Idle Hands & Active Minds

Reposted from my CiRCE column – 9/11/12

With the first days of school upon me, time for reflection and productive thought becomes scarce.  I must rise earlier, stay up later, and carefully plan for such times.  I dare say, the majority of teachers experience the same occurrence – with the start of school, time for thought and meditation goes out the window.  What a horrid, tragic thing to admit!

Yet, there I sat, in the worn, cushy armchair in the corner of my classroom, gazing out the window, coffee in one hand, pen in the other, with an open notebook on my lap.  The time had arisen, unplanned.  I had no agenda, only staring and thinking, when the door opened and in popped a well-meaning visitor.  He began, “Oh, good.  You’re not doing anything.  I must have caught you at the right time.”

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in ParisGranting that my visitor’s words were likely “just said” rather than thought of, they still reveal an all-too-prevalent cultural assumption: thinking is not productive.  Thinking means nothing is gettingdone.  The checklist or “to do” list still looms; the tyranny of the urgent still reigns, and thinking doesn’t help.

David Hicks says you don’t have to be a Platonist to answer “yes” to Hannah Arendt’s question: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

Plato argued that man does not knowingly choose evil. That is, when man realizes the destructive and painful effects of evil deeds, he would never knowingly do them.  Hicks summarizes Plato’s thought this way:

“Choosing evil, therefore, implies thoughtlessness, that is to say, a mind no longer challenging its opinions and observations, a mind incapable of seeing the deleterious effects of evil.  One heals this mind by giving it a dialectical antidote – reawakening the activities of thinking and learning.  Once these activities are renewed, the subject will again be able to discern good from evil and will seek to avoid moral or physical pain by refraining from evil acts.”

One does not have to be a Platonist or agree with Plato in toto to acknowledge that the discipline of thinking has a preventative effect on evil-doing and, thus, serves as a powerful force in the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

Modern man, however, motivates himself through action and doing, viewing the discipline of thought as wasteful or, at the very least, unnecessary; hence, the all-too-common expression of “doing nothing,” applied to anyone who isn’t busily accomplishing some visible task.

In contrast to the Platonic idea of thought strengthening character, modern man asserts that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Yet, the far more likely case is that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and those who harry about an unexamined life are the ones in grave danger.  So, perhaps we really need more frequently idle hands and more active minds.

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