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As I grew into adolescence, intellectual dissatisfaction transformed into melancholy. I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing my high-school courses while paying barely any attention, and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading unassigned books. After graduating, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose higher education was supposed to serve. I spent the next few years as an anarchist agitator, an environmental activist, and traveling the country hitchhiking and riding freight trains before eventually moving to a farm in southern Kentucky.
I never stopped thinking, of course, although most of the time it didn’t do me any good. My asking the wrong sorts of questions, or too many questions, frustrated innumerable co-workers and supervisors and strained my relationships with friends and family. So, in 2016, I went back to college — in part because I could do it for free, but mostly because I wanted to talk with people who thought about things the same way I did. Yet even there I found myself a stranger. I discovered peers who were concerned with the acquisition of prestige and profit, beleaguered professors forced to justify their positions in terms of metrics, and careerists of all kinds. The lesson, it seemed, was that curiosity has no home. Thinking is at best a liability, something that destabilizes the solidity of a life and rips one from the fellowship of other people. At worst it’s poison, a fatal and ineradicable dose of melancholy and doubt.
Academe may have been a theater of “grinding competition and relentless banality,” but thinking itself was a source of joy.
I found myself reflecting on all this while reading Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), by Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Md. At once an exhortation to the “splendid uselessness” of the contemplative life and a polemic against an increasingly technocratic academe dedicated to narrow, abstract research, the book is part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, and part Plutarchian assembly of lives. That last portion focuses on Dorothy Day, Malcolm X, Albert Einstein, J.A. Baker, the Virgin Mary, W.E.B. Du Bois, Socrates, Augustine, and Elena Ferrante. For Hitz, figures like those exemplify an intellectualism that encourages the development of a rich and gratifying inner life. Perhaps more unusually, Hitz insists that the real value of the life of the mind — rather than being a pastime for aristocrats — is most evident to those marked by marginalization, disenfranchisement, and poverty. People who are denied dignity and togetherness in this world need only to lose themselves in thought in order to find these riches on another plane.
Trained at Cambridge, the University of Chicago, and Princeton, Hitz was a rising star in American professional philosophy until 9/11 jolted her into a newly intense awareness of human suffering. This experience, along with a “simmering discontent” with academe, eventually drove her out of the academy and into a Catholic religious community in Canada. “I had had things the wrong way around,” she writes. Rather than devoting herself to a life of dispassionate thought, “I had to love my neighbors and find a mode of intellectual life that expressed that.” Life in the community was a celebration of human togetherness, she felt. Within it, one could enjoy “a full, ordinary human life.”
The only thing missing was a space for thinking. Academe may have been a theater of “grinding competition and relentless banality,” but thinking itself was a source of joy, solace, and dignity. What if intellectual life looked less like the restless busyness of academics, and more like “ordinary people — library users, taxi drivers, history buffs, prisoners, stockbrokers — doing intellectual work without recognizing it as such or taking pride in it”? And so Hitz returned to teaching, this time at her alma mater, St. John’s College — and it is from there that she launches her call to an intellectual life of dignified impracticality.
What Hitz found in the historical figures she surveys is a love of learning for its own sake and an openness to the transformative potential of thought, qualities that define her own attitude toward education (and serve as a foil to the obsession with competition and “knowledge production” that characterizes modern academe). “When I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels,” she writes, “and their account of the lifelong friendship between two women from girlhood, I recognize features from my own friendships with other women.” One gets the impression that in Du Bois and Day, Hitz sees individuals who, like her, discovered the world-expanding power of books, which can serve as a hidden passageway leading from the perilous world to a rare and precious truth.
For Hitz, and for myself, a propensity toward contemplation has often been entangled with frustration, disappointment, and pain. Unlike Hitz, though, for me philosophy has never served as a source of worldly comfort. This has also been the case for many people I’ve befriended over the years: The contemplative life hits us as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping us out of the fabric of life, driving us into libraries, bookstores, and campus events in desperate efforts to meet fellow travelers. But when we get there, we find that our eccentricity, roughness, and lack of training in academic gentility make such relationships impossible. Letters go unanswered, invitations withheld, applications rejected. For every Socrates — calm and satisfied, capable of coaxing the good out of others — how many more are like Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, bitten by the viper of philosophy and left struggling to soothe its sting?
Scialabba’s inaugural bout of depression arrived following his decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church. As a young, zealous believer, he had been a member of Opus Dei. But after his first year at Harvard, he began to feel a puzzlement at the world, which rapidly transformed into doubt over church teachings and then an intense excitement at the idea of beginning to search for the truth. Immediately after his departure from the church, however, he found his excitement collapsed into a restless sense of dread. As he explains in the book:
Before I left Opus Dei and the Church, I thought it was a great gain rather than a great loss. I thought I had discovered the truth about the universe, and that by leaving I would be placing myself in the ranks of a great army of liberation going all the way back to the first modern philosophers and especially the philosophes of the Enlightenment [...] And then, when I actually did it, walked out the door, I discovered that religion had been a kind of drug for me, or a safety net or scaffolding. And the reaction I felt was one of agitation and anxiety.
What religion provided for Scialabba wasn’t so much the answers to big questions, but rather corks in the intellectual dike through which these questions might otherwise burst. Without it, he began to panic.
Operating mostly outside of the academy and unable to synthesize his thinking, Scialabba found his intellect a source of isolation instead of wonder. His life has been one of constant turmoil, often connected to his self-doubt about his place in the intellectual world. An encounter with a friend’s book in a store sends him into a weeklong bout of depressive worry over what his friends and girlfriend will think about “how little he’s accomplished by comparison.” In 1988, nearly a decade after beginning regular treatment, he is offered teaching positions at Boston University and Boston College. The offer causes his anxiety to spike, and he declines.
Is there a solution, beyond finding one of the few good jobs in academe or engaging in endless therapy?
After working for several decades, Scialabba retired from his day job and continued writing. His work found a limited audience — Richard Rorty and James Wood have been among his admirers — but for the most part he exists in obscurity, a writer read mainly by other writers. In April 2016, he returned to a psychiatric hospital after another episode of crushing depression. “Reports moving from feeling ‘zero percent like himself’ to ‘ten or fifteen percent,’” notes his therapist, two days after this admittance.
The figures highlighted by Hitz — for whom thinking arrives as a source of happiness and comfort — are rare. They serve as exemplars of an ideal, and such models are important. But it’s also important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can be, especially for those who are already locked out of certain rarefied circles. For those struggling toward truth outside of established channels, the stakes are high. An inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy — to suck it up, turn off your mind, and flip burgers — can mean isolation, institutionalization, addiction, or something worse.
“There is a wisdom that is woe,” Herman Melville observed, “but there is a woe that is madness.” For many disenfranchised contemplatives, wisdom, woe, and madness are all too often inseparable. No good scholar of philosophy would argue that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom is meant to yield worldly goods. But even so, too little has been said about the enormous spiritual and psychic costs that the philosophical temperament can bring.
Is there a solution, beyond finding one of the few good jobs in academe, or engaging in endless therapy? Hitz largely sidesteps the particulars. The omission is forgivable. As her book demonstrates, higher ed is unlikely to provide the answer. College humanities programs — no matter how meticulously designed and well-funded they may be — rarely produce genuine philosophers.
For Scialabba, the answer may lie with politics and material concerns. Famous depressives — artists like William Styron and Kate Millett and scientists like Kay Jamison — have, in their darkest moments, resources and friends to fall back upon. “But what about the unfamous, solitary, low-income depressed?” Scialabba asks. “No talent, no distinction; no charms, no love. Natural enough: how else could admiration and affection, and the consolations they entail, possibly be distributed?”
Spiritual goods like these, apportioned according to a chaotic logic, could never be deliberately redistributed without the immediate result of barbarity. But money is different. Here depression is a compounding problem: Psychological anguish makes otherwise mundane obligations impossible, creating material crises out of mental ones. Scialabba’s records are full of worries about making ends meet; he credits a charitable boss and his labor union with preventing him from falling into homelessness. “Five thousand dollars a year would save a lot of ordinary people a lot of grief,” he writes. “It might even save some lives.”
Possession of certain goods cannot ensure happiness, and misery can find us regardless of circumstance. And yet there is a suffering that ennobles and a suffering that crushes. There’s a way of struggling for understanding that, even if unsuccessful, leaves one in better shape, and another that leaves one derelict and afraid. Hannah Arendt described thinking as a “wind,” whose nature is “to unfreeze … what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought.” It “has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.” Some will be caught on this wind and transported to the reaches of heaven; others will find the solidity of their world blown away. How, then, to prepare for its arrival, when the consequences are so difficult to predict?
Such asymmetry leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university. Perhaps its enormous capital reserves can bring in more members of the intellectual underclass. This notion derives from either a lack of imagination or a lack of courage: We can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities. Or we can, but lack the courage to make it happen.
Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school day and the gray walls of the classroom. We must feel that urgency now, as higher education becomes more endangered by a double-edged crisis of finance and social trust. The pandemic, in addition to exacerbating the crisis of higher education, threatens a new outbreak of acute loneliness. As we begin to imagine — and, hopefully, to realize — alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone, thoughtful souls desperately trying, and failing, to find one another.
A version of this essay previously appeared in The Point.