Review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A concise and engaging guide to the habits and practices of mind that enable clarity of thought, expression, and learning.

“I have not read very much Shakespeare in my adult life. Will this book make much sense to me?” In an email exchange with the author who asked me to consider reviewing this book, I asked this, seeing the title of the book. The author assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

Here’s why. What this book is really about is education’s purpose. He writes:

“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills.

Education isn’t merely accumulating data: machines can memorize far more, and far less fallibly, than humans. (Albert Einstein: The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.)

Scott Newstok, p. .ix

So where does Shakespeare come in? Newstok, an English professor and founder of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College draws on Shakespeare to identify the formative habits and practices that are evident in Shakespeare’s work and helped shape his particular genius. And then he draws on others from antiquity to the present day to make the case for thirteen aspects of learning to think well.

Newstok begins two introductory chapters on the hard work of thinking and the ends of study. He proposes that the formative practices of Shakespeare were very different than the current practices of our schools. He had classes in Latin, had to submit to a variety of writing exercises, copied out quotations, imitated other writers until he found his voice, and so forth. In the chapter on ends, he proposes that modern education focuses far too much on means and not on the ends of forming people who speak and do well, who are useful citizens who can think well about every aspect of life

The next twelve chapters focus on a particular aspect or habit of thought and expression:

  • Craft: The ability and power to work with raw materials to create a work. Shakespeare was a playwright; the etymology suggest dramas wrought with words.
  • Fit: Whether the glove on the hand, two pieces of wood joined, or the apt word or phrase.
  • Place: Learning and careful thought arises in thinking spaces, whether Shakespeare’s school or a classroom.
  • Attention: Often in his plays, Shakespeare’s characters are distracted. Newstok focuses on how learning, thought, prayer, and our best selves emerge from attention.
  • Technology: Writing in the sand, or with any other technology. Do we get distracted by the sand or attend to the writing, the message of which abides when the marks in the sand disappear?
  • Imitation: Art begins with imitation. Shakespeare borrowed all over the place until he came to sound like himself.
  • Exercises: One cannot write well unless one writes…and writes…and writes. Exercises, from imagining oneself in a different gender or station in life, or finding the myriad ways to express a thought all hone the gifts of expressing our thoughts.
  • Conversation: Newstok shares the fascinating image of Kenneth Burke of joining a conversation in process, learning the topic, and issues at hand, putting in our own thoughts, learning to question and explore the ideas of others, and then leaving the conversation to others as an image of the intellectual conversation that has run through history.
  • Stock: The wide reading that offers a store of ideas from which we assemble thought in creative new ways.
  • Constraint: Thought and expression works within the constraints of words, sentences, grammar and forms, such as the sonnet, and liberty is found within the bounds of our art.
  • Making: We not only make things with machines but also with words, and often in these words, we make ourselves.
  • Freedom: Not just freedom from but freedom to. At the heart of the “liberal arts” is to practice the craft of freedom.

Newstok concludes with a reading list, “Kinsmen of the Shelf” for going further in the practices of good thought, connected to each chapter of the book. I was reminded of some old friends and learned of some intriguing new ones.

This sounds like a serious book but Newstok treats serious matters with an artisan’s lightness of touch. The chapters are short, filled with quotes that will offer additions to your own commonplace book, and introduced by fitting artwork. It is a work worthy of attention by educators, whether in the liberal arts or not. Our present time underscores the vital need for education to be far more than the inculcation of information. Otherwise, in the words of Stephen Muller, former president of Johns Hopkins University, we are just turning out “highly skilled barbarians.” It is also a book that may be read reflectively and repeatedly for any of us who care deeply about the work of thinking and writing. We all have a long way to go in our craft.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

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.

Thinking and Believing


The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. Public Domain

I help people discover how it is possible to both think and believe.

This is often what I say when people ask me what I do. I work in a Christian collegiate ministry with graduate students and university faculty. I say this because it is not obvious either inside the church or inside the university that one person may do both.

In the university world, it is often thought that if one is serious about thinking, that this rules out believing. One study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, found that only 36 percent of university professors still claim some form of belief in God whereas 90 percent of the American public does. Sometimes this has to do with the perceived conflict between science and faith, most often due to the evolution wars in this country. Yet there are leading biologists like Francis Collins, who led the effort to map the human genome, for whom this has never been a problem. Sometimes this is a consequence of what I call, “stupid things done in Jesus name.” For some, the wounds they have experienced at the hands of Christians are serious. And sometimes, I’ve met people who simply do not want there to be a God.

I also find that some really do not think authentic faith has room for authentic questions. And yet questions are at the heart of what a university does. Jesus loved questions. He loved it when his disciples asked him questions. And he probably asked more questions than anyone in the New Testament. He even asked questions in response to questions! This runs so contrary to the idea that a person who believes has lots of answers and lots of certainty. For me, it is much more the case of finding someone who I can really trust with my questions, and who often uses questions to transform me and my outlook on the world, if I am patient and persistent enough with them.

Sadly, I’ve often found the church to equally be a place where, if one is serious about belief, it means that one must rule out much of what some people think. Often it comes in the form of some conflict with what we understand the Bible to be saying. Most often, I’ve found the conflict to be apparent rather than real, more often the result of trying to make the Bible answer questions its’ writers didn’t intend to answer. Sometimes there are real conflicts, but then there are also real anomalies in the data of any field, and the worst thing you can do is force a solution, as much as you’d like to “neaten” things up. And sometimes, the conflict is really one between cultural ways of life in society and the counter-cultural life of God’s people. Here, it seems, the answer is to not simply ask what but why–to understand the reasons behind a different way of living.

I think it is equally the case here that people struggle with the idea that an authentic life of faith does not have room for questions. Yet in the gospels, I see that faith is acting on what one does know about God or Christ, even while asking about what one does not know. After all, none of us gets to one hundred percent certainty about anything. We live and act on knowledge about which we have far less than 100 percent certainty all the time.

To the contrary of what some think, I am convinced that the life of faith may actually open up the life of thought and research. First of all, at the heart of the formative practices of Christian faith is the practice of attentiveness, first of all to God, but also to one’s own life, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Often, attentiveness is the seedbed in which the curiosity that leads to good questions grows. And good questions are at the heart of good research. Don’t get me wrong. I know lots of people who are not believers who are attentive and ask good questions. I’m simply saying that the attentive life that flows from faith prepares us to be attentive, whether in the lab or the art studio, or when we are studying a musical score or a balance sheet or statistical table.

I could go on. The conviction that we worship and follow the one who is Truth ought make us dogged in the pursuit of truth, because we really believe it is out there, and isn’t just a masquerade for who has power. The paradoxes of the faith–the incarnation, the Trinity, humans as the imago dei and yet as finite and fallen–leads, I believe to a flexibility or suppleness in thinking that is open to the answer being “both this and this” rather than an oppositional binary. Certainly, the belief in a Creator who thinks (the ultimate, it seems to me, reconciliation of believing and thinking), gives a powerful rationale for hypothesizing theories, and searching for lawful order in the cosmos, and even for the power of mathematics to map onto the physical world.

At the end of the day, however, what I am about is not an argument about whether it is possible to think and believe. Rather, what I am about is deeply desiring that my friends engaged in the “heavy lifting” of academic or professional life are able to live with this deep sense that the joy they experience in the joining of prayerful pursuit of knowledge and attentive inquiry, the wonder of those “aha” moments, is the pleasure of the Creator upon them, for which they were made.

St Irenaeus wrote:

The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”

My longing? Human beings fully alive discovering in the creation of God the glory of God, bringing thought and belief together. That is joy indeed.

Review: The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective

The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective
The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective by Clifford Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Our danger has not been too much thinking, but not enough.”
–Nathan Hatch

The epigraph to Williams book gives us the purpose of this book in a sentence: to make the argument for the importance of thinking and the life of the mind. Williams originally did this in pamphlet form, which has now been expanded into this still concise little book that gives us the contours of an argument for thinking.

He begins by describing why those who like to think do so: to understand the way things are, to bring coherence to one’s beliefs, to grow in self-understanding, to apply serious thought to public issues, and to make sense and meaning of one’s life. He then proceeds to argue that thinking well is intrinsically important including this syllogism:

1. What God made is good.
2. It is intrinsically good to know about what is good.
3. Consequently, it is intrinsically good to know what God has made.

He then goes on to delineate positive effects of thinking in terms of enhancing human flourishing, supporting our faith and training in goodness.

His next chapter was perhaps both the most interesting and also the place where I felt the most additional work needed to be done. In it he explores the tensions between the life of the mind and Christian faith under the categories of inquisitiveness, imagination, arrogance, and the neglect of evangelism, compassion, justice, and devotion. While acknowledging the realities of these pitfalls, I felt he did not go far enough in identifying their roots in both hubris and neglect of our hearts. Equally, I would have valued more exploration, beyond the acknowledgement of these tensions and the possibility of living within them, of how one does so. This seems to be critical to the flourishing of thinking Christians in contexts that often challenge faith.

Subsequent chapters explore the tensions between the life of the (Christian) mind and the culture we find ourselves in, the value of thinking in community, and a concluding chapter that describes the life of the mind in terms of living in the tension between hermit and explorer (fascinating images!).

While couched in Christian terms, many of the arguments Williams make for the life of the mind make sense for anyone who considers ideas and careful thinking important. At the same time the book is directed to a Christian college audience (under the imprint RenewedMinds, an imprint of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities). It seems that one of the things that might be helpful if this work is revised and expanded would be to address more explicitly what the life of the Christian mind has in common with the life of the mind more generally, and what distinguishes this mind. Mark Noll has done the latter quite helpfully in his Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

In its present form, Williams has given us a helpful articulation of the intrinsic value of developing the life of the mind and some preliminary considerations of how one goes about this process. I could see this being very helpful to an undergraduate student considering a life of scholarship and equally to someone at mid-life asking questions about how one might move from simply an activist life of doing to going deeper in thinking about faith and the context of one’s life.

View all my reviews