Archive Book Reviews Laurence O’Donnell Philosophy

“For me to live is truth”: Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life

Sertillanges_Intellectual_LifeA. G. Sertillanges, O.P., The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (1987; repr. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1998).

How does one acquire the treasure of knowledge?1 What duties, habits, virtues, and practices ought to order the Christian intellectual’s soul in his pursuit of truth? What does daily life look like for a Christian practitioner of the artes liberales? As a wise father speaking softly but weightily, guiding his children down the straight and narrow way, Sertillanges’s The Intellectual Life invites his readers to quiet their souls, to rest, and to partake in deep, godward reflections on these fundamental questions.

Cradled both in St. Thomas’s enduring advice to students in the Epistola exhortatoria de modo studendi and in the solace of Sertillanges’s silence, The Intellectual Life first appeared in 1921.2 But “[i]n reality these pages have no date,” he writes in the preface. “They came from what is deepest in me.” Indeed, the timeless nature of the work is self-evident. Page after page the interested reader cannot help but hear deep calling to deep; wave upon wave of wisdom, of experience, of reality roll upon the reader’s shore, directing one’s attention to the truth of things.

Sertillanges begins at the beginning of the intellectual life, asking: what are the elements of an intellectual vocation (ch. 1)? The answer is as challenging as it is poignant. The intellectual’s high calling is a sacred bond, a covenant. Those who seek truth must give themselves wholly to her, for the truth serves only her slaves. Persistent and well ordered effort is the ray whereby God’s light shines into one’s study; for scientia, knowledge through causes, is itself obtained only through causes. Thus only those who have counted the high cost dare tread truth’s way. “Love spending much time in your cell, if you want to be led into the wine cellar.”3

With the character and cost of the calling in view, he then proceeds to explain the virtues that are required to fulfill this high and sacred calling (ch. 2). We deceive ourselves if we seek for knowledge apart from virtue; for virtue is the health of the soul (20). “How will you manage to think rightly with a sick soul…?” Knowledge depends upon the direction given to our passions and on our moral habits (21). It cannot be otherwise. For ultimately the good and the true are one. Knowledge is thus participating in this universal, the true and the good, by the Spirit (23–24).

The proper virtue of the student is studiousness, the golden mean between negligence and vain curiosity (25).

If every truth in every field is a participation of divine being, then ultimately every truth is an instruction on eternity, a lesson in creaturely dependence; regular and well ordered prayer is thus the natural breath of the creature who would be truth’s student in all of the Creator’s fields of study.

Not only the soulish virtues but also the bodily virtues are necessary for right thinking; for minds only communicate through the body (34–35). For this reason “discipline and mortification of the body, along with the necessary care of it . . . are among the most precious safeguards of your future” and are neglected only at great peril to one’s entire intellectual life (40).

Next come the practices necessary for the cultivation of these spiritual and bodily virtues:

  • how to order one’s life around the pursuit of truth (ch. 3)
  • how to order the hours of one’s day (and night!) around the work of study (ch. 4)
  • how to pursue specialized studies without falling into the manifold traps and deceptions of academic specialization (ch. 5).
Antonin Sertillanges (1863–1964)
Antonin Sertillanges

Sertillanges provides particularly helpful guidance in ch. 4 for benchmarking what is a normal range of working hours for sustainable intellectual work from which it is reasonable to expect a harvest.4 Likewise, his benchmark for how long one should expect it to take to complete the novice progression in theology is noteworthy (111; hint: it’s a good bit longer than it takes to finish an MDiv degree).

Given the ressourcement sensibility slowly gaining traction in Protestant theology (due in part to a growing corpus of excellent historical-theological studies and the digitization and translation of primary sources from the era of Protestant orthodoxy), Sertillanges’s comments on how to perform the task of ressourcement are worth pondering in a Protestant context. If we are to belong to our time,5 he argues, it is our duty to restore the order that our times lack by establishing the first principles. For the order of the mind corresponds to the order of things; and the order of the mind proceeds by cause and effect. If then there is a First Being and a First Cause, it is only upon these first principles that ultimate knowledge and light can be found (108–09).

Finally Sertillanges turns his attention to unpacking the work of study itself (chs. 6–10). He weaves a beautiful tapestry out of seemingly unrelated threads: (a) the “nuts and bolts” of the student’s work—practical topics such as what to read, how to read, different kinds of reading, how to take notes, how to write creatively and well, how to choose fitting research projects, how to rest and relax; and (b) the soul of the worker—spiritual topics such as submitting oneself to the truth, persevering through trials, responding to criticism, and maintaining one’s full humanity and organic connection to reality. To grasp why these threads are not unrelated and why he begins this practical section with a chapter on the spirit (ch. 6) and ends it by sternly refusing to abstract the intellectual from the man (ch. 9), is to take a firm, long step on the path of knowledge to which he beckons.

What Sertillanges describes as the goal of writing—that the reader feels the correspondence between the writer’s words and the listener’s experience of reality (204)—is an apt description of his own weighty words. For throughout each chapter wisdom cries aloud from the street, and he who answers with willingness to listen—eschewing foolishness, distraction, and disordered passions and thus gaining a vantage point for true self-judgment (xxi)—will leave neither disappointed for lack of clear and profound answers on how to seek the treasure of knowledge nor without hope and encouragement for the daunting road that the Christian intellectual must travel: the path from ignorance to knowledge. Rather, he will be well prepared to take upon his lips with sincerity and sobriety the confession of the true intellectual: “for me to live is truth” (211).

  1. See the first line of De modo studendi
  2. “When we read, our masters must not be a goal for us, but a starting-point. A book is a cradle, not a tomb” (172). “Speech is weighty when one perceives silence beneath it. . .” (61). First published as A. G. Sertillanges, La vie intellectuelle: son esprit, ses conditions, ses méthodes (Paris: Editions de la Revue des Jeunes, 1921). 
  3. De modo studendi (Joseph Kenny OP translation). 
  4. I.e., sustainable as in that which can be maintained over a career. American workaholics and especially pastors and PhD students take note! Cf. Aquinas: “Following such a path, you will bring forth flowers and produce useful fruit for the vineyard of the Lord of Power and Might, as long as you live” (De modo studendi, trans. Kenny; emphasis added). 
  5. Sertillanges shuns pining for lost golden ages or pretending that ancient and perennial truths need not be reasserted in contemporary idiom. Rather he considers it a duty for the intellectual to belong fully to his own time. “Let us not be like those people who always seem to be pallbearers at the funeral of the past” (15). 

By Laurence O’Donnell

MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando; ThM, Calvin Theological Seminary.