The Writing Life

A few quotes of use to the writer from A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life. Sertillanges was a French Dominican, and therefore a Thomist, and clearly a wise man to boot. Though aimed mainly at philosophy and theology students, and though a little dry in places, it’s a wonderful book about intellectual work, mixing reflections on the moral and spiritual life of the intellectual with practical instructions on subjects like how to take notes and how to read well.


[W]e are obliged at a given moment to accept necessary sacrifices. It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to the things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of homage to the truth.

Do not be ashamed to know what you could only know at the cost of scattering your attention. Be humble about it, yes, for it shows our limitations; but to accept our limitations is a part of virtue and gives us a great dignity, that of the man who lives according to his law and plays his part. We are not much, but we are part of a whole and we have the honor of being a part. What we do not do, we do all the same; God does it, our brethren do it, and we are with them in the unity of love. . . .

The half-informed man is not the man who knows only the half of things, but the man who only half knows things. Know what you have resolved to know; cast a glance at the rest. Leave to God, who will look after it, what does not belong to your proper vocation. Do not be a deserter from yourself, through wanting to substitute yourself for all others.

KNOWLEDGE & VIRTUE (pages 19-20)

Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her . . . . The true springs up in the same soil as the good: Their roots communicate. Broken from the common root and therefore less in contact with the soil, one or the other suffers; the soul grows anemic or the mind wilts. On the contrary, by feeding the mind on truth one enlightens the conscience, by fostering good one guides knowledge. By practicing the truth we know, we merit the truth that we do not know. 


The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.


[T]here is something still more important, namely, to submit not only to the discipline of work, but to the discipline of truth. . . . Truth will not give itself to us unless we are first rid of self and resolved that it shall suffice us. The intelligence which does not submit is in a state of skepticism, and the skeptic is ill-prepared for truth. Discovery is the result of sympathy; and sympathy is the gift of self.

THE WORLD (Page xxiii)

When the world does not like you it takes its revenge on you; if it happens to like you, it takes its revenge still by corrupting you.


[T]he solitude of the thinker does not imply neglect of his duties or forgetfulness of his needs . . . since we do not separate the intellectual from the man. . . .

[Linking your duties and needs with the intellectual life] is always possible. The time given to duty or to real need is never lost; the care bestowed on these things is part of your vocation, and would be an obstacle to it only if thought of your vocation in an abstract way, apart from Providence. . . .

You will not imagine that your work is of more importance than you, and that even an increase of intellectual possibilities should prevail over the achievement of your true self. Do what you ought and must; if your human perfection requires it, the different demands it makes will find their own balance. The good is the brother of the true: it will help its brother. To be where we ought to be, to do what we ought to do, disposes us to contemplation, and feeds it; it is leaving God for God, according to the saying of St. Bernard. . . .

On certain days it is only indirectly, by way of moral progress, that our intelligence will gain, in spite of its concessions to duty; in other circumstances it will gain of itself, indirectly.

The French version can be found on the web here, and the English translation, published by Catholic University of American Press, can be found here.

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