Fuller and truer ways of being
by Ken Myers
“The love of learning opens up dimensions of humanity that might be hidden in ordinary life and to which common experiences are hostile: the capacity to understand the structures of space and time or mathematical theorems; the appreciation of beautiful phrases, images, or scenes; the ability to be transported to different times and places; even the simple capacity to reflect, to think, to see through illusions. All these are a part of the splendor of humanity: the growth in excellence of the mind, its capacity to be aware, to retain, to study, or to reimagine the objects of its awareness. . . .
“Humanistic learning also hopes to cultivate excellence in perception — for instance, of human reactions or human events. So, for example, the study of literature might enable us to see that we ourselves, like Elizabeth Bennet, have been blinded by self-regard and have failed to perceive another person as he really is. Studying the folly of Athens’s invasion of Syracuse twenty-five centuries ago, we might learn to see the folly of a contemporary act of national aggression. But useful as heightened perception may be, its splendor is not in its use, any more than the use of Olympic diving explains the awe it provokes in us.
“The capacities of the mind lie strangely in tension with our motivations as shaped by those around us: the social expectations for a social worker or for a young overachiever; the demands made on a young woman preparing for marriage; the human diminishment deliberately induced by segregation, racial prejudice, or prison life. The way that others treat us gives us an image of who we are: an animal to be controlled, a piece of property to be traded, a vehicle of physical pleasure, a rung on a social ladder to be ranked or climbed up on. We escape from these images to recover fuller and truer ways of thinking about ourselves, and thus to find fuller and truer ways of being.”
— From Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020)
Zena Hitz was a guest on Volume 152 of the Journal.