18 Apr 2018

Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual

Joos van Cleve, St Jerome in his Study, 1528, Princeton University Art Museum.

Paul J. Griffths drafted a letter to a young person aspiring to become an intellectual.

You need a life in which you can spend a minimum of three uninterrupted hours every day, excepting sabbaths and occasional vacations, on your intellectual work. Those hours need to be free from distractions: no telephone calls, no email, no texts, no visits. Just you. Just thinking and whatever serves as a direct aid to and support of thinking (reading, writing, experiment, etc.). Nothing else. You need this because intellectual work is, typically, cumulative and has momentum. It doesn’t leap from one eureka moment to the next, even though there may be such moments in your life if you’re fortunate. No, it builds slowly from one day to the next, one month to the next. Whatever it is you’re thinking about will demand of you that you think about it a lot and for a long time, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re distracted from moment to moment, or if you allow long gaps between one session of work and the next. Undistracted time is the space in which intellectual work is done: It’s the space for that work in the same way that the factory floor is the space for the assembly line.

This is a difficult requirement to meet, even though it’s a simple one to understand. Most people’s lives don’t permit it: They spend, and must spend, most of their waking hours pursuing the goods necessary for survival, and the few breaks in those routines are short and unpredictable. Three hours a day, every day, of unbroken, undistracted time, is an unimaginable luxury for most people, now and in the past. But you’re writing to me from the richest country in the world, in which a significant slice of the population has that luxury, or could have it with a little discipline and imagination. Having a full-time bread-earning job doesn’t necessarily prevent it. (Faulkner, it’s said, wrote As I Lay Dying during the hours between midnight and 4 a.m. while working the night shift at a power plant.) Neither does being married or a parent of children—though full-time caring for infants, small children, the sick, or the old, without help, effectively does. Because you live where you live, and because your life has already afforded you the luxury of time for reading and thinking, it’s probable that you can meet this requirement if you want to. You might need to discipline your appetites for food, drink, clothes, sex, and amusement, because those are all expensive; you might need to renounce some of the consumer goods you’re told you can’t live without; and some of your relationships might suffer. But it’s possible. You’re young: You can begin to plan for it now. You should begin to plan for it now.

With undistracted time comes solitude, and along with it, usually, loneliness. These can be affectively unpleasant. But there’s a lot to be learned from them. When loneliness obtrudes, tugging at your sleeve, invite it in as accompaniment to your work. Its company will provide unexpected texture to your time of thinking, and may help that activity as often as hinder it. Learn to be alone for your time of work.


One Feedback on "Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual"


There was a young man that I read about on the internet somewhere who decided to acquire a 4 year degree in computer science from MIT in one year. He completed one school years every three months. The classes were available online for free. His schedule was a full ten hours a day of dedicated work in a quiet room. He allowed a few hours a day after dinner to socialize. He completed it successfully and then too three months to learn Mandarin as it was his intent to collaborate with Chinese companies in his new career of software development. Last I heard he had acquired a partner, an Indian I think, and was well on his way. Too bad I lost the link it would have been a good one to compare and contrast with this advice.


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