I recently attended the third in a series of (what I call) ‘parties for the mind,’ hosted jointly by a good friend who is a captain in the Marine Corps, and a gentleman he considers his ‘life coach’ – a well-to-do retired gentleman with a salty sense of humor, who had served with the Marines in WW2 and still considers himself a Marine at heart. A couple of times a year, these two bring in a diverse group of ‘thinking friends’ for a different kind of gathering – not only to enjoy each other’s company, but also to stimulate thought and discussion. The format is as follows: The party begins like most parties – guests arrive and are welcomed, and then head to the hors d’ouvres and drinks where they greet old friends and introduce themselves to people they don’t know. After about 45 minutes or so, everyone is asked to sit down, and a ‘featured guest’ gives a brief ‘presentation’ of an idea or a perspective on which s/he has some expertise and which is of interest to the group. The presenter then leads and facilitates discussion on the topic. This goes on for perhaps an hour or so, and then the group discussion ends, and people break up into smaller groups to continue eating, drinking, socializing and discussing the topic for the evening, if they so choose.
These gatherings have been stimulating and very enjoyable, and for days, my wife and I have discussed ideas we have heard at these gatherings. Discussing and exchanging ideas of any substance can be difficult or awkward in most social gatherings, and a ‘party for the mind’ creates a permissive environment for people to think and share thoughts and insights. It is a combination of party and classroom. Many people seek and find similar enjoyment and stimulation by joining reading groups, or bible or other religious or spiritual study groups, movie clubs, or any club that regularly explores the nuances of a common interest area, and combines that exploration and discussion with food, drink, and conviviality. The internet has also served to connect people of similar interests, intellectual, cultural or otherwise – people who heretofore have often felt alone and isolated with their interests.
Many people are hungry for the pleasures and challenges of mental stimulation, and I meet them regularly. They have sensed that the satisfactions that come from exploring ideas, appreciating good literature, art, and music, and sharing these with friends in good discussion are qualitatively different, and frequently preferable to the ‘mind candy’ that is so readily available through the media and social and entertainment world.
John Stuart Mill recognized this, and in his Utilitarian calculus, he gave ‘pleasures of the mind’ a higher value than more primal social interactions and pleasures of the body. He famously commented that he believed it to be preferable to be Socrates dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied. His argument went as such: If forced to choose between the pleasures of the mind and the pleasures of the body, people who know both well, over the long term will choose the pleasures of the mind. In fact, older people will argue that nature makes that decision for us anyway. Over a lifetime, the aging process significantly reduces the degree and intensity of the pleasure we get from our bodies (food, drink, sex, and other stimulation), while those who have cultivated the ability to enjoy the pleasures of the mind, continue to be fully stimulated by and enjoy great literature, art, and ideas well into old age.
Many younger people sense this and have shared with me that they struggle to find friends who are interested in ideas, literature, art, and discussion. While these people do enjoy popular culture and appreciate the fun and exciting activities around which much social activity is based, they feel something is missing and want something more. Life IS and should be Fun – but ‘fun’ has many forms, and a ‘party for the mind,’ can be an enjoyable way to generate thought and discussion that goes beyond the NFL play-offs, Avatar, or Tiger Woods’ travails. It is not an either/or choice between being a Socrates, struggling to understand, or a ‘pig satisfied.’ It is a ‘both/and’ opportunity. I too was young once, and enjoyed glimpses of the pleasures of the mind that complemented and sometimes even surpassed the pleasures that came from following the simple imperative of a young Navy Seal: “Eat, f—, sky-dive.”