I was a lad of 13 or 14, I suppose, when our pastor said something from the pulpit one Sunday that was very un-Baptist — and I have never heard it from the pulpit since. Speaking of the afterlife, he said, “If anything of my being survives death, it will be the mind, and I do all in my power to enhance the mind every day of my life.”
I mark that Sunday morning in a small Baptist church in northern Indiana as the beginning of an intellectual pursuit that has grown and intensified over the years. Therefore, you can imagine how pleased I was to learn from my good friend and fellow Caxtonian Laurel Church more than a dozen years ago, of Hannah Arendt and her posthumous book, The Life of the Mind. I devoured the book. I read it mornings; I read it as I drove interstates; I read it evenings. And then I reread it. It did for me at 50 what Thoreau’s Walden had done at 25.
The life of the mind! If there is a more euphoric phrase in the English language, I don’t know what it is! What Arendt does so magnificently is trace the history of this spiritual entity, the birthright of all and the responsibility of every living human being. She begins with the domain of Thinking, an entity as ancient as the Greeks, who defined so well its parameters. This domain is that human faculty, through which a person lives richly apart from all other human beings, performs in absolute silence, and invests fully in the unseen realm. The act of thinking begins as a dialog with the self, in which the two aspects of the person silently converse. Through the process of thinking, we become who we are to be known as to friends and to the world.
But Arendt takes us beyond this process most commonly associated with the mind: she introduces us to the faculty of the mind call Willing. The Greeks knew little of this function. It was, as she so beautifully details, St. Augustine who gave the world the intellectual faculty of willing. Arendt, who did her doctoral dissertation on the concept of love in St. Augustine, is at her finest in discussing this faculty. The intellectual process of willing carries thinking beyond the self: “This Will,” she writes, “…is so busy preparing action that it hardly has time to get caught in the controversy with its own counter-will.” The redemption of the will comes volitionally as the will ceases “to will and [starts] to act.” The natural inner conflict within the will is resolved “through a transformation of the Will itself,…into Love.” Citing St. Paul’s essay on “Love” in I Corinthians 13 — “the greatest of these is love” — she defines love as “enduring and conflictless Will,” which provides “weight” to the soul, “thus arresting its fluctuations.” I would extend the metaphor and say that love is the ballast in the voyage of life, giving stability and direction as we go.
The third element in the life of the mind is Judging. Unfortunately, Arendt died before this final portion of her book was completed. But she had written enough to reveal the direction of her thought. Emmanuel Kant is the first of the philosophers to give us judging as a function of the mind. Judging opens the mind to public scrutiny and interchange. Judging enlarges the mind, Arendt says, “through the force of imagination.” The imagination then leads to the “operation of reflection” — the “actual activity of judging something.” And, in a sense, we’ve come full circle — back to contemplation before action.
I don’t know today whether the mind, or anything, lives in the afterlife. And, you’ll pardon my saying so, I don’t much care: I’m neither optimistic nor afraid. The pursuit of the life of the mind has been and is such a grand experience — truly an experience without end — that what I have and where I’ve been are sufficient. And the great pleasure in association with family and friends who share the pursuit of Thinking, Willing, and Judging — a life of the mind, if you will — makes life these days satisfying almost beyond measure. A person can ask for little more.
Return to Caxtonian table of contents
Return to the Caxton Club home page