Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, by Zena Hitz

It usually takes a few decades (ten, perhaps) till a book can be declared a classic. No doubt any rule about waiting to declare a book a classic is routinely violated. If I had to pick one book to risk premature declaration about, it would be this one. I think Zena Hitz has written classic.

Lost in Thought is a book about the intellectual life. There are many such books. Hitz’s book is not just another one, except that it is in the long honorable tradition of fresh statements of a classic thing. It is the unanticipated emergence of something we have encountered elsewhere; the effect is that of a new appreciation that makes it both a timely and a timeless book.
The introduction is about ends and means. “But I do think it ought to be clear by the end of this book that contemplation in the form of learning is a robust human good, valuable for its own sake and worthy of time and resources.”

One of the problems she wants to hit is that of those things which regularly overwhelm the intellectual life and have at present overwhelmed it in the universities. This problem structures her three chapters.

The first deals with prosperity and how it distracts us from the life of learning. I don’t know where else I’ve seen such a good case made for the importance of giving lesser things up for the greater, short of Augustine’s de Doctrina or Jonathan Edward’s The Christian Pilgrim. It is an argument for the importance of askesis in a life of purposeful leisure. Most intriguing.

The second chapter meditates at length on Augustine’s Confessions. She draws out a distinction between the merely curious and the truly studious. This chapter is interestingly timely. Armed with that distinction, you will see the internet in a new light. The distractions of undisciplined curiosity can overwhelm the concentration and contemplation of learning directed away from opinion and gazing on reality. At some point Hitz straight-out indicts our contemporary education and the goals of religious people saying all we aim for is the assimilation of correct opinion. The objects of knowledge should be the focus of learning.

The last thing that can overwhelm the life or learning is the political. Here Hitz is at her most Scrutonian: the usefulness of uselessness. All three threats are a kind of prostitution, of taking that which should be an end in itself and sacrificing it as a means to lesser ends. “If intellectual life is not left to rest in its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit. Likewise, the struggle for a just society is worthless if it costs us the fruits of justice.”

This book is balm, inspiration, focus, and radiant good sense. I think there is a world in which it does not become a classic. But I also think that is not a world in which the examined life exists.

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