The angel of the Lord came to Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. The virgin girl became, in a literal sense, the unique custodian of divine truth: She carried the Logos in her womb. In her vocation as Mother of God, Mary opens herself to truth’s fruitful power. And in the stable in Bethlehem, she conveys that truth to others. She is, therefore, the perfect exemplar and model of the intellectual life. Paul Griffiths’s recent essay, “Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual” (May 2018), inspired me to think again about the Virgin Mary, for in her we can identify the dispositions, qualities, and virtues we need to be truth-receivers and truth-givers, which is to say, genuine intellectuals.
“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” In the popular imagination, Mary is first and foremost a virgin. That word’s primary meaning is sexual, but the connotations are broader. To be virginal means to be unspoiled, untainted, pristine, and immaculate. The Virgin Mary, therefore, is not simply a woman who has not had sexual intercourse. She is without blemish or fault. She fulfills the sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In the moral life, purity of heart means clarity or transparency of intention, to do what is right without mixed motives or hesitation. In the intellectual life, we should seek a similar clarity.
Clarity of vision is difficult to attain. As St. Paul wrote, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” The burdens of a fallen world weigh upon us; our vision is obscured by worldly cares.
Distraction, gossip, and entertainment: These and other temptations cause us to fail to attend to our studies with constancy and settled purpose. We need the discipline of concentration. That means devoting a season of our lives to nothing but intellectual work, usually in an institutional setting and among peers whose good example can challenge and chastise us. We need to focus our passions, creating a hierarchy of desires so that our attention falls primarily on our intellectual work. It’s a simple fact that sustained study wipes away some of the grime that clouds our vision.
This does not mean we’re to shun recreation and become grinds. Just as fields need to go fallow to attain their full fruitfulness, so also our minds need occasions to wander and muse. Truth’s visitations are sometimes serendipitous. Moreover, we have moral obligations to our families and friends, and to God. There’s no purity of heart in seeking wisdom by neglecting those who rely on us—or by forgoing prayer to read another book or write a paper. Nevertheless, the intellectual life requires focused attention, which means a significant chunk of time and, more important, the priority of our affections. As the allegory of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs teaches, truth seeks our hearts, not just our minds.
Another impediment is false narrowness. It’s quite possible to be an academic expert without being an intellectual. In fact, the cult of expertise can become positively anti-intellectual. It fixates on slivers of truth rather than aspiring to knowledge of the whole. In my experience, many professors, perhaps most, are anti-intellectual in this way. They openly disdain those who risk larger thoughts, enforcing disciplinary boundaries and deeming “unqualified” those who overstep them.
What’s needed is a proper but not exaggerated dedication to one’s area of expertise. The academic disciplines focus our attention and train us to be rigorous, precise, and thorough. This is for the best. But we need to engage larger questions, too, as well as cultivate diverse, even eccentric interests. Illumination often comes from sources far removed from our primary course of study.
Incorruptibility characterizes Mary’s purity. The pure in heart resist conquest by worldly powers. This requires moral discipline, which can be distinguished from academic discipline but never separated from it. We are too often under the dominion of our reality-swallowing egos, which desire convenient, self-serving, and self-complimenting truths. Our worldly concerns gain the upper hand, corrupting our intellectual judgment.
This lack of purity is obvious to anyone who spends time at a university. There one sees how often vanity makes us incorrigibly loyal to our interpretations, ideas, and theories—not truth. Greed desires appointments, prizes, and fellowships, not clarity of vision. Today’s universities can be ruthlessly politically correct. In order to remain safe, many don’t say what they believe, or they endorse what they know to be false. These habits corrupt the life of the mind.
Innocence is still another manifestation of Mary’s virginal purity that illuminates the intellectual life. To be sure, we need to use the critical tools of analysis. In our work, it’s helpful to be challenged and subjected to rigorous critique. The true intellectual needs to cultivate his agility in the parry and thrust of argument. But these critical and dialectical modes can too easily lead to cold skepticism, worldly-wise knowingness, and a combative spirit that confuses debating skills with wisdom. These dangers are especially evident today. Too often we prize critical suspicion over settled conviction, and we cherish flashy critical skills rather than seeking sound judgment. Against these dangers we need to cultivate intellectual innocence. Yes, we live in a fallen world, and yes, our vision is obscured by sin. But reality remains radiant with truths that strike us with wonderful immediacy.
My advice, therefore, is to return again and again to the books or experiences that first sparked your intellectual desire and inspired you to commit yourself to a life of the mind. Some years ago, I reread Karl Barth’s little book Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. For a moment, I was again a college student rejoicing in the discovery of a discipline of reflection that boldly speaks of God. Academic sophistication is often an enemy of intellectual innocence. We need to beware the culpable innocence that blunders into ill-considered conclusions. But there’s also a naive zeal that can renew the heart of any soul wearied by pedantry. Find books that are bold in an almost childlike way, giving off the aroma of innocence. G. K. Chesterton wrote in that way. Seek out conversation partners with similar qualities.
Jesus tells us: “Be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.” Someone with intellectual virtue knows when to be serpent-like. There’s a place for strategic thinking, discerning which questions to ask—and when and to whom. Yet there’s also a need for us to be dove-like. Do not always take care in seminar interventions, limiting what you say to qualified statements well supported by evidence. Don’t always choose safe topics and noncontroversial themes. There are times to set aside worldly-wise efforts to navigate toward professional success. The Virgin Mary is the Mother of God—there are times to give innocent voice to something grand and transcendent, something that outstrips your capacities and outruns your reason. And that can be done in seemingly inauspicious circumstances, such as in stables.
Virginal purity is as difficult to attain in the intellectual life as it is in the moral life. It is more important to have an incorruptible professor than a careerist who happens to hold congenial views. Find friends who relish the pre-professional innocence of seeking again and again the original inspirations of their vocations rather than focusing on the next internship, application, or appointment. As Jesus teaches, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
The Virgin Mary embodies a perfect humility, as well: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” Like purity of heart, this virtue characterizes a life of truth-seeking. John Henry Newman writes, “Good thoughts are only good so far as they are taken as means to an exact obedience.” There is no intellectual integrity when the words “I want” dominate our thinking. We should seek to form our intellects in obedience to what is true, not what serves our interests, allays our fears, or reduces our anxieties. The all-demanding ego must be tamed. Humility turns us away from me-centered thinking.
Self-doubt is a quality any bright person should cultivate. By that I don’t mean doubting one’s abilities, as if we must pretend that we’re not capable or talented. Nor am I commending a crippling skepticism that shrinks from strong truth claims. Instead, reminding ourselves of what we don’t know helps us attain a proper and healthy self-doubt. Know-it-alls are not just bores; their intellectual arrogance inures them to new knowledge and insulates them from salutary criticism.
In my experience as an academic, I was struck by the arrogance of my fellow professors. We tend to treat the genuine insights of our disciplines as sufficient and comprehensive. (Psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and economists can be particularly egregious in this regard.) Or we imagine that our expertise licenses us to speak with authority on any number of topics. One colleague used to write foreign policy diatribes on the basis of his expertise in ancient Roman military history. That’s not a bad idea in itself, but he spent no time learning contemporary details, confident that his knowledge of ancient strategy gave him the intellectual Rosetta Stone. The best minds cultivate humility. A brilliant physicist knows many things, but he knows that he does not know all things, which is why, even if he’s at the top of his field, he relishes learning about art history or political theory from people he readily acknowledges know more than he does.
A proper self-doubt deflates the authority of academic pedigrees and credentials. We should keep in mind St. Paul’s warning: “Knowledge puffs up.” Expertise does not make one wise, or even interesting. The most tedious people at dinner parties are usually academics. We hold forth. I’m reminded of the joke about a Harvard professor who took a bright graduate student to lunch. After talking for thirty minutes, he caught himself and apologized, then prompted his student, “I’ve talked too much. Why don’t you tell me what you think about my work?”
Speaking to the Father, Jesus observes, “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Very often the learned can’t see the forest for the trees. The active politician can know a great deal more than the political philosopher, even though he lacks the technical education necessary to put his insights into the best and most useful forms. We must not lose sight of the fact that expertise with words and concepts—something rightly prized among intellectuals—is not the same as knowledge of reality.
Listening is the active form of proper self-doubt. Some people are so corrupted that their statements are not worth our consideration. However, most seek truth. We can learn from the Virgin Mary to listen and ponder the meaning of what others say. This kind of listening is especially necessary today, when political polarization discourages us from seeking to draw out the truth in political or moral views that seem rebarbative.
Recall the words of Jesus: “Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise.” Often people don’t really know what they are saying. Even when spouting wrongheaded opinions, they speak truths by accident, as it were. This is not surprising. As a species of evil, falsehood is a lack or privation of the good, which means it always piggybacks on some element or shred of truth. So it pays to pay attention to what people say, parsing their words and sifting their opinions.
The difference between the merely clever and truly wise turns on the Marian virtue of pondering what others say. Those who don’t listen tend to become more and more enclosed in their own ideas. They are often lousy writers and teachers, too. Not paying attention to what others think, they don’t know their audience.
Truth comes from the outside. It can come through books or lectures. These are focused moments of listening. But we choose our books and select our classes. This is perhaps why, in my experience, the most important moments of insight come in conversations. One rarely gets fully formed ideas, and certainly not “theories,” from these unplanned moments. But the unpremeditated, uncontrolled nature of conversation can bring unexpected insights. My own thinking has been deepened and redirected by the strange and even shocking things people say.
Silence is still another way of cultivating humility. As Josef Pieper observed, “To perceive is to listen in silence.” In a certain sense, of course, this is tautological. You can’t listen while you’re doing the talking, as my wife sometimes reminds me. But what Pieper means by silence is an interior quietness, a stilling of the grinding gears of the arguments and counter-arguments we often formulate in our minds while reading or listening. The Dominican A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We do not know very well how the mind works; but we know that passivity is its first law.” Interior silence cultivates passivity, stilling the motors of the soul. As with the Virgin Mary who humbled herself to receive God’s Word, this interior silence allows our intellects to hear a truth from the outside—which is where that which we do not know resides.
Prayer, whether spoken or meditative, is a discipline of humility. It silences the chattering of me-centered existence, which is essential for the intellectual life. Prayer must be central to our intellectual lives. This is the case not just because we should consecrate everything we do to God’s service, but also because we desire to be overshadowed and taken captive by truth.
This essay was first published in two installments of the Public Square: “Let's Lead, Not Be Led” and “Sacramental Realism.”
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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