These Pages Have No Date: The Enduring Value of The Intellectual Life

In the preface to the 1934 edition of The Intellectual Life, which was first published in 1920, Fr. Sertillanges reflects on how the book has held up over the last 14 years.

In his estimation, the book has not aged. He says of it:

These pages have no date.

The Enduring Usefulness of The Intellectual Life

I think Fr. Sertillanges is correct: The Intellectual Life is timeless.

That's not to say that its style or phrasing have no quaintness, or that the ideas written then have nothing in them to jar a person reading them now. Anyone reading the book for the first time will likely be able to tell that it was written nearly a century ago. Each age leave its mark.

But the book addresses simply, intelligently, and sincerely a perennial human difficulty: the difficulty of thinking. That difficulty endures, and so does the value of The Intellectual Life.

Creating a Zone of Silence as a Prerequisite for Intellectual Work

Sertillanges starts by asking: "Do you want to do intellectual work?" He then gives his fundamental advice.

He says that if you want to do intellectual work, you must

"begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work."

What is Intellectual Work?

The intellectual work that Sertillanges is talking about is not primarily writing and publishing articles or books (though writing and publishing may be part of some people's intellectual work).

When Sertillanges talks about "intellectual work," he's talking about work that anyone can do: you, me, the guy down the street, the gal at the other end of the pew.

Intellectual work is thinking for oneself and knowing for oneself. Anyone can do this.

Not everyone does.


The Everyday Man

Sertillanges uses a phrase — the "everyday man" — and says that to be a thinker you need to "forget your everyday man."

The everday man likes his thoughts and words "ready made." The everday man likes to spend time on "inferior occupations" — occupations that aren't lofty or demanding.

If Sertillanges is right about intellectual work requiring a "zone of silence," then the everyday man and the everyday woman aren't going to want to go into that silent zone.

That zone of silence can be a scary place.

The Oracle & God's Footsteps

In the silent zone, you'll hear startling things.

If you set aside others' "ready made" thoughts, phrases, and answers, you'll have to finally listen to yourself — your own thinking, your own way of putting things, your own answers to questions.

Sertillanges says: "Listening to oneself is a formula that amounts to the same thing as listening to a god." Remember: It was the oracle at Delphi that prompted Socrates to examine his own and others' thinking so carefully.

And you'll go on journeys you're not fully prepared for. Sertillanges: "When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy."

And the possibility of failure on the journey is real. Sertillanges says that an intellectual life requires a certain kind of fidelity to God and truth — a "fidelity perpetually alive to the danger of falling away."

Mind Governs Everything

Falling away from the truth is a danger that can be avoided, because "the mind governs everything."

Sertillanges seems to mean by this that a human mind creates not only the intellectual work itself (a well-written essay), but also the intellectual worker (the kind of person who can write that particular well-written essay).

The human mind can ponder, foster, and seek "the spiritual climate proper to the awakening of the thinker." The human mind helps create the conditions in which it can thrive — the mind can govern itself.

The Intellectual Life offers help for creating that climate in one's own life.