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“Lost in Thought” and “The Dig”: Let the Cult of the Amateur Arise!

February 19, 2021


We need more amateurs.

In her new book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz, a practicing Catholic and Tutor in the great books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, makes the case for the life of the mind for everyone. Hitz has a PhD from Princeton, but she tells us that the intellectual life requires no degree at all. “It is a source of dignity,” Hitz argues, and Lost in Thought is a universal call to braininess.

Passion both for discovery and service, born out of intellectual inquiry detached from mere academic success, is a rarity these days. With our world fracturing into an unfortunate binary of elites and everyone else, we need more ordinary people to advise, explain, explore, and most of all lead, primarily because they love what they do, not because they want (or need) to show off their expensive educations.

As psychologist Julia Shaw wrote in a 2017 article called “The Real Reason We Don’t Trust Experts Anymore”:

When experts talk, they often fill the air with complicated words and unintelligible acronyms. Experts seem to want non-experts to rise to their level of sophistication, rather than approaching non-experts with appropriate language.

Contrast that with intellectually alive amateurs, whose vocation is to translate lofty ideas into understandable language because their love for transcendent things is too exciting not to share.

I was in the middle of reading Hitz’s excellent book when I watched the new movie The Dig, now streaming on Netflix, which offers a wholesome, almost sacred, portrait of English amateurism of bygone days. Directed by Simon Stone and based on the true story of the excavation of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England, in the late 1930s, The Dig stars Ralph Fiennes as the autodidact Basil Brown, hired by the aristocratic Edith Pretty, played by Carey Mulligan, to dig up the mysterious burial mounds on her property. Brown describes himself as an “excavator,” not an archaeologist. He talks like a working man, but he devours mountains of scholarly books in his free time. In this way, Brown’s character reminds me of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, eighteenth-century amateur astronomers whom Hitz profiles in Lost in Thought. About the Herschel siblings and others, Hitz notes, “Anyone tempted to doubt the incomprehensible depth and vastness that the intellect opens to us might spend some time looking at the work of amateur students of nature.”

Basil Brown’s dig uncovers a once-in-a-generation archaeological find—an unprecedented Anglo-Saxon trove beneath the mounds, including an entire intact warship. Professional scholars from Oxford, Cambridge, and London swiftly push Brown aside and take over the excavation. Despite his hurt, Brown remains with the project, and in several key moments, his love for his subject proves a more valuable commodity to the team than the experts’ credentials. It is no accident a man who left school at age twelve is able to find what eminent scholars have ignored for centuries.

Mrs. Pretty continues to rely on Brown both professionally and personally, as she worries about her health and her young son’s future. Despite Brown’s coarse accent and lack of formal education, he possesses deep wisdom guided by unwavering principles. He is trustworthy, because he has been formed in virtue by an intellectual life pursued for its own sake. As Hitz writes, “The inwardness of the mind at leisure unlocks the dignity that is so often denied or diminished by social life and social circumstances.”

Brown is absorbed in the depth of his work, often sitting alone in his room, pacing about, reading, smoking his pipe, or looking at the stars through his telescope while the pros are relaxing at the pub. He is always thinking, and always preparing. In Lost in Thought, Hitz offers several similar examples of very ordinary people’s success being undergirded by an intellectual formation of intense, private thinking. Albert Einstein’s time in the patent office and Malcolm X’s time in prison are two such examples; but the best one by far is Hitz’s exposition of the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Hitz notes that our Lady was not chosen because she was ignorant of what she was getting herself into. Rather, as the Church Fathers believed, “Mary was learned in the Hebrew scriptures; she had studied the law and meditated daily on the prophets.” Mary said yes to God because she was intellectually prepared for everything God asked of her, even though no one in the world would have thought so.

The Dig is not a perfect film. Fiennes is superb, as expected. The extremely versatile Lily James is always wonderful to see on screen, but her character’s story of anguish in her young marriage almost hijacks the plot at the end. There is an accompanying “woke” element, which is subtle but annoying because it feels forced and distracts from the whole. Additionally, a photographer friend of mine observed that the beautiful English landscapes may not have been captured on film as well as they could have been. But The Dig succeeds by shining the spotlight on the intellectual life in the character of Mr. Brown, and by reminding us, through Mrs. Pretty, that there are people in the world willing to see beyond worldly qualifications.

Zena Hitz concludes Lost in Thought,

Anyone seeking a good human life benefits from learning in all of its breadth and depth. Nor need one work in a university or attend one to cultivate the virtue of seriousness. Zeal for the fundamentals in life is fueled by aspiration, by imagining forms of human life that we wish to inhabit or become.

The real Basil Brown was not recognized for his achievements in his lifetime, but the artifacts he helped unearth are now prized possessions in the British Museum. Because of this great amateur and intellectual, any person of any class or education level can better imagine the culture of medieval Britain. Better still, anyone can imagine for himself a life of reading, studying, contemplating, and discovering—the foundation of a Christian life.

With Lost in Thought and The Dig, may a renewal of the intellectual life and the cult of the amateur begin.