Zena Hitz published Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life to draw our attention back to the permanent things—to human activities that have intrinsic value for what they are, in and of themselves. For Hitz, the pursuit of beauty and learning are just such activities—intrinsic goods that do not derive their value as tools for reaching other ends.
As a child, Hitz’s love for reading and philosophy grew out of a sense of wonder and a deep curiosity about the world. Her brother taught her to read because of the sheer joy books provided. The two of them also shared a love for nature, and through their fascination with wild animals, they came to ask profound philosophical questions: How are human beings different from animals? What is the nature of a human being?
Hitz tells of a time she and her father sat on a rock in a mountain stream in the redwood forest, discussing if they were part of nature or separate from it.
“Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches or dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. The standard for success of an activity was enjoying oneself in fellowship with others.”
When she went to St. John’s college as an undergrad, she encountered other like-minded men and women who shared her love of the liberal arts, not as means to other ends, but as “a way of spending one’s time that had its worth in itself.” As a Great Books college, St. John’s centers around discussion of important ideas, with the understanding that the liberal arts can help us flourish.
Gradually she ascended through the academic ranks, first as a graduate student in philosophy, and then as a professional academic and teacher at a number of universities. But as her career progressed, her focus gradually shifted. Slowly, the life of the mind started to be associated with its utility, including social prestige, career advancement, and “making a difference” in the world. Hitz became an activist, using her intellectual life as a tool for various social justice causes. She lost touch with the love of liberal arts for their own sake.
“I had by this point grown accustomed to being rewarded for my intellectual work with money, status, and privileges. Along the way, my focus had shifted—without my noticing—to the outcomes of my work rather than the work itself. I had lost much of the ability to think freely and openly on a topic, concerned lest I lose my hard-won position in the academic social hierarchy. I worked busily on narrow research projects and did not allow myself the time to read and reflect broadly.”
Realizing that something was lacking, Hitz embarked on a spiritual journey that eventually culminated in living as a nun in a rustic community in the wilderness of eastern Ontario. By working in the kitchen, the handicrafts department, or the garden, she slowly returned to the things that matter most. She rediscovered her childhood sense of wonder, the initial impetus to her academic pursuits.
“In the simplified environment of the community, where no one made money and there was no social ladder to climb, the little human things pushed to the forefront of my awareness. Cleaning or organizing, a walk in the woods, pasting autumn leaves onto cards, even emptying the wastebasket—all became luminous. With an ordered schedule instead of an anxiety-driven slurry of work and entertainment, work could be peaceful and free time spontaneous.”
Through the healing routines and rhythms of the convent, Hitz was able to recover her love for the intellectual life. Eventually, the opportunity arose for her to leave the community and become a professor at her alma mater, St. John’s College. Now, as a tutor in the Great Books, Hitz tries to pass onto her students that intellectual activity is a way of enriching our inner life growing into deeper men and women.
For Hitz, the intellectual life is like a love affair, or like prayer. There are many economic and health benefits to a love relationship, yet if a man holds his wife’s hand merely to experience those benefits, then we rightly say this is perverse. Such perversity will likely rob him of the very benefits a love relationship might otherwise bring. Similarly, there are many neurological and personal benefits to prayer and worship, but if a woman worships God merely to boost her brain, then that is perverse and, ironically, she will miss the irreplaceable benefits of prayer. Similarly, there are many uses for the liberal arts, but if one approaches the intellectual life simply for its pragmatic value, then one is in danger of missing that which makes the liberal arts useful in the first place. Hitz hints at this paradox in the title of the last chapter of her book, “The Uses of Uselessness.”
Hitz’s message is a hard lesson for Americans to accept since Pragmatism is a deeply engrained cultural value for us. In 2013, I wrote an article for Touchstone magazine explaining how the worldly assumptions of Pragmatism have even infected the “worldview” discourse in many classical Christian schools. Paradoxically, it is only when the intellectual life is freed from practical utility (to become leisure, in the sense that Josef Pieper talked about it) that the benefits of the intellectual life can begin to emerge.
Pragmatism is not the only idol standing in the way of those who would pursue the intellectual life. The assumptions of postmodernism, consumerism, and hedonism also make it difficult to appreciate basic human goods that are not simply instruments for fulfilling personal desire. A basic human good is something that derives its value from itself, and that forms a constituent aspect of human flourishing. The most obvious example of a basic human good is virtue: virtue is its own reward, not something that derives its value as a means to other ends. While virtue is the highest human good, there are lesser goods that are constituents of human flourishing, such as health, creativity, attentiveness, sensitivity, etc. There are also various practices that are basic to human flourishing, such as singing, hiking, bird-watching, letter writing, playing chess, and watching ballet. A well-ordered reason can perceive that these conditions and activities are not mere proxies for the satisfaction of desire but are intrinsically beneficial given the type of creatures we are. However, these basic human goods are eclipsed in the current climate, where the pervasive assumption is that all reason can tell us is how more efficiently to satisfy personal desire.
Lost in Thought draws us back to the intellectual life as one such non-instrumental human good. The book offers numerous examples of men and women—academics, artists, scientists, museum curators, fishermen, and saints—who show that intellectual pursuits can lead to a rich inner life.
I’ll leave you with this thought from the book’s Prologue.
“Learning is a profession, as I found; it is a way of achieving money and status and of supporting the educational machinery already in place. But it begins in hiding: in the inward thoughts of children and adults, in the quiet life of bookworms, in the secret glances at the morning sky on the way to work, or the casual study of birds from the deck chair. The hidden life of learning is its core, what matters about it…. 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. There are other ways to nurture the inner life: playing music, or helping the weak and vulnerable, or spending time in nature or prayer—but learning is a crucial one.”
This article was originally published at Salvo Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.