Virtues and Vices of the Intellectual Life: Or Why Curiosity Might Kill the Intellectual

Sertillanges begins his refections on virtue and vice by observing, “The intellect is only a tool; the handling of it determines the nature of its effects” (17). And how should one handle the intellect? With virtue, of course. And while all the classic virtues apply to the intellectual life, there is also “the virtue proper to the intellectual” and that is studiousness (25). Sertillanges says studiousness is related to temperance, which has to do with focusing on the right things in the right way for the right amount of time. It’s what he calls “the wise application of energy.” (See this post for more on energy.)

Studiousness also has to do with humility. Humility in the intellectual life means, among other things, honest self-understanding and a clear-eyed assessment of the limits of ones own gifts. As he puts it, “What wisdom and what virtue there is in judging oneself truly and in remaining oneself! You have a part that only you can play; and your business is to play it to perfection, instead of trying to force fortune. Our lives are not interchangeable. Equally by aiming too high and by falling too low, one misses the path to the goal. Go straight ahead, in your own way, with God for guide” (28). Sertillanges says in effect, I’m not St. Thomas and neither are you, but that doesn’t mean that we all shouldn’t use our gifts to the fullest that we can. To use the fullness of our gifts without resentment for who we are not is an act of gratitude. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts the same point, “the only gratitude for a gift is to be fruitful with the gift” (from The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 5).

If there are intellectual virtues, what then are the intellectual vices? “To the virtue of studiousness, two vices are opposed: negligence on the one hand, vain curiosity on the other” (25). Here Sertillanges speaks from the depths of the Christian tradition, particularly from the Augustinian tradition, when we speaks of curiosity as a vice. Curiosity is untempered, unfettered knowing, it is knowing for the sake of knowing, not for the sake of truth. Paul Griffiths discusses curiosity as vice in depth in the book The Intellectual Appetite, a book I plan to write some things about in the future. One of the things that defines curiosity for Griffiths is that it is often motivated by the hatred of not knowing. Nothing could be further from the love of truth than the hatred of not knowing. To hate the unknown is to be motivated by fear, fear of what one does not know and fear of being found out as ignorant or incompetent. These are selfish motivations, whereas the love of truth is selfless.

One other thing to note from this section, is that for all the talk of virtue and vice within the classical Christian tradition, it is amazing how contemporary and practical some of his advice seems. He says certain things that you might read on a productivity blog, things like eat well, sleep enough, exercise, spend time outdoors. The continuity of his advice with both our time and with Thomas’s speaks on one level to the perennial relevance of real wisdom and to paying attention to every aspect of the human person. Thomas is no kind of dualist, and neither is Sertillanges, so he does no separate the mind from the body. To cultivate the life of the mind, one must take care of the body. But I know that I’m continually looking for a different answer, as if sleep, exercise, food, proper rest and leisure, being outside, etc. weren’t really the majority of what I or anybody else needed.

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