What the Straus Center Is Reading — Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life lost thought straus halpern

Zena Hitz | Princeton University Press | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz argues for intellectual pursuits for no ulterior motive (what rabbinic Jews would call lishmah). Hitz, raised a secular Jew, converted to Catholicism as an adult and now teaches in the great books program at her alma mater, St. John’s College.

As she writes, “Intellectual life is a source of human dignity exactly because it is something beyond politics and social life.” She cautions fervently against the academic habit of selfishly pursuing knowledge that will offer “the thrill of recognition, the joy of winning favor, the delight in making a splash.” Having participated in the uniquely academic one-upmanship-through-public-critique arena, she realized such exercises were to no one’s benefit. Politics too falls prey to “the reduction of thinking and perception to simple design slogans or prefabricated positions, a reduction motivated by fear, competition, and laziness.” Instead, she encourages readers to embrace “the uses of uselessness.” True intellectual development through the pursuit of knowledge, she argues, “requires a chosen asceticism, a conscious rejection of available luxury.”

Throughout her compellingly written volume, Hitz offers quiet, unencumbered study—for everyone, in whatever pockets of time they can find for it—as humanly edifying. “Books, ideas, ordinary reflections on life—these are all ways to think about what we have in common as human beings,” she writes. “They can be ways for us to think about ourselves and our way of being in the world; about human strengths and weaknesses; about the nature of love or the nature of knowledge; about family, community, and authority; about the point (if there is one) of human existence. We ourselves become the objects of our study, and expertise becomes the point or even an obstacle.” Consciously cultivating a reflective inwardness is crucial to reflecting on our values and bonds with our fellow humans. Sitting on a couch and surfing through movie options, she notes, does not offer such possibilities.

Of course such time for reflection, away from “the anxious press of necessities,” can lead to discoveries that serve to benefit humanity. Einstein credited his quiet hours working in a patent office as his “worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.”

As Hitz concludes, “Our intellectual institutions may decay and collapse, but intellectual life cannot be allowed to follow. We must reconnect with and remind ourselves of what matters in what we do, so that this particularly human way of being, its joys and sorrows, its modes of excellence, and its unique bonds of communion, is not lost.”

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