Reflections on the Preface to A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life
A.G. Sertillanges opens The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Method, his masterful book on study and the Christian intellectual life-the best on its subject that I am aware of- with an elegant and challenging preface. At the heart of the book there is a challenge, an exhortation to love the truth, and many subsidiary challenges beside to support this one life charge. The preface is marked liked the rest by this bracing atmosphere of serious and vibrant summons to greater, life-encompassing depth. In many places I hear the echo of the words and spirit of Christ. The words of Scripture come to mind in thinking about the concept of truth pressed in this book.
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will be condemned who have not believed the truth, but have delighted in wickedness.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, set in the context of a reference to the “man of lawlessness” and his followers.)
The love of and belief in truth is set against delight in wickedness and being delivered over to delusion. At the heart of this book is the strong and compelling call to ardent love of the truth, set within the context of a focus on vocational calling. (“Vocation,” Buechner wrote, “is where your deep joy meets the world’s deep need.”) It is exquisitely formed so as to grip those with an inclination to this work and charge them with wholehearted love, through their vocation, for the truth.
Sertillanges’ beginning advice in the preface is:
“Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.” –A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Method, Conditions, p. viii.
Airy praise is fine but he has a meaty purpose. He is exhorting the reader to establish in their way of life, not rigidly but as a whole man or woman, a necessary condition for intellectual work, one however that is attainable to all, that can and should be sought by all, and not just those that feel in some measure a call to engage in this type of work. It is a necessary condition for both.
The view of the intellectual life presented, embodied and urged here is one of attunement and responsiveness to the given and the Giver. He makes the point that the intellectual is not self-begotten but it “the son of the Idea, of the Truth, of the Creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in His creation” (viii). We are not here as in darkness. Godliness in intellectual work is not to conjure on a whim. We are to unfold the teleological and providential precedent. God has left us notes. We are to pick them up and unfold them with the growing ardor that their content elicits.
Sertillanges points out a path to intellectual readiness for the truth in moments of insight, readiness in such moments to attend, to welcome, to follow out its courses, to love the truth. He describes not just a moment’s effort, a straightening of the tie over a wrinkled shirt when royalty is about to walk by, but a way of life punctuated by moments of receptive self-giving to the truth: “The Spirit passes and returns not. Happy the man who holds himself ready not to miss”(ix). It is like the parable of the ten virgins. Perhaps we were called for such a time as this. “Make the most of every opportunity for the days are evil.”
On page ix-x, he describes two different types of memory, one that actually closes the ways of thought in favor of words and fixed formulas, something Matthew Arnold also denounced as “mechanical thinking”, “stock notions and habits” for which he thought culture was the cure. The opposite of this rigidity is a memory that is “receptive in every direction, and in a state of perpetual discovery”, like a child or a poet. “It functions in contact with the springs of inspiration.” In the experience where we draw near to this, the stage is set for us to yield our deepest self to the truth. Sertillanges is describing worship. When I most feel love, freedom and openness and peace toward my fellow man is in moments of this embrace of truth.
In the preface and throughout the book there is an essential focus on spirit. He describes the many specific and practical decisions that must be made in pursuing the discipline of study in a godly and loving way, and he makes the powerful point that such specificities can only be judged of in “the moment of ecstasy when we are close to the eternally true, far from the covetous and passionate self” (p. xi). I think this point profound. The moment when spirit touches Spirit is the moment when we are best able to judge and order.
Sertillanges has deep insight into the act of judgment. A passage I found particularly resonant is toward the end of the preface where he describes the proper approach to knowing a thing aright. In the whole of his description I can see lesser halves, distorted approaches to knowledge, which his wholeness on the subject avoids. “To be long multiple is the condition of being richly one,“ he writes. “Unity at the starting point is a mere void.” That is a saying I plan to remember. It seems to me that much of the ideologies of modernity are unities that are “mere voids” but that postmodernism seems definable by a weakness of being only multiple, and not aiming and finally believing in the richly one. Postmodernism, as successor, justifies its excesses against the excesses of the preceding ideologies. “It is a great secret to know how to give radiance to an idea by means of its twilight background. It is a further secret to preserve its power of convergence in spite of this radiating quality.” The strength of postmodernism lies in its attunement to the first secret, perhaps, but it becomes a weakness, a sickness unto death, if it does not learn the second secret.
I have more I would like to say about the “contacts with men of genius” he describes, enjoins, assumes you will do (p.xi; xii) but I think this will have to do.
David Alexander, 10 September 2008