There’s a booming industry in the sort of self help that helps you get better at achieving things. New Stoicism, the art of micro habits, and all those substack mailing lists, all use the concept of margins to repackage chunks of advice about how you can gradually become something different. And for a lot of people, it works.
But there are also thousands of people for whom the endless trickle of false binaries, inspiring advice, and ‘not a trick’ tricks, are nothing more than a way to pass the time.
There is an illusion that success is the same as self-realisation. James Clear said recently: ‘If you want to avoid mistakes, read about the experiences of others. If you want to create something original, reflect on your own experiences.’
And this is morally necessary. If we want to improve the world we need to work hard.
But for many people, their worldly achievements are always going to be more mundane than original. And while capitalism and economic growth is undoubtedly the answer to our problems at the aggregate level, many individuals don’t get their overarching sense of meaning from their work.
Zena Hitz has a simple and entirely unoriginal answer to this: Aristotle’s distinction between means to an end and ends in themselves. Unlike many of the achievement oriented self-help advisors, whose skill is to rephrase and recontextualise classic wisdom, Hitz uses Aristotle’s principle to create an theory of modern life that has roots in her own experience.
Starting out as memoir and passing through Socrates, Aristotle, the annunciation, J.A. Baker (reading Hitz is what got me interested in J.A. Baker), Saint Augustine and Eleanor Ferante, Lost in Thought is an apology for retreat. Hitz is a modern Thoreau, arguing for intellectual retreat rather than a life in the woods.
Hitz’s contention is that we would be happier if we were more contemplative. Like Socrates lost in thought at the door of the symposium, or the Madonna reading when the angel visits, we can find contentment in contemplation because it is an end in itself not a means to an end.
The spur for this idea was Hitz’s successful academic career that brought no joy. The life of the mind was in fact the life of nice dinners, swanky status games, and office politics. Hitz ended up leaving her gold plated career for the more rewarding role as a teacher at St John’s College.
Like many of the examples she gives in the book, Hitz wanted to get back to the love of learning, learning as an end in itself, rather than learning as a sort-of corporate career. Lots of the examples from Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes show people who spend a lot of their time learning for no other reason than for their own satisfaction.
Now, Hitz is no monastic socialist who wants us to start educating people with no sense of whether they’ll end up being successful in the world. What she argues is that the binary of liberal arts education or practical education for career success is false. Many of the people who go to high-end liberal arts colleges go on to have highly successful careers.
This book does have left-wing opinions but that’s not the basis of the argument. Hitz is complement to your corporate life, not a complaint about it. We need more creative leisure time, more sense that once we finish work for the day we should be liberated into a personal world of learning.
Where Hitz is openly political, I tend to disagree with her. Wealth is the road to better lives and economic growth is fundamental to moral progress. But, like Harold Bloom and other great humanities (and really, literary) scholars, Zena Hitz is writing about the private sphere and the way we choose to live. Although some of her views on public policy are implied, this is not a book about the public sphere.
Lost in Thought isn’t about why you should quit and live in a pottery commune, or a critique of big business. It’s an argument for the inherent value of spending your time reading. Most of us are not going to make the sort of professional contribution to the world that will fundamentally change it. What we can focus on is the way in which we live and how that affects us and our community. Like George Eliot and Harold Bloom, Hitz is a believer in the value of solitary reading and the idea that ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.’
This distinction between private and public is increasingly lost in the humanities, where academics have converted literary study into an outpost of public policy debates. Whereas someone like Camille Paglia’s libertarian philosophy informs her literary criticism, for many other writers their politics is their criticism. The books become secondary or simply put aside as tools of textual analysis are applied to political discourse. Hitz is part of a vanguard effort to refocus the humanities away from this and back towards the moral question of how we should spend our time. Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult had a similar purpose.
As the self-help boom has come about, there has been very little that caters to people who want to read for its own sake, not to become something or achieve something in the world. Hitz has talked about humanities professors being ‘alienated from their work‘. The audience for this book, people who are absorbed in their learning, be it naturalism, nerdiness, or whatever, will be encouraged and legitimised by this book. In that sense, this is a complementary book to The Age of the Infovore.
I love reading this book, and deliberately read it slowly. It’s the sort of book I’d want to give to people. Recommended for infovores, readers, naturalists, autodidacts, and corporate zombies everywhere. (US link).