Jane Austen puts most of the moral platitudes in Pride and Prejudice on the lips of Mary Bennett, who stands out among her sisters for her homely looks and dedication to the intellectual life. In the midst of a crisis involving the youngest Ms. Bennett’s ill-conceived attachment to Mr. Wickham, Mary observes cooly: “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin.”* True as this may have been in the early 18th century, Mary’s comment indicates that her mind is focused more on the detached analysis of the event then on the concrete needs of her family. She is not using her mental power to improve the dire situation, but rather taking advantage of the situation to flaunt her knowledge, which has undoubtedly puffed her up.
Sertillanges speaks frequently against vain ambitions of this sort in the intellectual life and proposes a humbler route that guards against the errors that understandably arise when our vanity leads us to study ideas that are above our “pay grade.” “Do not seek what is beyond your reach,” St. Thomas advised “Br. John” in his “Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge,” which is the basis for The Intellectual Life. This maxim can strike our ears as lacking the good kind of ambition--the ambition that prompts us to try to achieve high goals. The maxim is not seek what is only easy to reach; or, don’t stretch when you reach; but, “do not seek what is beyond your reach.” Cal Newport advises a similarly gradual approach to achieving greater levels of understanding or skill: “push for a result that is beyond — but not too far beyond — what’s comfortable for your current skill level.”
To keep the literary theme going, Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch epitomizes the intellectual reaching far beyond his capacity. When we meet the man, he has been working for some time on his magnum opus, The Key to All Mythologies; and, we realize that he may never finish it, and that, even if he does, the work may be out of date since Casaubon cannot read German--the primary language of the leading scholars in his field. Casaubon’s inadequacy for the task leads to his premature death, but not before his anxiety about the project ruins his marriage to Dorothea. This sort of overreaching is omnipresent, but most obvious in the case of writers who aim for a novel as their first work instead of writing an article or starting a blog. I’ve also known a few people try to go from couch potato to marathoner in one shot, which seems a little ridiculous to me.
As we begin or restart an intellectual career, it makes sense to sincerely answer Sertillanges’ questions: “What are you? What point have you reached? What intellectual substructure have you to offer?”** Aside from satisfying our pride or keeping up with the proverbial Jones’s, there is no benefit to over or under estimating ourselves since “to accept ourselves as we are is to obey God and to make sure of good results.”
*Pride and Prejiduce, Free Kindle Edition, p. 252.
**Ch. 2, section 2.