Victor Nuovo: Discovering what America means
This essay begins a new series about American intellectual history. I have entitled it “The Life of the Mind in America,” which is the title of an unfinished work on American intellectual history by the late great Perry Miller (1905–63). But the expression “the life of the mind” did not originate with Miller. It has a long and distinguished history and is rich in meaning.
It first appeared in the 12th book (Lambda) of Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” where the philosopher set out to explain the origin of the universe, and the nature of the principle on which everything depends for its existence: the origin, prime mover, and creator of the universe, in short, Aristotle’s God.
Aristotle did not only theorize about an intelligent creator of all things; he tried to prove its existence. And since Aristotle was a philosopher, he did this by offering a rational proof, which turns on this premise: If anything exists, then there must be something that exists eternally. He then considers the consequences if this were not so. If all things were perishable, then there might come a time when they will all have perished, when there would be nothing at all. But this outcome, he imagines, even if it were sayable and coherent, which is doubtful, is inadmissible. Therefore, there must be some thing that exists eternally, and upon this being everything else must depend. I leave it to the reader to reflect on whether this argument is valid or persuasive.
Aristotle believed not only that the annihilation of everything was impossible, but that life, the universe, and everything must have an intelligent order and purpose. He was scornful of the thought that everything is a product of randomness and chance, and likewise of the thought of absolute nothingness. I am reminded of the perplexing question posed by the philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716): “Why is there anything at all, why not nothing?” It is a question worth pondering if you have trouble sleeping at night.
What sort of being was Aristotle’s God? He imagined that it must have an affinity with human nature; that it must be alive and intelligent. He imagined that it lived an ideal life, “a life, such as ours is in its best moments.” These are moments when we are conscious, wide awake, and thinking intelligible thoughts, when passion is firmly subordinate to reason, when our minds are clear and untroubled, when we are perfectly content, carefree even fancy free, when we feel as though our whole being has been infused with inexhaustible vitality, free of anxiety or ennui. For Aristotle, such a form of life was a state of ultimate delight.
The prime being and origin of everything is always at its best. All its actions are joyous, “even as we, too, most enjoy being awake, conscious, and thinking.” It follows that living and thinking converge and are eternally united in the principle of all being, “for life is the activity of mind.” The Greek word translated “activity,” is energeia, which is ancestor to our English word “energy,” which in a modern physical sense is the source of everything. Energeia is also translated “actuality,” a state of existence that a thing attains when it is fully developed or perfect. Or, it could be said, “The energy, actuality, or consummation of life, is thinking.”
Aristotle’s creator is not a maker of things, like the creator depicted in the bible. It does not imagine things and then command that they be. Its mind is always directed on truth and goodness. It is the goal of all finite aspiration; the perfect object of intellectual love. It creates by being desired, and as the object of universal desire, it moves all things without itself moving, hence the unmoved mover of everything.
Aristotle imagined philosophical inquiry as a form of religion, a philosophical religion, whose chief activity was the cultivation of the mind. He imagined that not only conscious, rational animals like us but all the operations of nature strive to achieve what is good and true, and aspire for the eternal. Which explains why the universe is spherical; circular motion is perfect because it always returns to itself; it never ends, nor is it absent from itself, it inhabits a never-ending present. He imagined that every part of the universe is infused with intelligence, and also with an unquenchable desire to discover and contemplate the eternal source of its being. It is the prime motive that drives the universe, for life is the actuality of the mind.
Why did Perry Miller choose this title for a major study of American intellectual history? And why should I choose it for this minor spinoff of Miller’s unfinished project? I can answer only for myself.
If, as Aristotle supposed, the consummation of life is the activity of mind, then the meaning of our lives is revealed in how we think and what we think about. But by thinking we do not find meaning for ourselves alone, for we are social animals, and civil society is the sum of all our lives, and therefore is itself a great life. So to study the life of the mind in America is a way of discovering what America means, or what it might mean or should mean, it’s the very idea of America, which should provide answers to what it means to be an American, and in those answers, if they are adequate, we all find fulfillment.
Now to ask what it means to be an American is also a political question, or should I say, it comprehends the political realm and raises it to a higher level. In the light of our current social malaise, an enquiry into the life of the minds is urgent.
This is the reason why we should study the thoughts and intellectual lives and writings of our forbears. For a nation is not created anew in every moment. There are continuities that give it order and purpose. And so it is for each of us; each of our lives is a continuity of moments, a history, of which each of us is conscious; it is our identity. Every life is an activity of mind seeking the highest good, and therein is realized life’s fulfillment, “for life is the actualization of mind.”
Postscript: I wrote all this when the campaign for the presidential election was just getting underway. But now it has been decided and the theme seems to me more urgent to consider than ever. Donald Trump has been defeated and soon, if the rule of law prevails, he will be gone. Joseph Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States, but it will be incumbent on us, the People of the United States to experience a renewal of our minds and a commitment to the moral principles that made this nation truly great. This will be my purpose is writing these essays.
Perry Miller’s “The Life of the Mind in America” was published posthumously in 1965 and won the Pulitzer Prize. It is still in print. Consult your local bookshop.
Faith Gong: Things we don’t talk about: Being the anti-hero
I have an uneasy relationship in my head with singer/songwriter/cultural icon Taylor Swift … (read more)
Editorial: Governor’s vetoes hit their mark
Our bet is that many Vermonters may be shaking their heads in agreement with the governor, … (read more)
Community forum: AG’s decision ‘dangerous, chilling’
The recent decision by Attorney General Charity Clark to charge two Vermont State troopers … (read more)