The Intellectual Life and Real Communion

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In an article published in The Imaginative Conservative, Zena Hitz asks, “What is the point of studying the humanities?”  Noting decreasing enrollments in humanities studies, program cuts and general disinterest, she says this:

[T]he crisis in the humanities is not just a crisis caused by some Bad Guys who want to destroy All That Is Good. It is primarily something far more worrying: a crisis of confidence among ourselves, a crisis caused by a failure of self-understanding. We are haunted by a sense that what we do is somehow inadequate or pointless. This is a failure of imagination as much as it is a failure of understanding.

Mona Achache’s 2009 film “The Hedgehog” (“Le hérisson”) presents an uncommon image of intellectual life…..The twist that “The Hedgehog” puts on this theme—and here it follows the novel it is inspired by, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery—is that this unsettling but authentic human connection has its source and basis in intellectual life.

The intellectual life as portrayed in this film has four
central features:
1) It is a form of the inner life of a person, a place of retreat and reflection.
2) As such it is withdrawn from the world, where “the world” is understood in its (originally Platonic, later Christian) sense as the locus of competition and struggle for wealth, power, prestige, and status.
3) It is a source of dignity—made obvious in this case by Renee’s low status as an unattractive working-class woman without children and past child-bearing age.
4) It opens space for communion: It allows for a profound connection between human beings.

Of these four features of intellectual life, it is the notion of withdrawal that is centrally important. It is the removal of intellectual life from the world that accounts for its true inwardness—an inwardness distinct from the narcissistic inner tracking of one’s social standing. It is the withdrawn person’s independence from contests over wealth or status that provides or reveals a dignity that can’t be ranked or traded. This dignity, along with the universality of the objects of the intellect—that is, that they are available to everyone—is what opens up space for real communion.

My own emphasis here:

…there are things beyond citizenship, more splendid and more fundamental—and that these very things, at the present moment more than ever, need to be secured—and need to be secured most especially from the infinite demands of citizenship.

It is in the intellectual life that we find true equality and dignity, not in outward appearances, accomplishments, or wealth.  When we have a rich intellectual life we are better equipped to view the world with imagination and hope, and we are able to enjoy real communion with others.


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