Dealing with the Fact that We Live with Minds

Roger Scruton’s EPPC essay “Living with a Mind” is worth a thoughtful perusal. The heart of the essay concerns Scruton’s understanding of leisure in the Aristotelian sense. The introduction of this human ideal occasions a three-sentence review of Parfit’s massive On What Matters as an illustrative aside:

Aristotle describes work as ascholia, the absence of leisure, implying that only schole is really an end in itself, all work being no more than a means to it. Aristotle’s vision led me back, after two years of wandering following my graduation, to Cambridge University, there to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy. But it also led me to see that academic knowledge is as much a distraction from the life of the mind as an application of it. This was vividly brought home to me recently, reading the vast work of academic moral philosophy On What Matters, by Derek Parfit, in which problems concerning the switching of trolleys from one rail to another in order to prevent or cause the deaths of those further down the line are presented as showing the essence of moral reasoning and its place in the life of human beings. Nothing that really matters to human beings—their loves, responsibilities, attachments, their delights, aesthetic values, and spiritual needs—occurs in Parfit’s interminable narrative. All is swept into a corner by the great broom of utilitarian reasoning, to be left there in a heap of dust.

Not to be missed, however, is the work put in to actually reading the book.

Scruton tells us that he “retained a longing for the ideal of the collegiate life” during his academic career and that he “came to see that it is far easier to create this society for yourself than to find it in institutions of higher learning.” He then “set out, after long delays, on my independent path through the world of ideas, it was in order to look for soul mates whose thinking arose from the encounter with life, whether real or imagined.” Perhaps not unintentional is the twist on Descartes’ own striking out and leaving the academy.

A striking tension within the essay is, on the one hand, the juxtaposition of the French over and against the English attitudes towards the place of intellectuals in society and, on the other hand, the examples Scruton provides to illustrate where and how he broke out of the academic variations of the intellectual life: law, journalism, music, writing for close friends, and a humility of presentation of one’s own ideas. The conspicuous, alien, yet public place of the French intellectual in his society he depicts in stark contrast to the unknown, familiar, yet private place allotted to his English counterpart. The solution to the isolation of the professional academic, however, is found in public practices or at least activities of a social nature. In this way, the academic overcomes what he lacks by finding a place within a community of minds; the collegiate or the scholê surpasses, therefore, how both the French and English place their thinkers.

This collegiate life is in some contrast to how Scruton ends the essay, focusing (with some ambiguity) on the value of the fact that we live with minds—not just alone—, for truth is a common good sought out by each one and this is only fully expressed with others. Doubtless, study and writing are best reserved as a solitary activities, but the bloom on the rose of the life of leisure comes only when shared:

The life of the mind is a lifelong recreation, a re-creation of reality, and a way of belonging. That is the theme of Eliot’s great poem, as I understand it, and it is a theme that connects the world of books to the world of music. The peace that we create through reading, writing, and discussion is also portrayed in our music, in which separate voices come together in harmony, and move under their mutual influence toward a shared destination. You the listener also share this destination, for “you are the music, while the music lasts.” This image of a fulfillment, achieved through mutuality and by the exercise of purely mental powers, has remained with me throughout my life, telling me that, whatever trouble or frustration may come to me, I have only to open a book, listen to a symphony, or run my pen across a blank sheet of paper, and I will be back home, in the place where I belong, a fellow of the virtual college that I have spent a lifetime in creating, communing inwardly with my imagined friends.

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