Paul J. Griffiths on Intellectuals and the life of the mind

This month’s First Things features a warm and measured article by Paul J Griffiths titled “Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual”  I commend it as rich worthwhile reading for all who are interested in the life of the mind.

I love the genre of open letters.  Seneca set the bar high with his Moral Epistles.  CS Lewis defines the genre for 20th century Christians in his Letters to Malcolm.   Mark Twain makes great satirical use of the genre in Letters from the Earth.  And of course Sam Harris laid down his challenge to all Christian thinkers in his Letter to a Christian Nation.

Griffith’s open letter is a much more modest piece.  It answers a young scholar asking how to become an intellectual.  This is a countercultural desire, says Griffiths, for we in America prefer action, wealth, and fame.  (Playfully, I suggest that perhaps the sweet spot in America would be the wealthy, famous intellectual in action:  Teddy Roosevelt)

Griffiths affirms the life of the mind as a good calling:

“The questions you ask are good ones because it’s clear enough that among the things we humans do is think, and we do it with a remarkable intensity and application and precision and range.”

Thinking is “among the most distinctively human of the things we do.”

At this point in the essay, my mind goes to the Dr. Seuss book “Oh the thinks you can think!” which celebrates the kind of manic unfettered creativity that provided the wellspring of ideas from which he drew to create his fantastical worlds.

Griffith has a more serious aim in mind.  He holds forth about the shared characteristics of the thinkers:  ambition and focus being the first two traits:

“These are all thinkers whose work extends over the course of their lives (some long, some short), and to whose lives, as far as we can tell, the intellectual work was central. They return to their themes, their questions, like dogs worrying over bones”

Griffiths detours to take note that all the thinkers his correspondent admired tend to be focused on the humanities.  He suggests that there’s nothing wrong with being focused on this

“Don’t think that the vocation of intellectuals is found only or preeminently among those who attend to the human. The tools of thought and the capacity to use them are needed just as much by those who think about the nonhuman world, and I recommend that, as you continue to think about the shape of your particular intellectual vocation, you read, experimentally, those who’ve devoted their intellectual lives, in part or whole, to doing that.”

In other words, read broadly.  Read the classics in as many different fields as you can.  In a way, this exhortation reminds me of Mortimer Adler’s commendation of the great books curriculum at the end of his masterpiece How to Read a Book.

Having talked about the characteristics of intellectuals, Griffiths then turns to the question at hand – how do you prepare to be one?

First topic at hand is figuring out what to think about.   He makes the analogy of falling in love.

“Your gaze is drawn, a flirtation begins, you learn more, you find some interlocutors, and, sometimes before you know it, your topic is before you and your intellectual course is set. There’s no algorithm for this: It’ll happen or it won’t.”

How often it is that the love of the subject is ground out of aspiring intellectuals by the academic process.   My mentor Paul Ragan used to take pride in the fact that he finished his pHD work still loving his subject matter (Faulkner’s novels), when so many of his contemporaries never returned to their field of study again.

The love analogy works on a number of levels too.  It implies continual growth and discovery, frustration and disappointment, and ultimately enchantment.

Griffiths begins to offer tough challenges – perhaps you like the idea of being an intellectual rather than the actual field of study.  Or even more – perhaps you’re an intellectual dilettante:

“You’ll love what you think about and you’ll think hard about it, but you’ll be easily bored and won’t think about anything for long. You’ll read many things and (perhaps) write many, but you’ll read and write about disparate topics, and once you’ve read for a while about something, and perhaps written about it, you’ll move on to something else.”

This hits painfully close to home for me, as I’ve been curious about and interested in a wide range of topics.  he says of such people:

“…their intellectual life coruscates, sparking here and there like a firefly on the porch, but illuminating nothing for long.”

Griffiths says that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being dilettantish – he acknowledges that some really interesting work can be done by such intellectuals.  He simply suggests that the work will never be as deep and profound as the work of seriously focused intellectuals.

Then there is the necessity of time.  Long regular uninterrupted swaths of time.  This is necessary because:

“…intellectual work is, typically, cumulative and has momentum. It doesn’t leap from one eureka moment to the next, even though there may be such moments in your life if you’re fortunate. No, it builds slowly from one day to the next, one month to the next … Undistracted time is the space in which intellectual work is done: It’s the space for that work in the same way that the factory floor is the space for the assembly line.”

Cultivating this kind of time requires discipline and focus.  And sacrifice.  And likely it will produce a sense of loneliness.

Of course basic training in a discipline is necessary – and the most essential skill that is attained in training is attention:

“Attention can be thought of as a long, slow, surprised gaze at whatever it is.”

I love these three adjectives “long, slow, surprised.”  They summarize everything that is countercultural about intellectualism.  The sped up nature of contemporary society enculturates us to the short glance, the rapid succession of options, and the jadedness of quick synopses.    I especially love the quality of “surprised” – always looking for something that’s new, something that captures the attention.  Much like Gandalf’s amazement that quiet little hobbits can produce such interesting and heroic surprises.

Griffiths frankly acknowledges the specter of boredom – and he urges us not to fall for the lie that we’ve exhausted all the possibilities in a topic.  Rather, by practicing the habit of attention, we can develop our capacity to sustain our gaze and learn all the more.

He stresses the need for “interlocutors” – conversation partners.  Those of like mind who are thinking similar thoughts and asking similar questions:

“You can’t develop the needed skills or appropriate the needed body of knowledge without them. You can’t do it by yourself. Solitude and loneliness, yes, very well; but that solitude must grow out of and continually be nourished by conversation with others”

No man is an island, says John Donne.  Griffiths suggests that the university is the best place to find such interlocutors.  I wonder what it is like to cultivate such a life in the church.  A church is composed of people from all different walks and perspectives.  Perhaps there are some that would share your particular intellectual curiosity?

Interestingly, Griffiths says the university can also be a distraction from the intellectual life.  The university can come up with any number of games to keep you busy as an academic professional rather than an intellectual.  This sounds vaguely akin to the warning from Bill George about “the Game” 

And then Griffiths closes with the best advice possible about the intellectual life:

And lastly: Don’t do any of the things I’ve recommended unless it seems to you that you must. The world doesn’t need many intellectuals. Most people have neither the talent nor the taste for intellectual work, and most that is admirable and good about human life (love, self-sacrifice, justice, passion, martyrdom, hope) has little or nothing to do with what intellectuals do.

Here he wisely undercuts the pretensions that often lead people to intellectual work.  He acknowledges that intellectual work isn’t “higher” work.  It is just a type of work – a type of work necessary for society, but no more necessary than the work of laborers, peacekeepers, bureaucrats, and business folk.

I remember getting this advice at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts: don’t go into acting unless you absolutely have to- unless you just can’t do anything else.   Again, as I considered seminary – don’t go into the ministry unless there’s just nothing else that you can do.  Here again, we hear that same advice.  Do you feel the inner compass, the magnet pulling you viscerally forward, the inner fascination that compels you to find a way, despite the obstacles.  Then you might be called to a life of the mind.



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