It is a truth universally acknowledged that if I want to learn a thing, I have to teach it. As a literature professor at Hillsdale College, I’m trying to help my students develop their intellects. Because of this, I’m beginning to learn some of the habits of the life of the mind, but I’m also recognizing how much I still have to grow. These reflections have been sparked and nourished by a wonderful book called The Intellectual Life, by the Dominican priest A.G. Sertillanges.
In the first part of this series, I examined some first principles, habits, and dispositions for this vocation. Now let’s look at some of the disciplines and tasks required of the Christian intellectual when we begin to work.
Preserve solitude and silence
We live in a noisy, over-socialized world. Our workplaces and even our homes keep us busy and scattered. Our smartphones bring music and television everywhere we go, and social media keeps us from ever truly being alone. But these things have consequences for the life of the mind. We become, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”
Against this, Fr. Sertillanges calls us back to silence and solitude. “All great works were prepared in the desert,” he writes, “including the redemption of the world.” Like Christ in the wilderness, we must enter the desert if we want to fulfill our mission. Now, all things have their place, and Sertillanges knows that we need relationships, family, and friends. But he is adamant on this point: during the time when we do our intellectual labor, we must be committed to protecting this sacred space:
you must defend your solitude with a fierceness that makes no distinctions whatever. If you have duties, satisfy their demands at the normal time; if you have friends, arrange suitable meetings; if unwanted visitors come to disturb you, graciously shut the door on them.
Sertillanges doesn’t call us to harshness or hostility. But we must be faithful to our vocation, and take the proper measures to protect our intellectual focus.
Reconcile, don’t divide
It’s a lot easier to find fault than it is to find truth. Sometimes we content ourselves with smugly critiquing and dismissing an idea or a thinker. But Sertillanges challenges us to find what’s true—even partially true—in all the great thinkers. This requires a kind of magnanimity and humility; but it will also develop our minds, as we make up what is lacking and fill in what is missing:
it is a sort of profanation to adopt a fault-finding attitude. Let us regret their errors, but without violent condemnation; let us build bridges, not dig ditches . . . . To address oneself to this work of reconstituting the integral truth out of its misinterpretations is far more fruitful than to be perpetually criticising.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the Dominican Sertillanges offers St. Thomas Aquinas as a model for this intellectual great-heartedness. “When he comments on a passage he interprets the text,” Sertillanges writes, “so as to make it yield its purest content of truth or its greatest wealth of meaning,” and “charitably closing his eyes to any regrettable aspect it may have.” Like the great scholastic Aquinas, who engaged with thinkers of all stripes, we must have what Sertillanges calls “the spirit of the bee”: “Honey is made of many kinds of flowers.”
Moderate your reading
If you’re a constant reader like me, this one’s a hard pill to swallow. Obviously, Sertillanges recognizes the importance of reading, and he devotes an entire section of his book to it. But he begins with a caution: “The first rule is to read little.” What he means is that we must control our appetite for reading, just as we moderate our appetite for food. He condemns 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.”
If the Christian intellectual spends his energies constantly reading, he cripples his capacity for intellectual production, which is part of the vocation. Sertillanges goes so far as to say that “This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self,” a distraction from the vocation that makes our intellect a passive follower of “the thoughts of others.”
Earlier in the book, he insists that we must read widely; but here he reminds us that we must also read wisely. We cannot allow our curiosity to lead us into the labyrinth, running us in circles for eternity like a soul in Dante’s hell. Careful, selective reading is the order of the day. So take some time to consider where your calling lies within the intellectual life, and set out a careful plan of reading that will get you there. For me, right now, this means reading American history as a backdrop for my teaching of American literature. And since I also teach the Great Books, I’m trying to read one good scholarly monograph on each of them. It’s going to be a long process, but reading for the intellectual life is slow, and requires both patience and perseverance.
Be present to the real
In a chapter titled “The Time of Work,” Sertillanges reminds us that “truth is everywhere,” and that attention to reality in our daily life will make our work immensely fruitful. “Ideas emerge from facts,” he writes, “they also emerge from conversations, chance occurrences, theatres, visits, strolls, the most ordinary books.” Many of us go through life “not paying attention,” he laments, but the greatest writers and painters, the greatest scientists have been careful observers who could take reality and see the beauty and meaning of it. “Learn to look,” he says,
Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and life, conceptions of destiny and nature . . . . Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth.
Man’s mind is a ruminant,” he says. So the Christian intellectual chews upon reality, drawing nutriment from even the toughest grass. And this nutriment will find its way into the fruit we bear, the books we write, the lectures and mentorship we give, the discoveries we make. Man is made of clay, we might remember; little wonder that the humblest stuff of earth should inform even our loftiest thoughts.
In the final part of this series, we’ll see what Sertillanges has to say about note-taking, writing, and the trials and joys of this vocation to the Christian intellectual life.
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