The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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The Life of the Mind
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/04/08

Indeed, it is through knowing what is not ourselves that we can come to realize, reflexively, our own selves—our own very existence and activity. We become luminous to ourselves only when we know what is not ourselves. In a sense, the whole world is offered to us in order that we can know ourselves. We are the one thing in the variegated universe that we cannot directly know. We can look at our faces in mirrors, but we can only know our minds while they are knowing something else. The universe ultimately gives us to ourselves. But to know, we need time, discipline, and an order of knowing, as St. Thomas Aquinas told us in the beginning of the great Summa Theologiae. The adventure of knowing is our avenue to the adventure of being—to the being of all things that are.

To take a rather amusing example of how many odd things we can know, let me ask, at random, what is a vitologist? Or better, what is vitolphilia? If we know our Greek suffixes, we know that “philia” means the love of something. At its highest meaning, as Aristotle tells us, it means the love of our friend; better, it means the mutual love of one another. But in this context, vitolphilia means the love of what? Well, I would never have heard of this obscure word had it not been for the fact that someone gave me for Christmas one of those daily throwaway calendars dedicated to—of all things—cigars. (Of course, I never smoke cigars myself without turning green in the process.) This puzzling word was just sitting around on my desk waiting for the right day to arrive—in this case, Wednesday, January 13, 1999. It turns out that the first part of the word vitolphilia refers to the artwork on cigar boxes or on the bands around cigars called vitolas. In fact, in Havana there is a large museum that displays the intricate artwork, from the eighteenth century on, that has been devoted to adorning cigar bands and boxes. The world’s leading vitologist is a man by the name of Dr. Orlando Arteaga, president of the Cuban Vitolphilic Association. Is this, someone might ask, the most profound piece of information Schall ever learned? Well, of course not, but if I ever happen to meet Fidel Castro or some other cigar aficionado, I will have something to talk about. It puts a new light on the cigar, so to speak, to realize that such intricate work goes into decorating the band and box.

For a while, as a child, I used to do something equally useless as pursuing vitolas: I collected matchboxes and folders. The same principle of curiosity is involved. I recall learning a lot about geography from them. Most matchboxes give the address and city of whatever they are advertising. Somehow (I lived in Iowa as a boy), I once obtained a black matchbox from the Palmer House in Chicago, a hotel that was supposed to be, at the time, a pretty classy place and a rare matchbox. In later years, I went to a conference at the Palmer House and felt at home there because of that matchbox. The point here is that we can learn all about vitolas and all about matchboxes, and it won’t hurt our brains a bit. In general, it is a good thing just to have a hobby that enables us to learn all about something, be it tabby cats, the batting averages of the Chicago Cubs starters, or the number of minnows in an average bass lake.

Matchboxes and vitolas aside, books will always remain, even in our paperless world, the basis of our learning and remembering. This is not to downplay the value and scope of the Internet or other electronic materials; I know we can find all the dialogues of Plato on some Web site, not to mention on CDs. However, reading a book, rereading a book, possessing a book, surrounding oneself with books, it seems to me, will always remain fundamental to in-depth learning, particularly of the highest things. A book we have read remains there for us to pick up again. It is ours; no one else has read, or perhaps marked it, as we have.

I once heard a TV interview with Shelby Foote, the great Civil War historian. He spoke of how he could only work within the surroundings of his own books, in his own home. This is probably true for many of us. When considering any future home we might rent, build, or buy, or any place in which we might work, we should be sure to provide adequate space for books, our own books, books we ourselves have obtained, read, marked, taken notes from, and put comments in.

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