The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking

The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking

by James V. Schall

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In The Life of the Mind, Georgetown University’s James V. Schall takes up the task of reminding us that, as human beings, we naturally take a special delight and pleasure in simply knowing. Because we have not only bodies but also minds, we are built to know what is. In this volume, Schall, author of On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI


In The Life of the Mind, Georgetown University’s James V. Schall takes up the task of reminding us that, as human beings, we naturally take a special delight and pleasure in simply knowing. Because we have not only bodies but also minds, we are built to know what is. In this volume, Schall, author of On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI Books), among many other volumes of philosophical and political reflection, discusses the various ways of approaching the delight of thinking and the way that this delight begins in seeing and hearing and even in making and walking. We must be attentive to and cultivate the needs of the mind, argues Schall, for it is through our intellect that all that is not ourselves is finally returned to us, allowing us to live in the light of truth.

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The Life of the Mind

On the Joys and Travails of Thinking

By James V. Schall

ISI Books

Copyright © 2006 James V. Schall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4674-2


On the Joys and Travails of Thinking

A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few
scattered writings.

— A. D. Sertillanges

Many of us in later years wish that someone would have told us, when we were younger, about certain things, often certain books, which, as we look back on it, would have greatly helped us in the project of our lives. In particular, certain books, we suspect, would have at least 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 of others, such as Aristotle's Organon, are directed to the question of the elements of knowing and speaking, or how we ought to go about knowing. I have in fact written one such book myself, Another Sort of Learning. In that book, I mention A. D. Sertillanges' book on "the intellectual life" to be among those few books that will give anyone seriously interested a good start.

But Sertillanges gives more than a good start. He explicitly tells us how to begin, how to read and write, how to discipline our time, even our souls. 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 life 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 somewhat later in life than we might at first have suspected or desired. Yet, we surmise that ways existed that could have helped us had we only known them.

Sertillanges' La Vie Intellectuelle, first published in 1921, was an immediate success. It went through many editions, in many languages, and thanks to the Catholic University of America Press, is still in print.

I want to explain why this book 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 Aquinas course, I have had undergraduate students tell me later that it was a book they remembered. It taught them much about how to maintain their intellectual curiosity in a practical, effective manner not merely in college but throughout their lives. Thus, at the beginning of this book, the best way I can go about my effort to talk of "the life of the mind" is to advise the reading of another book, not necessarily immediately, but still soon enough, a book with almost the same title, The Intellectual Life. In the "life of the mind" it is all right, even exciting, if one book leads us to another — if one author leads us to a second one.

At first sight, The Intellectual Life 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 publish, how to organize our notes and, behind them, our thoughts, even our days. It seems "quaint" because we no longer use, as Sertillanges did, pens or typewriters. We are grateful for the opportunity to use late-model computers and printing processes that would have amazed him. But Sertillanges' advice is just as pertinent and demanding for someone with a computer as it is for someone with a pencil.

We need to recall that many of the greatest books and writings were initially put down on parchment or even stone. If we look at the total output of great thinkers like Aristotle or Augustine or Aquinas, it is difficult to imagine how they could have been more productive even if they had had a computer. Human mind and ingenuity, evidently, will find a way to record what is worth setting down. After all, what is important is what is true, not the mechanics of recording it. In the 1920s, Sertillanges himself was far better off technologically than was Aquinas, about whom Sertillanges wrote so well. Technological capacity, however useful, is not the same as intelligence. The truth alone is reason enough to look at Sertillanges' book, and through it, at Aquinas, from whom also this present book derives so much.

"How did Aquinas ever do it?" we wonder. It is highly doubtful, as I have said, that he would have written more or better if he had had the latest computer and research tools at his disposal. In fact, in some sense, such things may have been a hindrance. For St. Thomas Aquinas developed a great memory and an uncanny capacity to have at his fingertips the teachings of the great writers before his time, including Scripture. This wisdom took books and reading, of course, even for Aquinas, but he learned how to do these things. What Sertillanges teaches us is how, in our own way, to imitate the lessons imparted by the life of the great Dominican — how to lead a proper intellectual life, one suffused with honesty, prayer, diligent work, and, in the end, the delight of knowing.

In reading Sertillanges' book, a first outside project that I now recommend, we cannot help feeling that he is letting us in on some of the secrets of Aquinas's vast productivity and keen insight. There are just so many hours in the day, 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 St. Thomas Aquinas 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, productivity, and truth. He thinks that we can lead a truly intellectual life if we manage to keep one or two hours a day for serious pursuit of the higher things. He is not rigid or impractical here. Moreover, when stated merely 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 modern times, remarked that there are no such things as uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people. This is one of those truths which is so obvious that we can hardly bear it, since it forces us to look first to ourselves for the cause of our boredom. A large part of this "uninterestedness" happens 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 and light ones, can in fact hinder or prevent 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 introduction to the 1934 edition. "Begin by creating within you a zone of silence." We live in a world surrounded by noise, by a kind of strident 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 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. Those 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 devise their theories and explanations precisely as products of, or justifications for, their own moral disorders. They are the modern-day versions of the sophists Plato criticized so much for not taking a stand on the truth of things. 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 why I like this little book by Sertillanges, why I take the trouble to talk about it at the beginning of this book. He does not hesitate to warn us of the intimate relation between our knowing the truth and the ordering of 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. A first step in having a life of the mind is to know that other minds have had lives, which they explain to us — if we would listen.

When we pick up Sertillanges' book, we will be surprised, no doubt, by its detailed practicality. It is not totally unlike Fowler's Modern English Usage or Strunk and White's Elements of Style. In another sense, this is a handbook, a step-by-step direction of what to do first, what next. We are tempted to think 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 requires us habitually to pursue the truth, to know, to be curious about reality.

The Intellectual Life, moreover, is not primarily for academic professionals, though it will harm not a single one of them. Nor would I say it is for everyone. But it is for very many and not just for those who have advanced degrees in physics or metaphysics. This is a book that allows us to be free and independent, to know why we need not be dependent on the media or any ideology. It is a book that does not exactly "teach" us to know, but it does teach us how to go about knowing and how to continue knowing. It is designed to keep us inwardly alive precisely by teaching us how to know and grow in knowing, steadily, patiently, and 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 serene sense of freedom that comes from knowing and wanting to know is instilled in our souls by this book. Its very presence 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, making its teachings ours after our own manner. Adapting what Sertillanges suggests to our own computer habits, 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. If we follow its precepts, it will make us alive in that inner, curious, delightful way connoted by the words in its 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 — only if we are free enough to want to know.


Books and the Intellectual Life


Thus far, we have seen that one way to begin attending to the "life of the mind" is with The Intellectual Life. We have also mentioned in passing, Fowler, Strunk and White, Phyllis McGinley, Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton, Aristotle, Josef Pieper, Walker Percy, Étienne Gilson, Plato, and Paul Johnson. Now we come to Samuel Johnson. Some years ago, in 1979, when I first began teaching at Georgetown, I happened to read in class something by Johnson, the great English lexicographer and philosopher. I no longer recall quite what I read, though I am habitually prepared to read something by Johnson at the drop of a hat. Most days, I try to read for myself something from his unfailing wisdom. At any rate, several months after that initial encounter I received in the mail, from Florida, a package that contained a 1931 reprint of a book originally printed in the year 1799.

The book was James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. This two-volume-in-one book was found by a student in that 1979 class in some used bookstore — used bookstores, I am going to insist here, are places to be haunted by young students as almost the equivalent of Stevenson's Treasure Island, for they are indeed usually full of unexpected treasures, if you know what to look for. The particular book I had been sent, as a blue-inked stamp on its title page informs us, once was housed in St. Paul's High School Library in St. Petersburg, Florida. Surely any high school or university library that gets rid of such a marvelous book deserves to lose, if not its accreditation, its reputation! I think of this incident each year when I notice what basic books — say, Aristotle's Ethics or Plato's Republic — students sell back to the university bookstore as used, certain signs of intellectual failure on the part of the students selling them back. I would add that worthless books should be sold back — the trick is to know the difference.

To build on what I have said about The Intellectual Life in the previous chapter, let me here provide some reflections on books — on acquiring them, on keeping them, on reading them, and on re-reading them. Never forget C. S. Lewis's perceptive remark that if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all (though you must read it once in order to be able to read it again). In his An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis wrote, "Those who read great works ... will read the same work ten, twenty, or thirty times during the course of their life." Furthermore, he adds, "We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book." The same book can move another's will and understanding differently than it does our own. We ourselves are receptive to different books at different times in our lives. It is quite possible for one to get nothing out of reading a book, whereas someone else, reading the same book, goes out and changes the world. Likewise we can be excited by reading a book that our friends find dull. There is a mystery here of how mind speaks to mind through reading.

But back to Samuel Johnson and one of his statements about books, a passage on which I often reflect. In his immensely insightful book, Boswell recalls several observations that Johnson made on Monday, September 22, 1777. "Dr. Johnson advised me to-day," Boswell begins,

to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. "What you read then said he, you will remember, but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it." He added, "if a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination." (II, 148)

I note what Johnson advises here. Do not let things "mould," that is, grow stale and inert in our minds so that we never think of them again. Johnson suggests that we keep ready about us plenty of books on many a subject matter; that is, we need our own basic library, one that we own because we have ourselves found and purchased the books in it.

But just having lots of books is not enough. Fools can own libraries. The devil was one of the most intelligent of the angels and we know what happened to him. Knowledge alone won't save us, though we need knowledge too. The essential thing is the "inclination to know," something that cannot be purchased or borrowed or injected. Johnson suggests that we can, to some extent, prod ourselves to know; as he puts it, we can ascribe a "task for ourselves." We can, for instance, say to ourselves, "I will read The Brothers Karamazov during Christmas vacation," and then do it. But it is best to have an "eager desire for instruction," something that flows from our own inner resources, not just from external duty. If we read the first paragraph of The Brothers Karamazov and have any soul at all, we will not rest till we finish it.


Excerpted from The Life of the Mind by James V. Schall. Copyright © 2006 James V. Schall. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James V. Schall, S. J., is a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of some twenty-five books, including Another Sort of Learning and A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning. He writes a column, “Sense and Nonsense,” for Crisis, and his writings also appear regularly in Gilbert! magazine, the Saint Austin Review, and the University Bookman.

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