THR Blog   /   April 16, 2020

Pruning the Mind During a Crisis

The great danger is to come to love what we know more than to love the pursuit of knowledge as an end in and of itself.

Margarita Mooney

( C.S. Lewis in the 1940s.)

“Learning in War-time,” a lecture delivered by C.S. Lewis at Oxford University in October 1939, just after England entered World War II, begins with a provocative—and timely—question: Why should anyone focus on the life of the mind when individual and societal survival is threatened? 

Lewis proposes that, in reality, “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…[therefore] if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” When he fought in World War I, Lewis had observed that soldiers in the trenches did not spend their time solely, or even mostly, thinking about or talking about the war. When faced with suffering, Lewis argued humans respond with wit and creative expression. We bury our dead with eloquent orations. In other words, a time of crisis is not the time to reduce the human person to its biological needs, as severely threatened as those needs may be. 

His challenge to anyone who values the life of the mind during a crisis is “if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.” Let’s face it: Even in times of crisis, we are going to spend part of our day thinking about something other than that crisis. Lewis is challenging us to be thoughtful about what it is we should think about when we choose not to focus on the crisis at hand.

Lewis urges us to avoid the either-or, dualistic thinking that pervades simplistic approaches to crises. Rather, he adjures us to care passionately for the suffering, expend our gifts to alleviate that suffering, and pursue activities that elevate the mind. Our material circumstances no doubt influence our thoughts, but they should not determine our consciousness. No time is more important than one of crisis to resist the dehumanization of a single-minded narrow focus on any one aspect of our lives to the detriment of all others.

In the overachieving academic circles in which I run, the hunt for prestige and productivity tend to lead to valuing a life only in terms of intellect, often overlooking the worth of personal, emotional, and sometimes spiritual aspects of life. Why? Because supposedly one day we will reach a point where we are famous enough or tenured and then we will no longer have to work so hard. But when that sought-after (perhaps elusive) professional stability arrives, many often discover that they have become habituated to what Josef Pieper called “total work,” in which our identity is so tied up with the product of our work that we forget to nurture our contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable sides. It may very well take a crisis to wake up to the reality of what our total humanity requires for flourishing.

Lewis’s words reaffirm that the scholarly life is a vocation. At the same time, perhaps what is hardest for me to accept is that my decades of dedication to scholarship have produced many products that are largely irrelevant. The products of the intellectual life—that PhD, that next article, that next book, that anticipated lecture—are interspersed with days, if not weeks and months, in which I feel like my mind has turned to mush, that the paper I’m working on looks like the scribble of a two-year-old, and that even if I finish what I’m doing no one will read it or care what I’ve said.

Our calling as scholars is not to this-worldly recognition or reward, but to “humble obedience to our vocation.” The challenge is to affirm that, as Lewis says, the pursuit of knowledge and beauty is a worthwhile pursuit and to accept that it is simply not up to us to determine the ultimate value of the pursuit. The greatest threat to a scholar is not the days and hours lost in wandering seemingly to no end. The great danger is to come to love what we know more than to love the pursuit of knowledge as an end in and of itself.

Lewis concludes his essay with a few lessons that anyone dedicated to the life of the mind— teacher, scholar, student, or parent—can apply in the current crisis.

First, do not think about the crisis all the time, especially not when you are setting yourself down to do your intellectual work. Distractions to the life of the mind abound. The crisis is a chance to learn to fight them. If sometimes you get overwhelmed by the excitement of the crisis and abandon your work, don’t be too hard on yourself. Try again tomorrow.

Second, fight the feeling that we don’t have enough time to finish a task, or that what we finish is no good. Perfectionism is a sin that plagues academics. Frustration at our lack of progress or excessive self-criticism quite simply eradicates the grace of the present moment. The crisis we face now is a loud reminder that we don’t decide when we die. We are not in control of time.

Finally, Lewis says, face the fear. Death and pain are all around us, and it is human to feel that pain. The gift of this moment is precisely that we are confronted with our fragility as humans. 

If we wish to pursue the life of the mind in a time of crisis, and do so in humility, giving gratitude for this particular vocation to dedicate our lives to education and scholarship, we should not feel we are abandoning our duty to help humanity but rather pruning the life of the mind.