A sense of trepidation accompanies me at the beginning of my Ph.D. studies. One look at the syllabi for my first week of seminars, and I am overwhelmed by the pages to be read, papers to be written, ideas to be considered, and arguments to be made.
At the same time, a flash of excitement and courage wells up inside me when I think of all the men and women who have traveled this road. In the midst of life’s pressures and family responsibilities, work requirements and daily routines, men and women across the world have carved out space in their lives to embark on the journey of “the intellectual life.”
Following in their footsteps, I share their passion but need their perspective. I share their calling but need their counsel.
The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods was written in 1934 by A.G. Sertillanges, a scholar who upheld and embodied the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, the towering theologian of the Middle Ages. Here are four major themes that I found particularly helpful in Sertillanges’ work.
Lesson #1: Recognize the Intellectual Life as a Calling.
One does not stumble into the intellectual life. Rather, one accepts this life as one accepts the call to a new vocation. The purpose of this vocation is to develop and deepen one’s mind and thinking, but this calling should go beyond personal ambition or mere hobby.
Sertillanges envisions the intellectual life as directed by a passion for truth-seeking as a service to others. “Truth is ever new,” he writes. “Like the grass of morning, moist with glistening dew, all the old virtues are waiting to spring up afresh. God does not grow old” (15).
“We retain better what has struck us. For this reason along with many others, the intellectual should cultivate that sense of the newness, the freshness of things, which is the starting-point for a vigorous urge towards fruitful creation or research” (184).
The calling to the “intellectual life” should be answered with a continuous cultivation of curiosity. The thrill of discovery is what bids us along in our pursuit of truth. Sertillanges imagines the scholar as “carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration” (126).
Far from a sterile routine of burying oneself in dusty books, the intellectual life is an adventure, an ongoing exploration of truth. As such, it demands discipline and rigor commensurate with the seriousness of its calling. “Vocation means concentration,” he writes. “The intellectual is consecrated; let him not scatter himself in exacting futilities” (43).
Lesson #2: Submit Your Intellectual Pursuits to Truth.
Sertillanges commands us to put aside personal ambition and devote ourselves to the discovery of truth. The scholar seeks to “find things,” not “make them” (130). “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us,” he says. “Truth serves only its slaves” (4).
Any intellectual aspiration must be subservient to truth. We pursue truth whatever the cost. “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating truth to itself,” Sertillanges writes (6).
Nowhere is this more evident than in the receiving or rejecting of criticism. “If the criticism is right and you wrong, do you mean to resist truth?” he asks (252). Scholars committed to discovering and promoting truth must be willing to admit their failures and squelch their selfish tendencies.
“Inspiration is incompatible with selfish desire. Whoever wants something for himself sets truth aside: the jealous God will not sojourn with him” (210).
The pursuit of truth leads us beyond academic studies of books, journals, and seminars. “Truth is everywhere,” Sertillanges writes. In the normal activities of life there is a “continuous stream” passing by, giving inspiration to the scholar’s soul (72). Truth is not discovered in books alone but also in “conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls…. In all contemplation, even that of a fly or of a passing cloud, there is a fit occasion for endless reflection” (73).
Since truth can be found anywhere, all areas of study ultimately connect to each other. “No branch of knowledge is self-sufficing,” Sertillanges writes (102). One’s study in the field of science may lead to new ideas in the field of sociology. One’s enjoyment of classic literature may yield insights in the study of theology. No area of study exists in isolation, sealed off from all others. Truth is interconnected.
Pursuing truth also leads us to celebrate and affirm truth no matter where it comes from. “Train yourself to indifference about sources,” Sertillanges writes. “Truth alone has a claim, and it has that claim wherever it appears” (135).
Because truth reigns over all scholarly endeavors, we impoverish ourselves if we limit our discovery of truth only to those who agree with us. To this end, Sertillanges advises the scholar to read people who are often wrong.
“He who stumbles without falling makes a bigger step forward” (164).
Through studying the errors of others, we may be given the opportunity to discover and savor new truths.
Lesson #3: Understand the Intellectual Life Requires Considerable Discipline.
Sertillanges advises the scholar to create space for concentrated study. A strict and rigorous routine does not hinder the liberty of study but enables it. “A stream narrowly hemmed in by its banks will flow more impetuously,” he writes (8-9). Discipline refers more to intentionality and concentration than to the quantity of hours spent in solitude. “Have you two hours a day?” he asks (11). “It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely” (96).
On reading, Sertillanges advises the scholar to exercise wisdom in two things: choosing books and choosing in books. Regarding the choice of books, he recommends we go to the sources “in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand,” while “choosing in books” refers to the practice of reading only what is most relevant to the pursuit of truth. Not everything in a book is “of equal value” (150-51). Sertillanges advocates smarter reading, not necessarily more reading, since “the mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading” (147).
There are places in The Intellectual Life where Sertillanges’ recommendation of solitude tends toward an unhealthy introspection. “We must bear in mind that one can only unfold oneself in that fashion by first living with oneself, closely, in solitude,” he writes (50). Likewise, when he advises the scholar to “rise above things” even when engaging in other activities, he borders on affirming a Gnostic-like existence that does not allow us to be fully present in the daily routines of life. “You must become all spirit,” he writes (40).
Despite some of these overstatements, Sertillanges’ vision of a well-balanced life is welcome. “We must not overestimate ourselves, but we must judge of our capacity,” he writes (28). Over-extenuation can be avoided through proper diet, spending time outdoors, and getting sufficient sleep. Exercise also plays an important role in the life of the mind. “Many workers set their brain in motion by means of the motion of their limbs” (220).
Spending time with children should be seen not as distraction from the intellectual task but as a refreshing interruption.
“Children complicate life, but so sweetly that they should serve to give the worker fresh courage rather than to lessen his resources” (45).
Likewise, Sertillanges is right to maintain the difference between solitude and isolation (12). A scholar must be nourished and sharpened by his colleagues.
Sertillanges’ counsel goes beyond the hours of intellectual activity. There is even a disciplined way to sleep! “Sleep itself is a worker,” he writes (82). It is during sleep that our brains continue to work and connect the truths we have been studying. One should not view rest as a necessary evil, but as one of the scholar’s great blessings. A life of constant discipline will lead us to maintain a routine that maximizes our energy and output.
“The best way of all to relax would be, if possible, not to get tired” (244).
Lesson #4: Remember the Goal of the Intellectual Life is Virtuous Character.
The most illuminating insight in Sertillanges’ book is the connection between truth and virtue. Character matters. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good,” he writes. “Their roots communicate” (19). It does us no good to discover the truth and then fail to live accordingly.
As one applies truth to the everyday choices of life, one grows in virtue and by extension grows in his or her capacity to discover more truth.
“Is not virtue the health of the soul? And who will say that health does not affect the sight?” (20)
The finished work of the scholar is not the papers one hands in or the books one writes.
“The man is the finished work” (235).
Truth is connected to life. Life must bow to truth.
It is no surprise that Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life is still in print after so many years. The truths in this book assist the scholar in understanding the purpose of research, the desire for truth, and the cultivation of healthy work habits.