What does it mean to be an intellectual? The word comes from the Latin word for understanding, intellego. Lego has dense, multifaceted meanings: to choose, select, collect, and gather. It also means to read. When inter gets added, which means “between,” we get a compound meaning, something like “to read between the lines.” Intellego translates the Greek word katanoesis, which can be translated as “knowing across.” If we put these clues together, we come up with a basic working definition of an intellectual. He is someone who can see the differences between things (choosing) and the connections between them (collecting). He attends to reality as it presents itself, but penetrates deeper as well. An intellectual can read not just words and books, but reality and the world. He knows the stories things tell or the ideas they express. In the case of the Christian intellectual, he knows how reality directs us towards the logos, which is the person of Christ.
The goal of the intellectual life, therefore, is to see things as they are, in themselves and together. The fullest kind of knowing knows across as well as about, among as well as in. The same applies to reading, the lectio in the word “intellectual.” We are always reading across words; we read individual words in relation to the others. Discerning an argument or message requires synthesis, a “knowing across.”
To a great degree, this putting together and knowing across come naturally. Our brains have evolved to recognize grammatical structures in sentences, which is why small children learn to speak so quickly when they reach that stage of development. Human nature provides us with an aptitude for synthesis. See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Nobody needs to tell the child about the imperative mood, or point out the shift in whom the imperatives are addressing. Even small children can follow the words. Reading between the lines comes more slowly, but kids eventually figure that out as well, as any parent knows. They come to know that a weary “yeah, yeah” really means “forget about it.”
How much one knows does not make one an intellectual or provide the basis for an intellectual life. I’ve known learned people whom I would not describe as intellectuals. In fact, in my experience, many university professors, perhaps most, are not intellectuals. They’re generally satisfied with the goal of becoming more expert in their disciplines. By contrast, I’ve known college freshmen whom I would call intellectuals, or at least intellectuals in the making. They desire to get better and better at reading books—and reality. Their goal is understanding, not expertise. They want katanoesis, not academic training. Expertise and academic training can help you develop an intellectual life, but they’re not sufficient. An intellectual desires to see and know more broadly. This means grasping things as they really are, in particular, of course, but also as a whole.
To see reality! What could be simpler? Need we do more than open our eyes? Sadly, that’s not enough, and it’s here that contemporary academic culture so often fails. We imagine we can question our way to a larger vision of reality. But that rarely works. Instead, the most reliable path toward an intellectual life is the way of love. Only those who can love deeply can understand deeply.
There are two impediments to seeing things as they are. The first has to do with our tendency to be me-centered. When I was a college student, some of my friends were convinced of their mastery of material for an exam, only to do poorly. Or they imagined themselves basketball stars, when in fact they were quite mediocre. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll recognize that we deceive ourselves about reality, sometimes to the point of the fascinating paradox of telling lies to ourselves that we happily believe. As Iris Murdoch observes, “Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”
Christians have an explanation for this me-centered tendency: original sin. We’re not naturally self-preoccupied. There’s an innate aptitude for reality implanted within us. As Aristotle puts it in the first line of the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” We have an intellectual hunger, not just a physical one. When our desire for truth is satisfied, we experience pleasure, even joy. True, we often dislike the hard work sometimes necessary to gain knowledge, but for the most part, we take delight in learning more about the subjects we care about. The problem comes if our interests or convictions are at stake. When reality impinges on our self-image, our conceits, and our cherished assumptions, we tend to falsify things so that we’re not challenged, contradicted, or inconvenienced. We want reality to suit us.
Again and again in my life I’ve been reminded of how vigorously we resist reality. We stymie our desire to know, because we’re not prepared to make the painful acknowledgement that we are wrong, ignorant, self-satisfied, or self-deluded. Many scientists resist new evidence when it contradicts the theories they’re committed to. Investors are notoriously vulnerable to their greed, ignoring market signals because they’re either blinded by the prospect of gains or unable to admit to losses. We’re reluctant to accept arguments that cut against our political preferences. We refuse to face realities that challenge our moral convictions.
Needless to say, ignoring or distorting reality poses a direct threat to the intellectual life. But there’s a second impediment, one that has to do with the important role of synthesis. Katanoesis, “knowing across,” means cultivating an ambition to see things as a whole. This is a transcendent goal we never attain, at least not in a complete way. As a result, we can become demoralized. It’s easy to think intellectual ambition misguided, especially when we’re so often told that truth is relative. So we slack off. Satisfied with knowing this or that, we do not seek a coherent, overall picture of reality. We learn facts, and do not push ourselves to attain a larger understanding. We go for local knowledge, not something with universal scope.
In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict fondly recalled his years as a professor at that university. The twentieth century was not the thirteenth. There was no overarching Christian consensus, and certainly no widely accepted scholastic system. But the professors felt a shared responsibility to address larger questions. They discussed matters across disciplines, because they were motivated by the intellectual desire to give an account, however tentative and partial, of reality as a whole. Benedict thought that we are losing—have lost—the ambition to stretch our understanding to account for truths outside our expertise. Pessimism about reason’s power has taken hold. We’re taught to regard large-scale efforts of understanding as ideologies; they are “meta-narratives” that serve as masks for power. Or we’re discouraged in other ways. The general atmosphere of doubt and suspicion can enervate, excusing us from the effort and risk of venturing a larger view of things.
Contemporary universities recognize these threats to intellectual life, or at least partially recognize them. Calls for interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary study reflect a desire to break out of the narrow constraints of academic disciplines. The hope is that if we work outside our areas of expertise, creative thought will be sparked and a larger synthesis achieved.
More important, however, are the efforts to overcome me-centered self-deceptions, which educators today also recognize as a problem, even if they don’t draw on the doctrine of original sin to explain its prevalence. Yet, recognizing the disease, they prescribe the wrong medicine.
In my experience, nearly all professors at today’s universities agree that students should be taught “critical thinking” as an intellectual cure-all for what limits our desire to know. The term sometimes means nothing more than clear thinking, an ideal promoted by any class in which the professor requires attention to evidence, cogent arguments, and clarity of expression. However, critical thinking has a more distinctive meaning, one associated with an approach to education that challenges our beliefs.
We can talk about deconstruction, post-structuralism, Marxist analysis, multiculturalism, or any number of “isms.” But the basic pedagogy is fairly simple to describe. In these modes, “critical” is a synonym for doubt, distance, and dislocation. Familiar convictions are made to seem strange, alien, and even repulsive. The goal of this kind of critical thinking is for the student to feel out of place. If someone speaks of a “white male perspective,” “heteronormativity,” or “Eurocentrism,” he’s trying to make us see ourselves from the outside, as it were. The same goes for a Marxist analysis of contemporary American society. The days are long past when Marxism provided an actual alternative to capitalism. But academics still use this approach in order to encourage students to adopt a critical perspective. Before the class, they took certain social and economic arrangements for granted. After the class, students see things at a distance: Our educational system reflects class interests, social relations are commodified by capitalism, and so forth. That’s the pedagogical goal.
In my experience, very few professors and university administrators buy into Marxism, multiculturalist ideologies, or other forms of academic radicalism. But almost all of them accept its role, and many endorse those who are true believers in various “isms,” paradoxically protecting them from criticism. The reason is, in part, pedagogical. Correctly aware that our self-enclosed existence walls us off from reality, they affirm the disturbing, disorienting effects of multiculturalism and allied ideologies. Few believe the positive preachments of these ideologies and the identity politics they encourage, but nearly all think students should be prodded to consider a view of reality different from their own. This kind of pedagogy forces us out of our comfort zones. The shock of difference breaches the protective walls of a me-centered existence, and thus opens us up to reality, sparking in us new moral insights. Or so we’re told.
The critical project of today’s academic culture has roots in ancient philosophy and the Bible. Socrates accosts his fellow citizens with troubling questions. He asks Euthyphro if the gods admire pious deeds because the deeds are pious, or if the deeds are pious because the gods admire them. The question disorients Euthyphro. Plato treats this disequilibrium as an important first step in the quest for truth. We need to be levered out of conventional ways of thinking, which are too often convenient self-deceptions we share with others, so that we can begin to engage what is real. The prophets of the Old Testament pose a challenge to complacency as well. They thunder against Israel’s idolatry. Their example reminds us that what we take for granted, even about God, must be constantly purified by divine words of judgment. Jesus carries forward this tradition in the Sermon on the Mount, and then even more dramatically on Golgotha. In the folly of the Cross, St. Paul tells us, God makes into foolishness the wisdom of the world. To enroll oneself in Christ’s army is to see life in a very strange way: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
The critical strategy for renewing the intellectual life can seem exactly the right way to tear away the falsifying veil we fabricate to protect ourselves from reality. The disenchanting work of critical analysis drives a wedge between our minds and convenient falsehoods. But there is a problem. Once the work of deconstruction is done, there’s little left to motivate us to move toward something better. The intellectual life is based on the desire to know. Critical thinking may clear away falsehoods. It may disabuse us of our convenient parochialisms. But it does not satisfy our intellectual affections. In fact, if given undue priority, critical thinking can cause those affections to wither. We become experts in debunking, but at the risk of becoming intellectual spinsters unable or unwilling to allow ourselves to be enflamed by the possibilities of larger truths—truths to be affirmed, not critiqued, in a consummation of our desire to know.
Although some undergraduates (and faculty) develop passionate commitments to moral and political causes, today the dry, sterile results of critique are more common. Many teachers imagine that if they can disabuse students of narrow views, then our educational culture will come alive with interest in something wider and truer to reality. But there’s little evidence that this is happening. On the contrary, by my reckoning, universities today are narrower, shallower places than they once were. A genuine intellectual life seems more remote now than it’s ever been. Career concerns predominate not just among students, but among faculty as well. The humanities are in decline. Science heavily tilts in the direction of technology, and when it doesn’t, a great scramble for grant money often outweighs intellectual concerns.
This should not surprise us. Critical thinking is inadequate, and for a simple reason: It does not address the underlying problems of me-centered existence or our postmodern, demoralized sense that seeking universal knowledge is futile. The sharp blows of critique can cause me to have second and third thoughts about the things that once seemed true to me. After a class in feminist theory, I might see that my assumptions about male and female roles rest on shakier ground than I had previously imagined. But critical methods do little to cure me of my me-centered existence. In fact, the shakier the ground, the more tempted I am to crawl back into myself. The danger, therefore, is that I’ll trade one self-serving self-deception for another, more fashionable one. This is one explanation for political correctness. Ardent but narrow convictions about justice often fill the void created by critical reason. It should be sobering for any proponent of critical thinking as the cardinal virtue of higher education that an illiberal mentality has arisen among students in the intellectual communities where the pedagogy of critique has been so strongly emphasized.
Just as important, disenchantment tends to discourage rather than encourage. After enduring a few body blows from a multicultural critique of my white male perspective, I’m far less likely to imagine myself capable of the larger-scale, overall grasp of reality. Given the role of this and other critical pedagogies, is it any wonder that students retreat into specialized, technical disciplines?
Plato endorsed the critical questioning that got Socrates in so much trouble in Athens. He recognized the importance of critical thinking. But he knew that the difficult path toward the intellectual life must be scented with truth, something critique cannot do. He saw that we need to be aroused by a pedagogy of love. The classic statement of this approach to the life of the mind is found in the Symposium, his dialogue about love. In a crucial section, Socrates recounts the instruction given to him by his own teacher, Diotima. She observes that love motivates us to venture forth. As St. Augustine observed, “Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.”
Plato encourages philosophy (love of wisdom)not sophiology (the rational study of wisdom), for love propels us outside ourselves in search of that which we love. With this outward thrust, the power of love’s desire breaches the self-enclosed walls of the ego. The upshot is one of the paradoxes of love: Love’s desire emerges from within the self, but it is not self-centered. Love can be blind, sometimes motivating self-deceptions greater than those we cultivate in order to comfort or reassure ourselves. There is always a need for critical reflection in the intellectual life. But love can do something critique cannot: Its desire shatters our snug, complacent, me-centered existence. Love may deceive, but even when it does so, it always teaches a fundamental, indispensible truth: I must go outside myself to find my heart’s desire.
In the Symposium, love’s search for union with the beloved serves as the basis for the intellectual life. Love leads us up a ladder. Plato observes that sexual desire causes us to venture forth, seeking a beautiful body with which to unite ourselves. This is a powerful dynamic, as we all know. But in Plato’s view, it’s not just about sex. As I go outside myself, I’m in a certain sense freed from the immediacy of my bondage to my sexual instincts. I see that the beauty of another’s soul shines more brightly than bodily beauty, which fades with age. I acquire a love of virtue in others, and through them a love of virtue for its own sake. Then I recognize that laws and institutions form our souls, ordering them toward virtue, and so I come to love my city (if it is just and worthy of love) and other forms of life that promote virtue. Finally, my intellect rises to a still higher rung on the ladder of love. I see that Beauty itself illumines all that is beautiful, and I desire to be united with this transcendent reality in heart, mind, and soul.
The Bible’s view of love is similar, but with important differences. In Genesis 2, God has pity on Adam’s self-enclosed loneliness. His stewardship of creation involves real responsibilities, but it does not satisfy his desire to go outside himself in love. So God makes for Adam a helpmate from one of his ribs. When the man awakens, he sighs a passionate sigh, “At last!” She is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, but she is a she, not a he. Adam’s desire propels him across a great chasm that runs through our common humanity, the gulf that separates men and women. It is a fecund difference, and thus Genesis 2 speaks of more than desire, longing, and love. Adam and Eve are joined together in both sexual and matrimonial union. Love’s desire not only carries us farther from ourselves than it does in Plato’s account, but also achieves a covenant permanence that has an intrinsic fruitfulness.
The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs can be read as the biblical version of Plato’s ladder of love, one that draws upon the vision of male and female reciprocity in Genesis. These opening chapters consist of an allegory. The men of the city are being seduced by loose women. Lady Wisdom initially provides a critical pedagogy, warning of the dangers these women pose. They lead toward dissolution and death. But the strategy of disenchantment does not work. The men remain entangled in their false loves. So Wisdom embarks on a counter-seduction. She lays out a great banquet in her palace, and then sends her beautiful handmaidens into the streets to call the men of the city to her table. The lesson taught in this allegory is clear: The me-centered dead end of sin can only be overcome by love’s greater power. Drawn out of their wayward patterns of life by that allure of Lady Wisdom, the men of the earthly city enter into a love of the heavenly city, a vision of everlasting life blessed with spiritual fruitfulness.
I prefer the biblical view of love’s ladder to the one put forward by Plato, but in both cases, love’s seductions call forth love’s devotions, which is what is so necessary for anyone who wishes to become an intellectual. I saw this many years ago when I read The Intellectual Life, a beautiful book by a French Dominican, A. G. Sertillanges. He emphasizes the role devotion plays in the intellectual life. “Truth,” he writes, “visits only those who love her, who surrender to her.” I’ve become more and more convinced of the truth of this statement. Love supplicates. Love entreats and begs. Like Adam’s longing, our loves make us aware, often painfully aware, of what we lack. In that sense, to fall in love forces us to face our existential poverty: We cannot give to ourselves the satisfaction of our deepest longing. The aching need of desire teaches us the wisdom of Socrates. He knew that he did not know, which was not just an admission of lack, but also an experience of profound intellectual poverty.
Love demands that we go outside ourselves. It is a demand—one we give to ourselves when we’re under love’s command—that strips us of our convenient and reassuring fantasies. Love is the great enemy of the ego. It teaches us a painful lesson: We cannot give ourselves what we truly desire. As a result, the pedagogy of love rends the obscuring veil and opens us to the realities outside our selves, for only there can we find what it is we seek. Love opens the eyes of our hearts, to use an image from St. Augustine, allowing us to see.
Love does more than breach the fortifications that we construct to protect our me-centered existence. It also counters the demoralized lassitude and lack of ambition that characterize so much of our intellectual culture today. Love motivates strenuous, sometimes heroic efforts to unite ourselves with that which we love. The men of the city get up and follow the beautiful maidens into Lady Wisdom’s house of knowledge. Love’s painful awareness that it lacks what it desires does not drain us of energy. It does not leave us inert, as critique so often does. Instead, love strains. Love ventures. Love seeks. Love risks. T. S. Eliot speaks of “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”
Again, there is a paradox here. Just as love’s desire comes from within and yet leads us outside ourselves, so love’s surrender enflames us to action rather than making us passive captives. Love’s capitulations inspire ambition, for when we give ourselves over to love’s desire, we’re motivated to pursue what we love, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. Love drives us forward. That’s why Plato envisions us ascending the ladder of love rather than remaining satisfied on the lower rungs. The satisfactions of our desire to know inspire in us a zeal to know more, and this is something critical thinking rarely provides.
We need to break out of our me-centered existence if we’re to have an intellectual life. We need to feel love’s urgency, the pressing need to embrace still greater, still deeper truths. It’s for this reason that love, not critique, should be the deepest pedagogical principle for any teacher who wants to encourage the intellectual life in students. A postmodern reading of Shakespeare may teach useful lessons about race, class, and gender, human realities that we must reckon with. But it’s unlikely to inspire students. An animated mind requires an engaged heart. We need a pedagogy of love, one that romances students and awakens in them the desire to know more about Shakespeare, to enter more deeply into his art, to delight in the beauty of his language, and relish the depth of his insights into the human condition.
Plato did not endorse the study of literature. His ideal city has no place for the poets, for they committed Platonism’s cardinal sin, the fabricating of imagined worlds rather than contemplation of that which is real. Instead, he wanted young people to be romanced by mathematics and music (which was taught as a kind of mathematics in the ancient world). These disciplines give young people a taste for truth’s timeless, universal power. Savoring its sweetness, they desire more. The power of a proof in geometry excites our intellects, spurring us forward.
When I was young, I relished my classes in math. Over the years, however, I’ve come to believe that history, literature, and the arts provide a more promising place to start on the ladder of intellectual love, for they train us to savor truth amid the flux and flow of human affairs, which is where we’re destined to live. Nevertheless, the dynamic remains the same. The intellectual life is based on the romance of truths discovered, not errors critiqued. The intellectual life needs critical discipline. There’s an important place for sober reason and the pedagogy of critique. But they cannot serve as the foundation for the intellectual life. Love plays that role.
We are living amid a crisis of the intellectual life. In what used to be called humanistic study, critique now dominates. Scholars take refuge from its assaults in small topics and a cult of expertise. Students veer into other disciplines, and our culture as a whole adopts an ironic tone, a defense mechanism we may regret but which is entirely understandable in an intellectual environment of unmasking and critique.
This is not to say that our academic culture fails in every respect. Expertise is a good thing to encourage. It is the basis of a technological society capable of remarkable achievements. We’re fantastically rich and comfortable. These are things to be grateful for. But we don’t have much in the way of intellectual life, because we don’t encourage pedagogies of love. And perhaps we don’t make love the basis of the intellectual life because we don’t promote a civilization of love, instead casting our lot with a utility-focused, me-centered, therapeutic culture organized around the needs of the self. This culture, our culture, undermines the foundation of the intellectual life, which is love’s desire, love’s poverty, and love’s ambition. We need to recover the spirit of love if we’re to renew the life of the mind.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.