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A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings.

This little hundred year old book by a French Dominican priest and Catholic philosopher is so rich with wisdom and insight for any who value intellectual endeavors as a part of their life, even in their calling isn’t necessarily to a life of study and writing. There is much here to challenge, convict, and improve you.



  1. The Intellection Vocation I. The Intellectual has a sacred call II. The Intellectual does not stand alone III. The Intellual belongs to his time
  2. Virtues of a Catholic Intellectual I. The Common Virtues II. The Virtue Proper to the Intellectual III. The Spirit of Prayer IV. The discipline of the Body
  3. The Organization of Life I. Simplication II. Solitude III. Cooperation with ones fellows IV. Cultivation of necessary contacts V. Safeguarding the necessary element of action VI. Preservation of Interior Silence
  4. The Time of Work I. Continuity of Work II. The Word of Night III. Mornings and Evenings IV. Moments of Plentitude
  5. The Field of Work I. Comparative Study II. Thomism, the ideal framework for knowledge III. Our Specialty IV. Necessary Sacrifices
  6. The Spirit of Work I. Ardor in Research II. Concentration III. Submission to Truth IV. Breadth of Outlook V. The Sense of Mystery
  7. Preparation for Work A. Reading I. Not Reading Much II. Choosing Well III. Four Kinds of Reading IV. Contact with Writers of Genius V. Reconciling instead of accenting opposites VI. Assimilating and living by ones reading B. The Management of Memory I. What things are to be remembered II. In what order they are to be remembered III. How they can be remembered C. Notes I. How to take Notes II. How to classify Notes III. How to use one’s Notes
  8. Creative Work I. Writing II. Detachment from self and the world III. Constancy, patience, and perseverance IV. Doing things well and finishing everything V. Attempting Nothing beyond one’s powers
  9. The Worker and the Man I. Keeping Contact with Life II. Knowing how to relax III. Accepting our trials IV. Appreciating our joys V. Looking forward to the fruits


Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation, and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of sould unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace to the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile. (vii)

Better as the enemy of good:

It sometimes happens that by widening the field of one’s research one impairs it; and it sometimes happens that investigating beyond some advisable limit, the mind loses its clearness and ends by being merely perpexed. (xxvi)

1.I The Intellectual has a sacred call

A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings. It requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort, so as to attain a fulness of development which will correspond to the call of the Spirit, and to the resources it has pleased him to bestow on us. (3)

To get something without paying for it is the universal desire; bit it is the desire of cowardly hearts and weak brains. The universe does not response murmured request, and the light of God does shine under your study lamp unless your soul asks for it with persistent effort. (6)

Consider the possibility that constrains on your time and other obligations may serve to focus your use of the time you do have and result in greater long-term productivity. (9)

1.II The Intellectual does not stand alone

The end goal of our studies should be application.

Work always then with the idea of some utilization, as the Gospel speaks. Listen to the murmur of the human race all about you; pick our certain individual of certain groups whose need you know, find out what may bring them our of their night and enoble them; what in any measure may save them. (13)

2.I The Common Virtues

Obedience leads to greater understanding.

2.II The Virtue Proper to the Intellectual

A country priest who devotes himself to his parishioners, a doctor who turns away from study to give help to urgent cases, a young man of good family who adopts a calling to help his people and in doing so has to turn his back on liberal studies, are not profaning the gift that is in them, they are paying homage to the True whcih is one and the same Being with the Good. (26) (c.f. Tolkien’s essay “Leaf by Niggle”)

The wise man begins at the beginning, and does not take a second stop until he has made sure of the first. That is why self-taught men have so many weak points. They cannot, all by themselves, begin at the beginning. (27)

Study carried to such a point that we give up prayer and recollection, that we cease to read Holy Scripture, and the words of the saints and of great souls - study carried to the point of forgetting ourselves entirely, and of concentrating on the objects of study so that we neglect the Divine Dweller within us, is an abuse and a fool’s game. (29)

2.IV The discipline of the Body

Look after your diet. Light food, plain, moderate in quantity and simply cooked, will enable you to work more freely and alertly. A thinker does not spend his life in the process of digestion. (38)

3.I Simplication

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

3.II Solitude

do not run after news that occupies the mind to no purpose; do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world, that is with such as have no moral or intellectual bearing; avoid useless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thought. (47)

This is the Spirit of the age in a nutshell. c.f. “Amusing ourselves to death.”

3.IV Cultivation of necessary contacts

Too much solitude would impoverish you. Someone wrote recently: “The difficulty of novel writers nowadays seems to be this: if they do not go into society their books are unreadable, and if they do, they have no time to write.” That is the tormenting question of wise measure that we meet everywhere! (59)

3.V Safeguarding the necessary element of action

To speak for the sake of what must be said, to express a timely feeling or a useful idea and then to be silent, is the secret of keeping possession of yourself while giving something to others, instead of letting your torch go out as it lights other torches. (61)

Therefore, if there are not already any demands on you, look for causes that will inspire you because they are worthwhile - movements that make for light, rehabilitation, preservation, progress; leagues for the public good, societies for defense of right and for social action, all such enterprises as demand of their man, if not his whole life, at least his whole self. Devote yourself to some such work in the moments when inspiration grants you, and even imposes on you, a leave of absence that will be to her own advantage.(66)

When you don’t have something to write, engage in some useful cause, which will both serve others and provoke further inspiration.

4.I Continuity of Work

Learn to listen; and listen, first, to anyone… A multitude of truths arise out of the simplest conversations. The least word listened to with attention may be an oracle. A peasant at certain moments is much wiser than a philosopher. (74)

(consider this Art of Manliness episode interviewing the author of A Curious Mind on his own experiences in this very subject)

4.IV Moments of Plentitude

Do something, or do nothing at all. Do ardently whatever you decided to do; do it with your might; and let the whole of your activity be as series of fresh starts. Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work. (96)

5.I Comparative Study

Keep your study diverse:

It is not wise, it is not fruitful, even if one has a very clearly limited special subjet, to shut oneself up in it forthwith. That is putting on blinkers. No branch of knowledge is self-sufficiency; no disciples looked at by itself alone gives light enough for its own paths. (102)

The author encourages pursuing Thomas’ Summa as a worthy theological pursuit. Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is probably the closest thing in print to the Summa for Protestants. Maybe Calvin’s Institutes as well. The scholastics might be too much. (112-113)

5.IV Necessary Sacrifices

Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to the things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy that is another act of homage to the truth. Do not be ashamed not to know what you could only know at the cost of scattering your attention. Be humble about it, yes, for it shows our limitations; but to accept our limitations is a part of virtue and gives us a great dignity, that of the man who lives according to his law and plays his part. (121)

This is an important truth but a difficult one to accept for someone who loves learning broadly and has not encountered a domain of knowledge that would not be interesting to pursue.

6.II Concentration

Speaking of different occupations and pursuits:

When the turn of one comes, we must put the other aside, setup a system of watertight compartments, work intensively at the part we are engaged on and not change to another until afterwords. Doing a bit here and a bit there is never any good. (128)

In other words, no multitasking.

6.III Submission to Truth

What matters in an idea is not its origin but its magnitude; What is interesting in genius itself is not the person: neither Aristotle, nore Leibnitz, nor Bossuet, nor Pascal, but the truth. The more precious an idea is the less it matters where it comes from. Train yourself to indifference about sources.

Hence the value of a book on intellect from a Roman Catholic Priest.

6.IV Breadth of Outlook

Balance the study of the trees with a view of its place in the forest. (138)

7.A.I Not Reading Much

What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. It is only by rowing oneself that one goes forward, and no current can take you to the point you aim at reaching. (146)

This is an ever present burden for me.

7.A.V Reconciling instead of accenting opposites

You who seek truth and are ready to recognize its countenance everywhere, do not set its servants up one against another, even though they should be among those “incomplete angels,” men of genius whom truth has visited without making its dwelling-place with them.

Do not be a wagon circler.

7.B.I What things are to be remembered

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 knew. (177)

7.B.III How they can be remembered

So when you want to remember, notice the connections and the reason of things; analyze them, look for the why and wherefore; observe the geneology of happening, their order of successes and their dependent consequences; imitate the procedure of mathematics in which necessity starts from the axiom and arrives at the most distant conclusions. Fully to understand a thing, then to learn and to introduce into one’s mind not fragments, not loose links, but a chain, is to make sure of the sticking quality of the whole. Union is strength. (182)

7.C.I How to take Notes

Even if a thing is all very well in its own way, even if it is valuable in theory, that is not a reason for transcribing it. (189)

8.II Detachment from self and the world

We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by fear of what people will say; we must beware of yielding to the pressure of a spirit of cowardly conformity which proclaims itself everybody’s friend in the hope that everybody will obligingly return the compliment. (213)

8.III Constancy, patience, and perseverance

As a Christian, you must respect God in his Providence. It is He who lays down the conditions of knowledge; impatience is a revolt against him. When feverish excitement takes hold of you, spiritual slavery is close at hand, interior liberty vanishes. It is not now you yourself who act, still less Christ in you. You are no longer doing the work of the Word. (225)

8.V Attempting Nothing beyond one’s powers

Success in every order is always attained on the same conditions: to reflect at the start, to begin at the beginning, to proceed methodically, to advance slowly, to give our all one’s strength. But the first object of initial reflection is to decide what we are fit for. The “know thyself” of Socrates is not only the key to morality, but to every vocation, since to be called to something is to see our individual path marked out along the wide human road. (233)

9.I Keeping Contact with Life

You, therefore, who intend to devote yourself to the vocation of study, beware of turning your back for its sake on the rest of life. Give up nothing of what belongs to man. Preserve a balance in which the dominant weight does not try to carry all of the rest with it. Learn to defend a thesis and to look at a sunrise, to bury yourself in profound abstractions and to play, like the Divine Master, with children. (240)