“One does not need extraordinary gifts to carry some work through; average superiority suffices; the rest depends on energy and wise application of energy. It is as with a conscientious workman, careful and steady at his task: he gets somewhere, while an inventive genius is often merely an embittered failure.” (The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges, 8).
As we saw in the last post, vocation begins with a moment of ecstasy. This moment of ecstasy, this summons of the self out of the self towards the True, towards the Good, towards the Beautiful, is essential and necessary, but it is not sufficient. The ecstatic moment ignites, but cannot sustain the vocation itself, and this is where the work really begins.
The ecstatic moment can only provide a sense of what to work on, or at least a sense of what to move towards, but it cannot in itself provide the how. How will I move forward? How will I make progress? These questions take us into the very heart of the intellectual vocation, or really any vocation. Let’s say I want to be a sculptor. I’ve been carried away by some great work, enraptured by the possibilities of the medium. But now to begin. What must I do? What must I learn? Or even more basic, how do I hold this chisel? These are questions related to what Sertillanges means by the use of energy and the application of energy.
I’m particularly taken by the phrase the “wise application of energy”. It seems exactly right to me because it compactly summarizes something I’ve discovered about intellectual work. I’ve found that using the right time of day to do the right kind of tasks has a compounding effect on my work that little else does. An hour of hard reading, writing, and studying anytime before noon is equivalent to two or three hours of work in the afternoon, or maybe even four in the evening. This basically means I’m good for nothing in the evening in terms of intellectual work, so it’s a wiser application of energy at that point to spend time with my wife, my kids, enjoy a drink, read some fiction, watch some TV. My energy is neither infinite nor consistent across time, which means part of the work is to pay attention to my own crests and troughs and then make the most of them.
Moreover, since I am not just a student, but also a priest and a father and a dad, I’ve found that the wise application of energy is the only way to survive. But even more than survival, there is actually something freeing in having other things to do. Having other work can be freeing in its own way because the intellectual work, the quest for truth, becomes on one hand a place of freedom and play. Other work also brings clarity. With other obligations the time devoted to the work must be intensely guarded and intensely focused. The guarding of the time is in one sense the most difficult thing, at least for me. More than distractions themselves or the desire to do something else, I’ve found working on a PhD that often the most arduous task, and so the thing that so often sabotage me, is protecting the time that I need in order to do the work. Once I am in the space, after an initial bout of inertia, generally the work takes over.
The application of energy is also about pacing yourself, and I was struck by the phrase “careful and steady at his task”, which reminded me of a phrase I came across in Helen Sword’s book, Air and Time and Light and Space—the snail conquers all. These words have kept me going and have kept me sane. It’s another way of saying be a tortoise and not a hare. It’s about chipping away, it’s about committing to a set of behaviors and tasks knowing that repetition will lead to accumulation. It is slow, yes, but it is momentum none the less.
So what to make of what he is saying here? On one hand he provides a workable model and workable time frame. One of the most astonishing things about the book is that he says you can cultivate the intellectual life with two hours a day. But on the other hand, he is not talking about a leisurely two hours. He’s talking about intensity of focus. As he says later on, “The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playin filed, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves.” (4). In other words, the “work” itself may take place in two hours a day, but the vocation demands more than just the two hours a day. It means that the rest of my time is in some sense in service of those two hours and this is where the comparison to the athlete is instructive, because athletes don’t just train and then do whatever they might want. No, what they eat, when and how they sleep, everything is in service of that training. If, as we have seen in previous posts, the great work of the intellectual life happens in quiet and silence, then how we spend the rest of our time must in some sense serve that sense of quiet and silence. This is what I think he means by athlete of the mind.
What other practices and viruses does he commend? We will turn to that in the next post.