The eclipse of summer and the value of study

The summer is coming to a sudden close, as the last summer visitors have left and I see neighborhood children waiting for school buses in the morning on the corner across from my house. The weather is already getting cooler, which is a welcome change. Autumn has always been my favorite season.

As the grand finale of our first summer in Illinois, we went with family to go see the total eclipse in a town about an hour south of here. The eclipse, like many good things in life, was preceded by a long period of preparation, waiting, frustration, complaining, squinting…all for two and a half minutes of complete excitement and awe as we stared with our naked eyes at the fiery black orb in the sky. The difference in brightness and temperature between the moment when the last, tiny sliver of sun remained and the full eclipse was remarkable: almost as stunning as the eclipse itself was the palpable evidence of just how much light and heat the sun gives off. During the total eclipse, the sky was as in a most beautiful and pleasant dusk just after the sunset, accompanied by the birds singing and insects humming. But, within moments, it was over! And we drove home.

I did not get pictures of the eclipse, but I did capture this Monarch butterfly in our garden

For us, the changing season does not yet bring school and all it entails. Yet, after a wild summer of moving, hosting, visiting, working, being pregnant, etc, I am looking forward to a calmer and more predictable routine in our new home and town. Admittedly, my ambitious summer reading plans crumbled in the face of early pregnancy exhaustion—I have been stuck on page 5 of MacIntyre’s After Virtue for two months. Last weekend, though, I had an opportunity to read while I was traveling by myself to Florida for my aunt’s wedding. Instead of picking back up with my books, I decided to finally read a few papers written by friends from St. John’s. Two were papers for class and the other was my friend Staci’s Master’s thesis on Euclid.

It’s always wonderful to read the fruits of a friend’s intellectual labor, to hear her particular voice and style in the written word. Unless a friend is willing to write very long letters (or is a professional writer), we often don’t get an opportunity to read an extended exploration, narrative, or argument from him or her. Thus, I enjoyed the chance to do so with my friends’ papers, especially Staci’s thesis.

I followed those papers by an essay entitled “Why Intellectual Work Matters,” written by my St. John’s thesis advisor, Zena Hitz. In it, Ms. Hitz laments the modern tendency to view intellectual and academic work through the lens of activism—“doing something” for the world, “making a difference,” etc. This emphasis on social utility ultimately undermines itself, as people become disillusioned by the lack of social change that can be wrought by the study of say…Ancient Greek or Art History. The problem, she writes, is that we are overlooking the main good of intellectual pursuits, which is the enrichment of the interior life of individuals. Like humor or music, an intellectual life is one of the things that can sweeten and enliven our human experience; it is so deeply human in its gratuitousness. And, it’s privateness is necessary for its authentic pursuit.

Ms. Hitz’s article awakened many memories from my college years, when friends and I would commiserate about the “pointlessness” of writing essays that only one professor would ever read and we would crave to do something “real.” We were under the false assumption that public works were inherently superior to private ones and that study was not “real” work. There are many reasons why we suffered from this impression, but prime among them is the fact that, for our whole lives as students, our study was always valued in terms of its preparation for something else: for a test, for high school, for college, for a profession. Those of us who majored in the humanities were re-assured, “This will be useful! Employers will love you!”  Sadly, our studies were never measured by our own interior lives and whether they were rich, imaginative, thoughtful, clear, ennobled.

Now, however, I can read my friend Staci’s thirty-something page essay on the nature and use of reductio ad absurdum proofs in Euclid’s geometry and delight precisely in the intimacy of her inquiry. For it reflects a mind that is searching for clarity in nuance; that wants, in a very personal way, to understand. The value of that inquiry to herself alone is enough to justify the work, although many others also benefited from being drawn into her study through conversation and reading.

I have much on my mind these days. I am acutely aware of how little I am getting done, which I know is not actually helpful! But, I am enjoying a certain slowness and thoughtfulness during the day and relish being with the children as they learn and grow.

Philosophical Anselm, on a column outside of the art museum.

My older brother, Leon, who can always be relied upon to provide wonderful music, recently sent me this beautiful album of ancient African string instruments. It is called “New Ancient Strings” by Toumani Diabate (you can listen to it here). I have been playing it often; I love how it sort of permeates the whole house in a peaceful way and seems to match my overall mood.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *