Intellectuals, by popular opinion, are known as out of touch eggheads locked in Ivory Towers that we should not trust. This view, sometimes accurate when the shoe fits, leads us to disdain any sort of education that obviously does not have to do with our jobs. Chefs only learn from chefs, entrepreneurs only learn from entrepreneurs, tradesmen only learn from tradesmen, etc. This specific type of education has fragmented us as individuals and as a community.
This problem stems from a misunderstanding on what it means to be an intellectual, and who is called to be one.
A true intellectual is not an out of touch egghead, and it is not a snobbish few that are called to an intellectual life.
On the contrary, a true intellectual understands the world as it truly is, and all of us are called to live an intellectual life.
I am not saying that all of us are called to dedicate our careers to be professional intellectuals, what the historian Richard Hofstadter calls “mental technicians.” What I am saying is that we do have a calling to cultivate our minds. For example, everybody knows that we need to be physically healthy with the goal of living longer and better, but that does not mean that everyone should be a fitness instructor, or an athlete. There is a difference between being fit and being a professional, just as there is a difference between being an intellectual and using your intelligence for profit.
- Education: Properly Understood
Education cannot be avoided in the intellectual life. All of us need it, and in one shape or form receive it. Education comes from the Latin word educere which means “to bring forth, or to complete something already begun.” Our first educators were our parents, who taught us how to speak, how to listen, how to read, how to run, how to play, among other essential activities that make us human. We come to this world not knowing, and this is why we get educated.
Aristotle said that humans are rational animals, that is, animals that can think. And as we grow, our thinking matures. However, just as our bodies grow thanks to physical nutrition, our minds cannot grow unless we are mentally nurtured. This is why we go to school. But, as we get older, we tend to specialize on what we like, and avoid what is difficult and unpopular. Finally, we reach adulthood, where we choose to do only what we enjoy, and think that our education stops because school is over.
Education, nowadays, is misunderstood to be learning for a career. That is not education; that is training. I trained to be a HVAC technician, but that is not where my education should end. It should never end there because to be human is to be more than an employee. If you believe that your education finishes when you get a good job, you are a slave. An automaton. Only good to do what you are hired to do.
- Mind and Heart: Knowing and Living the Good Life
In a short but compelling book titled “The Life of the Mind,” the late great James Schall, S.J. argued that the end of a good education is Wisdom. This end is sought after by all true intellectuals —– the knowledge of how to live a good life. The difficulty arises , according to Schall, when we amputate our hearts from our minds; our thoughts from our living; our talk from our walk.
Take the life of my patron saint, Saint Augustine, for example. In his “Confessions,” Augustine discovers the writing of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, and from that moment on, he decides to become a philosopher. However, even though he pursued the intellectual life, he was still unhappy. Finally, one day, he understood why he was unhappy when he picked up Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. Happiness does not only come from knowing the Truth, but also comes from living it.
Augustine understood the reason that people are unhappy was not because they are ignorant of the good life, it’s because their hearts are not on the right place. Bad living does not come from the mind, it comes from the heart. Understanding things as they are guides us when in our hearts we decide to walk that Road to Happiness. J.R.R. Tolkien, in “The Lord of the Rings,” vividly portrays that the road to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power over you is difficult, but not impossible. Hard, but worth it. A true intellectual pursues Wisdom and adjusts his life to living that good life understood by the wise.
- Going Beyond the Mind You Already Have
When I talk about an intellectual understanding the world as it is, I mean that they have a clear vision. In other words, they see clearly. The physical act of seeing has always been used symbolically to express understanding. The Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Robert Barron, wrote a book titled “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation,” in which he argued that grasping reality and seeing are one and the same. He also informs us that the word repent comes from the Greek metanoiete.
His point is that the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark include this command to metanoia. “Jesus urges his listeners to change their way of knowing, their way of perceiving and grasping reality, their perspective, their mode of seeing.”
This act of metanoiete is what an intellectual does. By pursuing Wisdom, they seek to go beyond what they understand right now, and with that proper understanding of what the world is and our role in it, they can properly navigate life.
- Called to the Good Life
We are called to be intelligent, to go beyond our toddler mindset just like our bodies go beyond our toddler bodies. We are called to see the world as it is, to see ourselves as we are, and live truly happy lives.
A true intellectual understands what is Beauty, what is Good, and what is Truth, and navigates his life according to those Lighthouses. Those Lighthouses provide the guidance that we adventurers need to get home. A true intellectual cannot amputate his heart from his mind, otherwise, he’ll turn into that out of touch egghead that has spent too much time under boiling water.
- Mortimer Adler, How To Read A Book
- Mortimer Adler, Reforming Education
- Robert Barron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation
- James Schall, S.J., The Life of the Mind
- James Schall, S.J., Another Sort of Learning
- A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods (translated by Mary Ryan)
- Saint Augustine, Confessions (translated by Maria Boulding, O.S.B.)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings