The Intellectual Virtues

I commend to you Alan Jacobs’ recent musings on thinking, or more precisely on “having ideas worth expressing.” Jacobs encourages us to seek out intellectual encounters with the best and most serious proponents of traditions of thought other than our own. Such encounters will have several salubrious, although potentially uncomfortable consequences. For instance:

“If you seek out what’s strange to you in its better expressions, several things will happen. First of all, you’ll court being changed by the encounter, having your views altered, perhaps in significant ways. You’ll learn that the people who disagree with you are almost certainly, taken as a whole, morally and intellectually the equal of the people you agree with.”

That last lesson is crucial. The failure of public discourse is ultimately a moral failure. It is not, so far as I can tell, primarily a failure of reason, intellect, or logic (although, certainly, such failures also abound). It is a failure of humility, patience, and imagination. A failure, in other words, to recognize our own ignorance, to persevere in the pursuit of understanding one another, and to imagine a different way of looking at the world.

Jacobs closed his post with a lovely line from the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch:  “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

I’ll add to that this complimentary passage from Murdoch’s novel, The Sovereignty of the Good, which I stumbled upon some time ago:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

Murdoch’s character is here reflecting on the task of learning a foreign language, but what she has to teach us in this passage applies just as well to learning from others more generally. Central to the passage is that same notion of love as that which leads us out of ourselves. Notice as well what is required of the student: honesty and humility. The life of the mind, especially when it concerns itself with our common experience — which is to say with our life together, with our political life — depends on virtue for its success.

But it is, as Jacobs points out, a risky business to humbly and honestly seek out such encounters with those who do not agree with us. We risk a discomforting and disorienting loss of certainty. We risk a challenge to beliefs and convictions that we’ve long held dear. And so it is not just a matter of humility and honesty, but also of courage.

Of course, there is an even greater risk involved. James Schall put it this way:

“Chesterton once said, in a memorable phrase of which I am inordinately fond, that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject, only uninterested people. Nothing is so unimportant that it is not worth knowing. Everything reveals something. Our minds cannot fully exhaust the reality contained in even the smallest existing thing. The condition of our being human, then, is the risk of not knowing something worth knowing.”

12 thoughts on “The Intellectual Virtues

  1. This reminds me of Shunryu Suzuki’s classic “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. A famous quote is: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” He suggests that we cultivate the beginner’s mind no mater how much we may know.

    Best wishes to you and yours in the new year.

  2. Beautifully worded piece. Honesty, humility and courage – each with their own web of lessons. If we’re lucky we get to make mistakes and learn as much as we can about each one. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Reblogged this on tolibertywithlove and commented:
    Just what I should have read tonight. It’s OK to learn. And one must look at all sides to grow.
    “The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

  4. Spot on. However it is interesting to speculate on the degree to which public discourse is affected by people latching on to ideologies as identities and then protecting them because a challenge to their ideology becomes a personal challenge. I think that’s a big part of it for some people.

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