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A Dominican, a Neuroscientist, and Computer Scientist Walk into a Bar . . . or Maybe a Library

A.G. Sertillanges (the Dominican), Andrew Huberman (the Neuroscientist), and Cal Newport (the Computer Scientist) on the Need for Focus

Photo by Nadine Shaabana / Unsplash

I had a Sertillanges sighting recently.

As in, “A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.,” author of that classic work, The Intellectual Life.

My last sighting was about 15 years ago when I was reading Merton’s journals. If memory serves, he was mocking the book. If not mocking, criticizing. If I had to guess, the journal entry was from the 1960s. I distinctly remember that the prose had none of the humility that marked Merton’s earlier works, so it was probably written after Merton entered his smug leftist stage in the early sixties.

Fast forward 50 years: 2016 and Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I’m reading it for the third time, the first two times having abandoned it around page 25 because it contains too much fluff and is written at a fifth-grade level. But based on Andrew Huberman’s very strong endorsement of Cal Newport in general and Deep Work specifically, I’m trying again.

I was rewarded with a spate of Sertillanges sightings on pages 33 through 37.

Newport doesn’t mock Sertillanges. In fact, just the opposite. He practically casts him as a proto-cognitive therapist, saying that Sertillanges pointed out things about the intellectual life that we now know are crucial to the focused life in general, saying Sertillanges is “useful in our quest to better understand how people quickly master hard (cognitive) skills.”

So what all did Sertillanges say?

Well, a lot.

Newport cites him for Sertillanges’ counsel to focus all the rays of one’s attention on one subject. Good counsel, that, but there’s a lot more in that classic work.

“Have you two hours a day?” Sertillanges asks his ghost reader, noting that, if the reader has just two hours a day and is willing to “keep them jealously” and “use them ardently,” the reader can “rest in quiet certainty” that the intellectual life can be his.

You know who else says that? Uber-modern scientist Andrew Huberman, who counsels listeners to set aside 90 minutes every morning for focused work or study. By “focused work or study,” he means seriously heavy mental focus, counseling his listeners not even to urinate during those 90 minutes and, for the love of everything good in creation, to keep their cell phones in the next room.

Huberman channels Sertillanges: Keep those (90–120) minutes “jealously.” “Use them ardently.”

Ninety minutes, Huberman says, is probably the optimal time, based on what science currently knows. He later says that, if the day permits, you can do another focused period.

It ain’t Sertillanges’ two hours, but it’s dang close.

What else did Sertillanges the proto-cognitive therapist recommend?

He told his readers that they need a “unity of life.”

Perhaps surprisingly, he said the source of unity is love.

Now, when I think “love,” I think “other.” To love someone, Aquinas said, is to will the good of another. Such a definition presumes “other.” Therefore, love is, by definition, “other” directed.

But if you’re directed toward other people, you’re not focused on your work. Indeed, as I’ve experienced repeatedly in my life, if you leave yourself open to other people, you won’t have any time for directed attention, whether it’s Sertillanges’ two hours, Huberman’s 90 minutes, or even 15 minutes to read something halfway serious, leaving yourself praying for bowel constipation, knowing it’s the only time you’ll be allowed to focus that day.

So why did Sertillanges counsel “love”?

Precisely because he’s not talking about “love of other.” He’s talking about love of truth. “Truth,” he says, “visits those who love her” and “surrender to her.”

“Big men have little beds.” Henri Lavedo

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Sertillanges, looking at my press of social, family, and business commitments, would gently recommend that I sell all my books and devote myself to mastering Netflix.

His chapter, “The Organization of Life,” rails against the frenzied life. This was in the 1920s. I can’t imagine what he would think if he saw life in the 2020s.

He tells his readers they “must simply” their lives and that “society life is fatal to study.” He tells them to eschew a comfortable life in favor of a bit of spartanship, saying that no contemplation, whether religious or secular, artistic or scientific, is compatible with the “complications and burdens of an excessively comfortable life.” Hence the Lavedon quote above.

He pulls in St. Thomas’s sixteen counsels to the intellectual, pointing out that seven of them counsel a retiring life that limits external contacts, such as:

§ “Do not inquire at all about the actions of others”
§ “Be polite to everyone” but “be familiar with none, for too much familiarity breeds contempt and gives matter for many distractions”
§ “Do not busy yourself about the words and actions of those in the world”
§ “Avoid useless outings above everything”
§ “Love your cell, if you desire to be admitted to the wine-cellar”

Sertillanges, it’s safe to say, hardly recommended the life of the social butterfly.

Now, you might object, saying, “Sertillanges was writing about the intellectual life, not a life for the ordinary guy.”

That’s correct.

But here’s the thing:

We all need a lot more intellectual activity in our day.

I believe this for a variety of reasons, ranging from the ubiquity of screen life, including cell phones, to the continuing domination of television in our lives.

I also say it because, to be honest, I’m a bit concerned that COVID may have hurt us mentally. COVID inflammation of the brain brought mental fog to a lot of us. Mine persisted for at least three months, albeit diminishing consistently every day until it was barely perceptible, but still: 90 days of brain fog? That’s a concern. Might I and others have suffered permanent brain damage that will manifest itself in early dementia or other mental disorders?

It’s definitely a possibility, and older people don’t grow many new brain neurons.

But I also know the brain is far more resilient than we previously thought. Intellectual quotients are not something you’re born with, at least not entirely. You can improve or hurt or IQ. You can improve or hurt your brain. It’s flexible and has great “plasticity.” Even if you’re older, you can develop new synapses in the brain. [See Huberman about how younger people are less affected by brain injury but how older people aren’t totally screwed, either.]

If some of us are now at greater risk for mental problems, I think all of us can greatly stave off those mental problems by working on our brains now: plenty of sleep, meditation, water . . . and deep work. Such things are good for the brain.

And, I believe, good for us in general. Sertillanges’ intellectual life is no longer a counsel for the smartest among us. It’s crucial advice we all need to get through this postmodern, COVID world.

And if you still want to disregard a neo-Scholastic like Sertillanges and won’t devote those two hours. Maybe you can listen to the modern scientist Huberman and set aside those 90 minutes.