The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

June 27, 2017

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The Life of the Mind
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/04/08
to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. “What you read then said he, you will remember, but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.” He added, “if a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.” (II, 148)

I note what Johnson advises here. Do not let things “mould,” that is, grow stale and inert in our minds so that we never think of them again. Johnson suggests that we keep ready about us plenty of books on many a subject matter; that is, we need our own basic library, one that we own because we have ourselves found and purchased the books in it.

But just having lots of books is not enough. Fools can own libraries. The devil was one of the most intelligent of the angels and we know what happened to him. Knowledge alone won’t save us, though we need knowledge too. The essential thing is the “inclination to know,” something that cannot be purchased or borrowed or injected. Johnson suggests that we can, to some extent, prod ourselves to know; as he puts it, we can ascribe a “task for ourselves.” We can, for instance, say to ourselves, “I will read The Brothers Karamazov during Christmas vacation,” and then do it. But it is best to have an “eager desire for instruction,” something that flows from our own inner resources, not just from external duty. If we read the first paragraph of The Brothers Karamazov and have any soul at all, we will not rest till we finish it.

I can hardly emphasize enough that, ultimately, each must discover in his own soul this longing to know. Nothing can replace it. This longing to know constitutes the very heart of what we are as rational beings, distinct in the universe precisely because we ourselves can know. In the last analysis, we have to wake up to knowledge. We cannot do that, as Plato hinted, till we reach a certain level of maturity or self-discipline. An experienced teacher can almost tell, by the light in his eyes, the day a student first wakes up and begins to want to know. No one can really find a substitute for his own personal attraction to the truth itself. If this desire is not there, no one can give it to us from outside ourselves. And if it is not there, it is undoubtedly because we have not ordered ourselves or put our interests aside long enough to wonder about things, about things “for their own sakes,” as Aristotle put it. I admit, however, that vanity can sometimes help. If we are finally embarrassed for the fiftieth time to have to admit that we never read Aristotle’s Poetics or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, we may finally read them merely to appear cultured, only to be surprised to learn how good they are.


Let us recall that no limit can be assigned to what we can know. It is a mistake to think that when we learn something it is at the expense of something else. Knowledge is not a zero-sum game. It is, indeed, one of the greatest of the riches of the universe. Our soul is not a material, finite receptacle; it operates with a properly spiritual power. It is true that we need to apportion our time and efforts, that some things are more fascinating than others. But in principle, all things, no matter how insignificant, are worth knowing. If we find ourselves bored, it is not because there are no interesting things about us to know. Our minds have what the ancients called a “capax omnium.” They have a capacity to know all things. This is a phrase that I shall often repeat. Aristotle has a good discussion of it in the Third Book of his De Anima. It is through knowing that that which is not ourselves, that which is in itself, becomes ours. It becomes a proper addition to what we are; for us, to know is also to be.

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