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Consider Mendel Nun, a fisherman on a kibbutz in the Galilee, born just after the First World War. He found ancient stone anchors as he fished and collected them into what is now a small museum. Seeking to understand what he found, he studied the sources on fishing in antiquity and, since this was a rare interest, he became one of its foremost experts. I imagine that this intellectual project, discovered in the course of his daily work, changed how he lived.
The robustness of the capacity of human beings to savor, contemplate, and enjoy indicates its natural depth in us. Leisure, recreation, and art, music, serious conversation, and loving service, by contrast, bring out the best in us. They are goals toward which we strive; they are engines for limitless personal growth.
Hearing such stories, we ought to be motivated to promote sufficient time for all workers to think, to savor, to reflect, to pursue wholesome pastimes —not simply a lucky and special few.
It is perhaps a cliché to say that our humanity is displayed best and enjoyed most when faced with serious limitations, but it is true for all that. Without distractions, we notice what is around us. Without rewards, living closely with others, we see how our activities and actions meet or fail to meet real human needs. We become more able to focus on what matters.
Intellectual life is not a merely professional activity, to be left to experts. Because its central goods are good universally, it belongs in taxicabs, at the beach house or the book club, in the break room at work, in the backyard of the amateur botanist, in thoughtful reflection whether scattered or disciplined, as much as or more than it does at universities.
I learned over time, first as a graduate student and then as a young professor, that the amateur’s human questions are always the best questions for scholars to start from.
What does it mean to pursue learning for its own sake? Is it even possible? Is the joy of learning itself selfish
For Aristotle, only contemplation—the activity of seeing and understanding and savoring the world as it is—could be the ultimately satisfying use of leisure.
Despite ancient prejudice against it, manual labor leaves the mind free to ruminate and consider in a way that other forms of labor do not. This is why carpentry, or gardening, or housecleaning can be satisfying in a way that ticking boxes, pushing paper, or thinking through complex but trivial problems is not.
I tried to envision what authentic intellectual work might be, how it might draw in ordinary learners without losing its reach to the depths.
Intellectual activity nurtures an inner life, a human core that is a refuge from suffering as much as it is a resource for reflection for its own sake.
We should understand that real learning is hidden learning, that learning at bottom must be withdrawn from the pressure to produce economic, social, or political outcomes.
Such a vision of the work of the mind leaves it open to anyone who has a desire for it.
Consider the story of Albert Einstein. Judged a failure as a graduate student in physics, he could not find work teaching and researching at a university. He worked for seven years as a patent clerk, and in his spare time he wrote his seminal papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and the theory of special relativity—papers that turned physics upside down. He called the patent office “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas".
Good fiction resonates in truth; good history tells affecting stories. So, too, literary images inspire real-life models, and vice versa. Our lives are responsive to books; books in turn reflect our lives.
Moreover she seemed to herself to be less alone when she was alone. For how could she be alone, who had with her so many books, so many archangels, so many prophets?
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I'm a Deepstasher passionate about history, art and community projects.
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