Sunday, June 14, 2020

Zena Hitz's "Lost in Thought"

Zena Hitz is is a Tutor in the great books program at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, where she also lives. She has a PhD in ancient philosophy from Princeton University and studies and teaches across the liberal arts.

Hitz applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, and reported the following:
On page 99 of my book, I discuss the relation between our dignity as human beings and the fragility of our fantasies about ourselves. On the one hand, we fight for our dignity to resist our fragility, like Curt Schilling pitching the game of his life with a bleeding leg, or the Spartans combing their hair before dying at the battle of Thermopylae. But dignity in this sense can devolve into a fantasy that we are invincible or perfect. I relate how I was once in a hotel that caught fire in the night. I would have imagined in such circumstances I would be a hero, but in fact I was useless. A better kind of human dignity, I suggest, might lie in facing reality, not in constructing imaginary forms of humanity that are perfect, shiny and deathless.

It would be very difficult to tell from Page 99 of my book what the book as a whole is about--in fact, the main subject is not even visible there. The page falls in the middle of a digression on the meaning of dignity. My book is not about dignity, or fantasy, or heroism, but about the love of learning for its own sake. Learning matters, not because it helps us to make money or to be better citizens, but because it gives us an inner life, a place of escape and rest, and a place to grow and be renewed. I tell stories of the intellectual lives of service workers or even prisoners who have uncovered their dignity through reading and thinking, or who have used poetry or mathematics to preserve their humanity in dehumanizing circumstances. But that raises a question about what dignity is and why it matters for us: so we need a digression to explore the issues a bit. That said: there are a number of digressions in the book. I wanted the book to be about learning for its own sake, but I also wanted to learn a bit for its own sake while writing it, and to give the reader a chance to learn for his or her own sake. One of the things we do when we read and think is understand better what it means to be a human being and what really matters in life. What's the best way to improve oneself? Is it striving through competition to win at whatever game is being played? Or is it trying one's best to see, understand, appreciate and face the world as it is? Can these be combined? How? Read my book and think about it with me!
Visit Zena Hitz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue