By Thaddeus Kozinski, September 27, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Publishing and Research, Professional Development
See part II here.
Having in the first three chapters provided the raison d’etre of the intellectual life, its precise essence, a vocation, its efficient causes, the moral and intellectual virtues, and its telos, the discovery, contemplation and transmission of truth, in the remaining six chapters Sertillanges uncovers for us the “matter,” as it were, of the vita intellectus, that is, its proper conditions. When, what, and how to study? In what spirit? How, and how much, to sow the seeds of reading and memory to reap a fruitful harvest of creative production? How to strike the right balance between life qua intellectual and life qua human being?
St. Paul tells us to pray constantly, meaning that prayer is to be engaged in not only during those hours set-aside daily for liturgical and vocal and mental prayers, but at every moment. Prayer is spiritual breathing, the heartbeat of the soul. For Sertillanges, the intellectual life must be similarly continuous and perpetual. How? “What do we need, in order to utilize this permanent life in the service of truth? Discipline only. The dynamos must be connected to the turbines; the turbines must be turned by the steam; the desire to know must, regularly and not intermittently, set the conscious or unconscious activity of the brain in motion” (71). And the intellectual life must not only beunlimited temporally, but also spatially, with an ubiquity analogously equal to its all-the-time operative dynamism. This is a tall order.
Perhaps the best section of The Intellectual Life is Sertillanges masterful treatment of that most thorny issue for the scholar: how to achieve expertise in one area of study without thereby sacrificing ignorance of others—how to attain both breadth and depth? It would seem futile nowadays (and ever since, say, the Middle Ages) to aspire to anything other than a mastery of a very narrow field—and even then, can we attain complete mastery anymore?—the sheer amount of accumulated knowledge seems virtually infinite. On the other hand, to attain an educated gentlemen’s acquaintance with all fields of knowledge would seem to be the dilettante’s errand. Is it possible now to become educated in the Aristotelian sense?
Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgement as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, (Parts of Animals 639a1-6).
Can we be "critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge" now?
Sertillanges has done the best job of anyone of solving this dilemma in his chapter “The Field of Work.” And here, in condensation, is his solution:
We may assert without any paradox that every branch of science pursued home would lead to the other sciences, science to poetry, poetry and science to ethics, and then to politics and even to religion on its human side. Everything is in everything, and partitions are only possible by abstraction. . . . When one knows something thoroughly, provided one has some inkling of the rest, this rest in its full extent gains by the probing of its depths. All abysses resemble one another, and all foundations have communicating passages (102, 120).
Sertillanges is telling us that specialized knowledge is not only helpful for the scholar, but absolutely necessary; but at the same time, we are not to think that specialization necessarily excludes generalization, or vice versa. The key is somehow to balance depth with breadth, for only when these are properly balanced can the intellectual obtain either of them.
But it’s more than a balance, for Sertillanges: breadth is depth, and depth is breadth. This doctrine is Sertillanges’ most brilliant and hard to grasp, and so most difficult effectively to summarize. Let me quote his distinct advocacies of both breadth and depth, and then try to convey how they are to be brought together, indeed, identified. On breadth:
If you want to have a mind that is open, clear, really strong, mistrust your specialty in the beginning. Lay your foundations according to the height that you aim to reach; broaden the opening of the excavation according to the depth it has to reach. . . . A specialist, if he is not a man, is a mere quill-driver; his egregious ignorance makes him like a lost wanderer among men; he is unadapted, abnormal, a fool. The intellectual Catholic will not copy such a model (103).
Okay, so we lay the liberal-arts foundations down in college, most effectively (in my opinion) by an integrated curriculum a la Thomas Aquinas College, University of Dallas, Wyoming Catholic College, etc., and then we begin to specialize in graduate school, after our foundations have been widely laid and our excavation widely dug, after which we specialize further, digging deeper in what’s left of our professional life into our initial masterpiece with specialized research.
Not quite, says Sertillanges, for the widening process is never-ending as well, lest we become a fool:
To follow up to a certain point the explorations of every seeker is for you an obligation which results at last in a tenfold capacity for your own research. When you come back to your special study after having thus made a special survey of different fields, widened your outlook, and acquired the sense of deep underlying connections, you will be quite a different man from the prisoner of one single narrow discipline (104).
And, now, the obligation of specialization:
Science is knowledge through causes, and causes go down deep like roots. We must always sacrifice extent to penetration. . . . When the whole field of study has been surveyed and its connections and unity estimated in the light of fundamental principles, it is urgently necessary, if one does not want merely to mark time, to turn to some task which is precise, defined in its limits, proportioned to one’s strength; and then to throw oneself into it with one’s heart (119).
How to integrate, balance, synthesize, and even identify these two apparently antithetical pursuits will be examined in the next post. A hint: It involves Sertillanges’ solemn command to the aspiring intellectual--“Ite ad Thomam!”