The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.
Summary: A series of meditations “on the joys and travails of thinking” focused around the central idea that thinking is discovering “what is.”
It is likely the case that other creatures “think” but thinking is one of the things that particularly sets apart human beings. We may also recognize that it is possible to think well or poorly and that an education, even a liberal education, may not necessarily set us up to think well.
This is a book about thinking, about the use of our minds to think well. The chapters are a series of meditations on aspects of the life of the mind. Schall begins with a fundamental premise, that the life of the mind is about the discovery of what is. As a Platonist (and a Christian), he believes that there is a reality that is “not ourselves” and that it is possible to discover this what is, and that it is.
He begins, in the chapter “On the Joys and Travails of Thinking,” to introduce us to A. D. Sertillanges book The Intellectual Life and the “habits of mind” necessary to an intellectual life. This then leads to a broader discussion on “Books and the Intellectual Life” of the place of books in the discovery of what is. He reminds us that any truly great work is worth reading more than once. He concludes the chapter with this peroration:
“Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are. In any intellectual life, books and the books we have around us do not just indicate where we started or where we have ended, but how we got there and why we did not go somewhere else or by some other path. They ground and provoke our inclination to know. Books and the intellectual life go together, provided we always remember that it is the books that are for the life of the mind and not the other way around” (p. 20).
In his chapter on the liberal arts, he observes that the liberal arts as opposed to the “useful” arts open us to the what is that we have not or cannot make. Then he moves to “wisdom” which is the fruit of liberal study and learning what is, that we might live well, employing our energies for what is best in ways that yield joy.
“On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited” is a chapter of comfort for those who only later in life discover Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and other great writers. Often, these works mean more than they possibly could when we were young and lacking in the experience of life. There is a marvelous little chapter on “The Metaphysics of Walking” which is yet another way of our encounters with what is, and that there is a long history of walking thinkers! Then he speaks of the joys of discovering “a most wonderful book.” Most bibliophiles have had this experience and will gladly share their most wonderful book.
In later chapters, he challenges the relativism of the modern academy and the idea that it is all about questions. He believes that good philosophy, and good teaching leads to answers, and not just questions.
He concludes these reflections with an observation that is worth chewing on: “In the end, it is indeed a ‘risk’ to be a human being. That risk consists largely in our choosing not to know what is because we do not want to know where such knowledge might lead us.” I’ve often found that in discussions of faith that the real issue is not an inability to believe, but an unwillingness to consider belief because of what that might mean in one’s life, where that might lead one. Thinking can be dangerous!
The book also includes three appendices including a list of twenty books to awaken the mind (!), a transcript of an interview in the National Review Online on Education and Knowledge, and the text of a talk he gave on “Reading for Clerics” that speaks compellingly to the importance of reading and thinking to maintain vitality for any who engage in ministry, lay or clergy.
While Schall is a Catholic priest, this is not a Christian or Catholic text per se. What it represents is a good example of a work written for a wider audience that draws on Plato and Aristotle, as well as on Christian thinkers. He does what I think scholars who are Christians in the public square ought to do: engage a subject in the language of their discipline while unashamedly speaking of the contribution of Christian thought to that discourse. That too, I would propose is one of the fruits of a long engagement with careful thinking, a seamless weaving together of faith and reason in helping all of us understand better what is.