Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Book Reviews

Lost Together

Hunting after the “hidden life of learning,” Zena Hitz defends learning for its own sake.

Matt Dinan

Lunia Czechowska (with Hand on the Right Cheek) (detail), 1918, by Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), private collection; photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

My mom’s favorite story about me goes like this: One day she was making dinner when she heard a persistent thumping coming from the basement. She hurried downstairs to find my younger brother shooting hockey tape balls at the wall, seeing how closely he could graze the top of my head without actually hitting me. My mom stood in the doorway watching this odd behavior for a couple of minutes, my brother developing the soft touch and wrist strength needed by good hockey players, while I sat reading in my beanbag chair, unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” my brother said, smiling, “we do this all the time.” I’ve had occasion since to reflect on the dangers of being the one reading in the beanbag chair as life’s hockey tape balls whiz by. Ever since Thales fell down that well, it seems the world has punished those who are prone to getting lost in thought.

Even outside the traditional educational system, learning retains a certain prestige. But as within much of that system, its relevance is tied to its capacity to build one’s “human capital”: It allows one to fill up a reserve of usefulness or capacity for some future, unspecified need. Apps like Masterclass offer a carnival of pay-to-learn offerings the sophists in ancient Athens would envy. “Learn from the best,” Masterclass promises, about a “wide variety” of “topics” like “business and leadership, photography, cooking, writing, acting, music, sports, and more”—a list of things one learns by doing. These classes are enlivened, we are assured, by the frisson of learning “creativity and leadership” from fashion and media guru Anna Wintour or “campaign strategy and messaging” from David Axelrod and Karl Rove together. (What joy!)

It is in this context that Zena Hitz’s lovely, untimely meditation, Lost in Thought, has appeared. Hunting after the “hidden life of learning,” Hitz defends learning for its own sake and takes aim polemically at the canard that such learning is “elitist” or draws necessary attention away from the properly activist bent of intellectual inquiry. In accessible, jargon-free prose, she identifies the human impulse to savor the natural objects of contemplation—“people, numbers, God, nature”—completely for their own sake, as a potential purpose for human life. We humans are sunk in everydayness, inhabiting a world that obscures from us our true objects of love, even as we pursue them. The intellectual life is threatened and corrupted by the world, but, properly pursued, it responds to the worst things we do to one another by exposing us to the best that humanity has to offer.

One of the pleasures of Lost in Thought is perusing the best-of-humanity dramatis personae Hitz assembles from heavy hitters like St. Augustine and Simone Weil to lesser-known examples like amateur astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; James Baker, the naturalist author of The Peregrine; and some of the people profiled in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Hitz herself is something like the protagonist of Lost in Thought, as it opens with a moving prologue in which she describes how, stuck in an unrewarding career as a university professor, she rekindles her love of learning by joining the religious community at Madonna House, a Catholic retreat in rural Ontario.

Early on, in an analysis of Mona Achache’s 2009 film The Hedgehog, Hitz provides a clear outline of the four characteristics of learning for its own sake, which structures the argument of the rest of the book. Learning for its own sake offers a “place” of retreat and reflection, the opportunity to withdraw from the world, a source of dignity, and authentic human communion. This is leisure in the fullest sense insofar as it follows no direction beyond that which emanates from its own activity. It is an activity of and for itself, and is in this way noble and free. To demonstrate what she means, Hitz provocatively draws on the inner lives of such determinedly political figures as Antonio Gramsci and Malcolm X, both of whom used time in prison to nurture contemplative interiority that seems totally separate from, if not at odds with, their substantive political commitments. Such withdrawal requires asceticism—though hopefully not a prison cell. We need to set aside worldly concerns in order to truly think. The life of the mind is, however, ascetic all the way down, not only at its point of access: Reality itself, beyond the flattery of pleasure and appearance, often “crushes our desires and hopes.”

When we manage contemplative beholding along these lines, we gain a certain nobility in the form of detachment from our baser desires. The shining through of this nobility is a reminder of the goodness of humanity and that human dignity is not exhausted by the possibilities on offer in the world. True leisure, decisively found in contemplation, allows for the expression of our best human capacities: We are most fully ourselves—perhaps even happy—when being at work in this way, rather than seeking to dissolve ourselves into entertainments or other distractions.

In the latter half of her book, Hitz contrasts this salutary presentation of the life of the mind with the corruptions of learning brought about by wealth, the pursuit of honor, the love of spectacle, and the attempt to make learning serve a given political agenda. The latter theme is perhaps the most controversial part of Hitz’s argument; for her, “the impact of the dedication of intellectual life to social justice is perverse.” Her reason for thinking this is, counterintuitively, egalitarian: Intellectuals overly concerned with politics bypass the universal community formed by the life of the mind, setting up de facto rulers who legislate the language and concepts appropriate to the pursuit of justice. In this way, “social justice becomes not only trivialized, but also emptied of content, used for purposes counter to its professed aims.” For Hitz, learning for its own sake is a way to transcend the factional strife endemic to social life, not only to escape the indignities of life in “the world” but to bring about “distilled wisdom articulated in words or manifested silently in action.” The oppressed can locate dignity for themselves and their best allies among those whose primary concerns lie outside politics. Justice requires the cultivation of interiority beyond the reach of politics; Hitz buttresses this insight by pointing out that the deeds of the most impressive crusaders for justice often emerge from deep, contemplative practice.

One profitable way to consider Hitz’s project is as an attempt to save learning—and perhaps liberal learning in particular—from the cheerful elitism of Allan Bloom. Indeed, Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind might be the correct lens for understanding what Lost in Thought resolutely is not: Where Bloom’s book is wistfully Romantic, unapologetically highbrow, and starkly Nietzschean, Hitz’s is surprisingly ascetic, fiercely egalitarian, and very Catholic. Lost in Thought is a book about how learning is for everyone and is found everywhere, and how, when left to its own devices, it is productive of the very egalitarian goals some of its fiercest critics espouse.

With its full cast of characters, the book provides the reader with a sense of intellectual community, but this sometimes feels in tension with its pessimistic account of the world and its emphasis on the loneliness of the life of the mind. This sense of intellectual life as a mostly solitary pursuit persists even as Hitz also draws out the “unusual or extraordinary kinds of human connection” born from shared intellectual pursuit. Part of this doubtless comes from Hitz’s low view of the social world, but if, as she suggests, the world is also found within us, to what extent might we benefit from inviting others into our hidden life? This possibility is evidently on Hitz’s mind, since twice she asks readers to consider the possibility, not fully pursued, of “contemplative friendship”:

If [learning] is for its own sake, we mean that we pursue it not because of external results but because of what it does for the learner. But should we understand this effect on the learner as the grasp of the object of the desire to know, taken all on its own? Or is the goal of learning for its own sake rather than connection with other human beings or with a transcendent being—in other words, the learner’s connection with a wider community of knowers beyond himself? I admit that I am not able to settle this question to my satisfaction. Laying it before the reader will have to suffice.

In the spirit of contemplative friendship, I wish to take Hitz up on this invitation.

Hitz cites Socrates’s contemplative trance on the way to Agathon’s house in the Symposium as an example of being lost in thought. But is not Socrates’s questioning of Agathon, or even his doomed attempt to encourage moderation in Alcibiades, his more characteristic action? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that “two going together” are better for acting and for thinking. Is there something about the life of the mind that is not only compatible with friendship but might also find its fullest expression in it? If becoming lost in thought is rare and good, perhaps better still is the encounter with another active intelligence, which at once substantiates the definitive goodness of thinking and perceiving while also providing us with access to a mind that is not our own. Hitz, for instance, cites Baker’s “adoption of what he sees as the bird’s love of killing” in, at least, neutral terms: Is being lost in this way an expression of intellectual virtue? Or is it—like the boy in the beanbag chair—an example of an instance in which a human who loves you might rightly raise questions? Contemplative friendship could be an image for learning itself: the experience of making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Maybe Hitz will give us a sequel in which this line of inquiry could perhaps be pursued. She could call it Lost Together.