The Intellectual Life, by A. G. Sertillanges (1)

Posted on March 14, 2015 by

I am currently reading through, The Intellectual Life, by A. G. Sertillanges, a French Dominican monk from the early twentieth century. The book is a masterpiece. If I were to recommend only one guide to graduate students—no, to anyone who takes thinking seriously—this would be it. Obviously, Sertillanges writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, and he is writing to fellow Catholics, but it would be silly for anyone to let that keep them from reading this book, and miss his overwhelming insight and wisdom regarding the intellectual life.

I’ll intermittently post some highlights, but for now, in keeping with a theme already established on this blog, I’ve selected some passages relevant to those considering pursuing an academic career.

Some sober advice for undergrads considering grad school:

“How many young people, with the pretension to become workers, miserably waste their days, their strength, the vigor of their intelligence, their ideal! Either they do not work—there is time enough!—or they work badly, capriciously, without knowing what they are nor where they want to go nor how to get there. Lectures, reading, choice of companions, the proper proportion of work and rest, of solitude and activity, of general culture and specialization, the spirit of study, the art of picking out and utilizing data gained, some provisional output which will give an idea of what the future work is to be, the virtues to be acquired and developed—nothing of all that is thought out and no satisfactory fulfillment will follow.” (8)

He continues:

“What a difference, supposing equal resources, between the man who understands and looks ahead, and the man who proceeds at haphazard! ‘Genius is long patience,’ but it must be organized and intelligent patience. One does not need extraordinary gifts to carry some work through; average superiority suffices; the rest depends on energy and wise application of energy. It is as with a conscientious workman, careful and steady at his task: he gets somewhere, while an inventive genius is often merely an embittered failure.” (8)

For those in grad school:

“What each one must try to keep in the forefront of his mind and available at a moment’s need is what forms the basis of his work, what for that reason all the eminent men in his calling know. In this matter no negligence is permissible, and these things should be acquired with the least possible delay.” (177)

Lastly, some encouraging chastisement those struggling through a dissertation or thesis:

“When you have decided on a work, when you have clearly conceived and carefully prepared it, and are actually beginning: settle immediately by a vigorous effort the quality that it is to have. Do not count on going back over it. When laziness whispers: “Go ahead anyhow now, you will come back to this later,” say to yourself that this idea of going back on what one has done is nearly always an illusion. When you have once gone down the slope, you will hardly climb up again. You will not find the courage to rethink ab ovo a mediocre piece of work; your cowardice today is a poor guarantee for your heroism tomorrow.” (231)


“There is a law within you, let it be obeyed. You have said: “I will do this,” do it. A case of conscience is before you: settle it to your honor; every unfinished work would be a reproach to you. I see a cause of moral decadence in abandoning a project or an undertaking. One grows used to giving-up; one resigns oneself to disorder, to an uncomfortable conscience; one gets a habit of shilly-shallying. Thence comes a loss of dignity that can have no favorable effect on one’s progress.” (228-229)