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.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What good is an intellectual?

On August 25th, a friend of mine remarked that he could not see how his academic research served society.  Sure, he knew that his teaching helped students learn, but the value of his research was dubious in his mind.  Of course, I recommended The Intellectual Life to him.  And, if I would have been more familiar with the text then, I would have recommended sections two and three of chapter one, which I will comment on in this post.

Sertillanges situates the purpose of the intellectual vocation where it belongs -- as just another part of life.
All other areas of work aim to help others and the intellectual life is no different.  We are trying to feed intellects, providing the deep thought that daily activities prevent the average person from doing much of.  For Sertillanges, this is a real participation in the priesthood of Christ.  We must “work as Jesus meditated, --as He drew on the life-springs of the Father to pour them out on the world.”  This requires a deep connection both with God and with others that Sertillanges describes as working “with the feeling for man, his needs, his greatness, and the solidarity which binds us closely together in a common life.”

Without a doubt, this perspective excludes the individualist intellectual who attempts to sit “outside” of humanity so that he has a more “objective” view of his “subject matter.”  I saw this in my undergraduate studies as a religion major and I’m sure it is common in other disciplines since the idea of scientific detachment from your subject matter is pervasive. In the case of religion, identifying with the subject matter is crucial.  Walking inside the shoes of a religious believer is going to reduce “objectivity” in one sense, but, unless we are really close to people, sympathizing with them, believing them, then we will never understand the truth from their perspective.  We won't be “objective.”  You should be a close observer in danger of falling in love with the subjects of your study, no matter how bad they seem.  Avoiding the individualist trap, helps prevent the tendency for intellectuals to create “art for art’s sake.”  Or, art for other intellectuals' sake--work written for those sufficiently detached from the experience of the common person.

Ensuring that we have the "feeling for man" requires writing with “the idea of some utilization."  It requires you to "pick out certain individuals or certain groups whose need you know, find out what may bring them out of their night and ennoble them..."  This can seem like a daunting task especially if you're in a very theoretical field.  I think the best place to start is to see what other professors in your area might be doing.  Where do they speak?  What associations are they a part of?  Finding real people to serve with your intellectual work will also help you to stay focused on this time period rather than getting caught up in the past or the future. The real benefit, though, is the satisfaction that comes from helping real people have "epiphany moments."

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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Effects of prayer

Prayer has a soporific effect, A result most easy to detect. We cannot feel the graces they leave delicate traces -- a more determined will, flight from a particular ill; insight into our defects, a more tender reflex. True effects to be sure, enough to help us endure, the battle against drowsy that leaves prayer feeling lousy.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Do you have the intellectual vocation? part 1 of 2

Before beginning this post, which is a commentary on "The Intellectual has a Sacred Call" from chapter 1, I want to strongly recommend reading this section. Read it slowly and, perhaps, many times.

When Sertillanges talks about the intellectual vocation, he is speaking about vocation as a call from God that involves our entire life, but doesn't exclude other vocational aspects of our life - marriage, apostolic celibacy, priesthood, etc. The intellectual vocation could be synonymous with our professional vocation as would probably be the case with the prototypical intellectual vocation - Academic. On the other hand, from the perspective of time, it could occupy much less time than our professional vocation, but, in the order of love, it should be higher. And, like other vocations, this one requires discernment, a topic we will discuss in the second part of this post.

The all encompassing nature of the intellectual vocation is dear to Sertillanges, who undoubtedly titled his book The Intellectual Life to emphasize this point. Of course, we are not always reading, researching or writing. But, taking best advantage of the hours available for this beautiful task requires, among other things, recollection and solitude. Treasures that cannot be summoned after tooling around Linkedin for an hour. This excludes false ideas of the intellectual vocation, namely, all intellectual workers should try to live it, or that all can. Or, that the intellectual life can be lived without production. Those who aim at these goals can benefit from parts of this book, but the whole is directed to those with a more substantial call.

This call requires that the mission of the intellectual be more elevated than most of us consider it to be. In the body of Christ, each member is necessary, and the intellectual is especially important because he brings understanding to the rest of the body. And, this understanding "directs" the body as our mind directs the rest of our limbs. How does the intellectual bring light to others? In broad terms, he explains fundamental truths in contemporary language and/or explains contemporary events in light of fundamental truths.

The intellectual has the vocation to respond to the cry for meaning that rises up from all peoples. "If you are designated as a light bearer, do not go and hide under the bushel the gleam, or the flame, that is expected from you in the house of the Father of all."** The mind provides the justification for action: the ratio for any behavior, but modern man's reasons need to be explained in ways that he understands not in archaic formulas - true though they may be. An intellectual will provide these reasons, suited to the times, but not perverted by them.

This mission may be difficult to see for us who value practical knowledge above its speculative superior. Give me what works, what pays! But, the foundations of the most speculative science, metaphysics, are imminently practical. What could be done in the world of engineering and technology without the ubiquitous, yet quiet principle of non-contradiction? Each field has their analogous principles that need to be elucidated and explained. Better explaining these foundations, "impractical" as they may appear, is necessary for practical purposes and is a participation in the Truth.

*quotes from "The Intellectual Vocation," section I

**This quote from Sertillanges makes reference to today's Gospel, by the way.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Purification of memory

I was in some hot water with a close friend the other day, and I was mentally reviewing all the historical evidence why I was right and he was wrong.  I saw that my perspective on the situation was very influenced by my view of the "historical evidence," or the series of events that I believe supports my case that I'm right and he's wrong.  This led me to see that my belief in divine providence is influenced by my memory of the events in my life.  If, for example, I see my history as a litany of disappointments, then I'll will be tempted to see God either as not provident or not good.  The complaint we can all relate to goes something like this, "If God let this happen to me, then he either doesn't care about me or doesn't know what He's doing!"  I don't think this situation is unique to me so I thought I'd unpack it for a post.

Let's break this down a little bit using the example of work, which happens to be top of mind for me. Turning the complaint above into "logical" syllogisms might look something like this:

A provident God would want me to enjoy my work.
I have never enjoyed my work.
Therefore, God is not provident.

A good God would want me to enjoy my work.
I have never enjoyed my work
Therefore, God is not good.

Let's leave aside the many ways we could improve these syllogisms and focus on the truth of the statement, "I have never enjoyed my work."  In some form or another, we may really believe this statement.  Of course, we would admit that our work hasn't been all bad -- we've met good people, we've grown in virtue.  On balance, though, let's assume we would say that we haven't enjoyed it.  This is based on what we believe happened in our work, our memory of that experience.  If these memories are an obstacle to us believing that God is provident, then it would be good for us to take another look at these memories to see if we may be misinterpreting something or exaggerating the importance of another thing.  Of course, the syllogisms need some reworking, too, but let's focus on the historical evidence.

Our memories are powerful, so, to the extent possible, we want them at the service of God through our intellect.  To do this, it would be good to prayerfully consider our most vivid memories in light of the truths of the faith and with the perspective of time.  We can start with those memories that may be the source of grudges with other people.  "I can't tell him how I feel about work because he has never understood my perspective on it!"

Ok, gotcha.  That belief is certainly rooted in memories we have of particular conversations or actions of this hypothetical friend.  When we are not otherwise agitated about work or this friend, let us bring this memory up with Jesus during prayer in order to try to see it from His perspective and from our friend's perspective.  We may see that our limited perspective caused us to be oversensitive or judgmental and we may see that our friend could have been more encouraging and available.  It is also important to look for the good that God drew out of the event, why He let it happen and how we and our friend have grown through it.

While we don't need to confess the sins that we have committed before our last confession, to the extent that we harbor a negative bias against our friend, no matter how slight, on account of that event, it would be good to mention that in confession because the measure of our love for others is the love for the Trinity not "getting along."  This way our Lord's grace and the Holy Spirit can work directly on our heart to free us from that chain holding us down.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The study plan - theology

My ability to advocate for a deep knowledge of theology is limited by the fact that I have not studied the subject in any serious way.  So, I will leave the Intellectual to do most of the talking:

"Theology, said Pere Gratry, has inserted a divine graft into the tree of knowledge, thanks to which this tree can bear fruits that are not its own.  It loses nothing of its sap thereby, on the contrary the sap circulates gloriously.  As a result of this new and soaring impulse given to knowledge, of this appeal of the findings of human effort to the collaboration of heaven, all branches of knowledge are vivified and all disciplines broadened.  The unity of faith gives to intellectual work the stamp of a vast co-operation.  It is the collective operation of men united in God."

Wow.  Very, very strong words.  It's difficult to conceive how theology vivifies and broadens all branches of knowledge, but I look forward to acquiring the theological formation necessary to begin to perceive some of these results.  I can, on the other hand, grasp more clearly how "the unity of faith gives to intellectual work the stamp of a vast co-operation."  Theology reminds us that God is the author of all that is, so we will frequently see the interconnectedness of the various parts of knowledge.  A Jane Austen novel, for instance, will confirm the importance of ethics while reminding us how much perceptions change throughout history.

"The sciences and philosophy without theology discrown themselves more lamentably, since the crown they repudiate is a heavenly one; and they go more irremediably astray, for earth without heaven cannot find the path of its orbit, nor the influences that give it fruitfulness."

This quote reminds us that understanding how to live on earth requires that we know about God, who created the earth.  Our deepest questions about why we are here and what we are supposed to do are only answerable with reference to heaven in the same way that we would only attempt a long journey with someone who could tell us how to navigate the path.

Like most of you, my quest for theological knowledge will need to be started mostly on the basis of faith because I am by no means a theologian.  We can have great confidence, though, that learning about God will bear abundant fruit.

*quotes are from "The Field of Work," section I.

The study plan - philosophy

"Just as no particular branch of knowledge is self sufficing so all branches together are not self-sufficing without the queen of knowledge, philosophy."  High praise for a discipline that many of us have encountered as confused and obscure rather than deep and clear.  The Intellectual has in mind the philosophy adopted by St. Thomas and not the type of vain philosophy most of us studied in college.

We may need to do a lot of unlearning and relearning in our study of philosophy because the "philosophies" of our time have seeped into our way of thinking through our experiences and language.**  For instance, we may find it very difficult to conceive of totally immaterial "principles," such as form and matter, which are the backbone of philosophy of nature in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.  Most of us have subconsciously inherited the materialistic idea that all things, even ideas, can be reduced to little balls or atoms.  This idea is then reinforced by our conscious thought which rarely sees a need for a new paradigm because we rarely need to consider philosophical questions like, "what is change" or "what does it mean to exist."

In determining how to study philosophy and from whom, exercise great caution because there are many good people teaching deceptive philosophy.  Also, philosophy forms the foundation of your entire intellectual edifice, so it is worth heading St. Thomas's echo of Aristotle's warning that "a small mistake in the beginning, is a big one in the end."***

Now that the alarm has been sounded loud enough, why is philosophy so important?  Simply put, philosophy provides knowledge of the first principles or causes of everything, meaning all the other disciplines.  Before we can study what the causes of a particular historical event were, we need to understand what a cause is!  In order to relate economic principles to first principles, we need to know what a principle is and what the first principles are!  Only in this way can we know our field of specialty from its roots.  This helps us avoid serious errors in our specialized study that we will be unconscious of because we don't have the philosophical framework to recognize the error.  For instance, many financiers applaud the firing of employees in a healthy company because profits will quickly increase making the company "healthier."  The reality of how job cuts affect a company and its current and past employees, however, is much richer than this "profit calculus."  This hypothetical financier has, perhaps, given more importance to profit than persons in his "intellectual framework" despite the fact that he understands that people are more important than money in a general way.

Without a grounding in true philosophy, there will be disorder in thought.  A problem, which the catholic intellectual must remedy not exacerbate.  "If the intellectual Catholic belongs to his time, he can do nothing better than work, for his part, at restoring the order that we lack."

*quotes are from "The Field of Work," section I.
**For a more thorough description of this phenomenon, please see the chapter called "The Greatest Resource -- Education" in E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful.
***De Ente et Essentia

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The study plan - why breadth

The Intellectual advises both breadth and depth at the outset of the intellectual life.  This may seem contradictory, but only apparently so because breadth is advice against specialization, while depth paradoxically allows for more breadth.  What Sertillanges means by breadth or "comparative study," is "widening our special work through bringing it into touch with all kindred disciplines."  What I believe he has in mind practically is that the economist, for example, should thoroughly know Catholic Social Thought, the philosophies that pertain most to economics, the historical circumstances that produced modern economics, the statistical know-how to engage other economists, etc.  Wall Street is a clear example of historical ignorance, or at least blindness, as the continual cycle of booms and busts still confounds everyone despite the clear historical evidence that economies are cyclical.

There are plenty of reasons for "comparative study."  Sertillanges cites a few: the connections between disciplines, the biases of each discipline, motivation of the intellectual and the example of great intellectuals.  We all understand the interconnection between disciplines and that great intellectuals were people who mastered many areas. But, it is worth reviewing the Intellectual's list of biases for each discipline:

"Mathematics by themselves warp the judgment...physics, chemistry, obsess you by their complexity and give no breadth to the mind...physiology leads to materialism, astronomy to vague speculation; geology turns you into a nosing hound, literature makes you hollow, philosophy inflates you, theology hands you over to false sublimity and magisterial pride."

While I cannot speak from experience about the biases that Sertillanges asserts about all the disciplines, I can recall conversations with economists in which philosophical questions came up and were ignored as unscientific or "scary." This leads to economists boiling down the individual into a "profit maximizer" ignoring the infinitely complex reality that is the human person. E.F. Schumacher explains this beautifully in his essay "Buddhist Economics" in Small is Beautiful.

It's worth looking more closely at how greater depth leads to more breadth.  "By approaching the center of all ideas, everything is simplified."  In other words, if we aim for the fundamental principles of a discipline, then different disciplines start to converge and we begin to see similarities.  "The different branches of knowledge are the different languages...and to decipher several of these languages helps each of them, for at bottom they are one."  I cannot speak directly to this phenomenon because I have not experienced it in a deep way, but I can say that even a superficial study of different subjects reveals patterns that apply across disciplines.

*quotes are from "The Field of Work" section I

Friday, September 13, 2013

The study plan - first steps

Long before I set my copy of The Intellectual Life down, I got a strong feeling that putting a study plan together was not going to be easy.  But, it wasn't so hard as my fearful, melancholic temperament would have me believe either.  In the end, I settled on this preliminary plan: Socratic Logic by Peter Kreeft, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  I'm hoping to add something about the history of the industrial revolution in Europe because I believe this will complement my study of the Church's Social Doctrine, which will form the foundation for my specialty in economics and finance.  Yes, Pride and Prejudice is conspicuously absent from this list, but I've been trying to reduce my intake since I read Sertillanges' critique of novels.

Sertillanges laid down several principles about what to study in his chapter on "The Field of Work" that I pieced together to come up with this preliminary plan.  Although I plan to go into greater detail about these principles, its worth mentioning them now in the context of how I selected this plan to give you a sense of the whole before diving into the parts.  The Intellectual, as perhaps we should call Sertillanges, puts an emphasis on quickly acquiring a "body of directive ideas forming a whole,"* which means mastering St. Thomas.  But, before jumping into the Summa, you need to acquire a philosophical background and "to inform yourself exactly of the content of the faith."

So, philosophy and the content of the faith before St. Thomas.  Finding a source for the content of the faith was easy, of course, but the question of where to start in philosophy was not so straightforward.  I have taken classes in Logic, Philosophy of Nature, Metaphysics, etc., so I have some background in Philosophy, which was helpful in thinking through where to start in that area.  In the end, I settled on Logic as the first topic in Philosophy because it provides the tools that all the other topics are going to use--how to make an argument, how to formulate a definition, and countless other questions are answered by Logic.  Plus, I was familiar with Peter Kreeft's book from my Logic class and I knew that it would provide an excellent refresher in other areas like philosophy of nature and metaphysics.  I can't say that I thoroughly researched the Logic books available and settled on Peter Kreeft's book, but I was so impressed with the book during my Logic class that I didn't feel the need to find another one.

In terms of the third topic, this is definitely going to vary from person to person depending on you area of focus.  On the other hand, I don't think I would be departing from the spirit of the Intellectual when I recommend starting with a basic text in your field.  Perhaps it's something that you already read, or that everybody has already read.  This could be a good time to really read that book.  Also, I have chosen three topics, but that number is a minimum more than a particular recommendation.  Hopefully, this brief explanation will give you a sense of how to lay out your study plan.  More to come!

*"The Field of Work," section II.

The study plan - aims

The aim of the preliminary study plan is to acquire "as early as possible even at starting if it may be, a body of directive ideas forming a whole, and capable, like a magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge."  The tangible output of this task is a "personal summa."

In my opinion, the "body of directive ideas forming a whole" is one of the most attractive fruits of the intellectual life because it provides an intellectual foundation, which helps guard against the myriad internal and external influences that chip away at our most dearly held convictions.  And, as I mentioned in my first post, the desire for an intellectual framework, was one of my motives for reading The Intellectual Life.

Although we feel a certain urgency when we read, "as early as possible," The Intellectual has in mind a thorough knowledge of Thomistic thought requiring "four hours a week...for the five or six years needed to form the mind."  Sertillanges is an unequivocal champion of Thomism in the area of "directive ideas," and given the Church's endorsement of Thomas, it seems hard to argue with him.

While Sertillanges doesn't explicitly say that the "body of directive ideas" is the "personal summa," I think that he wouldn't object to considering them as analogous.  "Every man who thinks and really desires to know can try to establish his personal Summa, that is to introduce order into his knowledge by an appeal to the principles of order."  No small feet to be sure.  A few days ago, I attended a question and answer session with a Catholic intellectual in economics and the questions reflected a clear expectation that the intellectual would have an articulate comment on a range of topics including recent statements by Pope Francis on conscience.  The bar for the catholic intellectual is very high in the mind of your average layman.

Creating your "personal summa" requires that, as you proceed through each article of the real Summa, you "draw up your own article."  A tall order to be sure and, since I haven't started on the Summa, one which I'm not sure is completely feasible.  This exercise requires a liberal use of the articles that your article draws from.  Many editions of the Summa will have these references in the margins to facilitate the work required to situate a particular article of the Summa within a proper context.  While the effort of this exercise is great, the payoff is a mind with "flexibility, vigour, precision, breadth, hatred of sophistry and of inexactitude," while ensuring "a progressively increasing store of notions that will be clear, deep, consecutive, always linked up with their first principles and forming by their inter-adaptation a sound synthesis."  What more could you ask for!

*quotes are from "The Field of Work," sections I and II.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Determining your focus

When it comes to determining where to specialize in the intellectual life, Sertillanges doesn't offer any special advice because his aim is different.  But, since determining my special focus was not straightforward, I thought I would offer a few thoughts that could help you if you're trying to determine yours.

If you're reading this post, I would imagine that you're in one of two situations.  Either you're deciding in general what specialty to select - Law, Economics, English, whatever.  Or, you're trying to decide within a particular specialty.  There are many ways to approach this complicated decision and my advice here is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a contribution to the chorus of voices available on this point.

Let your history of professional and academic interests guide you.

This may seem like an obvious point, but I think that it is often overlooked or at least under-appreciated when the wheels of anxiety are turning.  Perhaps my story can be illustrative.

I was preparing for a phone conversation with a friend of mine at the University of Dallas precisely about The Intellectual Life and I was hoping that he would indulge my penchant for fantasy by talking with me about all the interesting fields of expertise I had considered over the past few weeks.

"I love Pride and Prejiduce.  Maybe I should study Literature. Or, perhaps write the great American Novel."

Instead, he gently guided me towards the more obvious solution - economics and in particular finance.  Of course, if you saw my CV, you would say, Duh!, but I wanted to overlook that temporarily in favor of getting my imagination all worked up about what could be.

Now, there's quite a bit of common and spiritual sense in letting your history of professional and academic interests guide you.  God puts us where we are for a very specific reason and his providence aligns events perfectly for the mission that he has for us.  And, thankfully, he has taken all your and my foibles and indecisiveness into account!  Take a look at where God has led you professionally, academically or otherwise and follow this path to its logical conclusion.

"But," you might respond, "the intellectual life is supposed to be a professional change, a break from my regular work.  Why would I want to dig into the same field in greater depth?"

For starters, your ability to get started in a field that you're somewhat familiar with is going to be much easier than the alternative.  You'll know more people in that area and have an idea of who the major thinkers are.  That aversion that you have to pursuing the "logical choice" may be based on your dissatisfaction with your field, which is understandable.  This dissatisfaction may be a sign, not that you need to abandon the field altogether, but rather that you might be called to make a contribution towards improving your field.

Of course, these sorts of reflections can only take you so far, but they hopefully will eliminate a lot of the imaginings that distracted me from accepting my area of focus.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Confessions about confession

I go to confession to cheat.  Unfortunately, this hasn't always been the case.  Sometimes ignorance is burden not bliss.

A month ago I was in the throws of a not atypical work induced depression.  The typical unexplained anxieties - fear of receiving an email, over-thinking every conversation capped off with a deep desire to leave the office.

Amidst all this chaos, I got the idea (from the Holy Spirit, no doubt) to mention in confession that I was sinning against the virtue of cheerfulness.  I certainly didn't want to be depressed, but that doesn't change the fact that I was depressed.  After all, cheerfulness is a virtue and I certainly was not living it.

Now, skeptics will ask me if it is a sin to be sad or depressed.  And, the answer is that it is complicated, which I know is not very satisfying, but in matters of conscience vague and right is better than specific and wrong.

I'll defer to St. Josemaria "You are unhappy? — Think: there must be an obstacle between God and me. You will seldom be wrong" (The Way 662).  Pinpointing the obstacle is not always easy nor is it necessary.  Sometimes we just need to tell our Lord that we are sad and we don't know why.  And, when we do this in the context of confession, you will see why it is called the sacrament of joy!

Back to our story.  Thursday was completely different from Wednesday.  I didn't feel like a pin cushion, getting pricked by every incoming email, look or word.  I was even able to endure forty minutes of "feedback," with a reasonable degree of interior composure.

Confession is a prime example of how Jesus' yolk can be easy, while at the same time "the way is hard that leads to life." (Mt. 7:14)  Confession made happiness easy, almost as easy as cheating. But, if I hadn't aimed for the hard way - cheerfulness ALWAYS - I would have accepted sadness as just an unavoidable part of life.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Intellectual Life

Just before Hurricane Sandy hit in NYC last year, my mind felt like my closet looked.  So, I searched for a book that would help to put my ideas in order and found, then inhaled The Intellectual Life by A.D. Sertillanges.

This long-dead, French monk reached out from the the book's dusty pages and hit me over the head with the grandeur of the intellectual vocation.  I knew intellectuals were important to society and was even considering a PhD, but I was cynical.  Wasn't the intellectual life posh conferences, esoteric papers, and excessive leisure?  Where's the good in that?  Now, I saw something beautiful and I wanted it!  But, I couldn't have it because I had no time.

Today, September 6, 2013, is a different story my friends.

The idea of this blog is to be (1) a journal of my attempt to live the intellectual life that Sertillanges describes and (2) a creative outlet.

I hope that these posts will inspire you to see the grandeur of your vocation no matter what it is.