Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: The Intellectual Life: It's Spirit, Methods, Conditions

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Methods, Conditions is a fantastic book on living a certain form of intellectual life.  This book is geared toward an intellectual life of productivity.  The intellectual lives for God and man, contributing to the sum total of human knowledge, goodness and happiness.  The intellectual worker does not merely live in his own mind or aimlessly pursue knowledge.  True intellectual workers are history's great men, groundbreakers, inventors, and so on, not Jeopardy winners.  This approach is a needed and challenging reminder to me.  This can even be done in our spare time if we are disciplined and focused.  This book shows a seriously viable way forward in this endeavour and a window into the mind of history's great men.

I returned to this book, reading it through for the second time, on account of my new job as a freelance writer.  I currently write script coverage and thought this book, although arguably geared toward something slightly different than what I am doing, would be fitting.  Time management is my main key.  The intellectual life described here, in many places, feels like a description of introversion.  This book could potentially be retitled How to be an Introvert in a Way that is Awesome and Productive.  Is an intellectual life more suited to introverts?  History seems to say yes and I would largely agree.  I decided to write up a long and somewhat personal synopsis and analysis, stopping to look at the main points from my own perspective at the end of each section.  I may try something similar with other books in the future.

The intellectual life is a calling.  It is not necessarily merely for those who are naturally geniuses, but for those with discipline.  It can be taken on anywhere.  It must be pursued with the purest of motives.  In it, on can have great achievements and potentially enter the canon of great thinkers.  We must remember that we work for the service of others.  The intellectual, while communing with all eras, is still a man of his time.

To Sertillanges, and I do agree, the pursuit of knowledge best comes out of a place of moral righteousness.  Truth and goodness are connected.  True intellectualism is a virtue and all virtues are interconnected.  Sertillanges condemns distraction and aimless curiosity.  I, and perhaps anyone with an internet connection struggles with this.  He also condemns one's intellectual work getting in the way of more pressing personal duties, another thing I struggle with as personal and work life can often be challenging and mundane.  He then mentions the supreme importance of spirituality, prayer, worship, and direct contemplation of God.  Everything else is lesser and may even be a distraction from this.  God is the light that most enlivens our work.  Once again, he has read my heart and my challenges.  All truth is a reflection of the Truth and springs from him.  Religious devotion and "secular" intellectual pursuits feed each other.  Sertillanges looks into the all-encompassing link between body and soul, encouraging good habits and good health to those who can find it.

Sertillanges approach to marriage and family for the intellectual can be seen as beautiful and inspiring, but also potentially sexist.  This book was clearly written for men without seemingly even recognizing the possibility of a female intellectual worker, unless maybe if her husband is one.  Although this book was first published in 1920, he seems to be describing a 1950s housewife.  The modern reader can largely ignore this bias and still gain much from the book.  Sertillanges moves on to perhaps his most challenging element.  He views the intellectual as largely physically withdrawn from men and removed from their shallow chatter.  Part of me loves this, but I have spent the past roughly a decade attempting to tone down my introverted side and find more balance, being open to at least some of the demands of getting along and fitting in with other people.  I feel that attempting to be more personable has mostly been virtuous for me, even if it means talking about the weather more than Sertillanges believes a high-minded intellectual should.  Perhaps he is exaggerating his point, perhaps I am exaggerating his point, or perhaps the intellectual life to which this book refers is not quite my calling.  He also mentions that we find ourselves in silence, but I sometimes feel I have exhausted that, at least for a time.  In extending myself for others, I have achieved self-discovery in delineating between my core values and my peripheral qualities that are expendable for others' sake.  I suppose doing this process correctly takes a certain amount of self-confidence.  I find that both solitude and fraternity have value and the sheer joy of friendship is more than having a highbrow conversation partner.  Sertillanges states, "... do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose; do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world..."  This makes me think of my relationship to news media, something I probably spend too much time with.  News media is over-rated and often a pretentious excuse to watch a lot of television.  After a very minimal baseline, it really does not make us better people or even better citizens.  Also, watching the news is not real political involvement.  I could probably name all eight current Supreme Court justices off the top of my head, but I shouldn't be shamed if I couldn't.  Obviously, some silence, if not a lot, both interior and exterior, is necessary for meaningful thought.  Sertillanges tempers his call for isolation, but only in a setting of intellectual work.  I still believe that knowing people outside of one's work expands the mind and gives an opportunity to practice Christian charity.  If I had been surrounded by more of those who shared my interests at a young age, it might have helped me professionally, but it might have also turned me into a bland geek.  I can attest personally that it is disheartening to be only surrounded by people who not only don't share your interests and aspirations, but also can't wrap their heads around them and second-guess you while coming trying to be helpful or nice.  It is so relieving to meet other people who not only share your aspirations, but your also your struggles, and to have friends who understand your aspirations in spite of their own different track.  The internet should be a helpful space for this, and, in fact, a friend of mine just sent me work to critique the other day over the internet.  Sertillanges moves on to temper himself a little more while simultaneously sounding more snobbish than ever.  He notes that certain contacts are necessary for life in general.  The intellectual life is more than just endless work, but any time you are doing right, you are contributing.  Contact keeps us from becoming abstracted or weird.  Of course, insofar as possible, we must arrange to consort with "superior minds."  I assume that Sertillanges is a pious man who merely holds the work in high esteem, but this strikes me as snobbery, perhaps not at its core, but at least on the surface.  Nevertheless, whatever situation one is stuck with, they must make something positive of it, Sertillanges states.  Sertillanges goes on to explore the idea of action in general.  It is a form of rest from intellectual work.  It unites the worker to reality, the ground and catalyst of his work.  It is physiologically necessary.  He recommends the worker to get involved with meaningful causes outside the work.  He lastly notes that one's whole life should be built around the moments of solitude and geared toward bearing fruit in those moments.  This sounds a lot like good general Christian spirituality.

Sertillanges points the endless continuity of the intellectual life.  As the waking human mind is constantly on some sort of "go," we may as well softly set our auto-pilot to intellectual aims, both in general and toward one's specialty.  It is a certain docility of mind.  This disposition, while secondary to the times of deep work, can bring about nearly effortless epiphanies from time to time.  He adds that the intellectual life should be an extension of one's spirituality.  This is a beautiful thought, but it contains a potential pitfall.  Intellectual work should never be a replacement for one's spirituality, just as say, service to the poor should not overtake one's prayer life.  Finally, he leaves room for being open to others, as chance encounters can change the course of a life.  The endless continuity of intellectual work extends to sleep as well.  Time must be accorded to proper rest.  Rest itself can be productive as the subconscious mind can work with inputs from the day and forge new connections.  Best to have something useful to write with by one's bed.  He goes on to speak of one's morning and evening routines.  His advice on daily mass is something that I, as a Catholic Christian, largely follow.  He also recommends the Catholic liturgy of the hours, also known as divine office.  I find the liturgy of the hours to be at once casual and deep, great for waking, going to bed and any short prayer times in-between.  He then paints a pretty picture of a quiet evening followed by railing against nightlife and cinema.  While I personally may guard myself more on these fronts, I am not trying to lose my nightlife and cinema!  This is especially true as movies could be considered my intellectual specialty.  I wonder if he would change his mind for certain movies.  His portrait of family life feels like something that someone without kids would say.  At the end of the chapter, he speaks of securing time for the moments of plenitude, the time of sheer work done in silence.  He says that two hours a day should be enough, but it ought to be planned out and guarded.  I have had an intense argument over the feasibility of two hours a day, but I still insist that this is possible, even for a married person with children and a day job, so long as both spouses feel that it is their calling and will put forth great effort to make it work.  He brings up here the other side of his seemingly anti-social admonitions and I agree.  The work has value!  It is not arrogant to admit this.  True intellectual work is a service to mankind and may be one's livelihood as well.  Take for example if I were to find the cure for cancer.  Would that not be worth some missed time with friends?  There is room for a pitfall here in that someone could use the work as a pretentious excuse to be anti-social, but this should never be automatically presumed and we should respect the vocation of ourselves and others.  Sertillanges, of course, insists on finding ways of being conciliatory with others over this guarded time.

The next chapter deals with the field of work.  Sertillanges notes the inter-connectedness of all knowledge and how one discipline can shed light on the others.  This is especially true in the cases of theology and philosophy.  Sertillanges notes that the great Christian thinkers of the past were almost entirely theologians and philosophers on top of other disciplines up until the 1700s and even secular thinkers were at least philosophers until the 1800s.  I sometimes struggle with the grounding of faith, but I remember that everyone has a worldview that comes down to intuition, that is, an act of faith.  Many modern folks profess a worldview that, in theory anyway, should deny the possibility of any knowledge, and yet, in practice, they live according to certain principles whether they admit it or not.  Setillanges puts forth as the best place for attaining this broad base as being Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica.  I have read books of Summa excerpts, but I have yet to read it in its entirety.  From what I can tell, his point largely fits.  He goes on to insist that everyone read it in the original Latin, thus learning at least some Latin and that to not do so is just plain lazy.  I understand that Aquinas uses relatively simple Latin, but I can not get behind this point.  I guess I am just lazy.  I would add that translations keep getting better and better.  One merely has to do his homework on a translation, in my opinion.  Lastly, some copies have English side-by-side with the Latin.  He points out that the Summa offers a broad, unified view of the universe, something uncommon in our modern times, and a useful philosophical base from which to study many other disciplines.  In fact, it can bind them together.  On the other hand, once an early phase of broad education has passed, one must specialize.  One should not get worn out by being spread too thin.  Also, a true intellectual life should be geared toward something useful for humanity above mere personal edification.  Even the more theoretical truths can perform this function.  I'm grateful that this call to direction and admonition against trivia knowledge is here.  I feel too many people conflate memorization skills and intelligence.  He goes on to express the disappointment some will feel with not being able to pursue everything, as all truth is beautiful, but reminds of the virtue of knowing one's limitations.

Sertillanges goes on to demand ardor in our work and that one not get lazy after a success.  Truth is infinite and there are always more discoveries to be made.  I struggle with this even in modest tasks with modest successes.  He moves on to the importance of concentration, something I struggle with constantly.  Even if one is doing multiple things, he should generally cover them one at a time. This is the path to a meaningful discovery.  He moves on to talk about submissiveness to truth and moments of ecstasy that I feel I have rarely experienced.  I'm sure my own mind is constantly going its own ways.  The mind is a hard thing to concentrate.  In seeking truth, we must seek something outside our minds.  We must also avoid lazy credentialism and be prepared to find truth wherever it is and whoever it is with.  He goes on to speak of the breadth of outlook.  Facts should not be disengaged from truth as a whole.  I heartily agree.  Even when focusing on one specific thing, we must not lose sight of truth as a whole.  Truth is a unity in the mind of God.  In this chapter, he lastly calls that we preserve a spirit of mystery and knowing what we do not know..  This spirit should spur us on, not lead to feelings of futility.

In the next chapter, Sertillanges touches on something so true, yet so challenging to me.  Do not read too much!  At first, this sounds like a counter-intuitive plea for philistinism.  His point is that much of what we read is not very valuable and it scatters the mind.  I love trivia knowledge, and there is some place for factual knowledge, but the internet is a trove of time-wasting.  Too much reading also leads to a lack of productivity as it turns us into mere consumers of pre-existent knowledge rather than creators of new knowledge.  He also attacks the long hours people devote to reading the newspaper, a warning that can be updated accordingly.  Sertillanges talks about discernment in what to read and brings up one big and great point.  So much of what is written is redundant, repeated thoughts. We should run to primary sources and original thinkers, regardless of their time-frames.  Also, we must read with a discernment and in light of the writer's fallibility.  Sertillanges goes on to look at four types of reading: fundamental, accidental, stimulating or edifying, and recreative.  One must begin with broad starter reading and offer up a certain docility.  I believe there is a place for skepticism, but too much skepticism destroys the basis of any knowledge at all.  Also, the masters deserve a certain amount of respect.  As a starter, Sertillanges of course recommends Aquinas and a handful of authors in one's field as well as another handful dealing with the problems he is attempting to solve.  Accidental reading is that which is done in a more ultilitarian as a direct part of the work.  Sertillanges constantly pushes for a productive intellectual life over being a voracious reader, so at some point, the work needs focus.  Stimulating reading is meant as a pick-me-up during low points.  This could include rousing poetry or a favorite bible verse.  Lastly, is recreative reading where he makes a point I very much agree with and have reflected on often.  Recreation should not mean pure laziness or lowest common denominator.  I have always believed in a certain type of middlebrow entertainment.  With proper cultivation, one can enjoy more highbrow things as much as lowbrow things.  Rest is more about a change of scenery than mindless noise.  Sertillanges goes on to recommend communing with great men through reading.  Their examples as people inspire us in our work and their ideas allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants and reach new heights in our own thought.  I agree.  I would say that finding yourself by yourself, shorn of outside influences, is a naive pursuit and impossible.  Only God is an independent being and only He can know Himself in such a way.  The rest of us may as well seek our formation intentionally.  Sertillanges notes that even in their mistakes, great men can still teach us, as long as we are somewhat guarded.  We should always seek the kernels of truth, even in seemingly opposing ideas.  Lastly, we have to take what we read and make it our own.  We read as a means of seeking a deeper truth beyond the book, not for rote memorization of the content of books.  Reading should set the mind ablaze to come up with original thoughts.  This all comes back to an intellectual life based on productivity, not knowledge consumerism.  Sertillanges goes on to recommend a discernment in memory, just as in reading.  One's mind can't hold everything, so he must guard what he attempts to put in it.  Reserve memory for religious devotion and one's intellectual work.  I have a pretty broad memory.  As one who works in film and television, my pop culture trivia may not be as useless as it seems at first glance.  I suppose there could be some vanity in the mix here, though.  A man's memory should be based on order and structure.  Facts should not be held in a vacuum.  Everything should be integrated and that which can not should be dropped.  This makes it easier to find and assimilate new knowledge.  The broadest connecting and animating principles should take the highest priority.  This is very obviously the idea behind the call to read the Summa.  What we truly desire to remember should be brought before our minds often.  All very agreeable content here.  He moves on to look at note-taking, which flows from similar principles.  Since the goal of the intellectual life is productivity and new discoveries, not merely filling our heads with knowledge, notes are a perfectly acceptable part of the process.  Notes can be used for general knowledge and to help solve our specific challenge, but they ought to be spare and to the point.  Notes can be taken generally, with no precise goal, or they can be directed to a goal.  His approach to organizing seems to be open.  He mentions what could be interpreted as index cards as a possibility.  I often do that, but I am not sure how much it works.  I am just glad that we now have computers and we can keyword search whatever.

Sertillanges goes on to talk about the creative work itself, which of course takes place during the moments of plenitude.  He speaks of style in writing, which to him is best found and uniquely expressed when not seeking it.  I believe this is mostly right.  Beyond spelling and grammar, one should focus on content.  He goes on to praise simplicity.  I agree with this which is why I always try to write in a way which is thorough, yet concise.  He reminds the reader to think of the audience and write something engaging rather than ostentatious.  On the other hand, avoid pandering.  Serve Truth first!  Next comes what may be the primary part of what I have read the book for.  He gives a rousing call to perseverance.  There is a reminder to not give up at the first sign of fatigue.  A true intellectual can experience more challenges than many other occupations.  One must attempt to only choose tasks they can finish and generally finish what they started.  As Sertillanges notes, this is a moral duty.  Virtue and vice are habits so one unfinished task may lead to another.  One must exercise careful discernment in choosing his intellectual task.

The last chapter deals with what an intellectual is to be outside the work.  I love leisure!  This is why I am in the film world.  We have the honor of creating someone else's favorite part of his day.  Sertillange's description of leisure well-lived-- dinner guests, a day at the museum, and so on-- gave me warm fuzzies inside.  It was an important reminder to unite the work with something broader.  He reminds that rest is merely a change of pace, a using of a different side of the self.  Overwork shows a lack of discipline just the same as underwork and yields poor results.  One must avoid both to keep up momentum in work without getting exhausted.  A great "pep talk" is given on dealing with one's crosses.  Pressing on is perhaps what best helps us overcome bad feelings and other challenges.  We must seek the truth for its own sake and not Earthly rewards.  I would add, though, that for many, an intellectual life is a day job, thus making a certain amount of money at it is necessary.  Many intellectuals will only be honored or have the value of their work seen posthumously, if at all.  Sertillanges quickly speaks of the joys and virtues of the work, thus inspiring me once again.  He lastly gives a rousing call to essentially be your best self.

All-in-all, this book is a great read for those who want a window into the minds of many of history's great men or need a path forward for their own intellectual work.

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