Amalgamating Disparate Experience: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

“Amalgamating Disparate Experience”: John Donne and the Commonplace Book

I recently finished reading (really listening to) Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne, Super-Infinite. Having recently heard Rundell interviewed on Tyler Cowan’s podcast, I wish she would have narrated the audio book. The exuberance of her personality would have nicely matched her exuberant portrayal of Donne and his world.

I am working on idea for an essay about Donne and anthropology, but for now I wanted to note what Rundell has to say about Donne as keeper of a commonplace book. Donne was known as one of the great commonplacers of his age, and Rundell notes “that the first recorded use of the work ‘commonplacer’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is Donne’s.”

Here is how Rundell describes the commonplace book:

The commonplace book allowed readers to approach the world as a limitless resource; a kind of ever-ongoing harvesting. It was Erasmus, the Dutch scholar known as ‘the prince of the humanists’ who codified the practice. The compiler, he wrote, should ‘make himself as full a list of place-headings as possible’ to put at the top of each page: for instance, beauty, friendship, decorum, faith, hope, the vices and virtues. It was both a form of scholarship, and, too, a way of reminding yourself of what, as you moved through the world, you were to look out for: a list of priorities, of sparks and spurs and personal obsessions. Donne’s book must surely have had: angels, women, faith, stars, jealousy, gold, desire, dread, death.”

I’ve posted in the past about my own experience of keeping a commonplace book. What strikes me as completely true from her description is that knowing I had this book and a set of preoccupations helped me look at the world in a certain way. What I read, what I listened, what I watched, all had the potential to speak to me. The practice has always helped me foster some level of expectation and receptivity.

When I think back on the practice of commonplacing, I am sometimes even able to remember what I wrote down, even years ago, but more often than not the real benefit is reading back through what I have collected over the years. A few months ago I flipped through a set of notebooks from around ten years ago. There were all sorts of quotes about beauty, about perception, about epiphany, about the nature of divine revelation. Those quotes, I realize now, and the reading they represented were the seed bed of what became my doctoral work on theological aesthetics.

I used a horticultural image to describe commonplacing, but T.S. Eliot, speaking of Donne, uses more alchemical language, writing, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.”

Virgil and Daniel – Two Visions of Empire

“The search for God is not the search for comfort or tranquility, but for truth, for justice, faithfulness, integrity: these, as the prophets tirelessly reiterated, are the forms of God’s appearance in the world” from Nicholas Lash, “Creation, Courtesy, and Contemplation” in The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’

Does one read the Bible like any other book? R.W.L Moberly begins his The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith with this question. In exploring this question, Moberly works with a three-fold typology, based on what he takes to be the three main ways people read the bible–as history, as classic, and as Scripture. In each of the main chapters, Moberly offers comparative readings of the Aeneid, especially Book 1, and Daniel 7 as a way to explore these three approaches–history, classic, Scripture. So why is that we should read the Bible any differently than we read something like the Aeneid? It’s worth reading the whole book to see the ways he grapples with this question. Here I want summarize the contrastive reading he offers of Aeneid and Daniel 7 on the question of empire.

In Aeneid 1 Jupiter speaks of the coming Rome as a “limitless empire,” and in Daniel 7 the Ancient of Days promises “a kingdom that will not pass away.” So what is the difference? Moberly observes that Daniel’s vision stands in sharp contrast to the Roman vision of endless empire. In the vision of Daniel 7, the prophet beholds the bestial violence of earthly empires as they clash and jostle for supremacy. In contrast to this bestial violence, the promised “son of Man”, the truly human one, inherits a kingdom from the Ancient of Days. But in a strange ambiguity in the text, it seems that the kingdom entrusted to the son of man is then entrusted to holy ones, the saints of the earth. Because of their humanity these holy ones are able to resist the temptation to meet beastly force with beastly force. Beastly force must be met with a human serenity which itself rests on divine sovereignty.

The apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7 initially terrifies, both Daniel himself and any reader who dares to envision the horrifying parade of beastly empires. The horror and the violence these beasts perpetrate on the world and each other is all too real. It is precisely such bestial violence that Aeneid, if not commends (for Virgil is subtle in theses matters), at least inspired in Rome. For this reason the book of Daniel speaks acutely, both then and now, to the persecuted, to those who face the beastly. The encouragement is not to meet fire with fire, to fight a beast with beast, but to stay your eyes on true humanity, on the son of man, who resists the turn to the beastly, who refuses both coercion and violence.

As Moberly observes about Daniel, “the wider book portrays faithfulness and loyalty, and also wisdom, as the qualities of life expected for resisting the four beasts for as long as they have their dominion…A good case can be made for the thesis that the book of Daniel as a whole, in its own right, is subverting any straightforward notion of dominion and is reconceiving where, under the God of Israel, true power and dominion lie” (120;123).

And yet Christians have found the Virgilian vision of empire very tempting. In rehearsing the reception of Virgil by Christians, Moberly recognizes that throughout the history of the Church, “the vision of endless empire posed a particular temptation for Christians” (127). In other words there has always been a temptation to replace the Daniel 7 vision of human patience and faithfulness in the face of the beastly, with the Roman vision of conquering the world in the way of the beast.

But as Moberly rightly notes, these two visions cannot be conflated because they rest on different understandings of power:

“The ’unending dominion” of Daniel 7 thus is of a different order than the “limitless empire” of Aeneid 1, because Daniel 7 is not speaking of any prospect of power in the same way…The appeal of Daniel 7, however, appears to be less straightforward and more demanding. A positive appropriation of Daniel 7 would in principle entail a willingness at least to sympathize, and perhaps to identify, with a small and regularly oppressed people who have a strong commitment to faithfulness in adversity, and who through that faithfulness maintain confidence in the ultimate triumph of their vision of a just God" (128).

For the Christian the Daniel 7 vision of human resistance to the bestial forces of violence and coercion is only possible within a faithful community. It is only the faithful community, the church, who receives Daniel 7 as Scripture who can have any chance of living the kind of resistance it envisions. The Church, in other words, makes such living not only possible but first it makes it plausible. Using the Peter Berger’s sociological language of “plausibility structures,” with an ecclesial assist from Leslie Newbigin, Moberly describes the church as that faithful community: “The church functions as a plausibility structure not only through its contemporary witness but also through its persistence through the centuries in maintaining the importance of a particular way of God, the world, and ourselves” (156).

The church as plausibility structure is the place in which the Bible is received as Scripture. Though the Bible can be fruitfully read as history and as classic in virtually any context (even within the Church!), it can really only be read as Scripture within a communal context that not only receives it as Scripture but also tries to faithfully live it.

The Gospels as a Field of Vision and Field of Play

In “The Gospels for the Life of the World”, Ben Quash focuses on the mediation of Christ by the Spirit through the Scriptures, giving special attention to the generative possibilities of fresh encounters with the Gospels. While the Spirit of Christ mediates the presence of Christ through the Scriptures and through the Gospels, people generally and the Church especially must accept the responsibility of faithfully receiving this mediation. The task of receiving the gospels and reading the gospels is an invitation into the on-going interpretation and enacting of the gospels.

The Spirit works to meditate and we must work to receive and interpret. The Spirit must continue the work of unfurling the meaning of the Gospels because their meaning is superabundant, both inexhaustible in themselves and in need of constant appropriation and reception in every time and place. As Quash puts it,

“We may expect certain qualities in the gospels in order that they will be suited to the Spirit’s work of gradual mediation. To lend themselves to the Spirit’s unfolding, they must first be, so to speak, folded texts. They must be texts that ‘keep on giving’ over time. They must be immensely, if not infinitely, generative of new and transformative insight: rich, dense, full of implications (implicatio being the Latin word for ‘foldedness’).”

The Gospels’ meaning was not locked in time for the people to whom they were initially addressed. To accept that the Spirit continues to unfold the meaning of the Gospels is to simultaneously accept that these texts are addressed to us and to those who will come after us just as much as they were addressed to those who first received them.

Moreover, in their superabundance the Gospels are both iconic and ironic. The gospels are first iconic because they display the multifarious glory of Christ. Using Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, a tapestry that hangs in Coventry Cathedral, to illuminate this point, Quash argues that the four gospels must be taken together. In the tapestry, in accord with biblical imagery, the four beasts surrounding Christ represent the four gospels, and the space that they open up between them is the space in which we are able to behold Christ. While each individual gospel displays Christ, the four gospels taken together create an entire field of vision in which to behold him.

In addition to being a field of vision, it is also a field of play, for the four-fold witness of the gospels invites both interpretation and participation. The space they open between them, Quash says, pulling from Balthasar’s theodramatics, is a “Spielraum”–an acting area. It is not just a space of understanding, but a place of enactment, and more literally a space of play (spiel).

The gospels are also ironic because they, as Quash puts, “slip the frame”, they point beyond themselves as texts, and so invite generative encounter. Quash writes, “There is an apparent self-consciousness in the gospels by which they both acknowledge the specifics of an original narrative context and also anticipate an indeterminate number of future ones. They promise to seek ‘readers’ who will ‘understand’ wherever and whenever they may be.” The gospels wink at the reader, in other words, and that wink is an invitation to interpretation and participation. Rather than seeking to define once and for all the meaning of them within the world they came from, the task is to allow the gospels to slip out of themselves into the world we inhabit and so transform it.

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

Not speed, not breadth, but purpose – On the Purposive Intellect of Abraham Lincoln

“The prime quality of his mind was not speed—which in the different world a century and more later would be thought to be almost the defining feature of intelligence. It also was not breadth—the embrace of the best that has been thought and said in the world of learned persons, which Thomas Jefferson aspired to—or instant knowledge of the inner details of public affairs of the twentieth-century policy wonk. Lincoln’s mind instead cut deeply, perhaps slowly or at least with effort and concentrated attention, into a relatively few subjects. It was purposive—personally, politically, morally.” Walter Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography

Discussing the value of reading biographies, Cal Newport recently mentioned this biography of Lincoln on his podcast. I was instantly intrigued by the idea of an ethical biography. More than offering yet another sketch of Lincoln’s life, Miller seeks to account for Lincoln’s moral formation and to explore the reasons for and the consequences of his moral choices. In the podcast Newport drew a parallel between Lincoln’s purposive intellect and the three principles of his model for deep productivity—do fewer things; do this work at a slower pace; obsess over quality.

I’m struck by the idea of a purposive intellect, particularly as it stands in contrast to a quick intellect. Miller observes that different ages value different dimensions of the intellect, and he is certainly right to say that our age most praises speed. If you asked me outright to say which of these three I aspired to, I would probably say that I desired breadth. But if you probed that answer just a bit further, you would find that what I really want is breadth quickly, to master a lot of material, yes, but to master it quickly. What I really value then is speed. The ultimate version of this to my mind is the gnostic fantasy about learning in The Matrix. That one could learn kung fu, or anything for that matter with the speed and ease of a download is nothing but fantasy, but that fantasy grows out of the idolization of not just speed but of computers as ideal minds. We want to learn the way a computer “learns.” A computer may be fast, but it cannot be purposive the way described here, no matter what one thinks of AI.

One consequence of idolizing the speed of a mind? If speed is the primary attribute we praise, then to admit slowness or to intentionally attempt slowness, as if it were good to slow down, amounts to a confession—I am not smart (at least in the way the age currently defines or values it). If the videos YouTube suggests to me about reading more, more quickly are any indication, I must have more than a passing interest in speed and the attendant anxiety that I am not fast enough. But a purposive mind is slow by design, or if not slow at least deliberate. It distrusts quickness for the sake of quickness.

What are the qualities of a purposive intellect? The purposive mind works like a plow. As Miller says of Lincoln, “His was a mind inclined to plow down to first principles and to hold to them—not as a metaphysician does, abstracting from particulars and spinning great webs of speculation, linking abstraction to abstraction, but as a lawyer, a politician, a moralist does at his or her best: by tenaciously analyzing one’s way through the particulars, seeking the nub of the matter.” Though this is true as far as it goes, I would push the image further. One does not plow simply to turn over the ground. One plows the earth in order to prepare it to bring forth new life. The plowman follows slowly as the the long steady furrows cut into the earth. With each step the earth turns up rich soil that can cradle and give life to a seed. The purposive mind is therefore generative. The purposive is also tenacious. As Lincoln said of himself, “My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible thereafter to rub it out.”

Of course, these three qualities, speed, breadth, purpose, are not comprehensive, nor do they necessarily exclude each other. Think of a mind given to both speed and purpose. Mozart comes to mind as an example. He not only produced so much, so quickly but also so much of lasting value. Breadth and purpose readily also go together, while St. Thomas Aquinas seems to be a stunning example of someone who possessed all three. His was a mind that was quick and supple, a mind absolutely steeped in the breadth of the tradition, but also a mind that worked with great purpose.

(If you click the tag for intellectual life on this blog, you will find many posts dedicated to exploring various aspects of what the intellectual life is and what it entails, and more than a few posts sketching the main lines of The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges.)

Vocation as Summons – What does ecstasy have to do with calling?

Vocation and Ecstasy

“Vocation calls for response which, in one effort to surmount self, hears and consents” (xxi). Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

I want to take a pause from reflecting on what Sertillanges has to say about reading and loop back to the beginning of the book and draw out some of his thoughts about the intellectual life itself and in particular the summons to the intellectual life. His thoughts on vocation are interesting in themselves, but what I find most fascinating is the way he consistently discusses vocation and ecstasy together. For him they are twined themes because both are a summons for the self to move outside the self. To answer the call, to respond to vocation, one must move beyond the self, and this is literally the nature of ecstasy, ek-stasis, the self moving out of the self toward the object of desire, in this case Truth. The pursuit of truth is the telos of the intellectual life, and from Sertillanges’ point of view, whether one is a theologian or a physicist, both are after the same thing, Truth with a capital T. And this quest for truth is not simply one of duty but one of delight as well. As he puts it, “Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy; only in the second place does the talent of arrangement, the technique of transitions, connection of ideas, construction, comes into play. Now, what is this ecstasy but a flight upwards, away from self, a forgetting to live our own poor life, in order that the object of our delight may live in our thought and in our heart?” (xix).

One reason I’m interested in this idea is because in my doctoral research I’m looking at some of the things Hans Urs von Balthasar has to say about ecstasy as it relates to beauty. Ecstasy, ek-stasis, as I said requires the movement of the self out of the self toward the object of desire. Both Sertillanges and Balthasar agree on this but approach the question from two different starting points. Sertillanges insists on the ecstatic nature of Truth, while Balthasar insists on the ecstatic nature of Beauty. Both are looking at the same question from different angles, namely the question of Being, and its constituent transcendentals—Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. In Balthasar’s image each of the three transcendentals are different doorways into the cathedral of Being, and right contemplation of Being is a part toward knowledge of God.

On the question of Truth and its relation to Being, Sertillanges makes this seemingly startling statement when he asserts, “the quasi-incarnation of God in being, of eternal Truth in every separate instance of the truth, should also lead up to a heavenly ecstasy.” (131) One might be taken aback by the incarnation language, but what he says is perfectly aligned with St. Thomas and much of the theological tradition. He is saying in effect that every instance of truth participates in Truth, and the Truth is constitutive of Being itself. What Sertillanges says is really just a riff on St. Thomas, whom is the master theologian of ecstasy: “For St. Thomas, ecstasy is the child of love; it carries you out of yourself, toward the object of your dreams. To love truth ardently enough to concentrate on it and so be transported into the universal, into the heart of abiding truths, is the attitude of contemplation and of fruitful production. One is then in a sense like the animal in the forest, concentrated, watchful, crouching with his eye on his prey; and the inner life is intense, but with a sense of distance as if one were moving among the stars. One feels at once delivered from all trammels and yet enchained, free and enslaved; one is fully oneself in surrounding to what is above self; one exults while forgetting self: it is a nirvana in which the intelligence is intensely happy and active” (133).

What we all want it ecstasy and what is important here is the necessity of contemplation. Contemplation is the fundamental act of the intellectual life, and without it there can be no summons, no vocation, no ecstasy, because contemplation is the posture of receptivity, what Sertillanges referred to in the reading section as docility. We cannot hear a call, a summons, if we do not have ears to hear. Contemplation is a path outs of the self towards the other, and so is a path of love. As a path of love, it is also a path of joy: “According to the Angelic Doctor, contemplation begins in love and ends in joy; it begins in the love of the object and the love of knowledge as an act of life; it ends in the joy of ideal possession and of the ecstasy it causes” (255). Ideal possession means to receive things in the manner that they are meant to be received, to love things in the manner in which they are meant to be loved, and one can only come to know such things through contemplation.

Four Kinds of Reading – More thoughts from The Intellectual Life

As I keep writing through The Intellectual Life, I’m struck how positively I respond to his approach to reading, which might in some ways seem heavy handed. Why do I even need his advice? After all, I’ve done a far bit of reading in my life already, and in some ways, I should already have settled some of these questions. And I suppose if somebody would have have asked me, I could have delineated some of my own approaches to reading, and what I would have said wouldn’t have differed substantially from what he suggests, even though my thoughts would not have been as systematic or as probing as his.

What I find most helpful, I think is having a typology, having categories that I can test my own approaches and experiences with reading against. And a typology of reading is precisely what Sertillanges offers. Like all typologies, it isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t account for borderline cases, meaning there is reading that bleeds from one category into another, or reading that is one type in a particular season and then becomes another type in another season. In any case, I’m happy for the categories if only as a heuristic to think through what I’m reading and why, and perhaps more importantly what I’m not reading and why.

In his typology, Sertillanges delineates four kinds of reading. But before listing the four types of reading, it is important to remember his framework. He is discussing reading in terms of the intellectual life and seeking to articulate how reading can best serve the quest for truth. Reading for him is directed toward that end. Certainly there are other kinds of reading, or other reasons to read, but these four types are meant to serve the vocation of the intellectual life.

So what are the four kinds of reading? “One reads for one’s formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation. There is fundamental reading, accidental reading, stimulating or edifying reading, recreative reading.” Additionally, each kind of reading demands different things of the reader. “Fundamental reading demands docility, accidental reading demands mental mastery, stimulating reading demands earnestness, recreative reading demands liberty” (152).

All these kinds of reading are worth exploring, but I want to discuss fundamental reading in depth. One way to distinguish fundamental reading from accidental reading is that while accidental reading demands our mastery, fundamental reading demands that we be mastered by the reading itself. This is what he means by docility, for in fundamental reading we submit ourselves to the intellectual masters of a given field. In fundamental reading we apprentice ourselves to great minds, in order to learn the craft of thinking. In fundamental reading we learn way finding in the quest for truth. And for these reasons, “the choice of intellectual father is always a serious thing” (153).

He argues that for a given topic there are probably 3 or 4 such authors to be concerned with, who will most fundamentally form our thought on a given topic. Although I wonder how true this outside of disciplines like theology and philosophy, I do think that there are authors that provide the intellectual scaffolding for the rest of your reading in a topic, so that when you turn to accidental reading, we read through the lens of the masters. When we apprentice ourselves to a great mind, we are not just learning to read but also how to think.

Sertillanges’ master is clearly Thomas Aquinas, and with even a passing acquaintance with Thomas, one can see how Sertillanges has absorbed pithiness and clarity from him. And yet he is not simply parroting his master. His own voice emerges as he seeks to think Thomas’s thoughts after him in his present circumstances. And that is what becomes his original contribution, to bring Thomas’s way of thinking, his way of questing for truth to bear on his own moment.

I’m again left reacting as I did before. When I read these prescriptive guidelines, at first I bristle. I bristle at the idea of docility, but then I recognize that whether I want that to be true or not, it has been true. Those thinkers that I first submitted myself to have for better or worse become my masters. There is imminent wisdom here. First, because time is limited, we have to make choices, we have to decide who and what matters most. We can’t read everything, so the question becomes who will we submit our minds to. Who will we allow to form us?

Second, when I think of every important thinker I know of, they each have an intellectual master. Each have apprenticed themselves to a master craftsman. Even if they have moved beyond their master. Even if they have rejected their master, they never the less have been formed by their master. Without Socrates, no Plato. Without Plato, no Aristotle. Without Aristotle, no Aquinas. Without MacDonald and Chesterton, no Lewis. And so on and so on.

Reading and Trying to Stay “Current” – More Reflections on The Intellectual Life

I’m continuing my reflections on The Intellectual Life by A.E. Sertillanges. You can read the first two posts here and here

After speaking of reading as a kind of food, Sertillanges discusses the temptation to stay current in our reading, especially reading about current affairs, and he makes this pun: “No current can take you to the point you aim at reaching” (148). He says that most people in the effort to stay current are swept away by the current. This picture and its attendant warnings seems especially potent in light of the ever present danger of being swept away by the streams of information we find ourselves swimming in. If information is a “feed”, then be careful of overfeeding at the trough. If information is a “current”, then be careful of being swept away, or worse still, be careful of drowning. 

So what to do? What does Sertillanges recommend? “A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily newspapers when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.” (149) Interestingly, I’ve head very similar advice in our current environment, and it is striking to me that Sertillanges made his warnings in the the 1940’s. So while we may face unique challenges in terms of both sheer volume and ease of access, there seems to be a perpetual temptation to staying current and being in the know.

But what really challenges me is what he has to say about silence. “Never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence” (149). Yes, indeed. Reading is not itself reflection; it only sets the table for possible reflection. However, it is so easy to say that reading is refection itself, so the goal becomes reading itself, consuming as an end in itself, and not processing and producing on the basis of the reading.

The admonition for silence is well worth noting. Silence is not nothing. Silence is a generative space. Benedict XVI said something similar to a group of theologians, reminding them that the speaking and teaching of words, especially words about God, must be steeped in silence: “Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian. This is his mission in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora of words, to make the essential words heard. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.” (Homily at Eucharistic Concelebration with the members of the International Theological Commission, qtd. in Fire of Mercy: Heart of the Word, Vol. III by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis)

Nevertheless, though I heed Sertillanges’s warnings, especially as it relates to digital reading, they can seem a bit paternalistic, as if I cannot control myself as a reader, which is a funny thought. If taken too literally, these prescriptions could seriously undermine serendipitous reading that leads one further along the path. But I take the central point very seriously, especially related to the reflections in the first post, that reading and reading and reading, can first of all be an excuse to not do what really needs to be done, can second of all be excessive in a way that dulls rather than sharpens the mind, and third of all can keep one from silence, which is always where the real work is done. And reading can be a din, a droning distraction from that essential work of silence.

In the context of the intellectual life, there is always a great temptation to believe that what you have read is what matters most. Sertillanges says no. It is rather your discretion about what you read and why you read and what you do with what you have read that matters most. And it is silent reflection that matters most of all. Similarly, for the pastor who wants to preach in light of the best exposition and best scholarship, the question looms, when do I turn to commentaries? But S. would challenge the pastor to ask a very different question, “How much silence have I practiced?”

On Reading Less – Why deep reading is about intimacy

I want to continue reflecting on The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges by further exploring what he has to say about reading. In the previous post, I looked at his notion that in the intellectual life reading is proximate to and preparation for work. So if that is true, it implies that one must be careful of ones reading.

Reading is such an important topic for anyone who does intellectual work. And because it is important, there is a lot of advice related to it, and where there is advice, there is often anxiety. PhD students harbor deep seated anxieties about many things, but there seems to be an almost universal anxiety around reading. Among PhD students anxiety about having not read enough, both in terms of breadth and in terms of depth, runs rampant. Does my reading show that I know the field? Have I read deeply and widely enough? Have I read the right people in the right way? How much do I read before I write? Take all these questions and situate them within a thinking community, within a specific department, at a specific university, where there are right and wrong people to read and right and wrong ways to read them, and the anxiety only compounds.

These are not unimportant questions, but they can paralyze more than they free one to do the work that needs to be done. To such people, what advice does Sertillanges offer? “The first rule” he says, “is to read little” (146). And why read little? Because reading is like food, and reading too much can lead to “the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort” (146).

Ah, easy familiarity, I know you well. And how often I settle for you instead of hard won intimacy. In intellectual pursuits, intimacy may not be the first or even the last concept that comes to mind, but it is important to reflect on when discussing not just reading, but the whole life of the mind. In theology in particular we don’t simply explore ideas, but apprentice ourselves to great minds, to those who have gone before, and to gain true understanding of them requires a depth of not just intellectual but emotional investment. To take on someone’s thinking, to let it in, to try it on, to consider it first on its own terms—these are intimate things.

And here I think is another reason to read little and to read wisely. In economic terms, reading is an enormous investment of time and energy, which means that in reading we must consider opportunity cost. Reading one thing means I am not reading another, or to put it in terms of the Information Age, in reading anything I am choosing not to read everything. To continue the economic metaphor, some books are worth the investment and some are not. Some are worth a little time, worth what Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book calls an inspectional read . And there are some books, some authors that reward every moment that you can give them. These are the books worth reading well, reading deeply, reading again. On the Incarnation is such a book. The Confessions is such a book. For me, Hans Urs von Balthasar has become the great mind that I am apprenticing myself to and investing deep effort into understanding. Sertillanges insists, and I have found this to be true, that the blessing of learning from great minds is that in understanding them you also come to understand so much else as well.

Reading little doesn’t simply mean reading less material, though on some level it does mean that. It means primarily reading select authors and books more and other things less or not at all. But how do I choose? This is the question that has launched a thousand book lists and has generated a million questions about what does and does not constitute a great book. I hope to get into some of these questions in later posts, but for now, I think there are some simple questions to question. The first question is who are the great minds in the field I hope to consider. This is not the question of who matters right now but rather a question of who has made a mark, not simply made a splash. There are trends, currents in every field, and we must at least be tangentially aware of them, but there are thinkers, writers, and books that are trend-proof, that endure, and I think there is wisdom in starting with these books

Our communities also help us choose, and this can be for good or for ill. It is worth thinking through what is read and what is not read in a given community and to ask why. As Sertillanges observes, “We never think alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.” This is by and large a wonderful blessing. I will admit that I have friends who do certain kinds of reading for me, meaning, I rely on them to tell me about books that might interest me but that I will never have time to read myself. I also rely on them to help direct my attention to things, to people, and to ideas that I might have missed otherwise.

But perhaps the most penetrating take away for me from this section is that reading less means starting to get ruthless about certain kinds of reading, and starting to curtail or eliminate those kinds of reading. One of the things that Sertillanges believes we could all use less of is news. I will take up his thoughts on staying “current” in the next post.

Is reading work? Thoughts from The Intellectual Life

“Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production.” A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

Over the course of a few posts, I want to point to some of the wisdom that I gleaned from The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges. I first encountered the book in Cal Newport’s Deep Work, but I didn’t pick it up at that time. I wished I would have. Though Deep Work was very helpful to me at a time when I was deeply distracted and needed some more structure around my work, and though I still use Cal Newport’s time blocking techniques to schedule my time, Sertillanges writes from within the Christian intellectual tradition, so his book is more than technique, more than helpful hints for “getting things done” by overcoming distraction, and, most importantly, more than a vague exhortation toward “creating value”. Rather Sertillanges offers a vision of truth, and in lifting up that vision he spurs those who read him to seek truth by enumerating the means by which we can best undertake that quest.

The book is essentially an extended commentary on a letter St. Thomas sent to a fellow Dominican entitled Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasures of Knowledge. And The Intellectual Life is Thomist through and through. It offers a vision of a world of order, a world of virtue and vice, a world where ideas like vocation are not just a modern gloss for personal passion. Through his commentary on these precepts, Sertillanges grounds the intellectual life in the spiritual and contemplative quest for truth, which for Sertillanges is the quest for God. But the book is not just for theologians, and certainly not just for academics. The book is for anyone set on acquiring knowledge, on seeking truth.

I decided to read the book when a friend of mine, Aaron Jeffrey, mentioned Sertillanges in the context of thinking about vocation in general, and specifically in the context of the intellectual vocation of the pastor/theologian. I’m very grateful to Aaron for the recommendation. The book has been deeply affirming to me, but also deeply challenging. It has especially challenged my understanding of reading, which is why I started with the quote above. Even though it comes from the middle of the book, I want to start here because his discussion of reading encouraged me to start writing through his book as a way of turning reading into production and challenged me to turn more of my reading into something, to produce as he says.

Concerning reading and the quote above, here is what I took from him, and I think it has something to say to any of us who spend a good chunk of time reading and to any of us who do intellectual work. In the intellectual life there is no possibility of real work without real reading, but reading is not the real work. As Sertillanges has it, reading is not production itself but proximate to it. To read is to prepare to produce. In other words, reading is not meant to be an end in and of itself; it is meant to be generative. Reading is meant to beget.

It may seem that he minimizes reading with this statement, but really he is reframing what reading is by saying what reading is for. There is a progression. First we learn, especially by reading, and then we produce. But learning is not itself production, and therefore reading is not itself production either. Now he is not saying that reading doesn’t involve work. If we think of work as expending effort, reading certainly costs something. Reading well is especially costly—it cost time and energy most of all, but also the opportunity cost of not doing something else instead. And for those for whom reading is especially cumbersome, it certainly feels like work. But in the context of the intellectual life and vocation, we can’t stop simply after we have read. We must ask, what might this reading beget? How might this reading be generative in the quest for truth?

What challenges me about this is that there is a real and meaningful distinction between learning and between production. For so long, I’ve thought of myself solely as a student, so learning was production, the work was to learn. But now as a pastor and as doctoral student, the task is to produce, and reading must serve that production. So now teaching becomes a means of production. Writing becomes a means of production. I read now, primarily, in order to teach and in order to write. (I’ll have something to say in a later post about what he calls reading for diversion and about pleasure in reading).

I began with this quote because this statement sets up much else of what he has to say about reading, especially why we ought to be careful of what we read and careful of how much we read. There is something in my that bristles against these prohibitions, but when I think of what he says in light of an intellectual life with the aim of producing work, I know that he is on to something. Also, thinking of reading as a means to something helps me think of my reading as moving me somewhere rather than as a destination unto itself, and so it pushes me to avoid reading that is for reading’s sake. If we think of reading as work itself, as productive in and of itself, then we can be pulled into an endless vortex of reading. If we read for the sake for reading, then reading begets more reading instead of reading begetting work.