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Book Review: The Intellectual Life by A G Sertillanges, O P

December 10, 2007
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Andrew Barrett

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Book review of Andrew Barrett, The Intellectual Life by A G Sertillanges, O P, Amazon subtitle: ‘Contact with Genius’ 5/5

1998 reprint of 1987 edition, Catholic University of America Press, 296 pages (of which 260 pages form the main body of the book)

Translated from the French (1934 2 nd edition) by Mary Ryan

I came across this unusual book when discussing with my most well read friend the problem of deciding how much to read. He told me this topic was covered in Sertillanges' book and suggested I read it.

The title makes it sound as if the book might be pretentious, but it is not. In the same way that Peter Drucker's superb The Effective Executive is a book for any knowledge worker rather than just for managers, Sertillanges' book should be helpful for anyone who wishes to work using their intellect, rather than just for rarefied intellectuals.

The 1998 reissue (the 1992 date listed on Amazon.co.uk is incorrect) of the 1987 edition has a new forward by James Schall. I think he captures the essence of Sertillanges' book very well:

"At first sight…this is a quaint book. At second sight it is an utterly demanding book."

The subtitle of The Intellectual Life describes its contents well: "Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods". For Sertillanges, intellectual work is not something done in isolation of the rest of a person's life. He believes strongly that in order to do intellectual work to one's capacity, one must order the whole of one's life with this goal in mind. And further, that this requires habits of simplicity, detachment, note taking, memory, writing and more. His book is thus a step-by-step manual that sets out these requirements from the general (virtues, character) to the specific (note-taking, writing).

For most people who are not already members of religious orders (Sertillanges was a Dominican friar) it would be terrifically demanding to follow all of Sertillanges' prescriptions – and involve major changes to one's life. Sertillanges does believe, however, that if one takes care with the rest of one's life then intellectual work can be done satisfactorily using only a couple of hours a day. His book is thus a mixture of the extremely demanding and eminently practical – particularly as much of his advice involves cutting out and eliminating habits that waste time and disturb thought (e.g. pointless correspondence and interactions with people, reading of novels and newspapers).

After reading Ben Franklin's autobiography and Charlie Munger's Poor Charlie's Almanack at the beginning of the year, I have become increasingly aware of the crucial role of habits in determining the outcome of peoples' lives. I was stupid enough to have spent a good proportion of my life testing out the truth of Franklin 's maxim: "Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other." I no longer have any doubt that forming good habits – and most especially avoiding forming bad ones – is terribly important. After all, reliability – which Munger considers the single most important determining characteristic for a person's life – is really just another habit.

Sertillanges understood this very well and the importance of habits that facilitate intellectual work is a topic that he brings up repeatedly – and in my view very wisely – in his book:

"One acquires facility in thinking just as one acquires facility in playing the piano, in riding, or painting…. The mind gets into the way of doing what is often demanded of it."

This is not the only resemblance between the advice in Sertillanges' book and that given by Charlie Munger (the best source for his ideas and the most useful book I have ever read is Poor Charlie's Almanack). The importance of a broad base of knowledge, the danger of over-specialisation and the critical importance of only a few ideas in each subject are all covered in this book.

Another striking similarity is Sertillanges' view of the importance of 'contact with genius' and how one goes about acquiring wisdom:

"…the principal profit from reading, at least from reading great works, is not the acquisition of scattered truths, it is the increase of our wisdom."

I was left with somewhat mixed feelings as I progressed through The Intellectual Life. At times Sertillanges' overt religiosity became a little much for me (I am not a religious person) and I found his prescriptions rather daunting.

As I neared the end of the book, however, my view changed and I found myself extremely grateful that Sertillanges' had written this book for us. It was partly because his section on writing answered with great clarity some problems that I had been wrestling with, and partly because I realised that one could simply take what one needed from his book – rather than the whole package.

My difficulty in deciding how much to read remains somewhat unresolved: there is a tension between Sertillanges' advice on reading and that of people like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on investment (my own profession/hobby). Sertillanges advises cutting down on excess (particularly undirected) reading, including, for example, newspapers:

"As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little…"

Buffett, on the other hand, claims to read five newspapers a day and urges us to read everything in sight!

I suspect the different advice is due to the type of work. Firstly, I am not sure that investing is an inherently intellectual pursuit (Buffett has often said that after an average level of intelligence the right temperament is more important). Secondly, intelligent investment is just applied opportunism – and in order to take advantage of opportunities we must first be aware of their existence.

I did not find this an easy review to write. I have had to leave out various topics that I would like to have discussed more fully (such as Sertillanges' excellent advice on writing) and still feel this review may be overlong. However, I believe a review that does not attempt to set its subject firmly in context is of limited use. I'll leave the final word to Sertillanges:

"There are books everywhere and only a few are necessary."

I commend this unusual book to you as one of the necessary ones.

About the author:

Andrew Barrett
GuruFocus - Stock Picks and Market Insight of Gurus

Rating: 3.6/5 (18 votes)

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