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studyingWhat is the point of studying the humanities? The question reflects the current climate among humanist educators: anxiety shading into despair. As enrollments decline, programs are cut, and tenure diminishes, mainstream educational institutions are becoming uncomfortable places for teachers who want to pass on a zeal for humanist learning. But the crisis in the humanities is not just a crisis caused by some Bad Guys who want to destroy All That Is Good. It is primarily something far more worrying: a crisis of confidence among ourselves, a crisis caused by a failure of self-understanding. We are haunted by a sense that what we do is somehow inadequate or pointless. This is a failure of imagination as much as it is a failure of understanding.

Mona Achache’s 2009 film “The Hedgehog” (“Le hérisson”) presents an uncommon image of intellectual life. The film tells the story of the friendship of three people in a bourgeois Paris apartment building. At the center of the story is Renée, an ugly middle-aged woman of the working classes, the concierge of the building. Renée’s middle age is filmed with unsettling realism—her heavyset figure, her unadorned face, her slouchy cardigans, and her solitary chocolate eating. Yet Renée exerts a mysterious attraction over Paloma, a twelve-year-old daughter of privilege, haunted by the meaningless lives led by her family members and who is somewhat whimsically plotting her own suicide. Renée also attracts Kakuro, the new Japanese resident in the building, who takes a romantic interest in her. It is a shock to the viewer that such an un-cinematic figure should be a romantic lead.

Renée’s filmic predecessor in raw middle age is Emmi, the romantic lead of R.W. Fassbinder’s 1974 masterpiece “Ali: Angst Essen Seele Auf” (“Ali: Fear Eats The Soul”). Unlike contemporary Hollywood images of middle age—for instance, the playwright played by Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), wealthy, accomplished, charming, and still sexy—Fassbinder’s Emmi is fat, wrinkled, silly, and a cleaning lady, the bottom of the social barrel. Emmi falls in love with a younger Moroccan guest-worker, to the disgust of her xenophobic children, as well as her neighbors and co-workers. Renée falls in love with Kakuro, breaking the sharp boundary between her and the building’s wealthy residents. The love affair in both cases amounts to a real human connection that stands out in sharp contrast from their fearful, status-driven social environments.

the hedgehogThe twist that “The Hedgehog” puts on this theme—and here it follows the novel it is inspired by, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery—is that this unsettling but authentic human connection has its source and basis in intellectual life. Renée the concierge, cranky and ignorant in public, has a secret: She reads voraciously, great novels and philosophy, history and classics. At a key point, she is pictured in private, door closed, reading philosophy at her dinner table. Later, she is seen withdrawn into a hidden chamber behind her kitchen, stuffed with books and a reading chair. It is her secret life that attracts her Japanese suitor as well as the protagonist of the film, Paloma. So Kakuro, the suitor, recognizes who she is because her cat is named for Leo Tolstoy, as are his cats. So Paloma, the protagonist, realizes that Renée is a kindred spirit when she discovers a philosophical treatise accidentally left on the kitchen table. In a central scene, Paloma is in Renée’s kitchen and notices the closed door to her reading chamber. Intrigued, she asks her, “What is behind that door?” It is Renée’s hidden life that attracts the other characters and that forges friendships that give them refuge from the privileged, empty bubble that surrounds them.

The intellectual life as portrayed in this film has four central features:

1) It is a form of the inner life of a person, a place of retreat and reflection.

2) As such it is withdrawn from the world, where “the world” is understood in its (originally Platonic, later Christian) sense as the locus of competition and struggle for wealth, power, prestige, and status.

3) It is a source of dignity—made obvious in this case by Renee’s low status as an unattractive working-class woman without children and past child-bearing age.

4) It opens space for communion: It allows for a profound connection between human beings.

Of these four features of intellectual life, it is the notion of withdrawal that is centrally important. It is the removal of intellectual life from the world that accounts for its true inwardness—an inwardness distinct from the narcissistic inner tracking of one’s social standing. It is the withdrawn person’s independence from contests over wealth or status that provides or reveals a dignity that can’t be ranked or traded. This dignity, along with the universality of the objects of the intellect—that is, that they are available to everyone—is what opens up space for real communion.

The image of the intellect as a refuge from the world is rare nowadays, but its history is distinguished. As the Socrates of Plato’s Republic acknowledges the likelihood of the world continuing in its evils, he describes the philosopher as someone who retreats from public life “like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind” (Republic 496d). The unworldly thinker is a figure of ancient legend: Socrates himself, of course, losing himself in thought at the threshold of a dinner party, as described in Plato’s Symposium; or Thales, who reportedly fell into a well from looking at the stars; or Diogenes the Cynic, whose only request to Alexander the Great upon meeting him was that he get out of his sunlight. Perhaps most extraordinary is Plutarch’s account of the great mathematician Archimedes, so taken up in a mathematical proof that he did not notice his city being taken by the Romans, and killed by a soldier when he insisted on finishing his proof before being taken to the Roman authorities.

Ancient Christian accounts of intellectual life draw on this Platonic ideal. So Augustine describes the love of wisdom as an effort to “gather our whole soul somehow to that which we attain by the mind, to station ourselves and become wholly entrenched there, so that we may no longer rejoice in our own private goods, which are bound up with ephemeral things, but instead cast aside all attachment to times and places and apprehend that which is always one and the same.” (On Free Will 2.16)

merode altarpieceSo in the Middle Ages and later, the virgin Mary is often pictured reading in a chamber when the angel Gabriel arrives with his proposal. Sometimes there is one book, the Torah, as in Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece. Sometimes the books are piled high in a study, as in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation, where Mary is clearly in the midst of some serious work. However many or few the books, the girl is always alone and always in some way sheltered or enclosed. The artists draw on an ancient tradition of Mary as herself a voracious reader, stewed in Holy Scriptures, and a notion, then commonplace, of the affinity between the intellectual and spiritual lives, of the “garden enclosed” where the God of truth meets the believer, set apart from the demands of the world.

Such a view of the intellectual life is quite at odds with one dominant nowadays among educators or theorists of education. The liberal arts are for the world; and the more integrated they are with worldly practice, the better. Here the defenders of the humanities fall into two camps: Those who think the liberal arts promote the effective acquisition of wealth, and those who think they promote social and political goods. So we read, on the first count, that philosophy is prized in Silicon Valley; or, in arguments made popular by Fareed Zakaria, the liberal arts are essential for innovation and so the promotion of prosperity. But even authors who understand that the value of learning is quite distinct from the value of prosperity fall into similar traps. For them, the study of the humanities is meant to form citizens; its ultimate aim is civic engagement. Such a view is found even among those who are concerned to defend the value of the humanities for their own sake. Martha Nussbaum is a useful example. Along with Anthony Appiah and other current writers about the university, she acknowledges the intrinsic value of study (her most recent book on the topic is titled Not for Profit), while ultimately defending the value of liberal arts as essential for social and political progress. In doing so, she subjugates the intellectual life to politics and political concerns. Nussbaum recognizes that prosperity is inadequate as a final end for human beings and as a goal for their education, but she seems to think that democratic citizenship is such an end. She appears not to understand that there are things beyond citizenship, more splendid and more fundamental—and that these very things, at the present moment more than ever, need to be secured—and need to be secured most especially from the infinite demands of citizenship.

So too, we find even among contemporary Christian defenders of the liberal arts a tendency to instrumentalize them. Consider George Weigel’s discussion of intellectual life in his 2013 book Evangelical Catholicism. It would be easy to conclude from Weigel’s discussion that the purpose of intellectual life is “catechesis and evangelism”—that is, the instillation and dissemination of correct opinions—and that its enemies are people with false opinions, modernists and post-modernists. There’s nothing wrong with the promulgating of correct opinions or the attempt to refute errors. But to treat the cultivation of correct opinions as the goal of intellectual life, as do so many Christian intellectuals these days, is a destructive mistake. To treat correct opinions as an end forms obstacles to real intellectual development, not because of their content, but because by doing so we reduce human beings to their social role. So we are subtly indoctrinated into abandoning our inner lives so that we better serve social and political aims.

Intellectuals on the right and on the left have succumbed to activism: Intellectual life is for the sake of social change. But just like the art of acquiring wealth, the art of struggling for political power requires no special discipline. There is no danger, in our hyper-moralized, hyper-political culture, that our young people will somehow fail to be enchanted by the prospect of making a difference. The danger is quite otherwise: That as all human goods are either put to use or discarded in the struggle for social and political ends, we lose our humanity and the dignity it implies. We lose what makes life worth living, whether that is intellectual life or any of the other unutterably precious human activities that dwell in peace and holy uselessness.

The pressures of “the world”—the pressures to amass wealth and to struggle for power—are enormously strong, and so is the threat that our humanity be diminished to the capacity to make a contribution or to “make a difference.” This has always been the case. What is needed, now as ever, are forms of asceticism, forms of discipline that protect human beings from these pressures and help to preserve the manifestations of human dignity and the forms of community that dignity makes possible. Intellectual life is one such crucial form of asceticism. May it be preserved as such.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission of First Things (April 2016).

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4 replies to this post
  1. The challenge to asceticism and away from activism is a welcome breath of fresh air. The goal is the virtuous life of contemplation not particular success, however it is defined.

  2. Dear Zena:

    You are my hero (I hope that totally sincere compliment doesn’t embarrass you).

    I’m fifty-six years old, and I’ve been around the block. You are among a handful of individuals — I’m being charitable — of whom I can say that I can imagine conversing with you one day, and looking forward to picking up the conversation the next day.

    That’s the power of your own charm, or duende, acquired, no doubt, through a lifetime of seclusion and intellectual and spiritual discipline. A week ago, upon my return from a six-and-a-half-week long solo camping expedition in the northern Rocky Mountains, I began reading, for the second time in my life (the first time as a callow youth whom no one, not even Thomas Mann, had anything to teach), “The Magic Mountain.” I’m climbing that mist-shrouded peak, and enoying the view. But how I wish you were at my side on that ascent.

    For almost thirty years I have been attempting to defend your thesis (alas, without your eloquence), concerning the indispensability of the preservation of a sphere for the intellectual life, uncontaminated and unimpeded by the forces of commerce and politics. My defense hasn’t taken the form of a crusade (given the private nature of the pursuit, I don’t suppose it could). But I’ve tried to live the contemplative life, and the effort, part of my nature, has cost me everything of worldly value, especially professional success and family security.

    No one gets it. No one. Least of all the boors in the academy. Whom are they fooling? Evidently tens of millions of Americans. Precisely in the institution originally dedicated to the furtherance of the pure intellectual life one confronts the most deranged hostility to it.

    We are doomed, as a country and a culture. In the end — as you, I think, imply — the salvage of the West and of human dignity generally will fall to an obscure rumpled remnant of Renees, noticed only when reviled.

    Sincerely yours,


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