Published as a New Foreword to 1998 Edition of A. C. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods  (Washington, D..C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), pp. vii-xvi.
ON THE JOYS AND TRAVAILS OF THINKING
"A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings."
-- A. D. Sertillanges, Preface to the 1934 Edition.
Many of us in later years wish, when we were younger, that someone would have told us about certain things, often certain books that, as we look back on it, would have greatly helped us in the project of our lives, in particular would have helped us know the truth of things. Some of these books are directed to what is true, to reality, to what is. But a certain number are rather directed to the question of "how do I go about knowing?" I have in fact written one myself, Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius, 1988). In that book, I mention A. D. Sertillanges' book on "the intellectual life" among those few that will give anyone seriously interested a good start.
But Sertillanges gives more than a good start. He explicitly tells how to start, how to read and write, how to discipline our time, indeed our soul. He also attends to the life of the spirit in which any true intellectual life exists. We have perhaps heard from Aristotle that we are rational animals, that the contemplative life is something to which we should aspire. Practically no one tells us what this might mean, whether it is something that is available to us on some condition that we do not easily comprehend. But even if we vaguely know that the intellectual life is an exalted one, we have heard rather less about what acquiring this life might entail. No one spells out its terms and conditions. We are also aware that wisdom comes rather later in life than we might at first have suspected. Yet, we suspect that there were ways that could have helped us had we only known them.
The great French Dominican, A. D. Sertillanges (1863-1948), wrote a book in 1921 which he called La Vie Intellectuelle. The book was an immediate success, went through many editions, in many languages. Recently, I recommended this book to a young military officer in graduate school at Indiana University, a man destined to teach at West Point. He told me that he ordered it from The Catholic University of America Press, but, at the time, that it was out of print. As I had occasion to write to the Marketing Director at CUAPress, I mentioned that this book needed to be kept in print. And much to her credit, she told me that indeed CUAPress was considering another printing.
Too I remarked that the book probably needed a new Introduction. I was worried that computer users, something that now probably includes most of us, might be put off when they read Sertillanges' advice to take notes on file cards! Even though I recognize that, without my help, any computer user will easily translate Sertillanges' advice into computer practicality, I was concerned lest people think this timeless book was out of date because it was written before the computer was a normal tool. In any case, lo, the good Director at CUAPress wondered if I would like to write one. Indeed I would! In a sense, this brief Introduction is simply my statement about why this wonderful, useful book should always be kept in print and why it should always be sought out by young undergraduate and graduate students, by elderly folks, and by everyone in-between. Every time I have used this book in a class, often when I teach a St. Thomas course, I have had undergraduate students tell me later that it was a book they remembered because it taught them much about how to continue their intellectual curiosity in a practical, effective manner not merely in college but throughout their lives.
At first sight, as I intimated, this is a quaint book. At second sight it is an utterly demanding book. Sertillanges painstakingly tells us how to take notes, how to begin to write and to publish, how to organize our notes and behind them our thoughts. Thus, I use the word quaint because we no longer use, as Sertillanges did, pens and early typewriters, but sophisticated computers and printing processes that would have amazed him. But keep in mind that Thomas Aquinas, about whom Sertillanges wrote so well and from whose inspiration this book derives, only had perhaps twenty-five years of productive activity in the thirteenth century. He had none of the mechanisms that even Sertillanges had in the 20's of XXth century. Yet, Aquinas produced an amount of brilliant and profound matter that is simply astounding.
How did Aquinas ever do it? It is highly doubtful that he would have written more or better if he had the latest computer at his disposal. In fact, in some sense it may have been a hindrance. For St. Thomas developed a great memory and uncanny capacity to have at his fingertips all the knowledge of the great writers before him, including Scripture. This wisdom took books and reading, of course, even for St. Thomas, but he learned how to do these things. What Sertillanges teaches us is how, in our own way, to imitate the lessons that we can find in the great medieval Dominican about how to lead a proper intellectual life, one suffused with honesty and prayer, with diligent work and, in the end, with the delight of knowing.
In reading Sertillanges' book, we cannot help feeling that he is letting us in on some of the secrets of what went into Aquinas' vast productivity and insight. There are just so many hours in the day, in a week or month. Sertillanges does not ask us all to give up our daily lives and devote ourselves full time to the intellectual life in the sense that a St. Thomas did. Rather, in his practical way, Sertillanges teaches us how to organize our lives so that we can acquire a solid beginning, hopefully when we are young, and spend the rest of our days building on this solid foundation. In brief, Sertillanges teaches us about habits, about discipline, about, yes, productivity and truth. He thinks that we can lead a true intellectual life if we manage to keep one or two hours a day for serious pursuit of higher things. He is not rigid or impractical here. Moreover, when stated in terms of hours or time, we tend to miss what Sertillanges is driving at.
Any sort of learning, in the beginning, will have drudgery connected with it. We can simply call it a kind of work. We need to come to a point where we begin to delight in what we are knowing, where we cannot wait to get back to our considerations or writings or thoughts on a given topic. Anything that is is fascinating. Chesterton, whose own intellectual life seems as vibrant as anyone in our time, once remarked that there are no such things as uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people. A large part of this "uninterestedness" is precisely because we have never learned how or why to see what is there.
Sertillanges teaches us to examine our lives. He does not neglect to mention that moral faults, both serious ones and light ones, can in fact hinder us from having the freedom from ourselves that enables us to see what is not ourselves, to see what is. "Do you want to have an intellectual life?" Sertillanges asks in his own Introduction to his 1934 edition. "Begin by creating within you a zone of silence." We live in a world surrounded by noise, by a kind of unrest that fills our days and nights. We have so many things to distract us, even if sometimes we think they might educate us. Sertillanges is sure we have the time. But he is also sure that we do not notice that we have time because our lives appear to be busy and full. We find the time first by becoming interested, by longing to know. Sertillanges demands an examination of conscience both about our sins and about our use of our time.
An intellectual life, a contemplative life is itself filled with activity, but activity that is purposeful, that wants to know and to know the truth. What we often call "intellectuals" today are probably not exactly what Sertillanges had in mind when he talked about "the intellectual life." Intellectuals as a class, as Paul Johnson wrote in his book The Intellectuals, may well be evolving theories and explanations precisely as a product of their own internal moral disorders. We should never forget that an intellectual life can be a dangerous life. The greatest of vices stem not from the flesh but from the spirit, as Augustine said. The brightest of the angels was the fallen angel. These sober considerations explain the reasons why I like this little book of Sertillanges. He does not hesitate to warn us of the intimate relation between our knowing the truth and our not ordering our own souls to the good. The intellectual life can be and often is a perilous life. But this is no reason to deny its glory. And Sertillanges is very careful to direct us to those things that we pursue because they explain what we are, explain the world and God to us.
When we pick up this book, we will be surprised, no doubt, by its detailed practicality. In one sense, this is a handbook, a step by step direction of what to do first, what next. We are tempted to thinking that the intellectual life is some gigantic insight that comes to us one fine morning while we are shaving or making breakfast. Sertillanges does not deny that some insight can come this way. But the normal course of things will require rather an habitual concern to pursue the truth, to know, to be curious about reality.
This book, moreover, is not primarily for academic professionals, though it will harm not a single one of them. Nor would I call it for everyone -- butcher, baker, candlestick maker. But it is for very many and not always just for those who have higher degrees in physics or metaphysics. This is a book that allows us to be free and independent, to know and to know why we need not be dependent on the media or ideology that often dominates our scene. It is a book that does not exactly "teach" us to know, but teaches us how to go about knowing and how to continue knowing. The book is designed to keep us inwardly alive precisely by teaching us how to know and grow in knowing, steadily, patiently, yes, critically.
I would put The Intellectual Life on the desk of every serious student, and most of the unserious ones. Indeed, Plato said that our very lives are "unserious" in comparison to that of God. Something of that relaxed leisure, of that sense of freedom that comes from knowing and wanting to know is instilled in our souls by this book. Its very possession on our desk or shelves is a constant prod, a visible reminder to us that the intellectual life is not something alien, not something that we have no chance, in our own way, to learn about.
We should read through this classic book, make its teachings ours after our own manner. Adapting what Sertillanges suggests to our own computer, to our own books, to our own hours of the day or night should be no problem. The book will have an abiding, concrete effect on our lives. On following its outlines, it will make us alive in that inner, curious, delightful way that is connoted by the words in this book's magnificent title -- The Intellectual Life. I see no reason for settling for anything less. The great French Dominican still teaches us how to learn, but only if we are free enough to let him teach us.
-- James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, Ash Wednesday, 1998