How Malcolm X, André Weil, and Antonio Gramsci Learned Their Way to Greatness

An archival black and white photo of Malcolm X giving a speech.
An archival black and white photo of Malcolm X giving a speech.
Malcolm X. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

So often in our careers and relationships, knowledge is exchanged for money or for power, for approval or for a sense of belonging, to mark out superiority in status or to feel important. But a human being is more than his or her social uses. Our intellectual growth matters all on its own. Literature, philosophy, or mathematics can enlighten and console us when nothing else will. Connecting with others shapes relationships that reach our depths. This is why an inner life is worth cultivating.

Learning for its own sake is a way to recover one’s real value. It opens vistas to the powerless, the poor, and the oppressed — and is thus a source of dignity. This helps to explain why so many ordinary people as well as extraordinary thinkers have turned to the work of the mind in struggle and seclusion.

In 1940, the French mathematician André Weil — brother of the philosopher Simone Weil — was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army. During his three months in prison, he undertook the mathematical proof that would come to secure his professional reputation. He wrote to his wife, noting the irony of his situation: “My mathematics work is proceeding beyond my wildest hopes, and I am even a bit worried — if it’s only in prison that I work so well, will I have to arrange to spend two or three months locked up every year?”

In 1926, the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci was sentenced to prison by Mussolini’s fascist government. During the 11 years he was imprisoned, he read anything he could get his hands on, immersing himself in the study of Italian intellectuals, comparative linguistics, the playwright Pirandello, the serial novel, and popular literature. He also produced 3,000 pages of notes and letters that were eventually smuggled out to his friends and followers. The bleakness of his surroundings and his physical suffering drove him into doing something “for eternity,” focusing on what he called his “interior life:” the intense, systematic pursuit of intellectual growth.

Gramsci’s intellectual life fed the depth of his writings. Even his captors took notice. According to one account, during his trial, his prosecutor pointed to him and declared, “For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning.”

The dignity of an intellectual life

Perhaps the most famous and dramatic example of intellectual development in prison is that of Malcolm X. Malcolm Little (his birth name) entered prison having lived a life of drugs, sex, and petty crime. In prison, he met a polymath named John Elton Bembry who was steeped in culture and history, able to hold forth on a wide variety of fascinating topics. On Bembry’s advice, Malcolm began to read — first the dictionary, then books on etymology and linguistics. He studied elementary Latin and German.

He read the Bible and the Qur’an, the writings of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Kant, and works of Asian philosophy. He pored over a book on the archaeological wonders of the East and the West and learned the history of colonialism, of slavery, and of African peoples. He felt his old ways of thinking disappear “like snow off of a roof.”

Malcolm filled his letters with verse, writing to his brother: “I’m a real bug for poetry. When you think back over all of our past lives, only poetry could best fit into the vast emptiness created by men.” He described his time in prison in another letter as “a blessing in disguise, for it provided me with the Solitude that produced many nights of Meditation.”

Expanding the scope of possibility

While still in prison, Malcolm also converted to Islam. Upon his release, Malcolm became a minister in the Nation of Islam, gathering fame as a clear and forceful voice for African American communities beaten down by the poverty and violence nurtured in racial prejudice. His public speeches masked a disciplined inwardness, a constant struggle to see things as they were and to commit himself accordingly.

Malcolm spoke outside of the socially fastidious, gradualist civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He did not speak for the sake of social results or legislative outcomes; he did not carefully curate his words to engineer certain effects. Rather, he bluntly made an argument that no one wanted to think about: that African Americans had a right of self-defense against unjust violence. He proclaimed the dignity of people whom society sought to erase, the lower-class urban African Americans who would be left behind by the eventual success of the legal movement for interracial justice. His love of truth permitted a type of politics — prophecy — that did not depend on political success. As was true of Gramsci, the breadth of Malcolm’s knowledge helped him to see beyond the narrow scope of social norms.

An inner world can be found in a prison cell, an office, or a corner in a crowded home. It can direct its focus on mathematics, or literature, or God’s word, or the history of one’s own people. The depth and complexity found by looking inward can nurture an entire life, even one of solitude, poverty, or failure. And a vibrant intellectual life can provide us with the resources, freedom, and imagination to see our world and our role in it differently.

Excerpted from Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz. Copyright © 2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Zena Hitz is a Tutor in the great books program at St. John’s College. Her book LOST IN THOUGHT argues that learning is valuable for its own sake, for everyone.

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