Originality is Overrated

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

In this post I want to continue diving into Paul Griffiths’ book The Intellectual Appetite and say one more thing about his discussion of curiosity as a vice in the intellectual life. I’m specifically interested in his notion that curiosity is the desire to possess or own knowledge. This is in contrast to the virtue of studiousness, which is about receiving knowledge rather than taking knowledge.

In his discussion Griffiths links the desire for ownership with the obsession in academic theology for originality. Speaking of his own approach to the topic of originality, Griffiths does not think of his own intellectual contributions in terms of ownership. He thinks more in terms of stewardship. Even in using the curiosity/studiousness paradigm, he acknowledges that he is not saying anything new or original to him. Rather, he says, “The definitions that follow are concordant with those found in the Christian tradition, but are not identical with any of them. I give them not in an exegetical spirit, but rather as a contributor to a tradition of thought whose authority I accept, and that I consider it a privilege to speak out of and thereby to extend” (20).

Notice that the goal is to contribute by extension rather than by novelty. Notice also that there is a strong sense of continuity, but continuity is not the same thing as exact replication. It is a conversation that moves forward, not because every conversant says the same thing in the same way, but because every conversant is committed to having the same conversation.

Sertillanges made a similar point , saying that what we might call originality is the convergence of a unique someone speaking something true in a true way. What is unique is the individual rather than the idea or concept. Now this does not mean that there are not such things as breakthroughs or new ways of thinking about things or paradigm shifts, but first, by and large all such shifts come from speaking within an existing paradigm or tradition.

In a recent email exchange, with a friend of mine, Christopher Benson, I tackled the same topic in a similar way. In that context I said:

Novelty has its place in theology, but it can’t be the driving force. In my mind the theologian is primarily a steward, first of divine revelation, and second of the tradition of the church. Jesus says something similar to the scribes: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52). Notice that there are new things to bring out, yes, but novelty isn’t the goal. The goal is properly stewarding the house.

The theologian usually doesn’t say new things. The theologian is more a steward of memory and reminds the church what she has forgotten.”

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.