Book Notes: The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges

Intellectual LifeA. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (repr; Catholic University of America, 1987).

This book is a great distillation of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which has much to offer Protestant evangelicals who care about the school of ideas. Sertillanges reminds us that the intellectual life is a calling. As a Catholic, he recognizes that there is a unity of truth grounded in God himself. While he recognizes the importance of breadth of knowledge, he argues that “true knowledge . . . lies in depth” (118). Sertillanges also wants to fight against intellectual sloth and therefore he presents the intellectual life as arduous: “A real thinker brings a very different spirit to his work; he is carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration, that are heroic” (126).

As for reading, Sertillanges warns against “inordinate reading” since the mind “is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration” (147). He discourages reading daily newspapers: “defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable” (149). In sum, he encourages the kind of reading that is an impetus for reflection. Books should inspire our own thinking and reading should awaken reflection (170, 190). “A book is a signal, a stimulant, a helper, an initiator—it is not the substitute and it is not a chain. Our thought must be what we ourselves are” (172). While wary of applying all of Sertillanges’ prescriptions, overall I think he has much to teach young, budding intellectuals, lessons from the classical tradition that have been lost in our day.

Sertillanges’ emphasis is that the intellectual life is not ivory-tower musing but ought to lead to a virtuous life. “What matters most in life is not knowledge, but character” (235). In the end, all intellectual inquiry serves the moral make-up of man: “What we know is like a beginning, a rough sketch only; the man is the finished work” (235).

I enjoyed his take on writing with a pen: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth” (201). For him, the pen is “an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain” (201). One can easily think of the intellectual life as a sad, wearying existence, full of deep (useless?) thought but devoid of relaxation and leisure. While Sertillanges does promote great earnestness in this vocation, he encourages play. “To work too long is to get worn-out; to stop too son is to fail in giving one’s measure. . . . Know yourself, and proportion things accordingly” (246-247).

As an evangelical Christian, I disagree with his sacramental theology that comes out here and there. Also, he can overstate his case of the need for solitude. As per style, he can be difficult to wade through in certain sections while brilliant in others. (I will note that it was originally written in 1920 and in French.) That said, this is an intellectually stimulating book that has much good to offer us. Read and think.

For those interested, Trevin Wax offers distills four thoughtful lessons from this book.


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