Monday, July 20, 2015

The Lives of the Mind

If there’s a phrase used more than “open discourse” at the University of Chicago, it’s “the life of the mind.” Those words are splashed across admissions brochures and uttered reverently by prospective students. My Gmail inbox from the last four years contains over a thousand messages that use the phrase.

On the tongues of college administrators, of course, it’s total nonsense. It’s touted to make up for a perceived inferiority to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Those are the finishing schools, it’s implied, where students go because they’re hungry for prestige and money. UChicago, supposedly, is where you really learn—where, instead of buying casual sex, wilderness, and wood-paneled lounges, you’re in for the life of the mind.

This is a ghost, like almost all consolations are: UChicago is just as anti-intellectual as most of American college society. (Verbatim quote from a Harvard tour guide last week: “I’m going to stop talking about academics now, because I don’t want to bore you too much.”) But despite how empty it sounds on the South Side of Chicago, the phrase has made me think. Now that I’ve thought, I can say that have had two experiences in my life that I can honestly call the life of the mind.

First is renunciation for the sake of knowledge. This renunciation is partly material: a scholar stays up all night to edit his emendations to a papyrus. It is partly social: he knows that his parents, friends, and wife will never be interested in his work. In the tiny circle in which his scholarship is read, he will be subject to abuse from colleagues who think that he is misguided. And it is partly spiritual: he must give up all investment he has in the outcome of his work. He must really, really not care whether the fragmentary letter he’s looking at is a pi or a lambda, even if the lambda would prove that Jesus had a wife and a homosexual lover. He must do his work perfectly, and he must not heed the implications of its outcome. All this for the sake of the truth.

Or: as my most intelligent friends do, you can study math or chemistry, and really take a thwack at it. Working through an advanced-level problem set is one of the loneliest experiences there is: you need to sit in the basement of a library alone, traveling through strange realms of thought as you track down invisible mathematical beings. Any break for a sandwich or conversation puts you behind. And you must be willing to be told that you screwed up, and then burn your notebook. This is almost inhuman. But Athena, after all, is the goddess of war.

This kind of life is extremely rare, because it’s hard. Few people have the gumption for it. And what’s more, it’s ludicrously unpopular. Not least, the emotional and intellectual hardness that you need for a renunciation-based life of the mind is largely missing from universities. Even among masters students at the University of Chicago, it’s quickly apparent that it’s uncouth to go for the jugular when someone spouts nonsense. “Asia is female,” a Chicago professor announced to his class a few years ago. No one in the room had the backbone to call bullshit.

But war has enormous advantages. Intellectual hardness lets us struggle for something besides our own sordid selves. That’s no small thing. A mighty effort of the brain against emotions and delusions lets us live for the one value still standing in our spiritless century: the truth. At the least we can overcome incorrectness, which is a smelly, colorful, democratic, and creeping thing.

I once spent a day with a man who was willing to talk to me about Aztec historiography, Bellini, Maria Theresa, Swedish phonetics, VAT collection, and Ecclesiastes. No social graces interfered. Nor did any temptations to spin narratives and make sense of the confusing world. When I was wrong, he said so unflinchingly to my face, and vice versa. I have never felt freer in my life. Another time, a rabbi I know called me up out of the blue for the sole purpose of discussing historical-philosophical issues in Eusebius.

This attitude to conversation is sometimes called nerdiness, and even though the word’s in danger of being turned into an ornament of mass culture, I think it suits me just fine. But in any case, nerdiness is not the whole story.

 Pausanias said that there are two Aphrodites, corresponding to common and heavenly love. I think that there are also two Athenas. Common Athena is mere truth-love: this is what I have just described. But there is also Heavenly Athena. She demands libations of wine, not coffee, and her temple is filled with laughter and sweet melancholy. She is the goddess of the social life of the mind.

I’ve drunk from her cup on a few happy occasions. Once, I stayed up in a friend’s library until two in the morning, tipsy, as we ran through the entire Western tradition, which was literally at arm’s length. Another time, I sang Greek and Latin poetry at a two-hour-long lunch. Letters in this sort of situation become a language of their own; a way for two souls to commune with each other, briefly banishing the demons who rule the universe: chaos, suffering, and above all loneliness.


No one who has never seen the flash of literary recognition in a friend’s face, or has not been moved to tears of sadness or joy by a book, has known this life of the mind. It entails opening your soul to other human beings. Not just those who are alive now, but everyone whose thoughts we can read. Here’s Machiavelli:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them. (Letter XI to Francesco Vettoritrans. by Harvey Mansfield.)
Now, the two Athenas unfortunately crowd each other out. You can’t have rigor with wine, and especially not with friendship. Heavenly and earthly lives of the mind are both beautiful things, but to everything there is a season.

But good luck finding either one in a modern undergraduate college. Too well-rounded to apply themselves to severe study; too faint-spirited for a real symposium, most students usually wade in pools of half-learning, and rarely open their souls to each other. The University of Chicago flatters itself, but by and large, with some beautiful exceptions, I found it no better in this respect. My real education, in fact, happened every time I left the college: either in graduate seminars that I sidled my way into, or skipping class to go to Europe, which was a fraction as expensive as Chicago tuition and much more human. I thus learned at the feet of tremendously learned scholars, and at the side of friends who spent hours walking through churches and bookstores with me. I wish I’d learned to do that as a freshman, but I guess I’m still a freshman in my life.

1 comment:

ben g said...

it's a mistake to claim that the university of chicago is exactly as anti-intellectual any other american college. for where but the university of chicago could one meet a jonathan nathan?