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Rules for Christian Intellectuals, Part I

For those Christians with an intellectual calling, Fr. Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, OP (1863-1948), offers a guide, a method, and a spirituality for that life.

(Image: Elijah Hail | Unsplash.com)

When I was in graduate school, my best friend gave me a plain brown book called The Intellectual Life, by a French Dominican priest named Fr. Sertillanges. I started it a few times, but never finished. The little volume eventually found its way into the Limbo of my personal library: that pile of books, multiplying like rabbits, that I promise I’ll read “someday.” I hadn’t given much thought to what the intellectual life could be for a Christian. I was already doing it, after all. I spent all day in class or the library. I read great books; I thought great thoughts; I wrote a dissertation about something really obscure.

But the life of the intellect is a much harder, more mysterious and spiritual thing than I thought it was. Now I’m a teacher at Hillsdale College, trying to cultivate that life in my students and in myself. I’m starting to recognize my own ignorance, my distractedness, my selfish vanity. And I turned once more, this time on a silent retreat, to Fr. Sertillanges’s book.

Born in 1863, Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges (he later changed his name to Antonin-Gilbert when he entered the Dominican order) wrote many books on philosophy and theology, especially on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. His book The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods was published in the early 1920s, and has seen many editions. Readers will encounter a colorful priest who sprinkles his philosophy with pithy maxims. He writes like a spiritual director: with authority but also with a spirit of encouragement. And most of all, he knows the stakes of the Christian intellectual life: the good of the world and our own eternal salvation.

For those Christians with an intellectual calling, Sertillanges offers a guide, a method, and a spirituality for that life.  So, if you think God has called you to the intellectual way, here are some “rules” distilled from his beautiful book.

Discern your vocation

I think many of us imagine our vocation as something God just imposes on us, against our will. But for Sertillanges, God’s call is rather a natural extension of who we really are. To discern this vocation, he writes, requires a “discovery of our self, the perception of that secret urge . . . within us.”

“The intellectual vocation,” he continues, “is like every other: it is written in our instincts, in our powers, in a sort of inner impulse.” To identify and discern the nature of this inner prompting requires silence and self-knowledge. And for Sertillanges, we should also be attentive to what we love. Do you love study? Does truth in geometry, in poetry, in archaeology, or in astronomy seem to lift your heart upward? Do you already devote your limited free time to learning rather than other hobbies? Then, Fr. Sertillanges would say, it’s time to discern whether you have this vocation. And if we have it, we have an obligation to live it out: he writes, “Do not prove faithless to God, to your brethren and to yourself by rejecting a sacred call.”

Work for the right reasons

But people desire learning for all kinds of reasons, not all of them holy. Some want fame or the approval of others. Some hunger for wealth or power; others simply take pride in knowing more than other people know. Be honest with yourself and with God about what’s in your heart, and ask Him for help. The Christian intellectual must reject these mixed motives, which can poison the fruit of our otherwise worthy studies.

To seek knowledge out of sinful pride would be what T.S. Eliot once called “the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Instead, Sertillanges insists that we must “come to the intellectual life with unselfish motives, not through ambition or foolish vanity.”

Seek the God of Truth

We need to have pure motives because when we find truth, we find God. Christ tells us in John 14:6 that He is “the truth”; thus, all truths in creation draw their truth from Him, and lead us back to the original Truth, which is God. Sertillanges reminds us that in the wonderful truths about marine biology, or human anatomy, or nuclear fission, or Dante’s Inferno we find “the supreme Truth,” manifested “in its minor and scattered appearances.”

“Hence,” he writes, “for the fully awakened soul, every truth is a meeting-place; the sovereign Thought [God] invites ours to the sublime meeting; shall we miss it?”

Cultivate the virtues

The world would tell us that virtue has no effect on the exercise of our intelligence, and that you don’t need virtue for the intellectual life. To be sure, we’ve all known brilliant and unscrupulous men. But drawing on St. Thomas Aquinas, Sertillanges proposes that we need the virtues to really live out our calling as intellectuals. “How will you manage to think rightly with a sick soul,” he asks, “a heart ravaged by vice, pulled this way and that by passion, dragged astray by violent or guilty love?”

What about sloth, the grave of the best gifts? What of sensuality, which makes the body weak and lethargic, befogs the imagination, dulls the intelligence, scatters the memory? Of pride which sometimes dazzles and sometimes darkens . . . . Of envy, which obstinately refuses to acknowledge some light other than our own? Of irritation which repels criticism and comes to grief on the rock of error?

The world claims that mind and morality can remain separate realms. But Sertillanges reminds us of the intimate link between our intellectual life and our holiness.

Take care of your body

In one of the most practical and pithy sections of his book, Sertillanges exhorts Christian intellectuals to take good care of our bodies. “Every day you should take exercise,” he says, “Some easy manual work for a change would be precious both for mind and body.” “Look after your diet,” he writes: “Light food, plain, moderate in quantity and simply cooked, will enable you to work more freely and alertly. A thinker does not spend his life in the processes of digestion.” Sertillanges warns against too much sleep, which “will make you heavy, stupid.”

But—with a sharp insight—he also warns against too little sleep because it “will expose you to the risk of prolonging unduly the stimulation of work and dangerously superimposing strain upon strain.” I’m thinking this book needs to be mandatory reading for my college freshmen students. But the bottom line is that the soul and body are connected. Every act of study, even thinking itself, requires the body: the eyes, the brain, the lungs, the hands, and much more. Poor physical health, then, can hamper our mind’s ability to pursue the truth.

Simplify, simplify

Lastly, in a piece of advice that Henry David Thoreau would have appreciated, Sertillanges challenges us to simplify our lives. This means removing luxuries which complicate our existence: “If you want to entertain knowledge as your guest, you do not need rare furniture, nor numerous servants. Much peace, a little beauty, certain conveniences that save time, are all that is necessary.” This also means slowing down, resisting the temptation to keep perpetually busy. “Slacken the tempo of your life,” he chides, “Do not let yourself get entangled in that mesh of occupations which little by little monopolises time, thought, resources, powers.”

We must even moderate our social life, for we easily dissipate our energies in a thousand superficial relations: “Receptions, visits that give rise to fresh obligations, formal intercourse with one’s neighbours, all the complicated ritual of an artificial life . . . . these things are not for a worker. Society life is fatal to study.” I can only imagine what he’d say about social media.

In these five rules we have the beginning, the discernment, the disposition, and the habits of the Christian intellectual. In Part II of this series, we’ll look at how Sertillanges wants us to study and to think, as we set out on the adventure of the life of the mind.


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About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 26 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Hillsdale College

10 Comments

  1. All excellent advice, but I am a bit disappointed that charity is not emphasized in the regimen of the intellectual. Visiting the sick, etc. and especially counseling the lost or confused, are very important for the intellectual who is respected for his or her prudence. Quiet and unassuming charity by the intellectual not only provides great assurance to the those who receive it, but also dispels that unfortunate falsehood of today’s anti-intellectual (i.e.social justice monist) that the intellectual is a bore and a drag on the momentum of mercy.

    • Good point about social justice monists, but regarding writing as charity, there’s a great line in the movie “Shadowlands” where an unreachable student finally explains to his lofty tutor (Anthony Hopkins): “The reason we read is so that we can know that we are not alone.” Writing passionately and well is one way of visiting the alone, the lost and even the bedridden sick…

      In Chapter One, Sertillanges at least begins to get explicitly at this angle which otherwise (I propose) is fully between the lines of his entire book:

      “If you are designated as a light bearer, do not go and hide under the bushel the gleam or the flame, that is expected from you in the house of the Father of all. Love truth and its fruits of life, for yourself AND FOR OTHERS (caps added); devote to study and to the profitable use of study the best part of your time and your heart.”

      Later in the same chapter, such as this: “Listen to the murmur of the human race all about you; pick out certain individuals or certain groups whose need you know, find out what may bring them out of their night and ennoble them [“counseling the lost or confused”]; what in any measure may save them…”

      • Peter, very true with regards to the comfort a writer can give to a person who is alone. However, if we take “Shadowlands” alone (as the movie), then the meaning of all Lewis’ writing found completion only in a personal love, and Lewis’ advancement in this story led him to finally conclude: we “love” to know we are not alone. And if you have ever really known any really sick people, then you will have to admit that in those difficult most times it is the presence of the prudent man at the bedside, not Lucy or Mr. Tumnus, that gives that person comfort in the hour of greatest loneliness and need. And if this person recovers – it is this visitation – and not what the man has written, that this person will remember and favor most about the man.

      • From Chapter 4:
        “The time of a thinker, when he really uses it, is in reality CHARITY(caps added) to all; only thus do we appreciate it properly. The man of truth belongs to the human race with truth itself; there is no risk of selfishness when one has isolated oneself jealously to serve this sublime and universal benefactor of mankind.”

        (The deception today is in that kind of “charity” asserted by some well-placed clerics, that holds universal truth to be only a negotiable “abstraction,” part of a false dichotomy set against “concrete” cases.)

      • Then my disappointment is complete; for Christ the Logos, the exemplar of all intellectuals and the subject of study of all intellectualism was Himself on earth such a great practitioner and teacher of such charity. Intellectuals are highly regarded for their excellent teaching, but still judged by the practice of their love. And they are not very “intellectual” if they cannot figure out how the spirits of the lost and the ill are lifted to such a high degree by their visitation. The home bound etc. will always be surprised and overjoyed at the attention they receive from this man (or woman) they regard as to busy and to lofty to have visited them.

        • Your points in the above two entries are well taken, but Christ also said something about judging others (e.g., writers) not only in the “practice of their love,” but even at the more elementary level of simply presuming to fill in the blanks.

          Your comments are not at fault on this point, and I sense that you speak from painful personal experience, as do I. . . and so we (and others) have a special bond already–simply in writing. (Thanks, Carl, for encouraging shared conversation about all of your entries.)

          In my retirement I do write, but I am not a “writer”, nor do I posture myself as an intellectual. But, I was asked to write…

          I invite possible reader interest in the story of my sainted wife (a devoted friend of St. Therese): “KRISTI: So Thin is the Veil”, which was inspired in part by C.S. Lewis’s book: “A Grief Observed.” The hoped-for consolation for others is in really knowing how close to us–even now–are all of the members of the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).

          https://www.amazon.com/Kristi-Thin-Veil-Peter-Beaulieu/dp/0824523989

  2. What a great essay on Christian scholarship – about the personal discovery of an illuminating work by another scholar. And how true do much of the advice is for every Christian adult, to strip away the things that distract and monopolize and weigh us down, so that we can contemplate, and listen…

    Thank you Dr. Franklin.

  3. Great “Part 1” Dr. Franklin for Rules for Christian Intellectuals! Discernment of the “Truth” may require more than exercising ‘intellect’ and muscles. It may require searching for God in the details, not just finding the devil there! It may require opening of the heart (soul) as well. I will eagerly watch for your “Part 2”. Thank you!

  4. Peter – neither do I consider myself a writer or intellectual (although I also write and seek after wisdom). Nor do I mean to disparage the sincere intellectual author or teacher whose primary motivation is willing the good of those he writes for. It is just that I don’t think it possible “to listen to the murmur of the human race” unless one is immersed in it. Thanks for the conversation. You are correct in your assessment of our common service. I was not blessed with marriage as you have been, but with two wonderful parents both chronically and terminally ill whom I cared for since I was nineteen. My beloved mother, whose care I provided for over thirty years, died two years past and I am still at a loss as to what to do now. I only know that philosophy informed my service, and that service informed my philosophy. Thanks for the link… God Bless

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