By Thaddeus Kozinski, October 18, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Professional Development
Find part 3 of the series here.
The Summae of old were the Bibles of knowledge: we have now no Summae, and no one among us is capable of writing one. Everything is in chaos. But at least, if a collective Summa is premature, every man who thinks and really desires to know can try to establish his personal Summa, that is, to introduce order into his knowledge by an appeal to the principles of order; in a word, by philosophizing, and by crowning his philosophy with a concise but profound theology
For Sertillanges, philosophy and theology are not just for philosophers and theologians. For they are the queen and divine sciences respectively, and where either is absent or neglected or misapprehended in the intellectual life, the other sciences that are present, cultivated, and apprehended will suffer. “Now that philosophy has failed in its duty, the sciences fall to a lower level and scatter their effort; now that theology is unknown, philosophy is sterile, comes to no conclusion, has no standard of criticism, no bearings for its study of history; . . . it does not teach” (108). Theological wisdom, which is to say, what can be intellectually gleaned from the immeasurable depths of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the authoritative teachings of the Church, is the sine qua non of the intellectual life.
Does that mean that only Christians can live authentic intellectual lives? Yes. Sertillanges, in making Christian, particularly Catholic, theology a necessary foundation of and end-point for all intellectual inquiry and contemplation, was well ahead of his time; this is, after all, the main thesis of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Of course, it must be stated Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman made an analogous claim, almost a hundred years before Sertillanges, with regard to theology’s essential integrating role for any genuine liberal-arts university curriculum in The Idea of a University.
Now, theology is a big subject, so Sertillanges boils it down for us. Read St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly, his Summa Theologiae—and in Latin. Why? In addition to Leo XII’s official resurrection of and authorization of Thomistic studies for seminarians and clergy of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, Sertillanges provides several independent reasons for being a Thomist. The first is the Angelic Doctor's unsurpassable provision of a “body of directing ideas forming a whole and capable like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge” (114). He goes on:
The intellectual position of Thomism is so well chosen, so removed from all the extremes where abysses of error yawn, so central as regards the heights, that one is logically led up to it from every point of knowledge, and from it one radiates, along continuous paths, in every direction of thought and experience (116).
In the last section of the chapter “Field of Work,” Sertillanges explains further his puzzling notion that the intellectual must be both a specialist and a generalist, possessing both universal knowledge of overarching principles as well as detailed knowledge of things on the ground. Lest we despair of ever effecting such a seemingly impossible balancing act, he admits that something does indeed have to give--what is to be sought above all is depth, even at the expense of breadth. Any extension and scope we achieve in our knowledge must always be for the sake of intension and formation—and definitely not for encyclopedic virtuosity, which he calls “an enemy of knowledge.”
I found Sertillanges discussion of the question of "when to go deep," when to choose one particular discipline over another—even if that be the meta-discipline of philosophy--when to select a “major,” as it were, in one’s intellectual life; and even more, his treatment of why we must at some point choose something to study to the exclusion of others to be at once illuminating and consoling. We aspirant intellectuals have all experienced a kind of vertigo when confronted with the virtual infinity of great books there are to read; for, about every one of them we are compelled to say, “That is the book I must read right now!” And when we do choose to study one book or a selection of books relating to one particular discipline, we know that we are thereby excluding from our consciousness others just as worthy and enlightening. How to reconcile oneself to this seemingly tragic situation?
The answer, for Sertillanges, is twofold: the mysterious connection of one to all in the depths of knowledge, and the mystical communion of scholars. About the first, “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” (120). About the second, “Everyone in life has his work; he must apply himself to courageously and leave to others what Providence has reserved for others” (120).
Sertillanges' wisdom about this subject is so profound that I can’t bear, and an unable to, summarize it. So, here are his words:
Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to the things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of homage to the truth. . . . We are not much, but we are a part of the whole and we have the honor of being a part. What we do not do, we do all the same; God does it, our brethren do it, and we are with them in the unity of love (121).
In our next and last post, we will examine Sertillanges’ thoughts on the spirit of intellectual work, in which he depicts in exquisitely beautiful prose the correct posture of the intellectual’s soul, as it were, and ends the work with a few chapters that provide several practical prescriptions for getting the most out of one’s daily “two hours.”