Saturday, January 18, 2014

'Tis the gift to be simple

“You must simplify your life,” exhorts Sertillanges in the first part of Chapter III. To his 21st century readers, Sertillanges would shout all the more because we are enmeshed in an ever more complex web of technological obligations. Three of Sertillanges suggestions from this chapter will help us in our quest for the True.

1. “Slacken the tempo of your life.” In other words, reduce the number of social obligations that you voluntarily engage in. Of course, these obligations take time and therefore reduce the time you have available for study. On a deeper level, though, Sertillanges is concerned about “display and dissipation,” which are “mortal enemies of thought.” Display, or concern for the way one is perceived by others, leads to vain thoughts that can distract from one’s true purpose. Haven’t we all left a conversation wondering, “What did they think of what I said, or how I said it?” The thought can last a moment or it can distract for hours in some cases. While this sort of thought may seem inevitable in life, we should minimize the occasions in which this could happen. Dissipation is difficult to avoid in large group conversations because many people speak from many different directions and the focus is not on the True, but on the next witty comment.

What is to be avoided is not all or even most social activity. What is to be encouraged is recollection and order in our desires relating to these events. For instance, if a party is coming up on Friday, is this what our thoughts and desires revolve around all week? An intellectual ought to value his work, which is nothing less that a quest for the True, more than any particular party.

Along with reducing the number of actual social obligations, it is necessary to reduce the number of virtual obligations - Email/facebook/whatsapp, etc. Each person’s situation is quite different here, but this is a rich area for simplification. How many social networks do you belong to? Do you need to belong to all of them or to any of them? Is every email that flashes onto my phone an occasion to stop what I’m doing? There’s much more to say here and Sertillanges warnsthose who are skeptical of guidelines in this area: “you think, what would be the good of laying down rules? That is a mistake.”

2. “Obey your convictions, not mere custom.” This suggestion is helpful when the needs of your body clash with prevailing cultural norms. You may find that drinking with dinner leads to poor sleep and poor output the next day. To your courteous explanation your friends respond, “Come on! It’s just a little wine. After all, we’re celebrating the three month anniversary of Steve’s new apartment!” Stay sober, my friend.

Or, you may find that as Sertillanges recommends, you need to exercise every day. Or, that on some weekend you need to go hiking to get some fresh air, but you should go alone. Or, whatever. The important thing is to realize that your convictions will conflict with custom.

3. “One must not think and write for money.” Our motive in the quest for the True should be truth and nothing else. “Truth serves only its slaves.” It’s not enough though to simply recognize intellectually that we should be motivated by truth. We must also organize our life to prevent monetary motives from creeping in. Simplification helps this by reducing the amount of stuff that we need. And, if we need less stuff, then we will need less money. And, if we need less money, then we will be less tempted to work with money as a motive, since our monetary obligations won’t overwhelm. Also, with fewer needs, we will have money available for what furthers our work: books, furniture, vacations, classes, etc.

Check out this video for some artistic inspiration and an answer to where the title of this post comes from.  The video is from a show called Blast!, which is awesome.  Stick it out to the end, its worth it!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sleep well, work well

Sertillanges’ chapter on “The Discipline of the Body” had such an impact on my life over the last few months that I will tell a quick story that confirmed to me the importance of the body in the intellectual life, which is Sertillanges’ main point in this section.

On November 24th, I began my grad school personal statement in earnest, since the GRE on the 23rd had prevented me from beginning until then. For six days, I dutifully kept a schedule of writing that would have made Sertillanges proud: six hours of writing, daily exercise, plenty of sleep. On Saturday, November 30th, my discipline slipped and I stayed up until midnight to make sure that I could send a draft of my personal statement for review to my friend Steve, who was guiding me through the personal statement. Sunday, I was up even later sending in my first application. And, Monday I turned in another application and worked a normal amount.

The following two days, I attempted to continue working on my next applications without success. Every five minutes, something important just seemed to keep coming up. I realized that I needed a ¨weekend¨ to recover from eight days of intense intellectual activity and my inability to concentrate was confirmation of this fact. Next day, I sat down in earnest to work on another essay, only to see clearly that I needed to spend time deciding whether or not I should visit some of the grad schools that I was applying to before the end of the term. Friday I spoke to a professor in my field about my applications and left the meeting convinced that I should apply next year to the remaining schools on my list because my application would be much stronger. Then, I spoke to Steve and I told him my plan.

¨One year is a long time,¨ he said patiently.

¨Well, how about skipping the application to University of Blah. They require a separate essay, which I haven´t started and can´t do in three days.¨ I conveniently hid the fact that I hadn’t worked on this essay in four days because everything else seemed so important.

Without contradicting me, he suggested that we look at the professors at the University of Blah to see if they would be a good fit with my proposed research plan. Of course, they were a good fit and I proceeded to write the extra essay with relative ease despite my previous reluctance. A little encouragement went a long way.

So, on December 10th, I turned in my two-essay-application to the University of Blah and had a moment to reflect on the frustrations of the past few days. The takeaway was clear: lack of sleep causes lack of motivation. This is not a big surprise to anyone, especially Sertillanges, but it is a point worth keeping in mind when we fears, doubts and anxiety creep into our work.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

5 steps to studying like a saint

The section of The Intellectual Life on "The Spirit of Prayer" is two and a half pages that will rock your world.  To whet your appetite, I've put together five points that should move you a few steps closer to Sertillanges' ideal for an intellectual.

1.  Start with a prayer - This sounds obvious, but consistently asking for God's help before studying is not the easiest thing in the world.  It's worth mentioning that prayerfully approaching work is not primarily about actual vocal prayers.  The movement from object to God by way of causes, which I discuss in point four, more properly describes prayerful study.  Sertillanges recommends St. Thomas's prayer: Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding.  Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance.  Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.  Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.  Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion.  I ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2.  Forget the details - Minutia and esoteric facts are not important for scientia, which is knowledge by causes.  "The important things are the dependences" -- what influence does this fact have on another.

3.  Connect the dots - Focusing on causes will reveal the links between different facts and your "profane" object of study will yield "connections on every side."  The biography you're reading reminds you of something your friend told you three years ago, triggering a memory from an economics class.  Bam! A new insight you've never thought of.

4.  Go to the top - Your chain of causes should lead quickly to the ultimate cause - God.  The movement of the mind from the object of study to God is the essential part of studying prayerfully.  I can't say that I have this habit, but Sertillanges has sold me on trying to acquire it: "we have only to leave the mind on the one hand to its upward flight, on the other to its attention, and there will be set up, between the object of a particular study and the object of religious contemplation, an alternating movement which will profit both."

5.  Wonder - Knowledge by causes is only one way to experience reality.  Knowing the causes does not lead to the jaw dropping impact of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.  A reaction that naturally leads us to think that God is amazing!  But, that reaction and so many others are a necessary part of experiencing reality that cannot be contained in a causal chain.

*Quotes from Ch. 2, section III

Monday, October 14, 2013

Do not seek what is beyond your reach

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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Be good to think good

The work of Daniel Kahneman and others has made the public more aware of something that we all know but are sometimes reluctant to admit--we make bad decisions.  Since our intellectual work is certainly not immune from these poor decisions, something must be done to overcome the cognitive biases that pervert our perception of reality at every turn.  A big part of the answer to these biases for Sertillanges is building virtue.  Sertillanges considers his section on the virtues to be “so important that simply to recall it would have made the writing of this little work worthwhile.”*

The intellectual must gradually, and more closely approach the True.  To do this, we must love the True, and not with any old sort of teenage luv, but with a real love that is willing to live completely differently in order to better understand the true.  This kind of love is willing to aspire to the highest heights of goodness because the Good IS the Truth.

Let’s take an example that will help clarify the theoretical.  By natural reason we know that God is the first cause and creator of all things.  This truth permeates all other truths, sustains them, vivifies them.  Joe Intellectual believes this truth.  It seems obvious to him.  But, Joe’s parish gets a new priest, whose homilies are too basic for Joe’s intellectual taste.  Joe’s motivation to attend holy mass begins to wane, although intellectually Joe knows that his desire to attend mass should not depend on the quality of the homily since the mass is much more than a homily.  Joe starts to arrive late to mass in the hopes that he’ll miss some of the homily.  If you ask Joe, “Hey, Joe, what’s the most important thing you do during the week?”  He would dutifully respond that mass was the most important thing because God is the most important thing and worshiping him is, therefore, the most important thing for me.  His behavior belies this truth, though.  And, therefore, in this situation “one must expect the sense of the great truths to suffer.”**

The connection between the Good and the True requires the intellectual to be as good as he wishes to be intelligent.  And, if you want to be an intellectual in the model of Sertillanges, an intellectual with aspirations for the very heights of knowledge--let your desires for virtue soar as high as your desire for knowledge.  Take up the call to authentic, canonizable holiness despite any objections that such a pursuit would take away from your scarce time for intellectual work.  That time is precious, but its efficacy will be stunted by a “just-get-by” approach to morality.  “Purity of thought requires purity of soul...The neophyte of knowledge should let it sink deeply into his mind.”

*Ch. 2, Section I
**For more information on this connection, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2518.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cal Newport meets Sertillanges (I hope)

Since a friend convinced me to read, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I’ve been following Cal Newport’s blog and have been looking for a way to connect with him to share some of my ideas on focus.  On September 11, Cal announced that he was looking for “stories of people who use radical strategies to reduce the amount of distractions in their life and improve their ability to focus on hard things (be it at work, at home, or in parenting).”  Ah ha, an opportunity to share some insights from the Intellectual Life with Cal.  Below is the main part of the email that I wrote him.

Dear Cal,

A month ago, I started implementing the radical ideas about focus in a book called The Intellectual Life by Antonin Sertillanges.  Inspired in part by the book and in part by Study Hacks, I started my own blog about The Intellectual Life around the same time.  Shortly after starting this process, I was mentally assaulted with poetic verses as I walked along the crowded streets of Manhattan to work.  Have I ever written poetry?  No.  Have I read any poetry in the last ten years? No.  But, I was implementing Sertillanges’ advice on focus outside the time of focused work: “A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.”  I dutifully collected these ideas in my notebook and very unexpectedly produced a few poems during my time dedicated to focused work.  


I highly recommend Cal Newport’s blog and his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  I can’t speak from my own experience about his other books, but a few friends of mine have found them useful.  Currently, Cal is exploring ideas, such as “deep work,” “deliberate practice,” “passion at work.”  So Good They Can’t Ignore You aims to destroy the idea that we should try to find our pre-existing passion in order to enjoy our work.  Instead, Cal recommends getting so good at your job that “they can’t ignore you” by engaging in deliberate practice and deep work.  He also acknowledges that not all jobs lend themselves to getting so good, etc.…  Realizing that my old job fit into this category helped me to decide that it was time to move on.