Over the weekend, I started a superb little book recommended by our Senior Editor, Onsi Kamel, entitled The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods. It’s by A.G. Sertillanges (1863-1948), a French Catholic philosopher, and a Dominican. It’s a fairly short guide in how to order your life if you feel called to an intellectual or scholarly vocation (either full-time, or alongside a trade or profession). As the subtitle suggests, it encompasses both “big picture stuff” and practial wisdom.
As Sertillanges concludes his first chapter, he expounds this point: the intellectual belongs to his time. However grounded he is in a past tradition, and however aspirational he may be for the future, the intellectual must seek to serve his neighbour here and now.
Sertillanges’s prose here (translated by Mary Ryan) is sublime, so let me get out of the way. He lays out the problem:
“Here I am, a man of the 20th century, living in a time of permanent drama, witnessing upheavals such as perhaps the globe never before saw since the mountains rose and the seas were driven into their caverns. What have I to do for this panting and palpitating century? More than ever before thought is waiting for men, and men for thought. The world is in danger for lack of life-giving maxims. We are in a train rushing ahead at top speed, no signals visible. The planet is going it knows not where, its law has failed it: who will give it back its sun?”
I wonder if there’s a hinted reference to Nietzsche in that last line, who, at the end of the 19th century compared the death of God to unchaining the earth from the sun. One feels now of course that the 21st century read this paragraph and said “hold my beer”.
If an intellectual is to meet the needs of the hour, Sertillanges argues, certain things must be excluded:
“It also excludes a certain archaeological tendency, a love of the past which turns away from present suffering, an esteem for the past which seems not to recognize the universal presence of God. Every age is not as good as every other, but all ages are Christian ages, and there is one which for us, and in practice, surpasses them all: our own. In view of it are our inborn resources, our graces of today and tomorrow, and consequently the efforts that we must make in order to correspond with them.” (emphasis mine)
The rhetorical force is strong here: in effect, the intellectual must act as if their age surpasses all others, even though, in reality, it may well not. Some ages, Sertillanges says, are clearly better than others. Yet, since God appoints our times and places, there is no point in pining after ages other than our own.
The temptations of the intellectual here are obvious. Any intellectual is, by necessity, a student of the thought of those who have come before, and must apprentice themselves to a certain stream or school of thought, usualy rooted in a certain time and place – this is simply how intellectuals are made. Among Christian intellectuals, it may be the Neoplatonists of Late Antiquity, the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, the Magisteral Reformers, or the Dutch Neo-Calvinists, or some other group. It becomes very easy (and we’ve all seen it) for those who apprentice themselves to the thought of a past era to romanticise or fetishise it, endlessly lamenting the loss of glory days of which they themselves were never even a part. And whilst they may become experts in the nuances and contours of a centuries-old thought-world, they make no use of it in navigating the one in which they begrudgingly find themselves.
Just notice this again: “All ages are Christian ages.” The pining after past ages of thought can be an even greater temptation for the Christian intellectual in a non-Christian age. Yet, with faith in the lordship of the risen and ascended Christ, the Christian intellectual must regard every age, regardless of the health of the visible church, as invisibly a Christian one. And these were strong words considering Sertillanges’ context – he wrote this having lived his life in secular France, experienced two world wars, and seen the rise of the godless USSR.
Sertillanges concludes with this exhortation:
“Let us not be like those people who always seem to be pallbearers at the funeral of the past. Let us utilize, by living, the qualities of the dead. Truth is ever new. Like the grass of the morning, moist with glistening dew, all the old virtues are waiting to spring up afresh. God does not grow old. We must help our God to renew, not the buried past and the chronicles of a vanished world, but the eternal face of the earth.”
I have little to add to paragraph like that – I merely wanted to present it to anyone interested who’s not read it before, who cares for the intellectual life of Christianity today. It reminds me of W.H. Auden: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”
If you see yourself as playing any kind of role in that intellectual life then all I can say is to get a hold of Sertillanges’ book. If you buy it here, the Davenant Institute gets a small commission for the recommendation.
And, if you suspect yourself of pallbearing the past, then drop the coffin and get busy.