The Intellectual Life Redeemed

Having posted my comments on French novelist Paul Bourget’s account of philosophical irresponsibility, I feel obliged to balance it with some opposite considerations. It is perhaps fitting that another Frenchman (also a Catholic) wrote an important treatise on the positive aspects of a life given to study and reflection.

The Intellectual Life, by the Dominican A. D. Sertillanges, has remained steadily in print since it appeared in 1920. (At the moment I have in front of me the Newman Paperback edition of 1959 that my father read in college.) The point that the author makes up front, before even considering the methodology of mental creativity, is the fact that such an undertaking must be considered as a vocation. It is much more than a “job” or even a “career.” The traditional humanist idea of vocation (or “calling”) is  founded on discipline, self-sacrifice and humility.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in what often passes for “intellectualism,” is merely a parody of it. As Karl Jaspers explains, “The shapes of anti-reason which arise from the betrayal of truth and selfhood are the perversion of an original truth. Anti-reason uses the language of reason; all non-philosophy uses that of philosophy” (Reason and Anti-Reason).

The answer to bad reasoning is not irrationalism of the kind found in superstitious religious or political cults.  Such is the approach of Nazism, with its blatant mythology of “blood and soil,” and much more subtly in Marxism with its messianic “dictatorship of the proletariat”—I say much more subtly because, as Jaspers points out, Communism is an ideological gnosis that does not refute science openly so much as it claims to be the only real “science” worth pursuing. In fact, it is an attempted shortcut to a pseudo-reality.

There is all the difference in the world between the true intellectual, who evinces wisdom and “openness towards transcendence” (Jaspers), and members of the “intellectual class,” like Bourget’s Prof. Adrian Sixte, who prefer to think of how the world can cater to their egos through subsidized positions, academic accolades, political influence, etc. Jaspers considers the intellectual career as a duty undertaken by those who would promote the highest goals of human freedom and excellence. Fr. Sertillanges finds it incentive enough to “have a humble share in perpetuating wisdom among men, in gathering up the inheritance of the ages… in turning men’s wandering eyes towards first causes and their hearts towards supreme ends….”

Related comments: The True Philosopher is Not Wise

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