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