Precepts for Study from St. Thomas Aquinas: Sertillanges Recommends the Letter to Brother John

In the foreword to The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges mentions a letter among the works of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas Aquinas's Letter to John on Studying

The letter is address to a man named John — perhaps a brother in the Dominican order. The letter contains advice about learning and studying. The site Corpus Thomisticum titles the letter De Modo Studendi.

The letter is likely not an authentic work of St. Thomas. The letter is listed in the section of Corpus Thomisticum called "Opera Aliqua False Adscripta Thomae," or in English, "Certain Works Incorrectly Ascribed to Thomas".

Sertillanges is a aware of the possible inauthenticity, but he believes nonetheless that the letter is still valuable, because of the wise precepts it contains:

Among the works of St. Thomas there is a letter to a certain Brother John, in which are enumerated Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge. This letter, whether it be authentic or not, must be looked at in itself; it is priceless; we should like to imprint its every word in the inmost being of the Christian thinker.

So if we are going to understand The Intellectual Life, it makes sense to me to take a look at the text of this letter.

The Text of St. Thomas Aquinas's 16 Precepts on Study

You can find the text of the letter in Latin here at Corpus Thomisticum.

If you want the text of the letter in English, there are two sites I found that have it:

  1. A post at Catholic Bible Student, a site run by Mark Giszczak
  2. Aquinas on Memory and Study by Hugh McDonald.

Each site's translation has its rough spots (what translation doesn't?), but both are work looking at. (Giszczak adds numbers to the precepts.)

What follows here is the English from the Aquinas on Memory and Study site, with some typographical and grammatical errors corrected:

A Letter of St. Thomas Aquinas to Brother John

Because you have asked me, my brother John, most dear to me in Christ, how to set about aquiring the treasure of knowledge, this is the advice I pass on to you:

that you should choose to enter by the small rivers, and not go right away into the sea, because you should move from easy things to difficult things.

Such is therefore my advice on your way of life:

I suggest you be slow to speak, and slow to go to the room where people chat.

Embrace purity of conscience; do not stop making time for prayer.

Love to be in your room frequently, if you wish to be led to the wine cellar

Show yourself to be likable to all, or at least try; but do not show yourself as too familiar with anyone; because too much familiarity breeds contempt and will slow you in your studies; and don't get involved in any way in the deeds and words of worldly people.

Above all, avoid idle conversation; do not forget to follow the steps of holy and approved men.

Never mind who says what, but commit to memory what is said that is true: work to understand what you read, and make yourself sure of doubtful points.

Put whatever your can into the cupboard of your mind as if you were trying to fill a cup.

Seek not the things that are higher than you.

Follow the steps of blessed Dominic, who produced useful and marvelous shoots, flowers and fruits in the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts for as long as life was his companion.

If you follow these things, you will attain to whatever you desire.