The Mediocre Life of the Mind

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Freedom of will is the most basic requirement of dignity, proposes Todorov in his book about the moral life in the holocaust. He also suggests that the extreme of the lager bares the foundations of our more ordinary moral choices. Thus, ordinary moral actions, which pettiness would render invisible, become more visible when analyzed under the cold light of the concentration camps. By understanding them, we could also notice the woven texture of our everyday virtues and morality.

(The reading is a true pleasure: the reasoning sounds accurate and the insights, useful. I have always appreciated Todorov’s keen observation and was gladly surprised to have seen his face for the first time in the back cover portrait. That was actually strange. It was like putting a face to a strong intellectual power I had only known in the most abstract way. Looking into his eyes made me less dogmatic – he is human, after all. I can better understand now why Hashem has no name or face, and why mortals necessarily burned down to ashes over the vision of the Greco-Roman gods.)

Todorov’s epistemology of the moral life, divides it into 1) Dignity, 2) Caring, and 3) The life of the mind. This framework explains in detail the fresh breeze that involved my soul when I finally decided to abandon my PhD studies, amidst thesis writing. It was an act of dignity – in which I chose to let go of oppressive caring for my absent father (who needed me to be a PhD) and a mediocre life of the mind.

For Academia turned out to be a nest of political dissidence and psychological compensation of the worst kind. I remember when a former boyfriend, having gone to a conference, noticed “Everybody there has issues!”. And I said: “Sure, everyone always has issues.Even you!” And he replied: “But they were just legitimizing each other with no reflection”. True. In 1995, this intellectual environment welcomed the publication of Sokal’s sham article, in which he mockingly claims to have analyzed quantum mechanics in the light of post-structural theories, problematizing and relativizing “foundational conceptual categories of prior science — among them, existence itself”. How can such a network of individuals, eagerly praising each other for stating either truisms or self-serving ‘truths’ contribute to uplifting social or individual dignity through such a mediocre understanding of the life of the mind?

Well, it turns out it does. Every now and never, emerges a Todorov. But I am no Todorov. Neither my colleagues at that PhD program. Neither my dogmatic, prejudiced father.

I’m just a civilian of the mind now. Free to laugh and read whatever pleases me. Free from the ambiguous camaraderie of that mediocre intellectual environment, I feel I care more about others (which , while there, I dedicated to abash in order to get grades). Among random, delicious readings, I feel now that I have achieved more dignity for myself.

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