Life of The Mind

At the University of Santo Tomas, Logic is offered to freshmen as their preparatory, if not their only, course in Philosophy. Logic is one of the legacies of Aristotle to the humanities and during the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, in his works like Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles, adopted it and displayed how it can help promote discourse rather than discord.  Where he disagreed with his interlocutors, Aquinas remained steadfast in his position but he was ready to understand theirs. In the contest of their ideas, a meeting point is reached and from such encounter, a new idea is born.

This appreciation of Logic is lost on our students today. They think that Logic sounds like “magic” and breeds moods that are “toxic” and  “lethargic.”  A minute after they are told that Logic introduces them into the life of the mind, they drift away into impenetrable regions.  Their bodies are present; their eyes locked on the professor but nothing simply registers. Like passengers waiting for their flight, the classroom for them is simply a waiting lounge.

Students no longer get excited by the matters of the mind unless they come with visuals.  They have grown dependent on colors and animation to jump-start their brain.  They have zero appetite and below zero tolerance for pure discourse. Lecture for them is just “talk” without realizing that “talk” is what the school is for.  Talk is a privilege of the academe, particularly the discipline of humanities for which talk is not mere trade of words but an exchange of minds. In ancient Greek, young people go to the Lyceum or the Academy for a talk fest. Plato himself built his reputation as a philosopher through a book on talk, the Dialogues, where he immortalized Socrates’ legacy of talking about philosophy in the streets and households of Athens. John Henry Newman, author of the classic The Idea Of A University, said that given a choice between a school where students routinely take exams and another where students can freely talk, he would gladly choose the latter.  When people talk, they take a journey together. Such journey is the itinerary of new ideas. It is this kind of talk that our students miss.

Observers think that media and internet technology are partly to blame for this intellectual decadence .  Not only do they diminish what is left of our students’ fragile attention span, they have also made them averse to anything that requires mental work.  The general interests of the young are things and faces because they lend themselves out easily. They steer clear of issues and when pressed to comment about them, they would mouth the same opinions peddled by the broadcast, print and electronic media.  They expend little effort in sourcing and sorting out facts; Google will do that for them.  They think with and follow the lead of their fingers. The world has truly become digital – it is a world run by digits.  The word “digit” stems from the Latin term digitus which means finger, the most powerful part of human anatomy today.  With few finger actions, people can trot the globe, devise and revise identities, play hoops with NBA stars, wage war and conquer a whole army aided by the most compact weapon of mass distraction – the mouse.

The catchwords of the present generation are control and speed.  Control is an illusion supplied by computer technology.  With the help of computer applications, their users acquire illusory mastery when they complete a task with the slightest effort and minimal time.  Mastery in the sense of excellence through repetitive and rigorous work has been relegated to a few movements of fingers. With the advent of recent innovations, even these finger motions have been minimized to more minor actions of tapping of or touching the screen. With the curtailment of human engagement and increasing dependence on gadgets, this sense of mastery becomes all the more deceitful. “Smart” and “intelligent” are descriptions that are used now for gadgets rather their users. People buy and use them to compensate in areas where  they deem themselves inadequate.

Speed is kin to control; it is the illusory mastery in full action. People get a certain high when they are able to manipulate or as they say, manage time. They try to multiply, compress, slice time in order to “have” more time. Ironically, the more people try to take over time, the more they feel there is little of it. There are those who text while driving and all the while, are thinking of chores waiting at home. And when they are at it, their minds migrate to other tasks in the office on to another schedule for the next weekend.  They are obsessed with catching up with the time they wish they have at the expense of the time already theirs. Maybe because we  really cannot “have” time; time is not a commodity we can possess. We can only experience time when we slow down and dwell on it  – by paying attention, by keeping still, by living the moment.

Thinking provides us the occasion for this. We need to think because, to paraphrase Plato, life, if unexamined, is a life in fragments.  What we see we see more clearly when they are given a thought. That is how we become more human and our life, to quote Plato again, worth living. People who have been used to living life in the fast lane are merely skimming through life’s outer layer.  They are bound to miss the best things which, like the best sights, are tucked away in secret places. Contrary to popular view, thinking is not an idle work nor is it a misuse of time.  Thomas Aquinas showed us how thinking can be a pious engagement.   There is indeed a certain degree of piety in thinking, the kind of piety that comes with seeing the interconnectedness of things. The ancient Greeks referred to this as kosmos, that is, the order and harmony that brings the world together. It should be said that such interconnectedness does not exhibit itself easily like a red ribbon on a white box.  It is something that comes to us only when engaged with the mind. Unlike the interconnectivity of technology that fuels the illusion of speed and control, such interconnectedness moves as though in play in a slow dance of thought. Kosmos inspires wonder whose glimmer, even the faintest, animates the life of the mind.

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