I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.
I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.
Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.
Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.
Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.
To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.
The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.
There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.