Have you ever noticed that having a bias is fairly easy? It can be a bias about anything really: favorite publishing house, brand of computer or ice cream, or even a vitamin, for that matter. It seems bias comes easy to humans. But I don’t think that’s all bad. For example, I have been thoroughly enjoying a delicious bias toward a particular someone with whom I have a romantic relationship. I am biased because I have come to esteem various valuable (not to mention glorious) traits about this person. And so it goes for all our biases: we have them because they agree with us in some way.
Anyway, I speak of bias because I just found myself thinking lovely and fine thoughts about a book of James Schall’s titled The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking. “It’s just so good,” I caught myself saying to anybody who asked what I have been reading lately. And then I asked myself the question, “Just why do I think this book is so nifty?” I realized my enjoyment was partly due to all the favorite names that kept showing up. That’s probably not the best reason, but it’s true. Though, I think bias can be good, especially if it’s properly educated. After all, we educate our tastes, our likes and preferences, right? This is not to say that we shouldn’t be willing to try different things, but our very natures are finite—we can only be interested in so much!
Speaking of interesting, Schall clarifies that “anything that is is interesting.” If you are a Chesterton fan, you probably will recall him saying “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” If we suffer from un-interestedness, Schall and others of similar mind would say that “we have never learned how or why to see what is there.” Furthermore, as Schall voices, we actually become more alive by delighting in and knowing what is. Because God made the world full of good things—things worth knowing more about.
Actually, right at the very beginning, our author expressed something that resonated with me: the world is full of splendorous things that are meant to be fully explored and enjoyed, but a human tendency is to be afraid of missing out on exploring them—because of the sheer magnitude of things that exist. Doesn’t that have a ring of truth to it? In other words, Schall is saying we should worry that we might be missing out. Yet we are also finite, and thus won’t be able to participate in everything. So what are we to do?
Learn to choose wisely.
And that’s a good part of the purpose of his book: to help us know how to choose. I should add, though, that this book is actually more about discovery than instruction; before we can choose, we must have discovered something to choose about in the first place.
After discovering, choosing is, of course, a quite complicated thing. To make a good choice, we usually have to be able to see clearly. One of Schall’s specialities is philosophy, so I wasn’t too surprised when he said, “It is by our philosophy that we see the world, not by our eyes.” And for someone like Schall, a good degree of philosophy comes from reading. Not reading just anything though, he wants us to be choosy—to have an educated bias toward what is good. Not just for the sake of knowing something, but rather for the sake of “enabling us to be free enough to know the truth of things.” In the classical tradition, a complete human ideally knew what things were worth doing and knowing. Thus Schall has a healthy respect for the liberal arts. “A good working definition of the arts is from Mortimer Adler: ‘the liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished.’”
This might sound a bit lofty, and for those of us who haven’t read the entirety of the classics, it might even make us lose a bit of motivation. However, our author is wise enough to know that we live in a culture that imposes limits on our attention span, materialistic goods, and time. In fact, to make his message more realistic for the average person, Schall dedicates an entire chapter that can be summed up with the following statement: “We don’t need to know everything.”
Schall isn’t telling us the only way we can ever become a complete human being is by reading all the authors whose mere names impose a certain dread for some: Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on. Moreover, he instructs that often “it is better to learn nothing than to have to unlearn much.” This makes sense, I think, as we all know there are bad biases—which are generally learned—and a bias by nature is a tough thing to uproot. So if we have them, better they help us attain the good! (Can you imagine a person who was biased against, say cheesecake? Horrors!). And then to add to that, he tells us—even in his case—many good authors can and should be read when we are more mature, else we won’t be able to enjoy and learn from them as much. Finally, he reminds us that when it comes to truly being wisely discerning, according to Plato, we will probably be about fifty years old. This last bit made me feel better.
Ultimately, The Life of the Mind is a book that endeavours to lead us to the truth that what is, is worth knowing, because it was created by a personality that knows what good is. We also share in this knowing what the good is too . . . call it “being biased toward good,” if you will. If we didn’t, how else could that Bible verse exist that says it is by the goodness of God that people are lead to/moved to change their minds? We, when we are shown God’s goodness, know it to be good, and change.