The Intellectual Life

Because I am prejudiced in favor of intellectuals I too feel that as Aristotle said “The unexamined life is not worth living” and as psychiatrist David Viscott said “the unlived life is not worth examining” but I have lived around very wealthy self-made successes who felt perfectly happy and had no interest in ideas for the sake of ideas or intellectual curiosity (in fact they show open scorn for such interests.) So I DO agree with you in that I personally see such lives as empty and barren but I do not agree with anyone who says that I have the RIGHT or the DUTY to see such lives as barren. I see things as I do in part because of my conditioning, experience, prejudices and perhaps a touch of self-delusion. I realize why Lionel Trilling wrote an essay entitled “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” and I admire people like Trilling. I admire Christopher Hitchens and the vibrant intellectual life he has led although I do not share his views.

Just checking (curious) do I seem to display some kind of self-hatred or do you have other posts in mind? I purchased my 14 year old step-daughter a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Dialogues of Plato. She never touched it. She won many awards in her Freshman year at Bronx High School of Science in POLICY debate (which is said to be harder than Lincoln-Douglas). One day she asked my advice on a debate topic. I began to answer her as if it were the opening question of a seminar. She became angry and shouted “I DONT CARE what it all means, I just want to WIN.” She went on to major in accounting in a small local college and became a specialist in taxation and now makes huge salary.) She is very successful in the material sense. She works at a very demanding job. Same thing with my step-son. They grew up around me. I tried to interest them in SJC types of things. They were not interested. The have become financial successes. They are far more financially successful in life than I could ever be. I cannot say that there lives are empty or a waste simply because they do not share my interests or values.

@David: what I am trying to explain is that in some way I am prejudiced in favor of the intellectual life, but on the other hand, I have no right to expect that others cannot have equally fulfilling lives and yet take no interest in Plato or Shakespeare or any number of other things. I happen to know my step children better than most other people might know them because I watched them grow up. I know the ways in which they would say their lives are fulfilled so far, and I know what they personally see as failures. We have all read the opening of Herodotus history were the King wants to know the most fortunate man, and the philosopher names several different deceased individuals. Finally the king demand why the philosopher does not see the king himself as most fortunate. Of course the philosopher answer that we cannot know if someone is fortunate until we see the manner of their death whether it was glorious or ignoble. I could google on all the details but then so may you. This is what I remember. We kind of understand why Glaukos and Diomedes in Book III of the Iliad speak in terms of the glory with which they shall be remembered by future generations. Camus speaks of such a notion of glory as “posterity, that paltry eternity.” Our contemporaries certainly would not think of happiness or fortune in the same terms as Herodotus or Plutarch. Our generation says “everyone gets 15 minutes of fame.” Yet we see wealth or famous or powerful people commit suicide, and we see poor simply people who seem to lead long, happy fulfilling lives.


Well, actually, Di, what made me think of all this is that I came to the decision, long ago, that it is pointless to “argue” or “debate.” Even if I could make that one other person think exactly as I do, there would still be 6 billion right behind him and I could not live enough centuries to convince them all. And besides, why should everyone see things the way I do? Perhaps there is some wonderful advantage to us as a species that each of us sees things a completely different way. We are resilient, adaptive, versatile. Some of us climb high mountains. Others can travel vast deserts and navigate by the sun and stars. Yet others can sail thousands of miles with no instruments. Some of us work with our hands. Other sing or dance or play music, and yet others write musics and lyrics and choreography. But, yes, it is better to have a few good friends than try to say hello to everybody and spend a millennium as stranger to all and friend to none.


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