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.
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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