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

I do think in retrospect, however, that reading almost anything, as Johnson said, gets us started. There is a very useful autobiography of the western novelist Louis L’Amour called The Education of a Wandering Man. In it, he recounts how he began to read and collect books, and how he gradually began to specialize mostly on his own. He acquired books about western America and all aspects of its settlement and geography. In this “wayfaring” book, L’Amour simply listed year by year the books that he read, along with a guide about how to find the time to read. The fact is, he makes clear, plenty of reading time exists if we will just rely on our own self-discipline, and more especially, if we will feed our desire to know.

Most people, moreover, have heard something of what are called the “great books,” or the canon of books that we ought—or, according to some, ought not—to read. We need to realize that a great number of the best writers whom we most need to read have long been dead. Do not think that something is good merely because it is new or faddish. We will also find that those who are called the “great thinkers” contradict each other. It is easy, perhaps inevitable, for the study of the great books, if not accompanied by careful intellectual formation, to lead one into relativism or skepticism, though this is not a reason not to read them. Few of the really great thinkers were themselves skeptics. Indeed, the intellectual refutation of skepticism is almost the first serious step anyone needs to take to test the validity of his own mind and thinking powers. “Is it true that there is no truth?” remains the first test of mind, the first inkling we have that the principle of contradiction, that very basic intellectual tool, is operative in our own souls even when we try to deny it.


We need to surround ourselves with books because we are and ought to be curious about reality, about what is. The universe is not of our own making. Yet it is all right for us to be what we are, because the universe is potentially ours through our knowledge. In knowing, we become the other, become what we are not, as Aquinas taught. But in doing so, in coming to know, we do not change what it is that we know. We change ourselves. Our very intellectual being is intended to become what, in the beginning, we are not. This is the drama of our intellectual life, the life of our mind.

Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are. In any intellectual life, books and the books we have around us do not just indicate where we started or where we have ended, but how we got there and why we did not go somewhere else or by some other path. They ground and provoke our inclination to know. Books and the intellectual life go together, provided we always remember that it is the books that are for the life of the mind and not the other way around.

It is a terrible thing to go into a library and have no idea what to read, even when we know how to read. But the very realization of not knowing can exhilarate us too. After all, it is a great thing one morning to wake up and know that we want to know anything and everything. For we are, by nature, as the medieval writers said, capax omnium, capable of knowing all things.

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