Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How Should We Improve Our Minds?

How does a person best go about improving his mind? That has been on my mind a lot lately. There is so much to know, and so much we need to know, yet so little time. Since everyone in the U.S. is entitled to an education, education is under valued (like the right to vote), and it is dumbed down so that everyone can be crammed through the system regardless of whether their interests and abilities lean toward academics or toward a trade or something else.

But even without a deficient educational system, if we are to have a government by, for and of the people there has to be an informed citizenry. They need have a knowledge of history, philosophy, the social sciences, economics, religion etc. In a truly ideal world everyone would be educated. That exists only in Utopia. But the author of Utopia, who was a practical man, often said, what you can’t make perfect, make as little imperfect as possible. In a somewhat less ideal world there would be at least a few good people who would look out for the others. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in either.

Maybe it’s just our country: we’re all rich by world standards, over weight, we have pill for everything, maybe we think we don’t need our fellow man’s help so we don’t help him; we don’t need the quid pro quo thing so we just look out for ourselves. And because we are rich and fat, and powerful we forget about how our grandfathers worked in the fields and in factories and felt they were doing well if their family didn’t starve to death, and our 6x great grandfather had to come over the mountain and meet the British before the British came over the mountain and raped their wives. Anyway, we are pretty apathetic at this point. So I guess more encouraging that St. Thomas More’s admonition is the one from Mother Theresa: “God doesn’t call me to be successful; he calls me to be faithful.”

But where to start and what course to follow? That has been irking me for a while. Part of me says to recall what St. Augustine said, “We learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion.” Part of me says I need to read about things I don’t want to read about like American Foreign Policy and Bioethics, and I need to learn how to best approach such complex issues, not from my gut but to find the right way whether my gut agrees or not. And there are times when a person needs to keep studying a subject even when it becomes tedious
Well, I think I have begun to find some answers….for me. First, I think I learn better in a discussion or debate. For one, sometimes we don’t appreciate an idea unless we have something to compare it to. I think this is one of the reasons that converts whether they be to Capitalism, or communism or to a religion, tend to have so much zeal: because they have seen both sides and struggled through from one to the other. Second, if a person challenges my faith (be it religious of political) it forces me to learn my faith, and to see the gaps in my belief that need to be bridged. As it happens, I started blogging to find people who were interested in discussing the same books and ideas. I’ve met some great people so far.

Second, and this has been a long time coming (over ten years), I’ve decided to read the Summa Theologica. Well, I’m reading a concise translation. Timothy McDermott translated the Summa and reformatted it into a more normal flow of writing than the “Objection 1….Objection 2…. On the contrary…I answer than…” format. It contains the all the meat and cuts out only things that are of only historical interest. I solemnly swear that I will read it once. It’s only 600 pages (In Aquinas’ format it is 3,000 pages). I ought to read it 3-5 times, but we’ll see. It’s not that I don’t want to read the Summa, it’s just that I really have to stretch my brain to follow it.

But the Summa is only half of the story. I am thinking I want to follow what might be called the “Jazz” method of self-improvement. I don’t know if this applies to all Jazz. In fact, what I’m thinking about may actually be better described as Boogie—anyway, on the piano, the left hand plays a steady tune while the right hand goes crazy. With part of my time, the mornings, I’ll try to engage in more steady, determined reading, while in the other part, the evenings, I’ll read whatever piques my interest: worldview, natural law, bioethics foreign policy, something someone tells me I ought to read.


Rodak said...

This post kicks butt! Well said!
My own method of mind improvement is to rise daily at 4:00 a.m. At that early hour I can at least imagine that I am the only person up and about. Certainly that's true of my own house. At this hour, fresh from sleep, cats fed, coffee made, I read, take notes, meditate, pray, and write.
Usually I have one book--something like the Summa--at the center of my contemplation, and several other books on the periphery. It amazes me how often something in one of those "extra" books--even though the book seems light years removed from the "central" text--seems to zero in on something in the main text, so as to elucidate one of its ideas.
Blogging like this often does that also. I consider this to be quality time.

Civis said...

Thanks Rodak. Your routine sounds good.

Rodak said...

It has proved rewarding. If not, it would not have lasted long, for obvious reasons.

Civis said...

I started getting up early in the morning to read, like you do, when I was in the seminary (I gave that a year; it wasn;t for me) and I would walk past the Monastery on my way to the Refrectory to get a cup of coffee and I would see the profile of this old monk, shaved head, long and full but trimmed beard, either reading or praying. What an inspiration.

While there, my spiritual director advised me to read for 1.5 hours per day: .5 of spiritual reading, .5 of fiction and .5 of non-fiction. He told me, and I have found it to be amazingly true, that you will be astounded how many books you get through that way--and I'm a painfully slow reader.

I've always been faithful to the spiritual reading, but the other two have been sporatic.