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Every college student should read Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 18, 2018

The incomparably rich intellectual heritage of the Church needs no advertisement here. It is the treasure house filled first by the Holy Spirit, and by the great adventurers and plunderers who went before us. Their hard-won wisdom points us toward the highest truths about God and man, and away from the seductive errors and half-truths of the world.

This heritage is not for intellectuals only, and it is wasted on those of us who are only intellectuals. The great minds are benefactors of many who have never heard their names or opened their books, of many even who hate them.

Catholics who do have a vocation to the life of thought are therefore at no loss for study material. But there is less guidance as to the how of pursuing an intellectual vocation, and perhaps less understanding of the precise demands of such a calling. How precisely to attain to the fullness of one’s potential so that one can truly say at life’s end that one has invested one’s talents, small or great, and received them back manyfold? How to be an intellectual who is also a man or woman, to avoid compartmentalizing oneself, living a double life (so characteristic of the modern pseudo-intellectual) or one that is less than fully human? How to study in a spirit of prayer?

The best guide I have encountered to these questions and many others is a little book, now almost a century old, by the French Dominican Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, titled The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. It is one of those books that, upon finishing it, I wanted immediately to start again from the beginning in order to apply its lessons (partially because it revealed to me just how haphazardly I study and work). And its usefulness is twofold: I find it almost as relevant to my life as an artist as to what are more typically called intellectual pursuits. Indeed, Sertillanges often refers to artists when giving examples of great intellectual workers.

In writing The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges was inspired by a short letter historically attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge. Like the Doctor who inspired him, Sertillanges is nothing if not thorough (the table of contents, pictured below, also attests to this). He covers every aspect of the intellectual vocation, from the heights of contemplation, to the indispensable foundation of time management, even to what sort of diet is most conducive to the life of the mind (because “a thinker does not spend his life in the processes of digestion”). He does so with both wisdom and genius, and with great vigor of expression.

I highly recommend this work to college students; for graduate students and anyone already pursuing the life of thought, The Intellectual Life is mandatory reading. As I have indicated, artists will also find much of value here.

The Intellectual Vocation

Given what a high and demanding vision of the intellectual vocation Sertillanges sets before us, we may be thankful that from the outset, he makes clear that it is not so much a matter of how much time we spent on intellectual work as how we use that time. To those who have other duties, such as spouses and children, it is a great comfort to hear that one can be faithful to an intellectual vocation with only one or two hours every day, if those hours are spent well. Of course, that condition is also one of the great challenges of the intellectual life.

In other ways, Sertillanges puts us in a frame of mind to work out our vocations with fear and trembling. He does not mince words when describing the factors that make the difference between the intellectual and the pseudo-intellectual, which are primarily spiritual:

Do you want to have an intellectual life? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

He makes it very clear that moral faults are a hindrance to the intellectual life. Pride, envy, and sloth are contrary to pursuit of truth, while not only laziness but ambition and vain curiosity are contrary to the virtue of study. And the intellectual cannot be separated from the man: “By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.”

On a more mundane level, if I neglect my other non-intellectual duties for the sake of study, I am not a real intellectual. But it works both ways: everything in my life, all my experience of the world and of other people, can be made to serve thought, even if indirectly. Every person, object or place we encounter proclaims some truth; nothing must be wasted, and it is possible to train the mind to use everything, without strain or obsession.

If silence is necessary for the intellectual, so is simplicity of life. Both interior and exterior solitude are essential, a hard teaching for a promiscuous age. Here I must quote at length:

Jesus shows us truly that one can be entirely recollected, and entirely devoted to others—entirely given to men and living entirely in God. He preserved His solitude: He touched the crowd only with a soul of silence, to which His words were like a narrow doorway for the interchanges of divine charity. What sovereign efficacy there was in that contact which reserved everything except the precise point through which God could pass and souls reach Him!

The fact is that there would be no place between God and the multitude, except for the Man-God, and for the man of God, the man of truth, who is ready to give. He who thinks himself united with God without being united with his brothers is a liar, says the apostle; he is but a false mystic, and, intellectually, a false thinker; but he who is united to men and to nature without being hiddenly united to God—without being a lover of silence and solitude—is but the subject of a kingdom of death.

We must not be isolated, but for the purposes of our intellectual vocation, contact with a few noble souls will suffice. Even the solitary monk ought not be isolated, even if only because he can be aided by the silent collective, working and praying separately in their cells but spurred on by the presence of their fellows. “It is desirable that your retirement should be more advantageous to others than your companionship,” but you can purchase your solitude without incurring resentment by being fully present and fully a servant at those times when you are with others.

Intellectual Work

The hours of concentrated work Sertillanges calls the “moments of plentitude”. To make the best use of them means having practical and organizational matters taken care of in advance—where is that note or that book when you need it at hand?—so that you do not waste your time of focus on ancillary concerns.

One of the lessons I find most discomfiting is Sertillanges’s advice to read little. He condemns what many, including myself, pride themselves on: “the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort.” He goes so far as to say that the mind becomes “inwardly extroverted” through excess reading.

How, then, can we apply this practically? Some basic rules: “Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.” Be selective not only in the books you read but within those books you choose to read. Sertillanges goes into considerable detail on how to select our reading, and needless to say, does not neglect the necessity of a sufficiently broad general education and of comparative study. Those who struggle with the tension between specialization and general study, one of the greatest challenges for modern scholars, will find sage advice here.

As to the spirit of our reading, we should imitate St. Thomas, trying to reconcile authors instead of setting them against each other, as our author says, like a gossip—reflection is always better than opposition. Read to think, assimilate your reading, make it your own, do not mechanically regurgitate what you have read. Truth does not reach us from books, it comes from reality and the light of God within us. Likewise a teacher is merely a stimulus. Even the least talented thinker must be sui generis: “Our model is the creative Thought. Men of genius are but a shadow. To be the shadow of a shadow is a poor thing for one, who, whether small or great, is here on earth a spiritual entity, incomparable, unparalleled, unique.”

But eventually study must lead to production, if only because writing is important for forming one’s own thought. What Sertillanges says here is true to the experience of artists: you must publish what you write or you will become stagnant and increasingly timid, ruled by a fear born of pride. What about style? “A style is true when it corresponds to a necessity of thought and when it keeps intimate contact with things.”

And how will our work be received?

To look for public approval is to deprive the public of a force that it counted on. ...The very people who require you to court their favor despise a flatterer and surrender to a master. If you are of this world, this world will love you because you are its own; but its silent disdain will be the measure of your fall.

It seems that a great deal of courage is required to persevere in such a demanding vocation, amid distractions, depression and distaste for work. But Sertillanges, like any great teacher, knows to conclude his lessons with consolation and encouragement. Be confident, he says, that if you are faithful, your work will bear fruit in due time: the work that you, according to the gifts God gave you, are called to produce. In this, he is simply echoing St. Thomas’s final words to the student: “If you pursue this, you will be able to obtain that which you desire.”

Most people, including most college students, are not called to the intellectual life. Certainly far too many go to college in the first place. But in our schooling-based society, people are simply going to encounter intellectuals, and they had better be prepared to tell the real goods from the fraudulent ones. I wonder if, even for those college-bound young people who are certain they are not called to the life of the mind, Sertillanges’s book might not be useful because it would provide an authentic picture of that life according to which they could evaluate their professors—the Catholic ones no less than the secular.

For those who think they may be called to a life of study, meanwhile, Sertillanges’s account of that life at its highest and most demanding might provide clarity one way or the other. To those who are already pursuing that vocation, at any level, the utility of The Intellectual Life is obvious.

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist living in New York City. He is the director of audio media for CatholicCulture.org and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Dlukenbill2151 - Dec. 22, 2018 10:04 AM ET USA

    Discovered this book a few years ago, as remarkable as you say and surely a must have...thank you for the excellent review.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Dec. 19, 2018 1:26 AM ET USA

    Hear, hear! My wife bought this book for our son when he was in high school, and he did read it. Later, he said it was one of the most influential books he had read. He made it through a large state university, in one of the most left-wing cities in the country, with his faith intact and even stronger, and I believe that this book had a role.