Book Review: The Life of the Mind by Fr. James V. Schall

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.


A home without books is no home at all

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

The head, the hands, and the human

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

Reality and Fiction

One very popular modern opinion is that there is a disconnection between reality and fantasy. Video gamers, civil liberties groups, advocates for the entertainment industry, and other groups, for example, frequently insist that violent, misogynistic, or otherwise objectionable content in video games, music, and movies do not lead to violence in real life. Anyone who makes the contrary insistence in favor of the truth of the old adage that “you are what you eat” is viewed as antiquated and curmudgeonly. This debate reflects a deeper and older disagreement over the purpose of fiction and its place in human life more generally.

On the one hand, there is the position that the purpose of fiction is to escape from real life. Though the original idea here is certainly an ancient one, in his book Christ and Apollo, Father William F. Lynch traces its current popularity to “the growing encroachments of automation and the terribly repetitive, unfeeling nature of much of our daytime work.”1  As a result, he says, “we have been led to create a night-time culture, and a kind of time within it that has no relation to the day or to the work we do during the day.”2  He concludes that “this night-time culture is largely an attempt to provide a sensational and sentimental dream life in which real time is arrested or forgotten, and the coming of the next morning indefinitely put off.”3  In other words, under the oppression of the tedium of real life, man has come to turn to fiction as a temporary escape.

From this view of fiction emerges the assertion of a separation between reality and fiction. If the primary purpose of fiction is to provide an escape from reality, there must not be a connection between the two. Just as fiction is designed to remove one from reality, reality must stand at a remove from fiction.

The opposite assertion was perhaps first clearly put forward by Plato in his Republic. There, he pointed out that life imitates art and concluded from this that only the highest ideals should be allowed to be exhibited. From these, the audience can draw examples to imitate. While Plato’s ideas of banishing poets from the ideal state and allowing art to contain only positive examples for imitation are extreme and ultimately untenable, there is little doubt that his position is closer to the truth than is its opposite.

All art makes an impression on its viewers, even if they do not believe that it does or desire that it do so. All art derives its existence from the philosophy of the artist. It reflects his values, his concerns, and his desires. Even the idea of art as mere amusement, as a simple pastime and escape, is itself a philosophy which produces a certain kind of art. There must be something the artist and his audience choose to escape from and a reason for what they choose to escape to. Clay Motley, for example, has pointed out that there is a definite link between the popularity of Western movies, which overemphasize masculinity, to periods in which cultural movements which may seem threatening to men, such as feminism, are in the ascendancy.4

The careful cultural consumer, then, must be aware of trends while remaining mindful of the influence everything consumed has upon him. Just as there is no food or medicine taken into the body which does not somehow affect the body, there is nothing taken in by the mind which does not somehow affect the mind. Cognizance of this fact should shape and inform one’s approach to arts and entertainment, whether one is reading a classic or a comic book. The questions that must be at the forefront of one’s mind are those provided by James Vanden Bosch in his explanation of moral criticism of literature: “What does it want me to be, or do, or assume, or assent to, or value?”5  Every artistic creation seeks to make its viewers want to be, do, assume, assent to, or value something; the question is not whether but what.

1 William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), 55.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Clay Motley, “’It’s a Hell of a Thing to Kill a Man’: Western Manhood in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture, Revised Edition (Hollywood: Press Americana, 2010), 72.

5 James Vanden Bosch, “Moral Criticism: Promises and Prospects,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 64.

The forgotten art of fatherhood

For a woman the physical act of producing a child is a long, tremendous enterprise, which fillers her (whether she likes it or not) with purpose and responsibility and vitality. For a man it is brief and, in feeling, almost purposeless. The rest of his share in the child’s life before birth is auxiliary at best. But after it is born he can being to share equally with the mother in helping it to live and learn. As it grows able to think and talk, he will share that job more and more, whether he knows it or not, whether he wants to or not. Large numbers of fathers do not know this, do not care, and hope it is not true. They try to live as though the child had never been born. They leave it to its mother, or to the schools, or to the other children. Sometimes they true completely to adapt themselves to it when it brings in new ideas and lets loose new forces in their home. Yet by doing all that they are teaching the child just as carefully and emphatically as though they were concentrating on it several hours a day. They are giving it ideas, patterns of emotion and thought, standards on which to base future choices. A child cannot make up its own mind with nothing to work on. It has to see how people behave. For this, it watches other children, and people in the movies, and characters in books; but the people who bulk largest and whose acts have most authority, in the time when its formless mind is being shaped, are its mother and its father. Enormous in size, terrible in strength, unbelievably clever, all-seeing and all-knowing, frightful in anger, miraculously bountiful, unpredictable as a cyclone, cruel even in kindness, when they speak, a child’s mother and father are its original King and Queen, Ogre and Witch, Fairy and Giant, Mother-Goddess and Saviour-God. It obeys them and makes itself to suit them, it watches them to copy them, and, often without knowing it, it becomes them — or else it becomes an opposite of them in which their power is still expressed.
Whatever the father does, his child will learn from him. It is far better then for him to decide what to teach it, and how. As he does so, he will be giving up some part of his own personality, and some of his time an energy. But afterwards, when the results being to show, he will be astonished to see that the sacrifice is repaid: his character (when he was perhaps becoming a little tired of its inadequacies) reappears with new strength and new originality in his child. Then he will really be able to say that he made it, and that he is its father.

Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 222-24

A teacher’s mind

The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests. It is useless to think of teaching as a business, like banking or insurance: to learn the necessary quota of rules and facts, to apply them day by day as the bank-manager applies his, to go home in the evening and sink into a routine of local gossip and middle-brow relaxation (radio, TV, the newspaper, and the detective-story), to pride oneself on being an average citizen, indistinguishable from the dentist and the superintendent of the gas-works — and then to hope to stimulate young and active minds. Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live. This does not only mean that have a better command of language and know special subjects, such as Spanish literature and marine biology, which are closed to others. It means they must know more about the world, have wider interests, keep a more active enthusiasm for the problems of the mind and the inexhaustible pleasures of art, have a keener taste even for some of the superficial enjoyments of life — yes, and spend the whole of their career widening the horizons of their spirit. Most people, as we see, stop growing between thirty and forty. They “settle down” — a phrase which implies stagnation — or at the utmost they “coast along,” using their acquired momentum, applying no more energy, and gradually slowing down to a stop. No teacher should dream of doing this. His job is understanding a large and important area of the world’s activity and achievement and making it viable for the young. He should expect to understand more and more of its as his years go by.

Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 48-49