the Almighty? Under the best of circumstances, worldly temptations seek to draw us astray, and rather than pursue Truth, we become distracted, setting off in the opposition direction. (In such cases, one wonders if the Almighty must then pursue us; I recall the poem The Hound of Heaven, by Francis Thompson, discussed in Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness).

Under the worst of circumstances, however, “the pain of truth also explains why we might lose our joy in the truth.” While Truth may set you free, that does not mean it comes without a cost. The Book of Job stands as a testament to that principle. Also coming to mind is a recent account that I read of Eastern Christianity under the Soviet Empire. One story collected by the author recounts how soldiers of one country’s communist regime herded priests out into the forest, lining them up in a row. The commander calmly asked the first priest if God existed; the priest, without hesitation, looked back and calmly replied, “He exists.” The commander executed the priest at point-blank range. Going down the line, the commander asked the same question of every priest; every priest responded in the affirmative; every priest was executed. The one who carried the memory of these events was a young soldier who was present that day, and who converted to Christianity years later.

The Truth may be, at bottom, all that there is, but that does not mean it comes cheap. In any event, to quote a line from Hitz’s book that I love: We end our striving either at God or at the abyss where God’s absence is. That seems to sum up the entire choice before us: we either meet God, or we meet God’s absence. Both options are terrifying.

Somewhat subsumed in her discussion, Hitz discusses the concept of acedia, commonly translated as “sloth” in today’s parlance. I think the connection that she’s trying to make here is that even when a person affirmatively chooses to pursue a life dedicated toward coming closer to God, stumbling blocks remain beyond those of worldly temptations, and other typical sinful behavior. Acedia is one such stumbling block, not only for its slothful quality, but – instead – also for its potential converse, hyperactivity. The behavior seems to be rooted in a person’s response to a sense of the inner doldrums that can weigh heavily, and make things seems gray and drab. One example discussing acedia that I recall from Polish author Czesław Miłosz, in his book Proud to be a Mammal, discusses how a monk at noon day, in utter despair, would flee his cave and seek refuge in the cave of another monk so as to have human companionship, thereby succumbing to acedia. (To be honest, though, I still struggle with understanding this term.)

Hitz then discusses the question of redemption through art. I have limited comments on this section, because no matter how much Art points to a universal Truth, things start to become circular for me in this department. A universal Truth only seems possible if something precedes the universal Truth, so as to bestow it with the condition of universality. I wish I had something insightful to offer here, but all I can really say is, Art is Necessary. And leave it at that.

4) Service-Driven v. Agenda-Driven

The book closes with a chapter examining the corrupting effect of politics and political goals on the intellectual life. The argument here seems to be that, generally speaking, once an agenda is injected into the intellectual life, the process of learning becomes perverted, turned away from honest inquiry, and transformed into an ends-and-means endeavor. Truth is no longer sought for its own sake, but instead for the accomplishment of predetermined objectives. Worse yet, once an agenda is introduced into the inquiry, a hierarchy of language begins to form, including those who accept its development, and excluding those who do not, thereby reproducing systems of thought that push Truth further into the distance. This phenomenon manifests on both ends of the political spectrum, with equally damaging results wherever it occurs.

To help parse out when action is, and is not, in the service of Truth, Hitz distinguishes between Service-Driven Action and Agenda-Driven Action. 

Resting somewhere in the liminal space between those two categories, is Simone Weil. Gripped by a compulsive need to step beyond the strictures of her own existence, Weil engages in numerous bungled attempts to live in solidarity with those less economically fortunate than herself. When you read about Weil’s travails (a stint as a hapless farmhand, a clumsy factory worker, a farce of a guerrilla fighter in the Spanish Civil War), there is a sense that some hybrid of a personal/political agenda compels her forward; a need to prove something, to someone, even if that someone is just herself. As she bumbles her way forward, the truth of her condition in the world seems to travel further away from her own line of vision; she refuses to acknowledge her own limitations, even at the expense of others.  Hitz states: “this is a woman who does not know what she is.” (Or, to refer to another passage in the book, Weil fails the command of the Oracle of Delphi to “Know thyself!”.) 

And yet – there is more than just a personal/political agenda animating Weil’s quest. Weil recognizes that the world as it currently stands divides people from one another. Invisible walls are erected, so that it becomes impossible for us to conceive of how other people around us live; we suffer from inhibited imaginations. One gets the sense that Weil’s desperate flailings are born, in no small part, from a need to escape the invisible constraints of her own circumstances, so as to come more fully to know the world as it is in reality. Her actions swerve back and forth from the realm of being personally driven to the realm of tumultuous spiritual growth and acquired humility that fosters a desire to enter more fully into the service of those around her. Her progression, however, is not linear, and self-interest frequently seems to give way to selflessness in the same breath. 

I do not doubt, however, that at bottom, Weil was motivated by a search for the Truth, and – upon encountering the painful, stark inequalities in the world – felt herself needing to continue lurching forward in her quest, seeking to understand how this world is put together, dismayed at the ever-present manifestation of injustice, and desiring to contribute to leveling the playing field in her lifetime. (I am reminded of a scene in Werner Herzog’s memoir, A Guide for the Perplexed, where he discusses how one of his actors responded to the introduction of an autopsy table to the set: “We found an old-fashioned, genuine autopsy table made of solid marble for the death scene. Bruno was so fascinated with death and this table that once shooting was over he desperately wanted to have it. ‘The name of this table is Justice,’ he would say in a strange tone of voice. ‘This is where the rich and the poor end up.’”)


So, too, does Hitz reference Dorothy Day’s seriousness toward service. Day had experienced moments of utter darkness, and used reading “to escape from a feeling of profound depression, in which she is ‘overwhelmed by the terror and the blackness of both life and death.’” Day apprehended the life and death circumstances facing the poor and the dispossessed, and did not turn away from the horror of poverty. Instead, without sentimentality, and with little to gain for herself other than the Kingdom of God, she committed herself to addressing the needs of the poor, seeking to meet the reality of life toe-to-toe. In worldly terms, she gained little; in otherworldly terms, she inherited the Earth. 

5) Miscellaneous

A note on a few miscellaneous points, that I am not certain where to locate in this letter/essay. 

  • Hitz states:

“Saint John indicates that it is extremely painful to perceive the emptiness of one’s mind, the bottomless indeterminacy in one’s capacity to receive, remember, and understand. The incentive to fill oneself with ‘trifles’ is obvious. He argues on the contrary that the magnitude of the pain of inner emptiness measures the joy we are capable of when filled by God.”

I love this quote, and the idea that the depth of a person’s emptiness and pain is the inverse of the person’s boundless, limitless, transcendent capacity for joy if allowed to be filled by God. I don’t know how to weave that into anything above, but it is a beautiful thought.

  • The communal living model proposed by Socrates, in an effort to achieve justice on Earth, reminds me of how the Shakers organized themselves.
  • “There is but a dim light in men; let them walk, let them walk, lest darkness overtake them.” This is a beautiful quote from Augustine.
  • On page 128, Hitz uses the word “aporetic,” which I looked up. It means “characterized by an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction,” I suppose much like a Buddhist koan. This is a great word. 
  • Hitz also uses the term “quixotic,” which means “exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.” I’ve heard this word before, but only just now connected it to its apparent namesake – Don Quixote. Lightbulb moment.
  • Hitz’s description of The Clouds is exquisite. “When Strepsiades arrives at the Thinkatorium, he finds pale, half-starved scholars measuring the distance that fleas jump . . . They investigate the question of whether mosquitoes buzz through their mouth or through their read end . . . Socrates himself is suspended in a basket in order to contemplate the sun, ‘having mixed his thinking with the empty air.’” Brilliant.

6) Concluding Thoughts

I probably have written enough. If you have made it this far, you are very kind. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts about Hitz’s book; I look forward to seeing everyone at the next class.

1 Comment

  1. It’s an awesome and mysterious gift to ask Irina a simple question–I expected a couple short paragraphs–and receive a ten-page letter of such breadth and depth! Irina has occasionally contemplated graduate school; I’d simply encourage her, skip it, and keep writing from your expansive heart/mind.

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