Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vitolphilia and Vitology

Of all things, I was reading James V. Schall's The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003) this evening, an excellent read for anyone, young or old, who is interested in some guidance in the important human endeavor of disciplining the mind in its pursuit for truth. I have been reading a number of Schall's works recently, including the On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Mind that is Catholic, and The Order of Things, all of which I recommend. In any event, I came across the following in his The Life of the Mind, and I thought I would share it with the group.

Vitolphilia on Cigar Box

This paragraph comes immediately following this venerable Jesuit professor's statement: "The adventure of knowing is our avenue to the adventure of being--to the being of all things that are." His point is that the mind is capax omnium, able to learn all manner of things, and that through learning things outside ourselves we learn about ourselves.
To take a rather amusing example of how many odd things we can know, let me ask, at random, what is a vitologist? Or better, what is vitolphilia? If we know our Greek suffixes, we know that "philia" means the love of something. At its highest meaning, as Aristotle tells us, it means the love of our friend; better, it means the mutual love of one another. But in this context, vitolphilia means the love of what? Well, I would never have heard of this obscure word had it not been for the fact that someone gave me for Christmas one of those daily throwaway calendars dedicated to--of all things--cigars. (Of course, I never smoke cigars myself without turning green in the process.) This puzzling word was just sitting around on my desk waiting for the right day to arrive--in this case, Wednesday, January 13, 1999. It turns out that the first part of the word vitolphilia refers to art work on cigar boxes or on the bands around cigars called vitolas. In fact, in Havana there is a large museum that displays the intricate art work, from the eighteenth century on, that has been devoted to adorning cigar bands and boxes. The world's leading vitologist is a man by the name of Dr. Orland Arteaga, president of the Cuba Vitolphilic Association. Is this, someone might ask, the most profound piece of information Schall ever learned? Well, of course not, but if I ever happento meet Fidel Castro or some other cigar aficionado, I will have something to talk about. It puts a new light on the cigar, so to speak,to realize that such intricate work goes into decorating the band and box.
(p. 11)

I do have three points to make. First, Fr. Schall has not been smoking good cigars if he has been turning green. Second, it is good that the intellectual life is not foreclosed to cigar smokers, and that cigar smoking and its culture are worthy of mention, even if tangentially, in a book on the intellectual life. Third, and this may be perverse, it is always gives me great pleasure to write legitimate words like vitolphilia, vitolphilic, vitolia, which draw the little read zigzag underline suggesting the words are misspelled. It gives me a chance to say, "How stupid you are computer. If you only knew what you don't know." And this is really quite an insight because Socrates said that he was the most intelligent Greek of his day not because of what he thought he knew, but because he knew that he did not know. Apology 21d. I suppose that's Schall's point: if we know that we do not know something it spurs our desire to try to learn it, and there are few topics, if indeed there are any, that can be exhausted by one mind.

Sampler of Vitolphilia

Happy smoking . . . and happy thinking.

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