How to be a (useless) intellectual

Intellectuals perform for us the valuable task of demonstrating the sacred pointlessness of human existence. As Thomas Aquinas once wrote: ‘It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.’

I did pretty well at school. I got good marks. My teachers told me to be a lawyer, an engineer, or a film director (!). Instead, here I find myself a chronically underpaid (considering I studied successfully at varsity for seven years) teacher and writer.

This can make for some awkward conversation at school reunions. If you did well at a private school, you are meant to study Business Science and/or take over your dad’s business. Otherwise, aren’t you wasting all those school fees?

It’s interesting to trace this logic a bit further.

Basically, such logic says you need to make money, so your progeny can make more money, in order for the cycle to continue. Clear?

Now, by no means am I suggesting making money or doing well at business is bad. It is obviously good. And we need lots and lots of people doing just that.

But making money for the sake of making money is bad (especially when you consider that social scientists tell us once your needs are met, more money does not add to happiness) and it comes with a whole lot of stress, worry, and temptation.

And thus every society needs a group of people who opt out of the game, so to speak, as a kind of signal that the game of amassing wealth is in reality a kind of game, and not always a fun, or good, game.

In times past, this function would often be served by monks and nuns. As philosopher Thomas Aquinas puts it, ‘It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.’ Aquinas meant by contemplation an openness to and communion with goodness, truth, and being, with God.

It is pretty difficult to devote your whole life to contemplation in our frenetic modern age, obviously. But the principle remains sound. We need people around us who do not just offer utility in terms of the gross domestic product, but also shape their lives in such a way that they have time to consider the mystery and marvel of bare existence.

For Aquinas, such a sense of mystery was at the root of what it meant to be both an artist and a philosopher: ‘…both are concerned with the marvelous.’

It turns out that such activity is pretty important to society. Aquinas is not just being rhetorical.

The German philosopher, Josef Pieper, believed that leisure, what we do after the bills have been paid, is what creates culture, because the things we do for their own sake are always the most important things.

He wrote his book, ‘Leisure: The Basis of Culture’, in the ’50s, and warned that humanity was being consumed with work as the final end, albeit with liberal doses of passive entertainment splashed in to keep the wheels turning (and the masses docile). Looking back, I think he was correct. How many people do you know who have genuine hobbies or interests, who don’t spend their free time binge-watching Netflix? The problem is, according to Pieper, that culture doesn’t get built or renewed in such a world. And so we build skyscrapers instead of cathedrals, casinos and malls instead of gardens.

Clearly, society needs a cohort of men and women who spend time thinking not about ‘things’ but about Everything. In turn, this opens up a space for everybody to have a kind of meaningful leisure in their lives.

But here’s the problem – Pieper lays out a pretty convincing argument that a society with leisure must by necessity be a religious society.

Think of the word ‘holiday’ – in ancient times, people gave a day for holy things, and thus they found themselves on ‘holi-day’. Yes, I know, we have secular public holidays and Saturdays too. But in general, those days are not given to something beyond daily life, but as pauses to allow the unexamined everyday to continue. To actually move beyond the ‘everyday’ you need something transcendent. As Aristotle put it, ‘A man will live not to the extent that he is man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him.’

It is in the divine, that which is beyond our world, that our world is fully known as a world, not simply as our environment in which we work. And so by worship, by contemplating the holy, we are, according to Pieper, ‘carried away’ out of ‘the working world’, into ‘the heart of the universe.’

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Now I am no monk, no holy man, no medicine man, even.

But I do think, simply by having the time to write this stuff and share it with you, I have given myself some kind of an opportunity and window to be truly at leisure, and hopefully to point towards something ‘beyond’, universal, and life-giving.

Here’s one last radical notion – the word school actually comes from the Greek word for leisure, ‘skole’. Also, the word ‘academics’, comes from the name of Plato’s famous school, the Academy, which was simply named after the garden in which the school met, which was itself named after the Athenian war hero, Akademe.

Could so many of our educational, social, and cultural problems, stem from the fact our schools are no longer gardens of thought, but rather machines of work?

In the immortal words of Scatman John, ‘I want to be a human being, and not a human doing.’

And in the being, the doing can hopefully become a little more human again.

So how does one be a (useless) intellectual? You need the sacred, you need silence, and a sense of wonder. And if we do this together, who knows? Maybe we can save the world.