Intellectually Luxurious

The phrase “intellectually luxurious” occurred to me recently. It was in reference to a reading project I have in mind for myself.

It seems to me that it’s also a perfect phrase to capture the essence of the happy philosophical life.

The reading project involves spending just a few minutes a day reading ancient books and texts. I will roam about however interest and relevance should lead me, but I’ll plan to start in the texts of the Hebrew Bible and classical Greece, and will move around into the Latin intellectual tradition and the New Testament and Church Fathers, then into peripateticism and neoplatonism, and early scholasticism. But there will be no urgency. I will read and reread, unhurried, enjoying myself, learning, and in this way slowly, relentlessly, accumulating familiarity with the personalities and events and thoughts of these ancient times.

I will luxuriate in the reading project. It will be intellectually luxurious.

At my alma mater, “intellectually rigorous” was the catchphrase du jour. This phrase captured the strenuous effort of reading large quantities of assigned texts and, even more, getting practice at writing many large and small assignments judged by a strict set of standards. It was stressful and unsustainable. I learned some good things along the way, but I also developed some problems and bad habits in the process that it have taken time to reverse.

It feels so much better to live in an intellectually luxurious way than did my experience of trying to live in what I believed to be an intellectually rigorous way. It’s healthier, I think, and in the long run more effective. To have an endless habit of enjoying relatively small amounts of daily intellectual reading and writing will do more for our growth than will briefer periods of much more intense study.

I don’t blame schools for failing to focus on the intellectually luxurious path for their students. Give college-age students free time and we know it’ll probably be misused. The goal of a school is to impart as much information in as little time as possible, so that students can go and work during their lengthy summers, so that they can pay to come back and study for another year.

Still, I do believe schools should try to find a way to move toward something more like an intellectually luxurious approach. Maybe some already are. I hope so. In my view, that would be the best thing they could do for their students and for their political communities, and thus also, for themselves.

But until that becomes the new academic norm, we still can and must pursue that goal for ourselves. If no one will teach us, we can learn on our own. It’s actually not so hard.

Choose the pleasant way of endless, ever-increasing knowledge.

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