Prizing the Life of the Mind

Any time a civic, religious, or spiritual leader asks you to surrender your intellect or check your mind at the door, it is wise to question his motives. Giving up one’s critical faculties is a kind of suicide; the self-abnegation it represents is not virtuous, but inexcusably lazy.

Nirvana, extinction, apocalypse, the end of days. There’s something both seductive and sinister about these concepts. From the suicide bomber to the messianic crusader to the apocalyptic evangelical, there seems to be a nearly-universal desire to bring the whole human project to a close. If only the end of the world could somehow be brought about, we could be done with the whole difficult, thorny problem of being human. In my view, even the “nirvana” concept—the extinction of self—is (or can be) a strain of this kind of thinking. Life for us humans–as far as we know, the only animals aware of our own imminent demise and forced to consider ethical and philosophical problems–is indeed difficult. There seems to be an innate part of us that longs for it all to be brought to an end. I think this is among the more contemptible parts of our makeup, one that demands continual resistance.

What is evolution’s unique gift to us if not our highly-developed cerebral cortex? The ability to think, to weigh and consider arguments, to retain the good and discard the rest? Any religion, philosophy, or party line that demands that you surrender your critical thinking capacity is more than suspect; those who make such requirements are usually up to something. They may have a genuinely sinister agenda, such as those who propagandize young people into throwing away their lives as suicide murderers. Or their motives may be plainly larcenous, like the televangelist who uses a false prospectus to separate credulous retirees from their meager savings. In any case, these and others like them are to be resisted by all those who prize the life of the mind.

An appreciation of art, literature, music, and irony is a superior means of developing an ethical and moral compass; it brings one face-to-face with moral and ethical dilemmas and offers no easy out. Fiction and mythology tells us truths that are otherwise inaccessible, and music expresses human feelings for which no words exist. Philosophy invites us to think deeply about the beautiful, the true, and the transcendent. Humanists are no strangers to the numinous; in fact, we relish it. The stunning beauty of a painting, the transcendent voice of a symphony, and the treasures of literature and poetry– these are all of inexpressible value to us. It is precisely because we do not entertain fantasies of living forever that we find the consolations of philosophy (and the other humanities) so precious.

Goya famously declared that “the sleep of reason breeds monsters.” We have certainly seen that maxim borne out throughout human history. It is our reason, our capacity for free inquiry and thought, that makes us distinctly human. It is too precious a commodity to be surrendered, no matter how seductively the offer is made.

Best regards,


Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved
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