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Across the road from my house, presiding over a patch of lawn between my parish church and the old schoolhouse, there is a chestnut tree. I cannot say that the tree is particularly important to me; days can go by without my looking at it or taking any thought of it. And yet, if I turn my attention to it, I realize that my experience of this tree is bound up with much of what I know about where I live, my family, and the history of my country. I have sat in the shade leaning against its rough, ridged bark, noticing how its roots distend and break through the surface of the soil, as I read a book or watch my children ride their bikes. Every fall, I have kicked the prickly hulls, drying from yellowish green to rusty brown, that fall on the path that takes me and my family to Sunday Mass. I have picked up and comforted my youngest son after he tripped, tending to his wounded hand after it was pierced by the protective spines of the chestnut’s hull.

On a few occasions, I have squeezed the chestnuts out of their hulls under my shoe and gathered up the slippery dark nuts, making sure to avoid the ones that have started to rot or to sprout. I have scored these gathered nuts with a knife and roasted them—once in the oven, once on our outdoor grill—and eaten the pale yellow flesh with butter and a bit of cinnamon sugar. Some of those roasted chestnuts I ground into a mealy, pungent flour and tried to bake with it. My children find the roasted chestnuts tolerable but hardly a treat, and we all have found the chestnut flour good for nothing but the satisfaction of making something yourself. But we must be missing something, because every autumn, when the chestnuts begin to fall from the tree, I can count on the appearance of friendly, silent strangers, most likely pilgrims to the Marian shrine up the hill, stooping under the tree and gathering the dark, shiny nuts into bulging plastic bags. They have identified the rare tree from the road, or passed on knowledge of its location as a family secret, and they take its prized fruit home for use in what I imagine are generations-old family recipes brought here from China, Japan, or Korea. 

I have never tried to identify the variety of this chestnut tree, but it is probably a “dwarf” chestnut or Allegheny chinquapin, or perhaps a more recent blight-resistant Asian hybrid. But it is not an American chestnut. I know this from its size and shape—about fifty feet tall, with an eighteen-inch-diameter trunk, bent and low-branching—but also from the fact that it is alive. In the hills above this chestnut tree and in the woods behind my house lie dead trunks, decades old—some of them more than three-quarters of a century fallen. They are victims of the devastating chestnut blight that reached Maryland a hundred years ago. Wind-carried spores, invading from Asia, entered cracks in the bark, spreading a foreign fungus that sickened and killed the cambium layer. Without a known treatment, or the ability to quarantine, the blight killed billions of this continent’s most sturdy and impressive trees, an ecological tragedy strangely correlated with the human catastrophes of the Great War, its tenuous ­aftermath, and the Great Depression.

Words most commonly used to describe the lost American chestnut include “proud,” “glorious,” and “majestic.” Elegies to the tree describe it as the fallen monarch of the country’s landscape. The rot-resistant wood barely decays, but weathers slowly, taking on the brushed, pale look of long-eroded stone. The corpses of these noble trees are almost unnatural in their persistence, like incorrupt bodies of saints. 

The chestnut blight destroyed not just a species of tree but much tradition and culture as well. Lumber was a major industry in my part of rural Maryland. Chestnut wood was used for furniture, but also, because of its rot resistance, for fence posts, barrel staves, and trolley ties (though for heavier rail it was too soft and light). In Frederick County, chestnut bark was used for tanning leather, and the wood was burned in limekilns and glassworks. Just a few miles south of my home, charcoal from local chestnut fired the historic iron forge Catoctin Furnace, a major source of nineteenth-century pig iron for a young nation’s Industrial Revolution—and before that, for eighteenth-century cannonballs for our founding ­political revolution.

The way I notice the chestnut tree—the way it directs my attention and memory and sense of identity in expanding circles of social meaning—is quite different from a famous literary experience of a chestnut tree had by Antoine Roquentin, protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. Near the end of the novel, while sitting on a park bench in the evening, Roquentin notices the chestnut tree in front of him. He begins to reflect, focusing on its bark and especially its roots. He is struck by the “absurdity” of the roots, how they are absurd in relation to everything, even in relation to other parts of the tree. Even the affirmation “This is a root” begins to seem absurd. “This root, with all its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. Each of its qualities escaped it a little, flowed out of it, half solidified, almost became a thing; each one was In the way in the root and the whole stump now gave me the impression of unwinding itself a little, denying its existence to lose itself in a frenzied excess.”

Roquentin’s thoughts continue over a dozen pages. In an exaggerated version of Descartes’s ex­periment with the wax, his mind begins to strip away the features of the root, and while doing so, he identifies himself with the root, coming to understand himself stripped of any features. It is here that the sense of absurdity is made personal—“existential,” we are now used to saying—and experienced as ­nausea: “The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered. . . .” Even as Roquentin begins to emerge from this epiphanic state, to see the motion of the branches and tree and arrangement of the landscape, the world appears to him still as a collection of contingent existences. “Existence everywhere, infinitely, in excess, for ever and everywhere; existence—which is limited only by existence. I sank down on the bench, stupefied, stunned by this profusion of beings without origin: everywhere blossomings, hatchings out, my ears buzzed with existence, my very flesh throbbed and opened, abandoned itself to the universal burgeoning.”

The chestnut tree occasions for Roquentin a vision, a revelation of the absolute arbitrariness of existence, its brute fact and inscrutability, and the quickening terror at recognizing one’s own contingency and consciousness. As a literary-philosophical climax, there can be no mistaking the author’s religious allusions: truth revealed by a tree in a garden, the spiritual passage into “horrible ecstasy” and “atrocious joy,” an ineffable secret experienced outside of time, a climax of quasi-communion with primal existence itself—we have here a lonely, misanthropic atheist’s alternative to Augustine’s friendly conversation with Monica and their mystical ascent to the Absolute. But here, the absence of God, the absurdity of existence without God, is essential to the revelation. The passage is justly famous, for it encapsulates the central, compelling ideas of Sartre’s existentialism: the priority of existence to essence, the radical freedom and autonomy of the self, the subjectivity of meaning. 

The fact that this scene turns on engagement with a particular reality—the chestnut tree—is not coincidental. The Sartrean vision of freedom is best understood as an illustration, even an apotheosis, of a problem of human attention, a problem that Sartre helps identify but, in the end, does not have the resources to solve. The solution to the problem of attention is evident in Sartre only by its absence.

Paying attention is often a matter of seeing beyond the surface, of making connections, of noticing what is not present as much as what is present. Really to notice involves sustained effort and gathers up several levels of cognitive function. To give or pay attention to a work of art, say, involves one’s eyes, mind, memory, and heart—powers of analysis, comparison, appreciation, and evaluation. Our attention doesn’t merely connect us to the world. It extends our sense of self into the world: It can be deep or broad, penetrating or subtle, acute or profound.

Attention can be more or less excellent, but there need not be only one way to pay attention well. My attention to the chestnut tree was clearly different from Roquentin’s, but they are both cases of authentic ­attention. A molecular biologist and an experienced forester would notice differently. The cabinet-­maker, the chef, the poet, would each bring attention honed by distinctive interest and skill. Roquentin’s philosophical noticing would not be confused with ­Hegelian, Kantian, Cartesian, or ­Aristotelian ­noticing—or even with a different brand of existentialist noticing, say, Dostoevsky’s or ­Kierkegaard’s.

Roquentin’s experience is highly abstract, less an experience of the tree than a series of theoretical reflections occasioned by the tree. Sartre deliberately designed this scene as a vision of self-knowledge catalyzed by, but not about, the tree. My own reflection on the chestnut tree was also highly introspective, leading rather far away from the tree itself. But Roquentin’s reflection is highly generalized, removed from the physical world, stripped of concrete particularity in history, social institutions, or personal memory. By contrast, the kind of experience of the tree that I described was highly concrete, grounded in personal and communal particulars. For Roquentin, the chestnut tree leads to an awareness of the self as a bare consciousness, without any intrinsic meaning. My musings about the tree are inseparable from a sense of myself as a father, a member of a parish and community, and a participant in a larger ecological and political history.

Roquentin’s self-awareness embodies a certain conception of freedom—freedom from social roles and moral law, even from nature and the meanings of words. I too experience freedom, but unlike Roquentin’s, my awareness of freedom is constituted precisely in terms of social roles, historical influence, and institutional authority. I accept my situatedness and, in fact, experience it as a condition of freedom. In recognizing myself as a father, member of a community, steward of the environment, and citizen of a nation, I acknowledge that I have been a responsible agent, not determined or held back by my roles, but given concretely delimited social space within which to perform meaningful action. My experience affirms my agency, orienting me to future choices and further action. It motivates me to teach my children about their environment, perhaps to plant a chestnut tree. It reminds me to treat strangers with humility and hospitality. When I go camping in my local state forest and hear about the ban on importing firewood because of another invasive pest, the emerald ash ­borer, I readily respect the quarantine.

Roquentin’s sense of existential freedom is not one of self-possession and belonging, but the opposite—a vertigo of detachment, nausea. Far from finding anything false in this, I think it is important to recognize the validity of this kind of awareness. Sartre’s portrait is justly memorable because it is psychologically plausible. But clearly this sense of freedom is different from the freedom of responsible, situated agency. It is almost an obstacle to the freedom of responsible, situated agency, a crippling of will or diminishment of self. Rather than being rooted in, and giving rise to, a sense of being at home in the world, Roquentin’s experience of freedom is a profound disturbance. The emotions Sartre attributes to Roquentin in this passage include disgust, boredom, dread, annoyance, confusion, rage, hatred, repulsion, weariness. We are a long way from the gratitude, humility, generosity, hospitality, reverence, peace, or care that emerge from my attention to the chestnut tree across the street. Needless to say, Roquentin’s revulsion at the arbitrariness of existence does not open up the world to an inviting realm of possibility for future action. True, his encounter with the chestnut tree is followed immediately by a decision: to leave town for Paris. But the decision is also arbitrary—informed by his previous experience only as a choice. And it is essentially negative, a rejection of a place and a project for which he has no care.

Of course, the kind of attention ­Roquentin pays to the chestnut tree is not purely spontaneous and unhis­torical. He brings his own experience to it, and it reflects something about his peculiar character. The irony of Sartre’s compelling tale is that Roquentin, archetype of the unencumbered self, is himself quite situated. It is only in light of his conception of himself and his relation to his work, to other people and his town, only in relation to his memories and cares or lack thereof, that his reflection on the chestnut tree makes any sense at all.

Sartre himself was deeply situated as the creator of the character Roquentin. His message of radical contingency and freedom emerged from a very particular social context. Sartre possessed a quite rich sense of self in relation to others, to memory and history and purposes and values. He was a philosopher, a writer, a public intellectual, seeking to portray something to a readership, responding to social forces, making literary allusions, anticipating political and cultural and religious reactions. Sartre’s philosophy originates within a certain world of related and sometimes conflicting meanings: postwar anxiety, French Catholicism, Marxist protest, bourgeois morality. Indeed, it is hard to think at all about Sartre and his philosophy without the cultural artifacts and physical accoutrements of a particular moment in the evolution of French intellectual life. Cafés and lecture halls, books and plays; journal-keeping and letter-writing; even something as specific as the paper knife—a now quaint tool often mentioned by Sartre—show the social particularity, the network of interrelated cultural significance, the historical contingency (as opposed to absolute existentialist contingency) of who Sartre was.

All of this points to what we might call, following Matthew Crawford, a particular kind of “attentional environment,” one very different from the attentional environment of our day. Can we imagine Sartre born sixty years later than he was? What audience would he have found, and how would he have found it? Would he give a TED talk, or have a Facebook page? How would his lectures have been received by students with laptops and cell phones? Instead of writing novels and plays, would he have written scripts for a Netflix original series?

Sartre (with his paper knife and everything else) is almost inconceivable apart from the culture of the book—something he himself knew and embraced. His autobiography is called The Words, and it is divided into two sections, “Reading” and “Writing.” What if, instead of books, this privileged boy had been raised with an iPad and smartphone, with video games and YouTube, with Facebook and Twitter?

It has become a commonplace that constant digital connectivity provides distinctive challenges to attention, with far-ranging consequences for human habits, relationships, health, and happiness. The results of this ongoing social experiment may never be fully accounted for—but we must consider them while we still have the perspective of alternative habits of attention, including the kind of attention that Sartre himself could cultivate.

The smartphone has abolished boredom. But think about what this means. It does not mean that the smartphone has given us a sense of purpose and peace. It does not mean that the smartphone cultivates mindfulness, meditation, or contemplation, or that it provides focus, insight, patience, and joy. The smartphone has abolished boredom only in that it gives a constant stream of stimulation. It is more likely to dissipate and disturb attention than collect and clarify it. The cell phone is a device of distraction. We all know this and feel it, and it has become a subject of extensive study. It is also the new reality of our economy. Dopamine Labs attracts software developers to purchase their neurobiologically tuned algorithm with the lure “Turn your app into a habit.” The company bills its service as an “application programming interface” for dopamine—that is, it helps developers design their apps to be addictive.

Dopamine Labs and its clients in the market for your attention presumably do not want you to stop and contemplate this simple truth: Not all habits are good habits. But what is the difference between distraction and responsible attention, between ­mind-numbing watching and mindful seeing, between losing oneself in keeping up with the next thing and finding oneself in meaningful relationship? We need an account of virtuous and vicious habits of attention.

Attention is active in realms of human activity from theoretical reflection to mundane tasks. Our senses, as much as our mind, give attention. Attention is cognitive, but—as Dopamine Labs is well aware—it is also affective, able to cause and be caused by emotion. Our attention is aroused by and oriented toward things. Human attention is at least as much about our own desire for (or aversion to) objects as it is about apprehending the content of those objects.

The virtue of attention is the right ordering of cognitive inclination. Where a more properly intellectual virtue, such as prudence, is a matter of right estimation and sound deliberation, virtuous attention is inclined the right way to the right things. To have this virtue is rightly to order and use our interest in things. It has the appropriate intensity, neither too strong nor too weak; it possesses steadfastness or courage, and overcomes obstacles (such as bodily weariness) that frustrate it; and it is restrained or regulated so that it seeks appropriate awareness or knowledge in appropriate ways.

Vice in matters of attention is poorly ordered cognitive desire. Consider how knowledge, especially knowledge gained through the superior sense of sight, can stray from what is beneficial through laziness or lack of discipline. Our attention can turn to what is not just trivial but harmful—as prurient interest can lead to lust, or vain inquiry to gossip. Consider how our attention can seek inordinate pleasure, or even test itself by seeking a kind of pain—indulging in the thrill of shock or horror or ugliness. And instead of attending to other people for their good (for example, offering friendly counsel) or for our good (such as finding personal encouragement), we can seek knowledge of others out of vanity, pride, or envy. 

This account doesn’t go beyond what St. Thomas Aquinas says about the virtues and vices of attention. The virtue of attention he calls studiositas, “­studiousness”; more than academic study or diligence, it is any “keen application of the mind to something.” By contrast, the vice of intemperate desire for knowledge Aquinas calls curiositas, which we might translate as “curiosity,” except for the often benign or positive connotation of that word in English.

Could Sartre agree with this Thomistic account of studiositas and curiositas? On the one hand, Sartre employs a language of virtue, praising courage, honesty, hope, and joy. And much of Being and Nothingness, like La Nausée, can be understood as an argument about different ways of attending to objects and other persons. On the other hand, Sartre rejects the notion of human nature and purpose on which virtue and vice would seem to depend. (Early in La Nausée, Roquentin expresses ambivalence about Pascal’s definition of habit as “second nature.”) So Sartre seems to be in a bind: Given his notion of human contingency, he cannot provide an account of the virtues and vices of attention, but at the same time, he needs such a distinction in order to make sense of his famous examples of bad faith like the gambler in denial and the courteous waiter ­dissociated from his role.

Perhaps Sartre did not feel a need to develop an account of attentional virtue and vice because he could still take such a distinction for granted. His own attention developed in a landscape much different from our own. The demands and challenges of attention in the age of the printing press are more like those of the age of the medieval manuscript than those in the age of digital connectivity. Like Aquinas, Sartre occupied a world in which there were natural limits to the vice of curiositas; no artifact of their world provided unlimited opportunities to exploit and misdirect our attention. Some natural limits to disordered attention even seem a requirement for Sartre’s particular approach to consciousness: Can we imagine Roquentin entering an existential reverie if he had a smartphone in his pocket? The sense of malaise and alienation, the confrontation with boredom and discomfort, the meditation on the meaning of life—could Roquentin have experienced these, or even walked to the park and sat on a bench, in the twenty-first-century environment of unlimited distraction?

There is a further lesson. The vice which gives rise to curiositas, according to Aquinas, is acedia, a condition neglected in our culture and not very aptly translated as “sloth.” Sloth implies laziness, but the spiritual vice Aquinas describes involves sadness, bordering on despair. It is an “oppressive sorrow” that weighs on the mind and removes the desire to act. As a spiritual lethargy, its failure is more in inclination than in apprehension; more in heart than head. At its worst, acedia manifests itself as a discomfort with and revulsion at goodness itself. On the middle terrace of Mount Purgatory, Dante has the slothful souls purging their vice by engaging in a primal ­action—running. But we must not think that the opposite of acedia is activity for its own sake. Aquinas says that failure to rest on the Sabbath is an example of acedia. Restlessness, wandering, or distraction, ongoing or compulsive activity without ultimate purpose—these, too, manifest acedia. Whether you procrastinate by lying on the couch doing nothing, or by finding projects to distract you from a necessary task, you suffer from acedia. As anxious busyness or as lonely and despairing torpor, acedia is a blindness to or disgust with the soul’s motive force.

It is striking how close acedia is to Sartrean nausea, the anguish, disgust, dread, and weariness of existential insight. But it is perhaps imprecise to equate acedia with Roquentin’s experience with the chestnut tree. For Aquinas, acedia is experienced as a loss of existential purpose. If we take Sartre at his word, it is only by arriving at the point of existential anguish, bearing the crushing weight of responsibility for free action without any reference point, that we realize any true source of existential purpose. On this account, supposedly illustrated by Roquentin, nihilism frees and empowers us.

I do not wish to argue with this, as so many have. Instead, I wonder whether some people have been attracted to Sartre not so much because they discover inspiration for meaning as because they find comfort in a description of their own, independently discovered sense of loss and purposelessness. The worldview of modernity—especially among American youth—has been marked by a sense of purposelessness and uncritical subjectivism, combined with a cheerful libertarianism. Did Sartre’s remarkable and enduring influence have less to do with finding courage to face existential contingency, and more to do with reassurance that one’s already acquired prejudices are profound and meaningful?

Sartre’s original audience was an uncomfortably situated one. He could thus argue that situatedness was limiting and oppressive, inhabited only “in bad faith,” and that freedom consists in distancing oneself from social roles, institutional authority, and nature itself. Today, our circumstances are quite different. We live in a world in which any coherent ­situatedness eludes us; when we achieve it, an embedded sense of our place in the world provides us with a rare sense of agency and freedom. But the culture of constant connectivity does not usually make people feel more ­connected. Aquinas said ­acedia causes curiositas, but like ­Sartre, he occupied a world with natural limits to curiositas. Today, unlimited electronic stimulation gives free rein to curiositas, and we have ­discovered how easily the causality can work in the other ­direction, with ­curiositas causing acedia. The ease with which we can find ourselves distracted can itself lead to a deeper sense of purposelessness and spiritual torpor.

Who we are, what we value, our sense of purpose, where we find meaning, how we experience freedom: Sartre shows that these are, at root, questions of the order and orientation of the soul—questions of attention. But he could not have foreseen the current challenges to virtuous attention. We find ourselves in circumstances that call for renewed efforts at attention capable of discerning and strengthening our rootedness in the world, our obligations to other people, and our freedom to act responsibly in relation to these. We must carefully consider the different ways of noticing and valuing our environment, and the different ways our environment directs and attracts some kinds of noticing and frustrates or repels other kinds. In the age of distraction, responsible reflection on freedom, agency, and purpose demands that we learn and practice an ethic of attention—not just to make sense of our moment in cultural and intellectual history, but to see what can be seen in gazing upon a tree.

Joshua P. Hochschild is Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University.