Intellectual Isolation

The words “intellectual isolation” in a biography of T.S. Eliot provoked thought. Is it a legitimate designation? Is there such a thing? It has to be.

Jesus Christ came among us and lived as a peasant. Yet his intellectual hunger was seen when at the age of 12 he went to the temple and stayed behind, asking questions, seeking to understand, eager for it, no doubt enjoying the companionship. There is a companionship in learning, a collegiality however feeble. For me it is one of the great things I seek in learning, a community of learning, a sense of being at great things together. Perhaps it is strange to think of Jesus seeking it, but he could have studied the scrolls alone at home, couldn’t he? At least it seems to me to some extent he must have enjoyed the conversation of learning, found it necessary for understanding and beyond that sought the emotional satisfaction of something craved.

Perhaps it was attended with the growing misgiving of what the men he spoke with really valued, and that it was a false community. Back to the desert of intellectual isolation, back to Nazareth. He would be as he ministered a lonely man. In his maturity his most intelligent exchanges it seems were with enemies, not with his friends. He no doubt had satisfying conversations, but the accounts of his teaching his apostles give record their bafflement, not so much their understanding. He was amazed at the sluggish incomprehension of his friends–that tends not to be satisfying; one can detect in it a certain frustration. No wonder he was driven so often into the desert to pray, to commune with somebody at the level of some significance. That Jesus Christ himself should find solace in God the way we must! It is of course the most coherent thing, but still astonishing. And I also think that he didn’t quite have books the way we do today, didn’t have recordings to listen to, the works of art; no Borges or Scruton or Shostakovich or Pissarro. There the intellectual stimulus was about interpretation. And whatever you have, still conversation is chiefly sought. Which says much about prayer, and conversation with a person the discovery of whom satisfies the highest desire, and how one wants so much more than prayer, that best and worst of present means.

There is no career more strange than that of our Lord. Jesus Christ could not have experienced too much reciprocation, he had to give under the most extraordinary conditions. How hard it is to give. That’s perhaps more of what it means that it is more blessed. There are those who give cheaply, but there are those who give dearly, and it is the latter who know how blessed it is to be able to give, to really give, to truly give, to understand, to do it rightly, to have something to give, to have what is worth giving, I mean, and to refrain from demanding in return. To teach and do in intellectual isolation.

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