Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sertillanges on Virtuous Intellect

“The Virtues of a Catholic Intellectual”, Chp. 2 of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life

As I listened to chapter 2 of Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, I experienced a mixture of reactions. At times he roused, at times, my conscience smarted under his well aimed exhortations; at times he seemed quaint or naïve, and, when I perceived the overall unity and integrity of his vision that emerged in the chapter as a whole, I was at times moved to pause in admiration. His understanding of the interconnectedness of things impresses me as an exalted and deep grasp or reality and essential to his ability to rouse and challenge. The central and unifying vision to this chapter and to the book as a whole is the contextualization of “the intellectual life” within a whole life devoted to God. Tolstoy once wrote to the effect: “Before I am a writer, I am a man”. There must be this sense of the whole, this attentiveness to each aspect of our lives in their interconnected-ness, so that the parts can be mutually fortifying, rather than devalued and detracted from by disorder in any area. “Life is a unity”, Sertillanges insists. He discusses the connection of the virtues to the intellect, but he also discusses its connection of the body (and the body of course is connected to the virtues as well). He also counsels the Golden Mean: the right behavior and soundest course is often between two extremes. And he urges, in harmony with Scripture, that we test ourselves in order to work from a sound estimation of our capacities, neither too great, nor too low. As the Apostle Paul writes:

“If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load” (Galatians 6:3-5).

Many times my response to these exhortations by Sertillanges is perhaps an especially American response: “How?”- also characteristically accompanied by an impatience to “get ‘er done.” But the answer called for is a response that includes infinite dimensions. It is a call to eternal worship.

“The true springs up in the same soil as the good: their roots communicate” (p. 19). Sertillanges’ sense of the unity of truth, goodness and beauty has him captive, but he seems to overstate his argument on page 18 to the point of seeming quaint and naïve:

“Would there not be something repellent in seeing a great discovery being made by an unprincipled rascal? The unspoiled instinct of a simple man would be grievously hurt by it.”

Haven’t many great discoveries and many great works been made by singularly unprincipled rascals? In a book disturbing for its project as well as its content, the historian Paul Johnson enumerates very unprincipled sins of many leading intellectuals in the Western tradition, providing a few examples from world history of memorable intellects possessed by very badly behave men and women. But Sertillanges mitigates his statement, though not entirely, it seems, on page 19, by remarking that truth visits those who love her, and that the man of genius at work is already virtuous but that it would “suffice for his holiness if he were more completely his true self.” There remains something noble, something lovely to be reflected on in the work of a genius, even if much of their life is sinful. I can agree with Sertillanges on this and also agree with him in believing that wholeness and abundant life is not in an opposition of the intellect’s life, however, brilliant, to the virtues and the care of the body, or a negation of these, but that there is an essential unity God designed us for and God is redeeming us to, and that we should rise to with all our might, knowing Christ.
Sertillanges makes his point about the unity of the intellect and the virtues eloquently on page 22:

“But stupidity apart, what enemies do you fear? What about sloth, the grave of the best gifts? What of sensuality, which makes the body weak and lethargic, befogs memory? Of pride, which sometimes dazzles and sometimes darkens, which so drives us in the direction of our own opinion that the universal sense may escape us? Of envy, which obstinately refuses to acknowledge some light other than our own? Of irritation, which repels criticism and comes to grief on the rock of error?”

Remove the vice, he says, and the gift can reach its full measure. I think he is right. Profligate geniuses are not as sound as saintly geniuses. I prefer Newman to Lucretius, but can profit from both.
Coupled with the theme of the unity of our lives before God is the counseling of the Golden Mean: “To the virtue of studiousness, two vices are opposed: negligence on the one hand, vain curiosity on the other” (p. 25). I prize this aspect of Sertillanges’ counsel, which recurs throughout the book, and think it gives distinctive depth to his treatment of the books’ subject. An essential part of pursuing study as a spiritual discipline and as part of a life of devotion to God is not studying when you have another duty that you should be doing. To be errant in your duties as a man or woman in order to study is to cheapen your study and turn it into dilettantism.
Finally, he counsels a “sound body in a sound mind”. (Incidentally, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda also counseled this: “Salim bal fi salim jism”, but that only shows that sound advice can sometimes appear in extremely distorted lives). “Exercise every day.” Neglect of the body and its health detracts from the whole.
As a parting note, in pondering the unity of the intellectual life, the virtues, and the body, and of learning to in some manner live life as a whole with some sense of the whole, I am posed with a challenging question: how do we live our lives as a whole? And especially in a culture where more and more it seems our fragmentation is codified in our in the shape of our lives. Some of Picasso’s paintings of distorted faces of people comes to mind as illustrations of peculiarly modern form of this distortion. I also think of a debate in neuroscience about our nature and of Aristotle’s point that it makes more sense to say “I do this”, or “I do that” than to say “My soul does this”. There is a place for this (I think of the Magnificat). But from being useful, this can become codified and a numbness to a sense of the whole can set in. In neuroscience, culminating a trend throughout the medical profession and in our society in general, materialists urge that saying our brain did something is the same as saying that we did it. This expresses itself in a turn to mood altering drugs as a cure for every aspect of behavior on massively irresponsible levels in the medical profession. And this understanding, or rather failure of understanding of ourselves as a whole is also where sources of self-discipline are being eroded. But it is not easy to identify the solution. Still it occurs to me that the way to all embracing wholeness is exactly as Jesus said and made possible: we lose ourselves in a life of worship of God, the Truth.

David Alexander