For many of us it is the beginning of a new school year, and so I thought that readers, and especially college freshmen (if any in fact visit TCI),1 might appreciate the advice Thomas Aquinas gave to Brother John regarding how best to study and pursue the life of the mind, sometimes called the Epistola exhortatoria de modo studendi.
Some of the advice should immediately strike one as sound: for instance, one should start by entering streams, and not the ocean. This is to say that one is not a “philosopher,” for instance, because one has taken a philosophy class or two. Indeed, one should not be doing it at all until he has studied language(s), grammar, rhetoric, and other preparatory arts. The temptation, of course, is to dive immediately into what is perceived as the deep end, because that is thought to be the only place where real intellectual work is done. But the thought in my causal clause is incorrect; and the temptation must be resisted, lest we drown. Those of us at liberal arts institutions in particular ought to remember this. There are no short cuts, and one does not get to move immediately to what prima facie might seem more interesting, or better for having a supposedly intellectual conversation.
Which brings us to a second point: some of his advice will surprise. We might think that the true intellectual ideal is to be able to talk about anything whatsoever, but Thomas says it is not so. Discussions on all manner of topics occur; but, Thomas says, the student’s time is better spent in the imitation of the lives of the “holy and honorable.”
Next: every institution, every tradition, has its “hero squad,” but Thomas provides a helpful reminder here, too. What matters is not who said something, but whether something was said well, sensibly, or soundly. It is the latter that should be committed to memory. There is room for judgment; education ought not to make automatons.
Finally, the life of study cannot be isolated from the moral and spiritual life. Thus Thomas counsels prayer and purity (here is a favorite prayer of his). If one would study in the right way, he must do so before the face of the Lord of Hosts.
Text and Translation
Quia quaesisti a me, in Christo mihi carissime frater Joannes, quomodo oportet incedere in thesauro scientiae acquirendo, tale a me tibi super hoc traditur consilium: ut per rivulos, et non statim in mare, eligas introire, quia per facilia ad difficilia oportet devenire. Huiusmodi est ergo monitio mea de vita tua: tardiloquum te esse iubeo, et tarde ad locutorium accendentem; conscientiae puritatem amplecti; orationi vacare non desinas; cellam frequenter diligas, si vis in cellam vinariam introduci; omnibus amabilem te exhibeas, vel exhibere studias; sed nemini familiarem te multum ostendas; quia nimia familiaritas parit contemptum et retardationis materiam a studio administrat; et de factis et verbis saecularium nullatenus te intromittas; discursum super omnia fugias; sanctorum et proborum virorum imitari vestigia non omittas. Non respicias a quo, sed quod sane dicatur memoriae recommenda: ea quae legis fac ut intelligas, de dubiis te certificans. Et quidquid poteris, in armariolo mentis reponere satage sicut cupiens vas implere; “altiora te ne quaeras.” Illius beati Dominici sequere vestigia, qui frondes, flores et fructus, utiles ac mirabiles, in vinea Domini Sabaoth, dum vitam comitem habuit, protulit ac produxit. Haec si secutus fueris, ad id attingere poteris, quidquid affectas. Vale.
Because you have asked me, brother John, dearest to me in Christ, how it is right to make one’s way in acquiring the treasury of knowledge, I hand on the following counsel to you concerning this matter: that you choose to enter through the streams, and not immediately into the sea, because it is right to approach difficult things through easy ones.
My advice, therefore, about your life is of this kind: I bid you to be slow to speak, and slow to go to the parlor where people talk; embrace purity of conscience; do not cease to keep yourself free for prayer; frequently make your own cell the object of your esteem, if you wish to be led into the wine cellar.
Present yourself as amiable to all, or be zealous so to present yourself; but do not show yourself to be very familiar to anyone, because excessive familiarity begets contempt and provides the occasion for hindrance from study; and do not at all get yourself involved with the words and deeds of the worldly.
Flee discussions that concern any- and everything; do not neglect to imitate the footsteps of holy and honorable men. Do not have regard for by whom [something is said], but commit to memory what is said sensibly. Be diligent to understand the things that you read, making yourself sure about what is doubtful. And busy yourself with putting whatever you will be able in the cabinet of your mind as one who desires to fill a glass.
“Do not seek the things that are higher than you.”
Follow the footsteps of the blessed Dominic, who, as long as he had life for his companion, bore and produced fronds, flowers, and fruits, useful and wondrous, in the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.
If you will follow these recommendations, you will be able to attain whatever you desire. Fare you well.2