Lost in Thought:
The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life
by zena hitz
princeton university press, 226 pages, $22.95
Breaking Bread with the Dead:
A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind
by alan jacobs
penguin press, 142 pages, $25
Once upon a time, education was rhetorical training. Learning to think well, and thereby to negotiate all of life with responsible intelligence, was fundamentally about interacting with—drawing from and contributing to—a fund of powerful writing. But then, to make a long story short, things got complicated, “rhetoric” was demoted to one department among many, and that department was eventually rebranded as “Communication Studies.” In what could serve as a tragic epilogue to the history of Western education, young Mattie, son of the title character in Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, goes off to study communication and becomes unable to talk to his own parents. “Communication of what?” asks Hannah’s husband, Nathan. “God knows what,” answers Hannah. “And that was about the extent of our conversation on that subject.”
It’s no surprise what Mattie missed in college. Anything like traditional rhetorical education is by now rare and usually accidental, and while some of us still try to keep alive a classical conception of “liberal education,” we sense a need for new rhetorical resources to capture what that is. Three new books about thinking testify that the old learning is ever-renewing, and available to anyone who knows what to look for.
Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare directly addresses rhetoric as “the craft of future discourse,” and attends to the particular practices that cultivate this craft. Transcribing quotations, memorization, imitation of style, translation, disputation—all basic educational exercises that were still common until a couple generations ago—train the imagination and intellect and provide a fund for thought. In general, such practices introduce the student to a tradition, not for the sake of reverence and preservation but as the “stock” that forms the basis for fresh thought and prudent initiative. Students who have not experienced these things are not liberated but deprived, and the deprivation is an injustice: They have been cheated.
Shakespeare is not so much the subject as the model for the book; the focus is the kind of formation his generation would have received in school—something much closer to Roman rhetorical training than to the humanities and liberal arts programs in which Shakespeare is taught (sometimes) today. The other model is Newstok himself, who exhibits erudition through his form and method of composition. How to Think Like Shakespeare is saturated with quotations (Newstok even invents a new, less obtrusive citation style), so that the work is almost a commonplace book: a collection of worthy quotations, the record of a life of expansive reading. Expected voices are here, both classical (Isocrates, Quintilian, Augustine) and modern (Cather, Orwell, Angelou), as well as a range of cultural critics and philosophers (Ellul, Barzun, Veblen, Matthew Crawford, Christopher Alexander), but my examples don’t begin to suggest the number and range. Even in giving concrete, practical advice, Newstok displays a flexible virtuosity; he is a practiced craftsman at home in the workshop of language.
Zena Hitz begins her more contemplative book, Lost in Thought, with a deeply personal story of losing, and then rediscovering, a sense of intellectual vocation. Her tone is gentle and joyful, reflecting the earnest childlike wonder that was for her, as it is for too many, originally cultivated but then somehow forgotten along the path to academic achievement. After stepping back from the life of a scholar and considering a religious vocation in humble service, Hitz came to the realization that led her back to teaching (at the Great Books college St. John’s, her alma mater): “intellectual work” can be “a form of loving service.”
The book is a testament to the life of the mind as a vocation in generosity. In a few long, meditative chapters Hitz considers books as spiritual refuge, explores the virtue of studiositas (here translated as “seriousness”), and defends the humanizing utility of intellectual life. Along the way, she discusses Mary as a model of studiousness and reflects on the relation between contemplation and ambition in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Humility and love of learning shine through; Hitz’s book is a work of the heart as much as the mind.
Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread with the Dead is concerned with the challenge, and personal benefit, of connecting with authors far from our own experience. He offers practical advice about resisting “presentism.” Drawing on phrases from a Thomas Pynchon novel, he articulates the value of expanding one’s “temporal bandwidth” in order to increase one’s “personal density.” Through a combination of examples and theoretical exposition, Jacobs argues that by engaging responsibly with long gone authors, we allow their voices to teach us: Reading is “giving voice to the dead with the blood of our attention.”
Jacobs is no newcomer to contemplation. In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), Jacobs defended reading without plan or purpose, for whim and serendipity. In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017), he adopted a more practical and didactic voice, combining conceptual clarifications with some rules for how to use reading to counteract modern temptations and cognitive biases. In this latest book, Jacobs is both more literary and more critically engaged. While staying clear of particular ideological battles, Jacobs is especially aware of the challenge of texts that don’t match our prejudices: We need not demonize them, nor relinquish our convictions, but should simply work to seek community with past thinkers. Our “personal density” is a matter of experiencing shared membership, across time and place, with other parts of humanity.
Where Newstok is a passionately erudite enthusiast, Hitz is a comforting and gentle guide, and Jacobs a challenging, synthetic critic. But all three complement one another, and all three show themselves to be dedicated teachers. Although their vocation is in the academy, they are not writing to and for academics. Their audience is readers, including what Hitz calls “the everyday intellectual”: “the humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, the contemplative taxi-driver.” Newstok, Hitz, and Jacobs are the exceptions that prove the rule: Today an authentic intellectual life seems more natural in the flaneur than the professional scholar.
“The canon wars,” a previous hallmark of liberal arts apologetics, now seem dated, and were always a distraction. The point of intellectual life is not to fix a universal reading list, but to practice the judgment of discerning enduring insight. Still, one could learn something about the best of contemporary American intellectual life by noticing some of the touchstones shared among these three books: Seneca, Augustine, Simone Weil, W. E. B. Du Bois, Auden, Zadie Smith, Wendell Berry—there is “diversity” here, but a discriminating one, representing a true literary philosophia perennis.
Not surprisingly, all three authors address the central question for any true intellectual: What does it mean to be human? Newstok helps us see that the distinctively human activity of thinking is inseparable from our embodied nature. Hitz notes: “Intellectual life is a source of human dignity exactly because it is something beyond politics and social life.” Summarizing his view of what we must seek in literature, Jacobs cites a passage from Terence (also tattooed on the novelist Leslie Jamison’s arm): Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me”). Whether our focus is on the tools of training, a heart for service, or learning from our asynchronous neighbors, the intellectual life is, ironically, a particular kind of political practice, an art of membership.
May multitudes of teachers find in these volumes inspiration for personal reading, even for curriculum refreshment. I would not assign the books themselves to undergraduates, but I can imagine each one as a test of future character. I hope to teach in such a way that, twenty years after graduation, my students will be able to appreciate these authors’ insight and eloquence, resonate with their love of learning, and rouse themselves to further reading and thinking.
All three books, by testifying to fruitful intellectual life, remind us we still have a choice about how to cultivate the minds of young people. We can educate students to make them ready for specific careers but—like the alienated achiever Mattie Coulter—unintelligible to everyone, including their own parents. Or we can educate in a way that makes us all, despite and even through upheavals of culture, economy, and politics, more intelligible to each other and to ourselves. Today, as in the Greek polis or the Roman villa, the company of readers remains both the most democratic, and the most privileged, of memberships.
Joshua P. Hochschild is Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University and author (with Christopher O. Blum) of A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction. Follow him on Twitter @JoshHochschild.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.