Flesh & Soul, Economics & Liberal Arts
By Pierre Lemieux
On our sister website Law & Liberty, Jennifer Frey (U. of South Carolina) has a remarkable review of what seems to be a remarkable book by Zena Hitz. With Hitz, Frey defends the “monkish virtues”—and liberal arts—that David Hume attacked in the name of utility and economics. Monks, however, should also learn some economics.
The reviewed book (which I have not read) is Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020). Every economist should read Frey’s review, a vibrant defense of the “solitude of contemplative life.” A couple of excerpts from Frey:
… the compelling case that the cultivation of our inner lives, which requires many of the monkish virtues that Hume dismissed, is fundamental to authentic human flourishing.
Hitz found herself increasingly alienated from academic life, which had trained her to fear rejection and prize prestige and status far more than it had cultivated her thrill for learning or her love for truth.
It is central to Hitz’s argument that love of learning is intrinsically, rather than instrumentally, valuable.
But leisure and contemplation are not, on Hitz’s vision, reserved for an elite, leisured class with a special kind of elite training or pedigree.
[Hitz] writes of Malcolm X, who discovered a love of learning while imprisoned as a young man.
We can either stay skimming along the surfaces of our lives, lost in the thrall of spectacles, the ambitious drive for status and prestige, and the satisfactions of the flesh, or we can choose to be serious and plunge ourselves into the depths of reality, an activity which calls us out of ourselves and demands a kind of faithful obedience to the task of understanding it more completely.
Her discussion of Dorothy Day—one of the highlights of the book—underscores the deep and important connections between solitude, silence, and solidarity.
I would argue that the flesh should be celebrated too and reconciled with monkish virtues, although I am not totally sure how the reconciliation can be done.
I would also challenge Dorothy Day’s simplistic social and political thought—like Catholic “social” teaching in general—which would strongly benefit from some economics. Individuals have different preferences, resources are scarce relative to human desires, incentives matter, the “common good” is not easy to define, the philosophers’ “highest good” is even more ambiguous, the “we” is a collection of “I”s, and Day’s anarchist ideal cannot abolish these realities.