The Intellectual Life

7 min read

A toast to “bookception”

I came across a recommendation for The Intellectual Life while reading another excellent book on a related topic – Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you have been following my blog posts, you would know that one of my favourite ways to find new book recommendations is within existing books. Often such book recommendations go deeper and are more likely to be original content.

After having read both these books, I can confidently say that Cal Newport found a lot of inspiration from The Intellectual Life. He has extracted some of the best advice given in this book and packaged it in a way that people today can easily understand. And just as well.

The Intellectual Life by AG Sertillanges, a French philosopher, is not an easy book to get through. Written in the early 20th century, the style of writing is a little dated. You may not be able to understand certain passages the first time around. Thus you will need to definitely re-visit this book after a while.

However I would suggest you to stick with this book and giving it your full attention. P.S. if you’re struggling with attention, this book has certain tips for that as well. Talk about being meta. In fact, while reading this book, there were many meta moments that had me chuckling. For example, I had been making copious highlights and notes while reading this book. And then I came across the chapter where Sertillanges explains the right way to take notes. The author says,

Some people have so many [notes] and such full notebooks that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them… Their imaginary treasures have cost much time and trouble, and they yield no return. Thank God there are many fine things in books; will you therefore copy down the whole National Library? Keep notes after thinking, and with moderation… Do not include the passage in your notes without letting some time elapse. Quietly, you will judge of the value of your harvest and store up only the good grain in your barns.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t put aside this book for a while as I felt embarrassed at my own incessant highlighting. But… but the juicy content… moving on anyhow.

The author kicks off by explaining what the virtues of an intellectual person should be. He goes on to describe how life should be organised so that one may keep a balance between isolating himself completely from the world and spending too much time in society doing frivolous activities. Once he has set the expectations of what an intellectual should do, the author moves on to explain how to best take up intellectual work. From my reading, I felt that the author talked about getting into a flow state, a concept that has been explored lately by multiple authors in how athletes and other high performing individuals manage to get much more work done than the rest of the ordinary folks.

Each part of the day has its own unique characteristics, says the author, and it is important to known and utilise these differences by doing the kind of work that is suitable to the time of day. For example, the author mentions that evenings should be used to prepare the work for the next day so that there is a sort of continuity of work between two consecutive days. This, he says, will definitely give a jump start as far as productivity is concerned. Of course, not everyone is built the same and each individual has his own body cycle – some of us being larks, others owls. But as long as one is able to understand his own body cycle, he should be able to make the most of the ebb and flow of energy and concentration levels throughout the day.

The author, AG Sertillanges
How can I make this book utterly brilliant but difficult to read at the same time?

Sertillanges then talks about the spirit of work, of the things that you need to keep in the background while undertaking your field of work. This will keep a sense of objectivity to the work as well as help you approach it in the right spirit. He debates the pros and cons of two different routes that one can take in their intellectual journey – the broad based approach, where one reads about multiple subjects/disciplines and tries to find interconnections and linkages between these fields (something that Charlie Munger has also advocated in his famous latticework of mental models), or the narrow-based approach, where one digs deeper into a subject that he has found interest in. Essentially whether to become a generalist or a specialist.

The latter part of the book deals with the preparation of work, how one should read, how to remember what was read, and how to take notes. Strangely but understandably, the author advises moderation in all these areas. One does not become an intellectual by reading more and more books. More important is how much one understands and is able provide original commentary upon. The same is with trying to memorise everything that one has read. Although the author meant this for an earlier time and age, today it becomes even more foolish to be a good memoriser, especially when there are multiple tools at our disposal to retrieve any information that is needed at any moment. The 24/7 connectedness of our lives has, I dare say, done away with our requirement of an extensive memory. Whether that is a good thing or bad, I leave it up to you. This chapter ends with a useful approach that the author prescribes to take and organise notes. People preferring to use the traditional paper-based note-taking may find this advice useful.

The author then deals with one of the most important parts of the book – the creative effort. For an intellectual, creation is paramount. Be it in the form of a book, a painting, a theorem, or simply original thought, creation is supposed to be the end result of your intellect. “One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready.” This author lists down the qualities that are needed in order to create complete and useful works. Detachment, patience, persistence, and knowing your limits. These are the qualities that are discussed. If you’re running short of time or are frustrated with the ye olde language of the book, I would suggest that you read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 completely. These two chapters contain enough useful and actionable advice to help create a marked difference in your productive output.

The book closes with some advice on how to keep oneself sane in the quest for intellect. It is very easy to go overboard in this often lonely journey, as have many geniuses in their time. The author advises that one should not forget the rest of life in pursuing your goals. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other goals.” The secret according to the author is keeping a balanced view on life. Relaxation, exercise, social interactions, gratitude and a hopefulness towards success is what will keep you on the tracks when the going gets tough.

I felt so privileged to have come across this book and to have enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book is not available in a Kindle format so I will have to type out all the highlights and notes that I made in the margins to keep them better organised and referable. The Intellectual Life is probably going to be a book that I will keep going back to at times whenever I feel a creative block coming up. Beg, borrow or steal this book if you’re interest in knowing about the creative process or developing an intellectual mindset.

Featured Photo Credit: Aaron Andrew Ang
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