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Absent Friends: An Intellectual All The Time

By (October 1, 2016) No Comment

The Intellectual Lifetheintellectuallife
By Antonin Sertillanges, OP
Catholic University of America Press: 1992

For many years, I fantasized about meeting an older, wiser person who would befriend me, refuse to put up with my nonsense, and teach me how to be a thinker by telling me what to do. It was an egghead’s variant on The Karate Kid narrative, the dream of a benevolent Svengali. Of course no one came along. But a book did—The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Method, by Antonin Sertillanges. That book, with premises I reject and conclusions I often deplore, changed my life.

Antonin Sertillanges was a French Dominican monk, a specialist on the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. At some point he decided to write a commentary on a letter by Aquinas which, though probably apocryphal, purports to be advice sent to a man named John, about “acquiring the treasure of knowledge.” Aquinas’s letter is full of rather trite and obvious instructions. Give yourself solitude to work, puzzle out the meaning of things you don’t understand, be humble, don’t waste your time—that sort of thing. But Sertillanges’ commentary turned into something else. “In practice,” he writes, commentary “seemed rather restrictive.” The result is one of the classic books about thinking.

Thinking is a surprisingly rare subject, given its supreme relevance (one hopes) to those who write books. After I read Sertillanges’ book, I devoted myself to finding others like it: practical books about thinking. But they have mostly eluded me, if they exist, and when I do find them, usually they prove one-sided, shallow, or weak. Some of the best are no more than fragments and scraps like Descartes’ “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” or they are embedded as asides in larger works, as in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe. (Eckermann’s book is the account of an unlikely meeting of just the kind I used to long for. He showed up on the great German polymath’s doorstep, a timid aspiring poet, and found himself swept up in the world and work of his idol, rather in the way Boswell liked to pretend he had been swept up by Samuel Johnson, though he hadn’t.)

But apart from the isolated instances of these buried gems, writing about thinking has rarely considered thinking as a lifestyle, treating it in more specialized ways instead, as epistemology or logic, psychology or pedagogy. There are many manuals for specific intellectual activities—reading, mnemonics, conversation, writing—and likewise there are manuals and inspirational books about various intellectual careers. Missing are books that say, “Are you one of those people who consider intellectual work the most important thing there is, and do you want to organize your life to do it better? Great: this is how.” The only exceptions I know are some 19th century books about auto-didacticism—but they’re all by Arnold Bennett and deeply condescending—and one by another clergyman, Isaac Watts, called The Improvement of the Mind. Watts is about as inspiring as you’d expect of a 17th century Puritan who is best known for turning majestic Hebrew poetry into trite English nursery rhymes. Sertillanges stands virtually alone in his particular field.

When I first began to read it, however, The Intellectual Life almost put me off before I could get to the good stuff. Sertillanges is unapologetically religious. I, also without apology, am an atheist and a materialist. So I heaved a lot of sighs when he follows up great advice like “never refuse to see what may be thought against aquinasyour own thoughts,” quoting Nietzsche, with provisos like this: “readiness to admit error is offset, it is true, by an uncompromising adherence to our fundamental persuasions.” Sorry, you’ve got to choose: are you open to being wrong, or are you an uncompromising adherent?

For Sertillanges, the intellectual life is worth treating as a life because it’s a “vocation,” a “calling.” He means that some people are invited by God to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this one activity, and that they’ll fail to achieve their full potential unless they do so. But there’s a humanizing instinct in Sertillanges that sometimes makes even his most stridently religious claims palatable. About this notion of vocation, for instance, he adds, “listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to God.” Once I’d waded through a bit of talk about the spiritual function of thinking and what the thinker owes to God, I began translating it into less parochial terms and eventually stopped noticing it altogether. At that point I only remembered how much I disagreed with Sertillanges when he made comments that grew out of the noxious ethical implications of his creed, as when he poo-pooed the difficulties a traditional Christian wife and mother might have pursuing her own independent intellectual life:

Whether she achieve something herself or through her husband, what does it matter? She must still achieve since she is but one flesh with him who achieves.

Tell that to Mary Ryan, the woman without whose English translation of Sertillanges’ book we would not be reading him. She rather plaintively avers, in her translator’s note, that the book is for “everyone whose business it is to use his mind (or her mind, for his can be common gender)”. In the margins of my copy of the book, I find this trace of my first reading: “preserve us,” I wrote, “from monks who pronounce on marriage!”

So, if the book provoked me to angry retorts in its margins, why do I claim it changed my life? Because the same rigor that leads Sertillanges to uphold his tradition in ways I find objectionable also leads him to write so profoundly about what it would look like to take the phrase “life of the mind” seriously. The very idea that there’s an intellectual life, that intellect is more than a tool subordinated to more universally applicable aims, is a relict of ancient thought, where philosophers distinguished between the via activa and the via contemplativa. Monastic traditions are one of the few places in the modern world where the possibility of a radically different form of life, a contemplative life, remains possible.

“An intellectual,” writes Sertillanges, “must be an intellectual all the time.” Most of his book is a systematic and very practical series of suggestions about how to do that.

“In this question of sleep,” he advises, “as in that of food, find out how much you need and make a firm resolution to keep to it.” And don’t think you’re off the clock just because it’s bedtime: “Have at hand a notebook or a box of slips.” You’ll need all this paper, because if you’re doing things right, you’ll have programmed your brain to work out problems while you sleep: “Call to your mind as you fall asleep—entrust to God and to your own soul—the questions that preoccupy you, the idea that is slow in developing its virtualities, or that eludes your grasp.” And then when you wake up, get back to it:

[I]n order to keep this time for your work and to keep it really free, rise punctually and promptly; breakfast lightly; avoid futile conversations, useless calls; limit your correspondence to what is strictly necessary; gag the newspapers.

Not just when but how you work deserves careful attention: “the principal question does not lie in the number of hours, but in their use and in the mind.” Your reading ought to be apportioned properly:

One reads for one’s formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation.

And regardless of the reason you read it, “if it is a book, do not leave it without being able to sum it up and to estimate its value.”

Despite Sertillanges’ uncompromising interpretation of the life of the mind in its ideal form, he also manages to be understanding. You don’t necessarily have to join a monastery, achieve tenure, or live in a cave to be an intellectual:

Have you two hours a day? Can you undertake to keep them jealously, to use them ardently… ? If so, have confidence. Nay, rest in quiet certainty. If you are compelled to earn your living, at least you will earn it without sacrificing, as so many do, the liberty of your soul. […] Most great men followed some calling. Many have declared that the two hours I postulate suffice for an intellectual career.

eckermannObviously Sertillanges does not advise contentment with just two hours, if more are possible (after all, you’ve got all night to work in your dreams); but one of the most appealing features of his vision is that it can embrace the intellectual hobbyist and the full-time scholar, encouraging either one to do more and do it better.

I read The Intellectual Life thirstily, copying out sentences and paragraphs, retorting and exclaiming in the margins, and then I immediately reread it. I disagreed with so much. I didn’t (and I don’t) think the life of the mind is an exclusionary choice, that one has to be “an intellectual all the time,” and I value the serendipity of unplanned dreaming and casual conversation. As for his claim that “there must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels,” not only did I intend to continue poisoning my mind with them, but I fully intended to write them! Still, after reading Sertillanges I began to keep a dream notebook and to view interactions with other people as opportunities to try out ideas. After Sertillanges I systematized my reading, started taking and preserving notes on it, not forgetting to beware “a certain craze for collecting which sometimes takes possession of those who make notes”; and I began doing things like reading about the history and politics of the towns where I was living and also journaling in order to redeem my daily experiences for future reflection. I now print this paragraph out at the front of all my journals:

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 of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies, of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. 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; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man.

After I read it, The Intellectual Life seemed to give my life an orientation—though not the one Sertillanges might have desired, since it remained resolutely secular. I found I wanted to agree with him that,

the man of character who has worked unfailingly throughout a long life can go down like the sun into a quiet and splendid death; his work follows him, and at the same time remains to us.

These days, when I begin to mourn the fact that, unlike Eckermann, I never found my Goethe, I remember my passionate encounter, in the pages of his book, with a certain kind, stern French Dominican. Perhaps he was not as good a friend as Goethe would have been, not quite as kindly and irascible, infuriating and inspiring; but he is superior in at least one way: I can share him undiminished with anyone who cares to read.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.