The intellectual life as portrayed in this film [“The Hedgehog”--ES] 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2) As such it is withdrawn from the world, where ‘the world' is understood in its (originally Platonic, later Christian) sense as the locus of competition and struggle for wealth, power,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 profound connection between human beings.
Of these four features of intellectual life, it is the notion of withdrawal that is centrally important. It is 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 It is the withdrawn person's independence from contests over wealth or status that provides or reveals a dignity that can't be ranked or traded.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.--Zena Hitz "Freedom and the Intellectual Life," First Things. [HT Rachena Kamtekar on Facebook]
In her important essay, Zena Hitz addresses the "crisis of confidence among ourselves [that is, Humanists--ES], a crisis caused by a failure of self-understanding. We are haunted by a sense that what we do is somehow inadequate or pointless." Hitz, whose integrity is exemplary, goes on to criticize the instrumental defenses of the Humanities (sometimes she uses 'Liberal Arts'), which she usefully distinguishes between (i) the effective acquisition of wealth, and (ii) those who think they promote social and political goods.
To be sure, in her evident distaste of these instrumental defenses, Hitz ignores the possibility that at least some of these goods may be (foreseeable or occasional) byproducts of a society in which the intellectual life is allowed to flourish. More seriously, she also seems to think that having a rich inner intellectual life is somehow incompatible with a life of social and political activism. This strikes me as prejudice: while it's true that few of us have large enough souls to combine multiple ways of being in the world, it is my experience -- in observing the genuine political activists among us -- that those most devoted to social change also tend to have rich inner, intellectual lives (percolating in the shadows of all that visible activity) that are, in some sense, at odds with the public engagement. Of course, the nature of this inner world can be transformed, even radically transformed, during the vita activa. Hitz also seems to think (but I am less confident about this) that it's only the intellectual life that can generate (and here she echoes the way I read Seneca [recall]) an axiology of respect and communion that is orthogonal to the life of the market-place. But while this may be true, it needs to be argued because it is not obvious--for, it may be also true of other passionately engaged, shared human activities or play outside the trades and public life.
The previous paragraph is no criticism of Hitz's underlying insight that the intellectual life can facilitate an inner life, one that is sometimes withdrawn from the world, even (to use one of her key terms) ascetic. She is right to emphasize this, for it connects to the ways in which reading books and poems, and engaging with the arts, are an escape, even a life-line within the loneliness and other circumstances of one's life. This sense of escape, which is simultaneously a possible connection to others [to stick with reading, reading allows intimacy with an other's mind], was my original path into the life of the mind with a flashlight reading books under the blankets late at night as a child trying to escape the emotional turmoil that surrounded me; it sustains me, even after decades of being disciplined, as a professional philosopher. In order to avoid confusion, the life of a professional (which is governed, in part, by a credit/gift economy, and differences in status and power) is distinct from the inner life. These Impressions are my attempt to make visible that which is caught in the form of limitation between inner sanctum and outer professional.
The question is, of course, if the respect and communion (I would have said, 'friendship') that flows from the existence of an inner life (a) vindicates the intellectual life as such and (b) vindicates it to a skeptical outside world (or hypothetical taxpayer). It is pretty clear that some of Hitz's (named) targets, who offer an instrumental defense of the humanities, are primarily focused on (b). While I share some of her misgivings about these defenses, Hitz is insufficiently generous to them because she understands (with an appeal to Republic 496d--about which more below) the true or exemplary (Socrates) philosopher "as someone who retreats from public life." (Elsewhere, with a nod to Republic 592ab I have offered a less quietist interpretation of Socrates.) But unless one has some kind of providentialist belief in the survival of good activities, then Hitz's stance engenders fatalism about the survival of the humanities as an institutionalized or corporate (in the medieval sense) way of life as such.
In fact, the examples that Hitz draws from Augustine, Robert Campin Fra Filippo Lippi all presuppose an institutional structure -- a Church committed to the understanding of the word of God – in which the “affinity between the intellectual and spiritual lives” can be taken for granted. Undoubtedly some such affinity still exists for many individuals and some (but as she notes by no means all) Christian universities; but these do not require any new, public vindication of the intellectual life. Once one accepts the need of disciplined engagement with sacred texts, the Humanities are home-free. Of course, it’s the very doubt about that is the central underlying the cause of the idea that the intellectual life is “inadequate or pointless.” To put it too simply (recall): the Humanities have been the victim of their own (debunking) scientific success.
As an aside, like all good essayists, Hitz invites us to re-visit works she discusses, and so I want to go see “The Hedgehog” again. Even so, “The Hedgehog” also comments on its own activity in a way that is ignored by Hitz—the young, bourgeois girl, who is at the center of the narrative, Paloma films her surroundings with her family camera. That is to say, the movie acknowledges the material pre-conditions that make her own activity possible; it does so by reinforcing the implicit contract with the movie’s audience which pretends to sustain the noble ideals of the intellectual life during the performance (and is flattered by the movie that it can partake in it), while not threatening the institutions which prevent the affirmation of those ideals outside the theatre. Paloma’s transformation during the film leaves the “empty bubble that surrounds them” untouched because to do so would be self-defeating (from the perspective of the continued existence of this art).
Let me conclude. Hitz rightly calls us back to the “zeal for Humanist learning,” which springs from an inward experience – I would say ‘joy’ --, that vivifies the intellectual life. This zeal does not need institutions of (note the elevation) higher education and may well be contaminated by them. But in the very passage that Hitz quotes from Plato’s Republic, the person, “who takes refuge” during a “storm of dust or hail driven by the wind,” does so “under a little wall.” At their very best, our universities can be such a little wall—and as we all know, somebody needs to lay the bricks and keep them from keeling over.