The Serious Amateur
Essays Society Philosophy

The Serious Amateur

Pavlos Papadopoulos

A Review of Zena Hitz's Lost In Thought.

The book is available at the publisher or your preferred bookstore.

Zena Hitz is in love and would like you to be in love, too. Luckily, there is more than enough of her beloved to go around. Hitz is in love with learning, which like anything or anyone else is not really loved unless it is loved for its own sake—enjoyed, not merely used. In Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, exhorts her audience, primarily but not exclusively dispirited academics, to rekindle their “romance” with “learning for its own sake.”[1] Hitz’s exhortation has persuaded, that is, moved the souls and hearts of many, and rightly so. Hitz calls us—all of us—to fall in love with learning again. In so doing she both shows us the manifold forms that this love takes and gives a convincing account of why the intellectual life should be attractive to us.

“Our marriage to intellectual work has grown stale and lifeless.” What we need is not a “brilliant philosophical argument” or “thorough historical diagnosis” but “images and models,” “attractive fantasies” to “restore our lost spark.” Hitz does make philosophical arguments, but her book is primarily illustrative and rhetorical. (As one lover of Plato speaking of another, I must clarify: “rhetoric” here is not a term of derision!) The book brims with stories of many (historical and fictional, famous and obscure) who have loved learning, inviting her readers to become intellectual amateurs—that is, lovers. This is a worthy goal, because liberal learning is “the best human activity.”[2] And as her examples show, it is accessible—and fulfilling—not only to philosophers and experts, but to ordinary people.

For Hitz, “intellectual life has a direction without a determinate object”; the great benefit of “the love of learning”—the effect it has on the soul of the lover of learning—is to cause the lover to “flee what is worst in us for the sake of the better.” Devotion to intellectual goods is necessarily ethical, in the sense that it requires (as a condition and effect) a self-disciplining hierarchy among what one loves and pursues; for this reason, devoted learning is often accompanied by a revolution or conversion in the lover’s way of life. Nevertheless, for Hitz such liberating love need not be for a narrow range of “determinate objects”—the forms, or being, or nature, or God—that the classics tended to posit for the life of the mind. “The love of learning is general among human beings and pursued in a variety of ways and degrees.”[3]

The faithful learner may be a philosopher or mathematician—or a particularly determined amateur astronomer, or an unnoticed concierge in a luxury apartment building, or teenaged girl who loves reading, or an ugly old man who lives in tenthousandfold poverty and just keeps asking questions. Hitz apologizes for using so many examples of “high achievers,” but not all are wealthy or aristocratic or full of grace; the “depths” of learning are available to “anyone with a bit of time to think,” and reality may be plumbed in a great many ways.[4] While her examples testify to the nourishment that books give to the life of the mind, she is not fussy about what these amateurs, these true lovers of learning, loved—birds, flowers, stars, and chemicals are all worthy, if loved aright.

What do these various objects of inquiry have in common? Hitz is more concerned to lay them before us as examples than to provide a unifying theory. This pluralism is one of the virtues of the book: she does not yoke her case that we should fall in love with learning to a specific account of the way things are. Instead—and this itself may suggest an account of the world, but never mind that—she dialectically investigates our common condition and our vicarious experience of others’ intellectual lives to show how an immersive and inquiring experience of “reality” is necessary for a deep and satisfying life of the mind. Time and again, Hitz praises figures who “stay in touch with reality,” who look beyond the “surfaces” of “reality,” who recognize that “reality is not up to us,” who endure the “encounter with a given reality,” who have the strength to “fac[e] reality head on.”[5] She praises “the discipline of going eyeball to eyeball with reality” over “intellectual excellence” or intelligence alone, asserting that the former is (or at least is “closer to”) “our ultimate dignity” as human beings.[6] Hitz would seem to understand the “liberal” in “liberal education” as having both a negative and a positive component: negative, in that it frees us from delusion and distractions (including self-delusion), and positive, in that it frees us for the enjoyment of “reality.” Vice, video games, and mind-numbing work are all obstacles to the intellectual life, because, while they may require the use of the mind in some way, they distract us from encountering “reality.” Without attempting to elaborate, and foist upon her, a full account of a “realism” to which Hitz may or may not subscribe, let me suggest that her recognition and celebration of the generality and variety of the intellectual life rests upon an affirmation of the good of being and of beings (or Creation and its creatures). The legitimate diversity of intellectual lives is due to the wondrous capaciousness of reality. “Love,” the poets tell us, “calls us to the things of this world.” Real things, in their dazzling variety, all invite our loving inquiry, each in its own way.

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself;
myself it speaks and spells,
Whát I dó is me: for that I came. [7]

Despite its generality and flexibility, the intellectual life is rigorous in its demands. It must be, because we all have many suitors for our affections. Some would have us use learning for wealth or prestige. Hitz shows how such utilizations corrupt our love of learning. A rich interior life serves as a “refuge from the world,” but “the world”—as a term of art, a realm typically “governed by ambition, competition, and idle thrill seeking”—springs from the disordered soul.[8] We have met the world, and it is us! Worthy lovers of learning must “discipline” themselves against such temptations.[9] Hitz, who confesses she is “naturally drawn to achievement,”[10] excels in laying bare the Augustinian contrast between curiositas (in her rendering, love of spectacle) and studiositas (the virtue of seriousness). Augustine’s Confessions recounts the corruption (by sin) and redemption (by philosophic self-examination) of intellectual life, culminating in community with men and God. And in Hitz’s reading, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels show an alternate route, through the collaborative creation of art in friendship, in a world without God. With or without grace, the disciplined love of learning—reflecting, consciously or not, an Augustinian right ordering of loves—may overcome the “typical abuses of the intellect.”[11]

Hitz’s own Augustinian journey is instructive. Though she practically drank in the love of learning with her mother’s milk, this love was corrupted during her career in academia—first by her own ambition, then (after 9/11) by her desire to make her learning timelier and more useful. To this end, Hitz switched dissertation topics from “ancient views of self-knowledge” to “the more ‘relevant’ study of the ancient critiques of democracy,” and sought out ways to be close to and serve the poor.[12] The recovery of her love involved a conversion (to Catholic Christianity), an abandonment of academia (for the simplicity and poverty of a religious community), and finally a return—not, like Augustine, a return to her mother’s faith, but to the faithful love of learning of her alma mater, St. John’s College, where she now teaches, freed from many of the vices of academia and free to enjoy, and share with her students, inquiry into a great variety of objects worthy of our loving intellectual attention. The inquiry into the soul—the motives that drive us to and from learning—contained in and underlying this book is evidence Hitz never forgot her first dissertation topic.

But the most daunting obstacle to the love of learning is the concern for justice. Hitz’s final chapter, perhaps the most shocking for democratic readers in an election year rife with upheaval and pressing social demands, examines the “corruption of learning by politics and political goals” in cautionary tales from fiction, history, and film.[13] To put these concerns first is a corruption of our nature; we are ordered to something more than utility or even justice. We must leave intellectual life “to rest in its splendid uselessness,” or else it will “never bear its practical fruit.”[14] But I think Hitz would have us continue to water, and cultivate, and admire every tree of learning, even if we knew that some of them would never bear “practical fruit.”

Hitz may depart from the classics on the necessary elitism of philosophy and its narrow range of determinate objects, but her affirmation of the “splendid uselessness” of the intellectual life is profoundly classical. It appears in an unresolved question that she poses at the end of her first chapter. Should we see the primary effect of learning on the learner as “the grasp of the object of the desire to know,” or as “the connection with other human beings or with a transcendent being”?[15] Hitz wisely confesses her ignorance. “I admit that I am not able to settle this question to my satisfaction. Laying it before the reader will have to suffice. Learning matters for its own sake, because human beings are essentially knowers, or lovers, or both.”[16]

Here, Hitz is in good company. Neither Plato nor Aristotle forced an answer to this paradox in the human condition. Plato depicted the philosopher par excellence as the mysteriously gregarious Socrates—the philosopher who has knowledge of “erotics,” sometimes immersed in conversation, sometimes “lost in thought.”[17] Aristotle lay our dual nature before us in the Politics in his definition that man is by nature the political animal because he possesses reason—and again, in the Nicomachean Ethics, through his inquiry into the significance of friendship even, or especially, in the happiest and most self-sufficient life.

More recent and less modest thinkers have forced a resolution to the question unwisely. Hitz doesn’t mention Richard Rorty, but his reconception of the relation between philosophy and politics presents us with a stark, and potent, alternative to her vision. After a lifetime torn between the sublime pleasures of the intellectual life and the pressing demands of social justice, Rorty concluded that the “intellectual snobbery” that motivated him to pursue philosophy must be suppressed, lest it endanger the achievement of the democratic community of Dewey’s dreams, “a community in which everyone thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.”[18] Hitz, too, prizes solidarity and other forms of communion, but her priority on intellectual enjoyment would encourage a far more serious and humane political life than Rorty’s, whose ironist philosophy and reformist politics continues to cede ground to the passionate urgency cultivated by the theory-haunted revolutionaries on the “cultural left.”[19]

Hitz sketches an appealing middle way between the Rortyan corruption of philosophy for social justice, which exacerbates the worst tendencies of our democracy, and the elitist conception of liberal education championed by Leo Strauss and his disciples—or, for that matter, the irreducibly religious conception championed by many Catholic proponents of liberal education—which seems to have little chance of gaining traction in our modern, pluralistic regime. “Intellectual life,” she writes, “is a source of human dignity exactly because it is something beyond politics and social life.” The recovery of this moderating truth is good for those whose love of learning Hitz rekindles—and perhaps also, indirectly, for our country.

Hitz takes an even less direct approach to politics than another work I couldn’t help thinking of as I read Lost in Thought. That book, perhaps the best treatment of liberal education in the American context from the past century, is Eva Brann’s Paradoxes of Education in a Republic.[20] Like Hitz, Brann is a tutor at St. John’s College, an ardent and eloquent lover of liberal learning, who carefully distinguishes it from its utilitarian and politicized corruptions. But Brann’s book belongs to a different genre: hers is the kind of historical and philosophic inquiry that Hitz says we do not need today, whereas Lost in Thought is a rhetorical case for the loveliness of learning for its own sake. Brann’s has a relatively narrow focus and appeal; it is circumscribed by the unique conditions of liberal education in the modern republic that is America and prescribes practices for education at the college level. Hitz’s is written for a broad appeal, mainly because her primary concern is the intellectual life that can be manifested in individuals (which is not necessarily to say in isolation) rather than the educational endeavor of teachers and institutions. Each of these differences help explain why Hitz’s book is less directly concerned with the political dimension of the life of the mind than is Brann’s. They also call our attention to the changes in America in Hitz’s own lifetime.

Brann’s Paradoxes was published at the end of a decade-plus of tremendous social and political upheaval, such that she could describe the America of 1979 as “a gently heaving but essentially stable country,” and identify the “true motions” as “competent, modest improvements, thoughtful new departures, and discriminating returns. . . within the interstices of this great stabilized heap.”[21] Brann’s political conclusion was that liberal education rightly understood is indirectly a form of civic education, a cultivation of the habits that would make for good citizens in a modern republic—an appropriate defense of the liberal arts college in a country that was still recognizably liberal, which (as always) needed to be reminded of the good of liberal education for its own sake and for its incidental effects, a country whose institutions had been rattled but were not yet in a state of advanced decay.

Hitz’s Lost in Thought was published in the midst of one crisis (COVID-19) and at the inception of another (the Black Lives Matter protests which have metastasized into a mélange of demonstrations, riots, shame-storms, and statue-topplings). The timing was coincidental, but both crises reveal the immediate relevance of Hitz’s exhortation: not just because we all had the opportunity to discover the intellectual life during the lockdowns, but also because the goodness of learning for its own sake stands as a great contradiction to the abuses of scientific expertise and political activism that dominate the headlines. Hitz concludes with deft, insightful incisions into the decadent world of higher education (including an impressive takedown of that rearguard action on behalf of the liberal research university, Heterodox Academy-style “viewpoint diversity”). She wrote the book mindful of the “decay and collapse” of “our intellectual institutions,” resolved that even if they do collapse, “intellectual life itself” can—and must—be salvaged.[22] “The best human activity” may be nourished by institutions, but it is engaged in by individuals and groups of friends, who do not strictly need the university or research center to devote themselves to learning. Similarly, the political dimension of her book is focused, Socratically enough, on the conversion of the individual and the communion with other lovers of learning that it entails. It is fitting, then, that the book’s two “special patrons” are the Virgin Mary, one of Hitz’s great exemplars of the love of learning, and Martin de Porres, the patron saint of racial harmony.[23] It is fitting, too, that Hitz’s sole use of the titular phrase in her book is a reference to Plato’s Symposium, the moment when Socrates stops, “suddenly lost in thought” en route to a party.[24] The party is at the house of Agathon (whose name means “good”); and while Socrates has been invited, his hanger-on, Aristodemus (whose name means “the best of the people”), has not. The philosopher, who practices the political art or care for souls in and through his own speeches,[25] is entangled in politics in the ordinary sense, even if only by inspiring others to imitate his (or her) love of learning—even if only by drawing the attention of others away from worldly politics to the love of something that might transform their lives and their citizenship.

  1. Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 48. The book has been favorably reviewed in intellectual journals and the popular press alike. See the compilation of reviews on the author’s website, ↩︎

  2. Ibid., 48, 32. ↩︎

  3. Ibid., 94–95, 46. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., 204–205. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 70, 77, 86, 87, 116. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 100. ↩︎

  7. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” ↩︎

  8. Hitz, Lost in Thought8, 53. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., 85. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 204. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 161. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., 11. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 163. ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 190. ↩︎

  15. Ibid., 112. ↩︎

  16. Ibid. ↩︎

  17. Plato, Symposium 177d; Hitz, Lost in Thought, 56. ↩︎

  18. Richard Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 20. ↩︎

  19. See Richard Rorty, “A Cultural Left,” in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). ↩︎

  20. Eva T.H. Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). ↩︎

  21. Ibid., 4. ↩︎

  22. Hitz, Lost in Thought, 201. ↩︎

  23. Ibid., 210. ↩︎

  24. Ibid., 56. ↩︎

  25. Plato, Gorgias 521d. ↩︎

Featured Image: Photo of Kingfisher via Wikimedia Commons.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is assistant professor of humanities at Wyoming Catholic College.