Friday, September 27, 2013

Do you have the intellectual vocation? part 2 of 2

Discerning this vocation requires a period of “long self-examination” that aims to figure out what gives us pleasure. That’s right.  Pleasure.  Your vocation should give you pleasure and boatloads of it.

What I’ve said about pleasure may strike you as odd or even dangerous if you, like me, have been breathing the air of Kantian, “duty for duty’s sake,” ethics in this great country.  St. Thomas and Sertillanges have my back, though.  “If St. Thomas could say that pleasure characterizes functions and may serve to classify men, he must be led to conclude that pleasure can also reveal our vocation.”  Sertillanges is making explicit something we all know intuitively: our vocation must give us pleasure.  Now, I don’t mean pleasure every second of the time or a complete absence of difficulties.  I mean that the intellectual vocation is probably not for you if (1) writing is always a chore, (2) you never find yourself drawn to a quiet place with a book, (3) you never get lost in thought.

Understanding our own sources of pleasure is trickier than it sounds because our perspective is skewed by how close we are to the “subject of inquiry.”  So, asking for help from others is essential, but not straightforward because we can tend to rely too heavily on their opinions of others, and, unless our friends are professional career counselors, they rarely have a well developed criterion for analysis.

A few years ago, when I was in one of my many career funks, a couple mentors of mine told me essentially, “I think you’re great at interacting with people.  Make sure that your vocation involves a lot of interaction with others.”  A compliment, a true assessment from the perspective of the advice givers. And, since I was more “outward focused” during that part of my life, the advice confirmed my belief that I would suffocate under the research requirements of the intellectual vocation.  Things changed, though, thanks to the grace of God acting through Sertillanges, and an aptitude test that I took at Johnson O’Connor.  Now, I “see” my intellectual vocation very clearly.

Determining whether or not the intellectual vocation gives you pleasure requires knowing what the first few years look like according to Sertillanges.  The intellectual in the beginning of his career must, “consolidate from the foundations upwards a sum of knowledge recognized as merely provisional, seen to be simply and solely a starting-point."  Later, Sertillanges will say that this period of consolidation lasts around five years.  This period entails that the young intellectual, “recognize and adopt the causes of knowledge,” so that he has the tools to acquire and then develop knowledge.  Does that sound good?  Does it fulfill a yearning in your heart for greater intellectual foundations?  Does it resolve a frustration in your mind with the superficial level of your formation?

After discerning that you have the intellectual vocation, you may ask, “what’s the next step?  Who do I meet? What do I read?  Where do I find the time”  To those important, yet secondary questions, Sertillanges would respond, “First, strengthen your will.”  “The most valuable thing of all is will, a deeply-rooted will; to will to be somebody, to achieve something; to be even now in desire that somebody, recognizable by his ideal.”  In this he echoes, St. Theresa of Avila’s call for determination in achieving sanctity.  Strengthening our will to become an intellectual sounds easier than it is.  Changing externals appears more difficult to us than strengthening our will, but the effort required to really maintain a determined will to live out the intellectual vocation is intense.  It requires saying no to many good things so that we can say a full and complete yes to the intellectual vocation.

*quotes from "The Intellectual Vocation," section I.


  1. I think we underestimate the force of will required to properly pursue this intellectual vocation. Imagine studying three hours straight with not a single mental distraction. I have heard a college professor say this is not unusual for his colleagues. Imagine maintaining a high level of concentration throughout all the varied activities of the day. This is normal for man---should be. It is not normal to habitually have an aimlessly wandering mind. This strength of will--is the intellectual magnanimous enough to steel himself toward such a lofty goal?

  2. Yes but we should be careful of not falling into the trap of completely divorcing the will from the affections. We think it's right to consider the character, religion, accomplishments etc. of a potential spouse when you're determining whether or not to marry her, but ridiculous to marry someone solely on the strength of it, despite the fact that you're not attracted to her at all. It goes the same way with intellectual work; its good to study, good to read, but if you find that the only thing going on with it is the sense of duty, then maybe you should rethink the vocation. The test of your love for any line of work can be gauged by how frequently you look at the clock while you're doing it. The more you look at the clock (or feel the urge to look at the clock), the less likely it is that this is the work for you.