Hugh of Saint Victor

Hugh of Saint Victor

On a whim I read Alan Jacobs‘s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction a couple of weeks ago.1 I had secretly hoped that the book would be a screed against my inability to pay attention to anything, but on that score I was mostly disappointed. What I found was better: a discussion of the paradox between reading as discipline and reading as whim. Jacobs is of the opinion that reading should be driven by whim rather than by lists of recommended reading. I have experienced, as you likely have, a curious inability to read many books once I’ve put them on my list of books to read. But when I follow my whims I tend to do a lot of reading: to wit, reading The Pleasures of Reading led me to Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, and Hugh led me to Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. People do and should read by Whim (with a capital W), Jacobs argues, because such reading is motivated by pleasure. But not an aimless pleasure: “In its lower-case version whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” Whim that is based on self-knowledge leads to reading that is more pleasurable.

The second meaning of Whim has room, I think, for conceiving of reading not only as whim but also as a discipline. You could scarcely decide to read seven pages of difficult prose every day for seven years without letting whim get the better of you, but you also cannot expect to read the fathers without some discipline. The way forward is to rely on both whim and discipline, to subject the flights of whim to a discipline which will yield a higher pleasure.

The discipline we’re attempting with Read the Fathers is akin to the ancient and medieval monastic disciplines (studio) in two ways. First, reading is a discipline because it involves, well, hard work. But this is hard work that leads to joy, not drudgery. The twelfth-century monk Hugh of Saint Victor, who wrote an introduction to Christian learning called the Didascalicon, described how pleasure (love) and discipline (hard work) combine to accomplish a task.

Hard work and love make you carry out a task; concern and alertness make you well advised. Through hard work you keep matters going; through love you bring them to perfection. Through concern you look ahead; though alertness you pay close attention.

Second, and more important, reading is a discipline because it requires holiness and in turn refines the soul. Here is Athanasius, describing the discipline necessary to read the Scriptures, to which the Fathers will inevitably make us turn, and in turn to know Christ, who is the fount of all joy:

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, … and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (On the Incarnation, §57)

Get ready for seven years of whim and discipline—and pleasure.