Can one lead a life of the mind in a post-patronage society?

Update: You can also read snippets of this 4-part series over at Inside Higher Ed.

This is Part 1 of a 4-part series on leading the life of the mind outside the academy. In Part 1, I examined 3 models for living well. In Part 2, I discussed what we need to do in order to change our conception of leading a life of the mind. In Part 3, I try to give a fairly broad picture of how we’ll need to re-conceive of ourselves. In Part 4, I discuss the virtues (e.g., resourcefulness, modesty, self-mockery) necessary for leading such a life.

Can one be devoted to the life of the mind outside of the university? Can one do so in these “post-patronage” days? Since World War II, the university has been the chief patron of artists, writers, and philosophers. Around 1980 or so, we began to see the university shift from a “welfare system” to a “neoliberal system.” Precisely how this happened is still hotly debated, yet the results are not. Strangely, many of those pursuing the life of the mind still seem to think that the university is a patron of the arts despite the fact that it no longer regards this as its overarching mission. They are sorely mistaken and often deluded.

What we are witnessing, then, is a slow, awkward, painful paradigm shift concerning the role of the university in modern society. Exhibit A: Ideologically blind graduate students working for “mixed message” universities. Exhibit B: The life of the Professional Researcher. Exhibit C: The wasted lives of adjuncts.

Hence my question: How will creative types go about “manufacturing” a patronage system in the early 21st C.? Let’s consider three figures, three models of living.

1. The Peripatetic

The peripatetic scholar, musician, or artist is an independent thinker roaming about the countryside. In a New York Times job market article, “Independent Scholars: A Moving Lot,” Katherine Wentworth Rinne describes how she left the academy in 1992 in order to devote herself to completing a cartographic project on ancient Rome. Over the past 20 years, she has lived on anywhere from $8,000 to 80,000 a year and moved around 15 times. Hers has been the peripatetic existence, one that by her own reckoning has not been entirely fulfilling.

There are two major problems with the peripatetic way of life. First and most obviously, it is financially unstable. I think Aristotle is right that financial stability is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for living well. Having enough money in the bank is very useful if one wants to do something worthwhile: fear and anxiety, countless hours spent worrying, moving about vagrantly, and so on are all mentally exhausting; all take away from the mental focus that is necessary for creating good art. Artists need a room with a view.

Second, this model entails self-division, the severing of one part of my self (my scrounge-about worklife) from another (my life as an artist). The work gets in the way of the art and vice versa, it feels meaningless and distracting, and the only value it has is instrumental value (I work for the sake of making art). Worst of all, rarely does it pay well. Alienation breeds moodiness, resentment, and, not infrequently, spells of depression. Why, the peripatetic asks, can’t these people see that I have a Ph.D., that I studied at Julliard, and that I shouldn’t have to bus tables? What kind of topsy-turvey world is this after all?

Rule out the peripatetic way of life since it fails to meet the financial stability and the wholeness requirements. The peripatetic will always be torn in two.

2. The Hustler Entrepreneur

Then there is the “hustler entrepreneur,” a figure best likened to a clever slacker. He does not believe in working a 40-hour week for some large organization. Instead, he wants to maximize gain while minimizing the amount of time he needs to work. He may even be interested in doing something that provides social utility, though this is not necessary. In my view, the great hustler entrepreneur is a cross between a visionary, a Great Awakening evangelical preacher, a good-ole American pragmatist, and a P.T. Barnum.

A fine example of this quintessentially American figure is Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek and, more recently, of The Four-Hour Body. Ferriss is not only remarkably clever; he is incredibly charismatic and immensely resourceful. Part pseudo-scientist, part-orator, part-businessman, part-opportunist, part-self-help guru, Ferriss seems to pull off the self-made man trick with elegance and brio. And, frankly, there are some good bits, some useful tips in his 4-Hour book. He hasn’t filled the thing up with sawdust.

Still, there is one major flaw in the design, and that is the hustler’s dubious final end. Ferriss claims that the final end is a life of hedonism: enjoying what you want rather than deferring till much later. Of course, when he writes this, he may be stretching the truth. Either way, he is caught in a dilemma. Either he believes that a life of pleasure is the highest end, or he doesn’t. If he does, then he is wasting his life (and, if we follow him, then we are surely wasting ours). If he doesn’t, then he is living a life of insincerity (on the problem of insincerity, see Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness). But neither hedonism nor insincerity is admirable. It follows that this way of life, though not without its virtues, is not entirely satisfying. The hustler may get what he wants but not want what he should.

3. The ‘Man of Integrity’


Which brings me to the third way of life, that of the “man of integrity.” A person with integrity (integritas) experiences a sense of wholeness throughout the various facets of his life. On good days, he feels that the most important bits have come together in a synthetic, aesthetic whole. He would not say that he feels constantly riven by doubt or interminably ambivalent about his basic commitments. As the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt nicely puts it, he is “wholehearted.”

There are (at least) two sub-species of the “man of integrity.” They are the “Spinozist” and the “Neoplatonist.”

a. The “Spinozist” regards his whole self (“his substance”) as being expressed or instantiated in different modes. Each mode fully expresses his entire being but under a different aspect. I think my new friend, the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith, is a fine example of the “Spinozist.” He writes academic and trade press books on philosophy, he does business consulting, and he writes columns that appear in British newspapers. (And he does a great deal more besides.) I doubt he sees one bit as being completely separate from his whole being. (At least not in principle and hopefully not in practice.) Rather, I suspect he regards each mode of his life as an instantiation of the Life of a philosopher.

b. According to the “Neoplatonist,” god is a being who must actualize his entire being in the very act of creation. All potency must be actualized (it cannot not be), and, in being so actualized, emanates outward into a diversity of things. Hence, each concrete thing is an expression of god’s power, and all things partake in god. The historian Arthur Lovejoy had a beautiful name for this: he called it the “principle of plenitude.”

My new friend Dougald Hine is a “Neoplatonist,” so understood. When you look at his website, you’re immediately struck by the range and diversity of his projects, plans, and ideas. At first blush, the experience is rather overwhelming. And yet you soon realize that his life is not a cabinet of curiosities or a hoarder’s dingy apartment. You finally see that it’s governed by a novel understanding of education, public spiritedness, and friendship, all of which are expressed in a near-infinite plurality of projects, start-ups, institutions, and ideas.

My provisional conclusion is that the “man of integrity” is a workable, indeed a noble and beautiful way of life in these “post-patronage” days. Unlike the hustler, he is involved in projects of ultimate value. Unlike the peripatetic, he is financially stable. Also to his credit: he doesn’t suffer from compartmentalization or alienation for he sees his work in his life and his life in his work. We might say that he has his life-of-the-mind in order.