Book Notes: The Intellectual Life, Chapter 3


“One word suggests itself here before any other: you must simplify your life.“  (41)

I’ve been trying to simplify my life for twenty years!  And I’ve been lingering over this chapter for about six weeks.  It has so many encouraging quotes to ponder, many of which confirm ideas I’ve held for some time now, and others that are completely new to me.  Here are some of the quotes I underlined on simplification.

“a certain asceticism is the duty of the thinker.” (42)

“Contemplation… is not compatible with the complications and burdens of an excessively comfortable life.” (42)

“Much peace, a little beauty, certain conveniences that save time, are all that is necessary.” (42)

“…how will you preserve the few hours at your disposal if your life is over-full?  You must reduce matter to the minimum, so as to lighten and liberate the spirit.” (43)

“Money and attention squandered on trifles would be much better spent in collecting a library, providing for instructive travel or restful holidays, going to hear music which rekindles inspiration, and so on.” (43)

Around the time I began reading this chapter, I discovered a podcast by Dr. Christopher Perrin called Café Scholé.  I immediately listened to every episode.  Dr. Perrin defines scholé as “undistracted time to study the things that are most worthwhile.” This is something I’ve been craving, not only for myself, but also for my children.

I have had a strong desire to simplify my life because I believe it will give me the time for scholé, and in this chapter, A. G. Sertillanges confirms this. To have this time to study, you must simplify your life.  But what does this look like?

Well, for me, it started out as decluttering.  I thought paring down material possessions would make life simpler.  And it does help.  As I shared in my last post, good habits of tidying and doing chores help too.  Doing fewer activities can simplify life, but I think to be really simple,  my mind needs to put first things first.   Most important, in my opinion, is that I make time for solitude.

In Order and Solitude (Episode 8 of the podcast), Dr. Perrin does a fine job in summarizing and going deeper into the ideas in Part II of this chapter, which is called Solitude. I’ve been listening to it when I’m alone in my van and it makes so much sense to me.  I’ve been pondering these ideas for years.  Why is it that I feel scattered after spending a period of time being constantly busy? Or drained when I’ve been trying to be a good wife, mother, daughter, or friend by listening to other people talk? Or distracted by too much time spent on movies, streaming shows, and social media?  It’s a lack of solitude.

Here’s a question:  Why, having known for almost half my life, that this silence is the one thing necessary for me, do I seem to avoid it or allow other things to take it away?

I think the answer is that (although I’ve told myself I do) I haven’t always wanted to know the truth. The truth can be painful.  It can be humbling. Being busy and productive is much less scary, and it keeps up the illusion that I am greater than I really am. I’m at a time in my life now where I feel ready to face the truth.  I want to learn. (It’s why I’m reading this book.)  Here’s a quote that gives me hope and inspires me to face the truth and to persevere.

“One cannot, says St. Thomas, contemplate all the time; but he who lives only for contemplation, directs everything else towards it, and resumes it when he can, gives it a sort of continuity, as far as may be on earth.

Delight will be found in it, for ‘the cell, if you stay in it, grows sweet: cella continuata dulcescit.’  Now the delight of contemplation is a part of its efficacy.  Pleasure, St. Thomas explains, fastens the soul to its object, like a vise..”  (51-52)

My interpretation is that if I keep seeking this silence/solitude/prayer as often as I can, and I make it a priority, I will begin to enjoy it so much that its frequency will naturally increase.

That last line about pleasure fastening the soul to its object like a vise sounds powerful to me.  It inspires me to want to fast.  It makes me want to break the grip of the vise holding unworthy objects to my soul.  Objects like food, excessive entertainment, media, or even work, that allow me

“to half live while time runs by, and to sell heaven for nothings.”  (50)

As in the last chapter, this one also contains many practical tips which I’ll share here in a bulleted list.

  • Do not burden yourself with too much baggage. (41)
  • Slacken the tempo of your life. (42)
  • Do not inquire at all about the actions of others. (46)
  • Do not busy yourself about the words and actions of those in the world. (46)
  • Avoid useless outings above everything. (46)
  • Be slow to speak and slow to go to those places where people speak… (47)
  • Do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose… (47)
  • Do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world… (47)
  • Avoid useless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thoughts. (47)
  • Before giving out truth, acquire it for yourself…  (52)
  • Do what you ought and must… (58)
  • Do not forget that in association with others, even in ordinary everyday meetings, there is something to be gleaned.  (59)
  • Find the right balance between the life within and the life without, between silence and sound. (62)
  • You as a man of thought must keep in touch with what is; else the mind loses its poise. (64)
  • The spirit of silence must therefore pervade the whole of life.  (67)

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