The Roman historian Suetonius says that Julius Caesar once, upon seeing a statue of Alexander the Great, sighed deeply at the thought that Alexander had already conquered a vast empire by the age at which Caesar was only new appointed governor of Spain. I often sympathize with Caesar’s sad envy when I think of the failings of my own education in contrast with the great intellectual achievements of my literary and academic heroes. As I seek to cultivate an authentic “life of the mind,” Schall’s marvelous book is a great encouragement along the way.
Schall offers a series of meditations upon intellectual life. Each is simultaneously an admonition to embark upon the cultivation of a life of the mind while offering encouragement to those who may have been deprived of a good start in early life. His guidance is always practical, his means of expression witty, and his insights are always profound.
Among the chapters of this book are meditations on the potentially positive effect of having missed out on reading good books early in life, on walking as an intellectual activity, and on the Christian religious obligation to the cultivation of intelligence. Each chapter is one that will forever change the life of the mind of the attentive reader.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in reading great books and thinking about important things. My recommendation is especially for Christians, but I believe that anyone who is sensitive to truth can appreciate and benefit from this book.
Nothing is more disconcerting, it seems to me, than to enter a home or an apartment in which there are no books and no place for books, no sign that a book has ever been there. It always seems like a kind of desecration to me, even though I am perfectly aware that bookless people can also be saved, even that they often have much practical wisdom, something Aristotle himself recognized. I know that there are libraries from which we can borrow for a time a book we may not own. We are blessed to live in a time of relatively cheap books. Ultimately, no doubt, the important thing is what is in our head, not what is on a printed page on our shelves, even when they contain our own books. Nor do we have to replicate the New York City Public Library in our own homes. Still, most of us would benefit from having at least a couple hundred books, probably more, surrounding us. I am sure that by judicious use of sales and used-book and online stores, anyone can gather together a very respectable basic library, probably for less than a thousand dollars. With a little enterprise, one can find in a used bookstore or online the Basic Works of Aristotle or the Lives of Plutarch for less than twenty dollars. When stretched out over time and compared, say, to the cumulative price of supplies for a heavy smoker, or a week’s stay in Paris or Tokyo, or a season ticket to one’s favorite NFL team, the cost of books is not too bad. My point is merely that whether or not we have good books around us is not so much a question of cost as it is a question of what we do with our available money, with how we judge the comparative worth of things.
Fr. James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking, pp. 14-15
We know that education must be revolutionized and we sense that this modern campus, separated from the surrounding reality and monopolizing to itself, against that reality, the whole idea of schooling, may be beginning to be a huge anachronism. There are thousands of situations in the world that can become apprenticing and schooling situations. It will only be a drop in the bucket of this problem if we assign two weeks before Election Day to give students the time to influence national elections. Again, we still live in a divided world where labor works with its hands and the intellectual lives a life of the mind, in a world not daring to face the consequences of the bitter cultural divisions that result from this old hypothesis. The laborer is cut off from his own mind, and the intellectual, worse still, is alienated not from the middle class but from his own hands. A new hypothesis begins to emerge which says that we can work with our hands and read Shakespeare too. Meantime we suffer intensely from this old aristocratic hypothesis of the division between the classes, the class of the hands and the class of the head, a division firmly established (and not moved beyond by us) in The Republic of Plato. But we must now hypothesize that this is not, except superficially, a division between town and gown, between middle class and intellectuals; it is a division rooted, tragically, at the very heart of the act of education. It is an old hypothesis that cannot work in a vast democratic society.
Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular
, p. 96-97