Ethics & Public Policy Center

Living with a Mind

Published in First Things - December 2015 issue on March 30, 2016


was brought up in a culture that made no special place for the “intellectual” as a distinct human type, and which regarded learning in the same way as any other hobby: harmless and excusable, so long as you kept quiet about it. The person who studied the classics at home, who wrote poetry in the early hours, or who listened in private to Beethoven quartets was, in my little patch of suburban England, no more to be despised than the expert in tarot cards, the amateur acrobat, or the breeder of exotic chickens. But if he should begin to display his hobby in ordinary social gatherings, or to imagine that his knowing the works of Emily Dickinson entitled him to some measure of respect not accorded to those who had gotten no further than page three of The Sun, then it was time to put him in his place as a social outcast.

In our narrow world, education was neither a disadvantage, as it is rapidly becoming today, nor a thing to be proud of. As an educated youth I was a “social incast,” as ordinary as any other boy of my generation, who was encouraged to pursue interests that he might share with other harmless weirdos, so long as he didn’t mention them in public.

This attitude to learning reflected a long-standing feature of English life. Unlike the French and the ­Russians, for both of whom the intellectual has been a recognizable and awe-inspiring phenomenon, with a distinctive and redemptive role in human affairs, the English have traditionally had no use for such a category. In the nineteenth century, the scholar and the man of letters were both acknowledged. So too was the educated person. But none of those was entitled, on account of being acquainted with books, to any special social privileges. Our leading English thinkers at the time of Flaubert and Baudelaire were as likely to be respectable as disreputable, and their vices, should they have any, were not badges of distinction, but simply the run-of-the-mill signs of ­ordinary human degeneracy.

The French had a very different approach. For them, the intellectual was exempt from the normal standards of moral judgment. Intellectuals moved in circles of their own, fleeing at night to the rooftops of the city where they would take part in a never-ending Walpurgisnacht of forbidden pleasures. Sometimes they appeared at the attic windows to pour scorn on the “bourgeoisie” in the street below. But for the most part, they remained invisible, ghostly observers of ordinary life, which they condemned in exquisite writings distributed in plain cover editions along the banks of the Seine.

Their English contemporaries, by contrast, included country parsons like Charles Kingsley and George Crabbe, civil servants like Trollope, and inspectors of schools like Matthew Arnold. They could rise to the highest office, like the novelist Benjamin Disraeli and the Dante scholar William Gladstone. But on the whole, their interest in the life of the mind was regarded as a private concern, of no relevance to their public status. The mind was simply something that occupied them when more important matters had been seen to.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when literary modernism was brought to England, it was by the least Bohemian of modern writers: T.S. Eliot, who dressed in a three-piece suit and pursued a respectable career first as a teacher, then at a bank, and then at a publishing firm, where he eventually became a director. He even taught for a while in my school, High Wycombe Royal Grammar School, where formidably upright teachers introduced me to the joys of thinking.

Those teachers, whom I remember with profound gratitude, by and large subscribed to the Victorian doctrine of mens sana in corpore sano. You exercised your mind in the same way as you exercised your body: following agreed procedures that shaped you as a useful and responsible member of society. To detach the life of the mind from the duties of the citizen was to run the danger of aestheticism, examples of which disease, from Oscar Wilde to Ronald ­Firbank, were frequently paraded before us as evident causes of the weakness that had all but cost us the two world wars.

The idea that it was respectable to read old books, listen to old music, and debate the old questions of philosophy came to me as a liberation. For it opened a path out of the cramped world of my parents, for whom books were appreciated only for the information contained in them, and music was at best a background to other and more useful pursuits. I was fully launched, aged sixteen, on this path through life, reassured by my dutiful teachers that it was by no means unusual to set out on it, any more than it was unusual to serve as a missionary in Africa, a civil servant in the city, or a clerk in a bank. More important, my teachers made it abundantly clear, in their behavior as much as in their explicit instruction, that intellectual enjoyment is an end in itself, which needs no utilitarian excuse, and which is not to be shunned or condemned merely because it leads to no evident career. Indeed, even if thinking reduced people to the condition of shabby teachers in provincial grammar schools, this was irrelevant to its real and intrinsic value. It was just one of the many ways—and ­undoubtedly the best way—of enjoying life.

My school had an unusually high number of such educated teachers, winding down from their wartime careers in the army, the Church, or the colonial service, and many of their pupils were drawn to them. As a result, I was not alone in the path I took and was immediately aware that, so long as you don’t brag about it, thinking is a form of companionship. Ideas beg to be shared, and by sharing them, you come to know the other person far more intimately than through adventure or sport. The glowing cheeks of my sporty classmates were of no significance to me beside the radiant foreheads of my special friends, lit from within by the lamp of inquiry. We knew from the beginning that we were marked out, not as outsiders, but as people who had embarked on a shared way of life that would demand much of us, and give much in return. We began to get together in order to read, to discuss, and to listen, and we regarded no aspect of our experience as exempt from the exacting test of intellectual relevance. Was it, or he, or she a stimulus to thought, or a distraction from it? Such was the question with which we addressed every new encounter, every book that fell into our hands, and every event in the world of politics.

During the half century that followed, I have never departed from that path. All the incidental endeavors that are necessary to staying alive had, for me, a single aim, which was to permit those hours at the end of them when I could devote myself to reading, listening, and learning. This, to me, was the true meaning of leisure, and the Greek word for leisure, schole, is surely an apt reflection on what the life of the mind has meant down the centuries. Aristotle describes work as ascholia, the absence of leisure, implying that only schole is really an end in itself, all work being no more than a means to it.

Aristotle’s vision led me back, after two years of wandering following my graduation, to Cambridge University, there to pursue doctoral studies in philosophy. But it also led me to see that academic knowledge is as much a distraction from the life of the mind as an application of it. This was vividly brought home to me recently, reading the vast work of academic moral philosophy On What Matters, by Derek Parfit, in which problems concerning the switching of trolleys from one rail to another in order to prevent or cause the deaths of those further down the line are presented as showing the essence of moral reasoning and its place in the life of human beings. Nothing that really matters to human beings—their loves, responsibilities, attachments, their delights, aesthetic values, and spiritual needs—occurs in Parfit’s interminable narrative. All is swept into a corner by the great broom of utilitarian reasoning, to be left there in a heap of dust.

I learned at school that imagination is essential to a well-nourished intellect, and that thinking divorced from any kind of artistic appreciation is at risk of losing its subject matter. In art, our ideas are poured into the mold of immediate experience, crystallized as stories, images, dramas—and so put to the test of sympathy. The life of the mind, deprived of the aesthetic endeavor, remains leaden and remote. And during my time as a university teacher, it became ever more apparent to me that ideas were discussed in the academy as though they had no relation to life, whether real or imagined.

This is not to say that scholarship is antagonistic to the life of the mind, or that the academy is doomed to have a withering effect on it. Our civilization has been successful partly because it has preserved, at its spiritual core, the idea of disinterested study. The life of the mind is available to be enjoyed, and enjoyed for its own sake, as an end in itself. Associated with this idea has been that of the collegiate way of life. I had knowledge of that way of life as an under­graduate at Jesus College Cambridge, and subsequently as a Fellow of Peterhouse. Those places were arenas of friendship, spiced by the backbiting that has been characteristic of small communities down the ages.

In twenty years of university teaching, poring over footnotes in journals devoted to the study of footnotes, attending conferences in which small increments of knowledge are swamped by large swathes of ignorance, and reading unimportant books about the important books that I haven’t had time to read, I retained a longing for the ideal of the collegiate life. I envisaged a society of friends for whom ideas are captured from the world of real experience, and brought to the place of dialogue, there to be the source and object of our shared interest. But I came to see that it is far easier to create this society for yourself than to find it in institutions of higher learning.

Hence, when I set out, after long delays, on my independent path through the world of ideas, it was in order to look for soul mates whose thinking arose from the encounter with life, whether real or imagined. And I have always thought of them as fellows of a virtual college, people with whom I could sit down for an evening with a bottle of wine and an intellectual question and use the one to cast light on the other. In the right company, the right sort of drink is a necessary adjunct to the collegiate way of life. Its effects compensate for all the sorrows that inevitably come to mind, when people with firm views about the way things are and should be sit down together to reflect on the lamentable fact that the world is in other hands than their own.

Early on in my academic career, I had studied for the Bar examinations and conceived a passion for the English law, and in particular for those branches of it—the common law of tort and the law of trusts—in which real moral reasoning is brought to bear on everyday conflicts. This study, which was a powerful antidote to moral and political philosophy as practiced in the university, brought me into a world in which thinking is shaped by reality, and reality in turn by thought. The English law is inseparably bound up with the history and structure of the Inns of Court, those ancient collegiate societies to which, until recently, every barrister had to belong, and which, in my days as a student, insisted that you could not be called to the Bar without first dining for a requisite number of nights in the Hall of your Inn.

It was there, as a member of the Inner Temple, that I first became acquainted with the common law of England, and I was astonished by what I found. The meticulously reported cases, going back over cen­turies, were not only an eloquent expression of life as my ancestors had known it, but also an illustration of thought in action. The laws governing the English, I discovered, have emerged fromthe judgments of the courts, and not been imposed upon the courts by government. Those brought up on Roman law or the Code Napoléon find this amazing, since they see law as a deductive system, beginning from first principles and working downward to the particular case. But common law arises as morality arises, from the desire to do what is right, not from the desire to expound the principle that makes it so. And often the principle eludes us, even when the rightness of the act is clear. Readers of Jane Austen will not need to be reminded of this. Like morality, the common law builds upward from the particular to the general. For justice is done in the particular case, and until tried in the courts, abstract principles have no more authority than the people who declare them.

The facts of the case may never have been considered before, and the judge may have no explicit rule of law, no precedent, and no act of Parliament to guide him. But still there is a difference, the common law says, between a right and a wrong decision. Thus it was in the celebrated case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) in the law of tort, in which water from the defendant’s reservoir had flooded the mines of the plaintiff and put them out of use. No similar case had come before the courts, but this did not prevent Mr. Justice Blackburn from giving judgment in the following terms: “We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril, and, if he does not do so, is prima facie liable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”

Until Rylands v. Fletcher no such rule had ever been formulated. But in Blackburn’s eyes, he was not inventing the rule; he was discovering a legal truth buried in the heart of things, bringing it to the surface, and clarifying matters that no politician had yet addressed. He thereby set the standard for environmental legislation in my country, and laid the foundations for the doctrines of enterprise liability in American law.

Although I never practiced at the Bar, the discipline of legal thinking helped me to break away from the closed world of the academic seminar. Equally important was my venture into journalism. Journalists get a lot of bad press—all of it, as it happens, written by themselves. But there is a kind of journalism, exemplified in America by H. L. Mencken and George Will, among many others, and in England by Henry Fairlie, T. E. (“Peter”) Utley and, more recently, the late Christopher Hitchens, which is as much an application of mind to the world as are the opinions of any common-law judge. To take the issues of the day, to give them the context that frames them and the arguments that reveal their importance—to do this in the minimum of space, and at the same time to mount a clear case for an opinion that you can express in all sincerity and in the hope of persuading the reader, is to engage in one of the hardest and most rewarding exercises of our reasoning powers.

The world of journalism is, or was, like that of the law, a collegiate world, in which you met with your fellows and rivals to discuss the matters that interested you, and in which words were never lightly used, and always used in conjunction with the ideas expressed by them. In the 1980s, when I first became acquainted with Fleet Street, the place where the leading daily papers were then situated, I discovered that all the editorials and op-eds of note, whether appearing in the left-wingGuardian, the right-wing Telegraph, or the demure and judicious Times, were composed ­either at lunchtime in the Kings and Keys pub under the ­Telegraph, or in the early evening in El Vino’s, the wine bar outside the Inner Temple, just a hundred yards away. And those who composed these pieces rejoiced in each other’s company, not despite their exhilarating differences of opinion but because of them.

Thanks to the two disciplines of law and journalism, I broke away from the university and made for myself the circle of soul mates with whom to renew the search for a way of thinking, writing, and talking that is true to things as they are. But it is hard, in the public world as we know it today, to find those places where mental activity is not masked and overridden by noise. Modern life is full of uncompleted gestures, half-formed thoughts, and ­unplanned explosions of emotion, all occurring in rapid succession, and each one drowned in the surge of its successor like a wavelet on a beach. We live with this because it is the price we pay for the fleeting but vital companionship that arises around us at every moment of the day. But it has a downside, which only the musical can really appreciate. In the Kings and Keys and El Vino’s, there was no noise besides the clink of glasses and the raised voices of opinionated people, and of El Vino’s this is still true. But such places are the exceptions. There is hardly a public place today, hardly a restaurant or bar, that is not awash with the fragmented and conclusion-less sound of pop.

For people who don’t like music, or whose musical ability has never been stretched by real listening, this is not an ordeal. For musical people, who cannot avoid following the argument of whatever piece sounds in their ear, this abundance of directionless noise is a torture equal to the method of sending a prisoner insane from constant drips of water on his forehead.

Not only is silence-filling music a maddening distraction, it’s also a lost opportunity. To those who know and love it, there is no greater and more satisfying exercise of our mental powers than classical music, which provides imagined movements in an imagined space that work by their own inner conviction toward closure. Classical music provides us with gestures that do not only begin but also—rare in the human condition and especially rare in our world today—conclude. They conclude not because they are cut off, but because they are completed. In listening to serious music, the mind is both creator and disciple of its object. You yourself create the movement that you hear, but it is because you follow it that you hear it. If you were to ask exactly what the life of the mind consists in, there is no clearer answer than to play through the Art of Fugue.

You should be as keen to escape from aimless noise as from footnotes. That is why I no longer live in the city, and look from my window over green fields and grazing animals. The life of the mind, pursued in this way in partial isolation, though in the company of my wise, gentle, and practical wife, has proved so rewarding that the loss of theaters, concert halls, opera houses, and all the other temples to high culture that I left behind in the city is more than compensated by what I have gained.

The joy of the intellectual life arises partly from the search for truth, toward which the thinking person turns as a flower to the sun. As you turn it is inevitable that you should question orthodoxies, be suspicious of opinions that serve the interests of those who adopt them, and explore the problems that confront us without fear of being proven wrong. To take the life of the mind seriously, therefore, you may have to reconcile yourself, as Spinoza did, to circulating your thoughts among your soul mates, and to avoiding their public expression. You may have to recognize that truth is a threat to a culture created by the mass expression of unexamined opinions, and is best kept to the circle of those for whom it really matters. Here, in rural Wiltshire, where there are no orthodoxies, I am at peace with this, as Spinoza was at peace circulating the manuscript of the Ethics among his friends.

This privatization of the life of the mind does not mean you should retreat from writing. On the contrary, it is only through their expression that your thoughts become clear, and the love of truth propels us toward the written word. You can exercise your mind effectively through reading and listening to music. But if you wish to exercise it freely, then you need the medium of expression that will provide the joints and tendons that hold a thought together and allow it to stand on its own. Through writing, a thought loses its vague and aspirational quality, and stands fully clothed in imagery and nuances, a representation not only of the facts that inspired it but also of the person who gave voice to it. So clothed, a thought becomes what Henry James called “felt life.”

This returns me to the principal lesson that I have learned, since taking that path from the classroom fifty years ago, which is that thought without imagination lies heavy on the mind that conceives it. The bulk of academic writing in my discipline is not really writing but a collection of marks on paper put down in response to similar marks put down in response to other marks put down in response to . . . The authors of these texts do not have a conception of writing as an art, or of the need for the imagery, inflection, and rhythm that hold open the mind of the reader so that the thought can slip past them into his soul. To write in such a way that you are in direct contact with the soul of the reader is an art that must be learned, and fiction, essay writing, and poetry are inescapably parts of it.

Equally important is humility: the knowledge that you must earn your reader’s interest, and that it is not for you to declare your success. In this matter I have learned from the American who first set out on his journey to becoming an Englishman when he taught in my old school. In all his writing, but in his poetry especially, Eliot shows his humility before the great achievements of his predecessors, lamenting his “equipment always deteriorating / in the general mess of the imprecision of feeling,” lines that deliberately imitate the thing that they describe. At school it was Four Quartets that first showed us that thinking can be both interesting and beautiful, and that it becomes beautiful through the work of the imagination. By putting side by side and in a single clasp things that you would never have known belonged together until the writer connected them, real literature shapes your world.

The life of the mind is a lifelong recreation, a re-creation of reality, and a way of belonging. That is the theme of Eliot’s great poem, as I understand it, and it is a theme that connects the world of books to the world of music. The peace that we create through reading, writing, and discussion is also portrayed in our music, in which separate voices come together in harmony, and move under their mutual influence toward a shared destination. You the listener also share this destination, for “you are the music, while the music lasts.” This image of a fulfillment, achieved through mutuality and by the exercise of purely mental powers, has remained with me throughout my life, telling me that, whatever trouble or frustration may come to me, I have only to open a book, listen to a symphony, or run my pen across a blank sheet of paper, and I will be back home, in the place where I belong, a fellow of the virtual college that I have spent a lifetime in creating, communing inwardly with my imagined friends.

Roger Scruton is author of Notes from Underground and The Soul of the World

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