When we typically think about learning, we tend to think about being in a structured school, and doing it for some reason — to get a grade, to get a degree, to get a certain job. But my guest today says that if we want to live a truly flourishing life, we ought to make time for study and thought long after we leave formal education behind, and embrace learning as something wonderfully useless.
Her name is Zena Hitz and she’s the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. We begin our conversation with how the unique Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College works, and how Zena got her undergraduate degree there and then went on to pursue a more traditional academic path, only to discover the downsides of the modern university system and be drawn back to St. John’s, where she now teaches. From there we turn to what Zena argues are the hidden pleasures of the intellectual life, which include learning for its own sake as opposed to doing it to advance some goal, developing a rich inner life, and embracing the idea of true leisure. We then discuss how thinking and studying for its own sake is different from watching TV or playing video games, and how it can create a resilience-building, inner-directed refuge from an externally-driven world. We end our conversation with how you can carve out space for contemplation amidst the overload and noise of modern life, the importance of finding a community that wants the same thing, and how to get started with deeper study and reflection by reading the Great Books.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What’s unique about St. John’s College? How does it inspire the intellectual life?
- Why are the pleasures of learning for its own sake hidden?
- How learning for its own sake became so rare
- What are we working for? How has our leisure culture been lost?
- The importance differences between distraction and leisure
- How instrumentality can actually lead to learning for its own sake
- How the intellectual life can be a retreat from “the world”
- So what does this look like in the 21st century?
- The case for the Great Books
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Why You Need to Join the Great Conversation About the Great Books
- How to Read Long and Difficult Books
- Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers
- The Classical Education You Never Had
- Why Every Man Should Study Classical Culture
- How to Read a Book
- On the Joys and Travails of Thinking
- How and Why to Become a Lifelong Learner
- The Shut-In Economy
- The Razor’s Edge
- Thoreau on Simplicity and Aspiration
- The Power of Conversation
- Reclaiming Conversation
Connect With Zena
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When we typically think about learning, we tend to think about being in a structured school and doing it for some reason: To get a grade, to get a degree, to get a certain job. But my guest today says that if you wanna live a truly flourishing life we gotta make time for studying thought long after we leave formal education behind and embrace learning as something wonderfully useless. Her name is Zena Hitz and she’s the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. We begin our conversation with how the unique Great Books curriculum at St John’s College works and how Zena got her undergraduate degree there and went on to pursue a more traditional academic path only to discover the downsides of the modern university system and be drawn back to St. John’s, where she now is a tutor. From there we turn to what Zena argues are the hidden pleasures of the intellectual life, which include learning for its own sake, as opposed to doing it to advance some goal, developing a rich inner life and embracing the idea of true leisure. We then discuss how thinking and studying for its own sake is different from watching TV or playing video games, and how it can create a resilience-building inner-directed refuge from an externally-driven world.
We end our conversation with how you can carve out space for contemplation amidst the overload and noise and modern life, the importance of finding a community that wants the same thing, and how to get started with deeper study and reflection by reading The Great Books. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/lostinthought.
Zena Hitz, welcome to the show.
Zena Hitz: Thanks so much, it’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out. Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, which we’re gonna talk about today. But you’re also a tutor at St. John’s College. And for those who aren’t familiar with St. John’s, it’s a unique university but a lot of people don’t know about it. What’s the curriculum like and can you walk us through that?
Zena Hitz: Sure. It’s a very small liberal arts college. We have about, on each campus, somewhere around 400-450 undergraduate students, and the program is set up as a encounter with Great Books, starting with Ancient Greece in the freshman year, and concluding with 20th century authors in the senior year. And what’s particularly unique about our program is that we have a seminar where we read great works of literature, philosophy, political theory, Plato, Aristotle, Adam Smith, etcetera, Jane Austen, but we also have a mathematics and a science component where we do mathematics also chronologically, starting with Euclid and ending with Einstein. We have a science curriculum that looks at science from original papers and original experiments, so it’s a foundational look at science. And also a music curriculum, and we have also some languages. We study Ancient Greek and French. So one of the many things that’s unique is that it’s an all-required curriculum, that is there’s basically no electives. Everyone does the same thing, which builds a really intense sense of community on campus that not only is everyone, say, among the freshman reading at the same time but there’s a common store of books that the students can call upon as they progress in their studies. And they can talk to anyone on campus about these things.
So the other unique thing about it, apart from the, so to speak, the content of the curriculum and the books is that the classes are conducted by discussion. So the faculty like myself, we take a more of a side role, more of a collaborative role. We don’t call ourselves “professors” for that reason, we don’t hand down the truth from on high about what is going on with the material, but we work alongside with our students, we let them take the lead, and that helps not only to keep the discussions fresh and spontaneous but also it makes sure that the learning is directed by the students’ own questions. So we’re trying to keep the “liberal”… That is, the “freedom” in liberal arts education. We think that education is about cultivating a free mind, a person who can formulate their own questions and undertake their own answers, and so it’s important to us that the students be given a lot of responsibility over their learning. So that’s it in a nutshell. We have also MA programs for adults, which are probably more common among your listeners, but that’s the core of what we do, is our undergraduate program.
Brett McKay: And the two campuses, there’s one in Maryland and the other one’s in Santa Fe, right?
Zena Hitz: That’s right. So the Annapolis campus is closer to all of the East Coast stuff, but the Santa Fe campus is exceptionally beautiful. So that’s what divides us is the… [chuckle] The preferences between the two places.
Brett McKay: I love Santa Fe.
Zena Hitz: Oh my gosh, Santa Fe’s incredible.
Brett McKay: Is there tests or do you have to take an oral examination? How do you… Is there… Do you figure out proficiency? How do you decide, “Yes, you understand this concept” or does that even happen?
Zena Hitz: Well, what I would say is that the education is really student-directed in the sense I was describing earlier, that is an individual student is meant to bring their own questions to class and undertake their own work and come to their own conclusions. And going along with that, we think of learning as being progress that a student makes. If you think about it, what’s learning? Learning is moving from one place to another. You start in one starting place, you end up in another place. And our ordinary schemes of education which rely on testing and competency and so on don’t really respect that fact about learning, it’s more about reaching a certain set standard. And for this type of education I guess I’d say there’s a minimum standard, that is you have to stay engaged, you have to be thinking seriously, you have to be putting in some work, turning up for class. But there’s no… I think we’re reluctant to say there’s one thing that a liberal educated person should look like. So no we don’t have many tests. We do have some oral exams, which are really more like conversations about what the student read, a way to explore one-on-one with a student what they’ve been thinking about, and we have large essays every year and also for many small essays for classes.
But we try to de-emphasize grades and de-emphasize in general the culture of achievement, not because we’re hippies necessarily but because we think that learning is something which is individual and is best determined by an individual and an individual’s progress.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about how you ended up at St. John’s, I mean a tutor at St. John’s, because I think you talked… I mean it’s sort of like this book is in some ways it’s sort of a intellectual biography of how you’ve gotten to think about what it means to have an intellectual life. You weren’t always at St. John’s, what were you doing before that? And how did you end up there?
Zena Hitz: Well I was an undergraduate there, I had heard about it as a high school student and was totally repelled, it sounded completely boring and uninteresting and nothing like I wanted to do. But I was on campus for a summer program for high school students that was… We had a class that was taught in the St. John’s style, and I was just instantly enchanted and wanted to stay. So I had a very formative, or maybe transformative, experience there as an undergraduate. And then I went away to graduate school and I ended up by some good luck in some very elite programs, so I became a research academic. Research academia is the most prestigious part of academia, and that’s what the great research universities, the R1 universities, are the prestige centers of American education. So I was a research academic and I taught at mostly public universities for a number of years, eight years, something like that. And I think there were two things that went wrong. At first, of course, coming from St. John’s, it’s a wonderful place, but we prize the amateur, we prize the lover of learning for its own sake, and that has a certain cost that is you can miss out on really understanding a topic in depth, in all of its context, in all of its facets, with all of its details.
And I actually loved that aspect of being a research academic, I loved getting into the depths of the details of the materials. I was a scholar, I still am a scholar of classical philosophy, and so I was doing scholarly research and that was supposed to be the center of my life, the center of my career, and I found it harder and harder to feel motivated by it. I enjoyed it, but it seemed a bit… The audiences are small and it’s not obvious really what the social worth of that kind of research was, or it wasn’t clear to me then. And then the other thing that drove me down in ordinary academia was the teaching, which, as in most places, it’s large classrooms which really require a focus on lectures, a focus on digesting down the material into a few points that need to be memorized or learned and then repeated, and that just wasn’t the type of learning that I wanted to pass on to my students. And it was frankly boring after a while to keep doing it, it’s not intellectually exciting for the professor and I suspect, in most cases, it’s really not intellectually exciting for the students.
I think a lot of what’s happened in our universities as far as the humanities and the liberal arts is concerned is a kind of deadening of intellectual excitement, thanks to these large classes which are really not suited to the subject matter. So anyway, I got disillusioned, I kept casting around for something different, some different way of doing things, couldn’t figure it out. I finally… I had undergone a religious conversion right after I finished my PhD, I became Catholic, and so it was natural for me as a new convert to look at the various kinds of weird ways of life that the Catholic church offers. So I ended up leaving the profession and living in a Catholic religious community for a time in rural Canada for three years. And when I was there I thought a lot about… I couldn’t do much intellectual work, I had to really just be a more ordinary grounded human being, and that forced me to really think about why intellectual work, why study matters for ordinary people, and that in turn made me realize that I could be happy as an academic if I went back to St. John’s, as opposed to the research academic life that I’d been living previously. So that’s a somewhat long-winded version of the story that I tell in the first part of my book.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about… Dig into the book and sort of your philosophy about learning. You say that learning, the intellectual life, there’s hidden pleasures to it. In what sense is the intellectual life, the pleasures of intellectual life, hidden?
Zena Hitz: Well, the concept that seems to be central is “learning for its own sake”. So if most of us these days, when we think about going to college or going back to graduate school, we’re thinking about trying to either advance ourselves in our careers in some way, get better jobs, get more prominence, or make an impact in the world in some way, “make a difference” as they say. That is the opposite of “hidden-ness”. So that is what you might call worldliness or publicity or something like that.
So learning for its own sake is hidden in the sense that, in one way, because it’s useless. It doesn’t make a difference in the same way that, say, pharmaceutical research makes a difference when people are figuring out how to cure COVID or similar life-threatening diseases. It doesn’t have an obvious use, and that makes it hidden. That’s one thing. The second way it’s hidden is that I think it’s part of the inner life of a human being. So it’s something that we keep in ourselves, regardless of what else is going on in our lives. So I think one stock example, the bookwork sort of hiding in the corner reading a book, is leading a kind of inner life. And likewise, if you are the sort of person who goes on walks and thinks about things, many of us are, that too is a kind of inner life, it’s a kind of hidden life. So I wanted in my book, because we hear so much praise of impact and making a difference, I wanted to praise those other features of being a human being: What’s private, what’s inward, what is for its own sake, what doesn’t necessarily make a splash. Because I think that, in fact, we need those things in order to be happy, healthy, flourishing human beings.
Brett McKay: Well let’s dig into these ideas a little bit deeper. So let’s talk… We can talk about learning for the sake of learning, ’cause this goes to Aristotle, with ends and means and things like that.
Zena Hitz: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Right. And I think today, in the modern world, we typically think of education. I think we give it a lot of lip service, like, “Hey, learning for the sake of learning”, but when we go to college what we mean is, “Well you go to college so you can get a career and make money” or whatever.
Zena Hitz: That’s right, so I don’t… I think I wanna be clear, in a way that I’m not always in these types of interviews, there’s nothing wrong with learning for the sake of something else, that is there’s nothing wrong with studying medicine in order to become a doctor, or studying massage in order to become a massage therapist, or any of these things. There’s nothing wrong with that… Becoming an engineer. It’s… The problem is when we think that that’s all there is to learning, and I think we think that’s all there is to learning because we think that’s all there is to life. Whereas if you think it through, along the lines that someone like Aristotle thought about it, your life doesn’t make sense if everything is a means to an end. So some things have gotta be means to an end. If you want certain things, you do certain things to get them. But we have a weird tendency to be workaholic, to instrumentalize absolutely everything, to seek out modes of achievement as if they were valuable for their own sake and not for the sake of something else. So that, in other words, if you… Let me use a more down to earth example, I think I’m being a little abstract, if I ask myself why do I eat breakfast, now that’s an instrumental activity usually. You eat breakfast for the sake of a bit of energy to get through your day, to stay healthy, for nutrients.
Well, why do you do that? Well you do that because you need to work, you do that because you wanna be there for your family. You could imagine giving a string of answers which never culminate in anything. What you want, it seems to me, to say about your own life is that there’s some activity or set of activities that is what your life culminates in, that constitute your well-being or your happiness, whether that’s playing music or being with your family or studying or going on walks in nature or whatever it is. There has to be something like that or your life doesn’t make any sense. So that’s the thought about means and ends, and that’s the danger of instrumentalizing learning, is that we lose track of the fact that there are forms of learning that are really just for their own sake. They don’t have any use, and those are the things that need to be especially preserved in a market economy or in a very utility-focused culture. We need to make a special effort to preserve the things which don’t have an obvious use, because they’re in fact, in a certain way, the most central thing for us, the things that… The places in which we flourish and are happy, in which our lives culminate.
Brett McKay: Well, all those things you described, taking walks in nature, spending time with family and friends, learning because you just enjoy it, that’s what we would call “leisure”, but you have this great section in the book, particularly in America we kinda lost touch with what it means to have a leisurely life.
Zena Hitz: I think that’s right, and I think you can see that actually in… I mean, it’s a bit of a cliche, but the contrast with European culture where there’s a bit more of a sense that there’s more to life than work. And you see that in the way they take vacations and the way they use their weekends. I’m sure it’s changing, just as we have, I’m not sure it’s built into Europe or anything like that, but whereas I myself, and I know many people who are like me, we’re content working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. And you have to ask yourself at some point, “What are you doing that for? Is that really what your life is all about?” One example I use in the book that I found very moving, it was an essay on medium a couple of years ago by a journalist named Lauren Smiley, who’s based out in the Bay Area, and she was describing how in what’s called “the gig economy”, you have these workers who are stacking job upon job to make a living. They’re an Uber driver part of the time, and they do Amazon delivery part of the time, and they just stack thing upon thing. And then she looks at the people that they’re serving, the sort of high-end tech workers in the Bay Area, and what are they doing with all of this time that’s created by all of these conveniences, the DoorDash and the Uber, and the delivery, and the home cleaning service, and the home hair dressing service and the home organizing service?
You know, what are they doing with all the free time? Well they’re working more for their companies. [chuckle] So they’re putting in these huge long hours a week. So you get this image of an upper class and a lower class, each of which is working their absolute butts off, and it doesn’t make sense. Human beings are meant to have some parts of their life that are dedicated to leisure, and leisure is not just resting up so you can do more work. It’s, again, it’s what your life culminates in, it’s what makes you flourish as a human being, and that requires some discernment for individuals but it’s always something for its own sake, I think it always has that structure.
Brett McKay: Now you have this great section where you’re describing that dynamic, having all these gig economy workers working for these titans of Silicon Valley, and here’s… I’ll read it ’cause I thought… It really hit me. It says “The masters of our current serving class have no leisure either. The slave is a slave of a slave. And these days, at the top of the heap of slaves, there’s not even an exploitative gentleman farmer, writing essays, dissecting animals and speculating on the nature of the political, but another slave at a higher social rank.”
Zena Hitz: Yes, that’s right. When Aristotle wrote… Of course, Aristotle’s notoriously what you’d call “elitist”. “Elitist” is in a way kind of a weak word for it, he’s deeply an egalitarian thinker, so he thinks that if some human beings can live the best life, and only if you are really capable of living the best life… ’cause for Aristotle life is really just philosophy, then it’s perfectly reasonable to ask other people to live a sort of sub-standard human life in order to provide for the necessities of the best people. And that’s an idea that’s had a lot of influence in the history of Europe and the US, and that has a history for intellectual life, because of course it’s that intellectual work which belongs at the top with the country gentleman and his researches. And of course, I think I was probably thinking of someone like a polymath like Thomas Jefferson who, if you go to Monticello, this guy was interested in absolutely everything and studied and thought and wrote, and that was all possible, of course, by slave labor. So part of what I wanna do in my book, and it’s not original to me, it’s something which thinkers of the early to mid-20th century, we’re also striving to do, it’s to.
Keep that idea, that Aristotelian idea of an intellectual life as involving leisure, as involving contemplation as being necessary for human happiness, but noticing the ways in which ordinary people can also live it. So my book has a very strong egalitarian motive in that I think that this type of… I think that thinking and study for its own sake are really for everyone and I want to bring out the ways in which thinking and studying benefit the lives of ordinary people. And going along with that I think it’s… Going back to the passage you read, it’s of course deeply ironic that the aristocracy that we have now, such as it is, has no leisure, has no beautiful products or incredible books or… It just keeps producing more and more of itself, as more and more conveniences, more and more devices, and there’s this sense in which our common life as well as our individual life is missing a point, is missing some meaning or something fundamental.
Brett McKay: And what is it about learning? Reading the great books, it can be like… Or learning about art or music. How is that different? Someone would say, “Well, I have a leisure, I play a video game, I watch Netflix.” How are those different from what you’re encouraging in the book?
Zena Hitz: That’s a great question. And I try, I think I fail sometimes, I try not to be too moralistic about it. So I do think there’s a difference between Netflix, doom scrolling on social media, playing video games, those are normally what I would call a distraction. They’re not bad, sometimes it’s the best you can do, you’re just too tired to do anything else, but they’re not restorative. There isn’t necessarily any kind of personal growth that results from them the way that you tend to grow from learning, it’s one of the things that makes learning “learning”. So the distinction’s a bit intuitive and it’s a bit flexible, because of course you can imagine someone who really thought… There’s actually a philosopher working now named Tin Yun who is thinking about games, including video games, and the ways in which they can be contemplative or the ways in which they involve real thinking, and that’s of course a real possibility, that you’re really thinking about things when you’re playing games, or you’re exercising a creative capacity like as you would in creating art or music.
But, in general, the differences between distraction, something which wears you down in the end if you do it for too long, something which makes you feel empty after a long period of time, and the kinds of activities which are nutritious, so to speak, they give you something to grow from, to live on, to find rest in. And I think everyone can feel that distinction with a bit of reflection. We all know which things are restorative or make us grow and which things really, just in the long term, aren’t good for us. For me it’s social media, that’s my distraction of choice, but I know there’s a difference between that and reading a good book or playing music or what have you. So I think most people have some way of making the distinction in their own lives between distraction and contemplation.
Brett McKay: And I wanna go back this idea you talked about, there’s nothing wrong with learning for the sake of a job, etcetera, or status, and in fact, because you have to make a living, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from achieving something, but you also make this point in the book that what starts off as a means can end up as an end, right? The instrumentality of learning can actually end up being the thing that leads that person to doing it just for the love of it.
Zena Hitz: Oh, that’s right. So, yeah, that’s something I say to try to bring out too, that it’s not learning for its own sake as opposed to learning for the sake of something else, learning instrumentally. It’s not like a matter of purity, so it’s not as if you’ve got to just only do absolutely the most pure forms of learning and examine your conscience to make sure you’re really doing it for your own sake and not for the sake of the grade or the achievement or the degree or anything like that. The fact is that most of the time the types of learning we undertake have mixed motives. And what’s interesting to me is that you can easily make a transition, I think it’s very common, from a very instrumental achievement-oriented approach to learning and learning for its own sake. So my favorite example is from Steve Martin’s autobiography. He’s dating this woman as a teenager, he’s madly in love with her, and she reads this book called The Razors Edge by Somerset Maugham, and she tells him to read it, and he says, “If she’d told me to put on a ball gown, I would have done it. But she told me to read this book, so I read this book.” And by reading the book, he falls in love with learning for its own sake, with wisdom, with philosophy, as depicted there, and of course he became a philosophy major in college, thanks to that.
Brett McKay: And that’s an example of “Why did he start to read that book?” Well, it was sort of people-pleasing, it was to get in with his girlfriend, it was to make her happy, and what happened along the way is that he actually ended up being touched in a different way by the learning and doing learning fo it’s own sake. So, similarly, I think it’s very common, people learn, say, their math and physics because they’ve gotta get into a good college and those are the fields that really matter and they just study their butts off and all they’re thinking about is getting the A or maybe the A+ and maybe the extra credit so they can get into the best schools, but it can happen that you pause for a second and suddenly realize how beautiful and fascinating mathematics or physics is. And I think that is.
Zena Hitz: That’s probably the way that most people who love learning for its own sake and do it at a professional or academic level, that’s probably the way it happens for most of us, is you start out in the world of achievement and you find yourself doing it for other reasons. You find yourself exploring different ideas which aren’t necessarily directed at achievement. So that to me is a sign that there’s something in us that really wants to learn this way, it’s not imaginary, it’s not moralistic, it’s just something that we want and something that’s good for us and that we need to just recognize and try to cultivate.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I had that experience. I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Letters, which is basically a Humanities degree, at the University of Oklahoma.
Zena Hitz: Oh yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I did that because everyone… I guess I wanted to go to law school and they’re like, “Well if you’re gonna go to law school, Letters is a good degree to get.” It’s like, “Okay, well that’s what I’m wanna do.” Well I ended up just falling in love with philosophy and literature, and 20 years later I’m still reading the stuff I was reading as an undergrad but just for fun, ’cause I enjoy it.
Zena Hitz: Now, that’s the perfect story. Exactly. I think that happens all the time. So for that reason I try to be… I try to moderate my critique of the instrumental approach to education. I think it does a lot of good for people and it also can really be valuable. There’s stuff that needs to be done and you’ve gotta do some learning to do it. The only worry is when you never get past that, or when you’re really discouraged from getting past that because you’re so anxious about taking the time to really do something that you care about.
Brett McKay: Alright, so there’s just the pleasure of just learning for the sake of learning, ’cause it’s just part of being human, we have a chance to do something that has no other… It’s like not a means to anything else.
Zena Hitz: That’s right.
Brett McKay: It’s leisurely. Well, another pleasure of it is that learning, the intellectual life, can be a refuge from what you call “the world.” What do you mean by that? What is “the world”?
Zena Hitz: So, “the world” is a term of art, as we say, it’s a word I’m using in a very specific way, so I don’t mean the world as in the outside world or the natural world, what I mean is the world basically of social competition, the world of striving for status and for money and for advancement. So it’s a place where the standards are… A place that is, it’s a state of being really, or an attitude towards what you do, which involves thinking about other people’s standards, that is it’s externally directed.
And what’s wrong with it is… Not that there’s anything wrong with being aware of the standards of other people or that there’s necessarily anything wrong with engaging in the world of striving and competition, but I do think that if you live totally immersed in the world in this sense then the way you’re living is task after task, achievement after achievement, and there’s an emptiness that goes along with that, there’s a hollow-ness, there’s a dependence on others, which is not healthy. So much of our great literature, 19th century novels, it’s about people who strive for recognition in the social world, and they may get it for a time but the world is capricious, it gives favor one day and it takes it away the next. So we need in our lives sort of spaces of being, modes of being, which are withdrawn from considerations of status, withdrawn from considerations of money making, withdrawn from the standards of the judgment of others, and so the inner life, in other words, is what I call it, an inner life where you withdraw from the world and cultivate things that you care about most…
And it’s the inner life that’s a source of resilience. One of my beefs with contemporary ways that we talk about education is we talk about educating for success, educating for achievement. There’s nothing wrong with success and achievement, but they’re not exactly always in our control, and you need to have resources within yourself to handle whatever happens. You need a way for your life to be rich and meaningful even in the worst circumstances, even in failure and despair.
Brett McKay: No. Well, I get that. Because when I was reading that section it really resonated with me because this idea of “the world”, whenever… I think everyone has to engage with it to a certain extent, but whenever I do I often feel like I don’t really own this, like I don’t… Like a part of me, whenever I put myself out there I no longer own myself, right?
Zena Hitz: Right.
Brett McKay: Then other people can say and have opinions about what I do. And, I don’t know, you start… You become aware that you’re performing, and that just feels weird, and so I like having that idea where I have a place where it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m just doing this for me, I don’t care what anyone else says about it. It’s a way to… When you withdraw inward it’s a way to restore dignity, I think.
Zena Hitz: I think that’s right. And as I’m thinking about it there’s, in a way, two ways of thinking about it. There’s the way that I write about it mostly in the book, which is in the way that you just talked about it, where you… And I think this is a perfectly healthy way to live, you live part of your life out in the world, in the realm of competition, in the realm of status seeking, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but then you’ve gotta take a break. You retreat, you find things that nourish yourself that’s really withdrawn from all of that stuff. So I think that’s healthy. I also think that… And maybe I wish I’d said a bit more about this in the book, I think that if you become accustomed to living more inwardly and less focused on the external, the status markers, the competitive, the sense of performance and performance for an audience, I think truthfully when you do get involved in the world.
That is to say in the community, in the political world, but I think what you do is actually more effective, I think you can see more clearly what really matters, that is some independence from the judgments of others and some independence from competition for status is good even for outward-directed activity, it makes you more aware of what matters and more able to focus on doing work that’s good, as opposed to doing work that meets the market of the moment.
Brett McKay: Well, this reminds me of an example from Thoreau. Thoreau, when he first started his career he went to New York, he wanted to make a big splash in the literary world, and then he just was a total flop. Just everyone laughed at him and said, “Get out of here.” And so what he does, well he goes to Walden Pond and he just starts doing… He writes about nature, builds a shack, writes about whatever, and that’s the thing that became… That’s why we were talking about Thoreau today.
Zena Hitz: Exactly. Exactly, and of course it’s ironic just in the same way it’s ironic that, of course, this is my first book and it’s being received well and it’s all about how you shouldn’t just try to do nothing but publish books and have impact. [laughter] So it’s… So, I’m not as brilliant as Thoreau, but it’s a similar situation where you can make your career by promoting being anti-career or something like that. I think Thoreau’s also a great example for thinking about inwardness, one of the things I discovered recently is Thoreau’s journals, which are extremely beautiful, they’re just full of these little reflections, usually on nature or something else, and they’re not things he wrote for an audience, so far as I know, and they’re some of the best things he wrote. So that’s another example I think of… Yeah, just how much inwardness can matter, not only for oneself but for others.
Brett McKay: So what does this look like in the 21st century? It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to a pond and build a shack, but how can you sort of withdraw and set up an intellectual space just for yourself?
Zena Hitz: Well, I think that’s what’s challenging for most of us, especially these days. If you have the good fortune to work remotely it’s hard to find a space that’s not workspace, or time that’s not work time or that’s not… You need time that’s not designated to any particular purpose. And so carving out some piece of time, even if it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour, to sit and think, to reflect to write in a journal, to read, any of those things I think is really crucial. But the other thing I say in this context is I think it’s very important to try to find other people who are also interested in undertaking learning for its own sake, or cultivating an inner life. It sounds paradoxical because I’m talking about inwardness and a certain kind of self-sufficiency, but for all of these things we need a bit of help and support, and I think that a friend or two who are also trying to do the same thing who you can touch base with and swap notes with, I think that can make a huge difference to one’s success in really carving out space for oneself. But it’s so variable and so dependent on people’s circumstances: The types of work they have, the types of family lives they have, that it’s hard to give very specific advice, apart from carving out space no matter how small, carving out time no matter how short, and finding people to talk to about what you’re doing so that you can have some support in that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, conversation. One of those human activities just… It’s pleasurable just for the sake of doing it.
Zena Hitz: Exactly, exactly. And I think that conversation for its own sake is also something a bit endangered, a conversation that’s where you’re really trying to seriously work something out with someone else, but not for any particular purpose. I think even I don’t have conversations just like that as much as I used to have or as much as I might want to have, even though I’m supposed to have built my life around it, so… Yeah, I think conversation is great.
Brett McKay: Well, I think what a lot of people try to do, they try to do it on the internet. They try to tweet this stuff and that never works. I don’t know, maybe it does work, I’ve never had good… But the best experience I’ve had is when I’ve been with people I know, I’ve had this connection with them, we’re in-person, and we just sort of bounce ideas off each other, they go different places, and it’s edifying. When you try to do that on Twitter, I don’t know, the mode of communication doesn’t really allow that that much.
Zena Hitz: I have to say, I’ve had a very good experience on Twitter, I have been on for a little over a year, I got on to promote the book. I think one thing it’s good for is connecting with people who have similar concerns or similar values. So I’ve met a ton of people on Twitter who are seriously interested in learning for its own sake, who I never would have known about otherwise. Some of them are academics who are working, doing similar work as I am, some of them were just ordinary people who are trying to learn in kind of straightened circumstances, and Twitter is one of their only points of access. So you can connect with people that way. I agree with you that as far as real conversation is concerned, probably the best thing to do would be to use the internet to find the people and then bring those conversations into something like real life, even a telephone conversation, if not an in-person conversation. Try to build a real friendship beyond just the social media connection.
Brett McKay: Well, so we’ve been talking about the pleasures of an intellectual life, what’s something… Like say someone, they’re like, “I wanna do this but I don’t know how to get started.” What’s the first step someone can take in embracing this love of learning for just the love of learning?
Zena Hitz: So, I think that I’m a big fan of what are called “Great Books.” You can take as broad a view of what they are as you like, there’s Great Books in a variety of traditions from all over the world, some of those overlap with the stuff that I tend to teach, which I what you’d call “the Western tradition”, but some of them don’t overlap and there’s all kinds of… Every culture in the world has some repository of wisdom and learning that’s worth investigating. So I think reading Great Books is a really, really good way of cultivating one’s inner life and cultivating a life of reflection and cultivating a life of leisure. I think that the key obstacle, actually more than time, is of course community. So that’s why I say find a friend or a pair of friends to read with. It doesn’t take a lot of resources, you just need a couple of people and some books and some time to talk, and work through a book like a book club style and have conversations about it, and that will make it easier to motivate yourself, ’cause most of us nowadays with the attention spans we have it’s hard to read any book, much less a difficult book.
So a little bit of social pressure is gonna help. There’s some online programs which help and which provide community. There’s also, of course, local programs through public libraries and things like that, depending on where you live. So I think trying to find a way to study and to read seriously is one of the best things you can do.
Brett McKay: Well Zena, this has been a great conversation, is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Zena Hitz: Sure, I have a web page, zenahitz.net, and there’s reviews and a few other interviews and some podcasts on there if you wanna get a taste of it, and the book itself I am proud to say I worked hard to make it a pretty easy read, so I hope you’ll take a look at that too. But anyway, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, thanks so much for listening, all of you listening, and thanks so much for your questions, Brett.
Brett McKay: Thanks so much, Zena.
Zena Hitz: Thanks.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Zena Hitz, she’s the author of the book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website zenahitz.net. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/lostinthought, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years. Enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, to sign up use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcasts or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank for the continued support, and until next time this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.