On the virtue of studiousness

by Michael J. Healy

In this little reflection I wish to describe to the Franciscan educational community, and especially our students, the moral or practical virtue of “studiousness,” a virtue to which you all are called. St. Thomas Aquinas devotes a section (II-II, 1666[7]) of the Summa Theologica to this virtue, and from this I take my inspiration, while also referring to other authors.

The virtue of studiousness pertains to or is a type of temperance. “Temperance” implies such things as moderation, restraint, direction, self-control, and discipline. Studiousness then is that virtue which is supposed to regulate and direct man’s desire to know. This “desire to know” needs direction because it can be at fault, and this in two directions: first, the soul may be carried away by an unrestrained, undisciplined curiosity (no order, no priorities, no direction); or, on the other hand, the soul may not be carried away at all, but captured by laziness and sloth.

So, let us look at each of these in turn. First, the virtue of studiousness combats or counteracts a desire for knowledge which is in some way defective. A desire for knowledge may be wrong in two ways. First, it may be wrong from its motive; that is, if one seeks to know primarily for the gratification of pride, for selfish ambitions, or as means to sin. Now, in itself, the knowledge of truth is, of course, the proper exercise of one’s intellect, is an end in itself, and is a good in itself. Indeed, St. Bonaventure points out that this is one of the ways in which man fulfills his nature as an image of God—that his intellect should reflect the truth. This is one of the ways in which man becomes like God—though not the most important way, compared to moral transformation and religious conversion. But, our true knowledge is meant to lead us on to proper decisions of the will and to right actions. Otherwise—i.e., if knowledge is merely accumulated without decision and without action—then as St. Francis de Sales says: “We resemble beetles which settle upon the roses for no other end than to fill their stomachs and satiate themselves.” (Sermons on Prayer, Ch. 1.) So the virtue of studiousness would have us seek knowledge from a true motive: a sincere desire to understand and then to order our lives according to a true understanding.

Secondly, St. Thomas goes on, the desire for knowledge may be wrong not just from its motive but from its nature, and this in four interesting ways:

1. Our desire for knowledge is wrong if we omit to study that which is an obligation in favor of that which is not. Priorities are important here. For example, it would be wrong (a) to read an interesting novel rather than study for an impending philosophy test; or (b) to study an interesting few pages in theology (not due for weeks) rather than study for a math test coming tomorrow. On a wider scale, it would be wrong to omit the study of theology, philosophy, history, and English in favor of pure professional training. This is why we have a core requirement at Franciscan University. St. Thomas, by the way, gives the following example of this reversal of priorities, quoting St. Jerome: “We see priests forsaking the gospels and the prophets, reading stage plays, and singing the love songs of pastoral idyls.” (St. Jerome was pretty strict.)

2.   But, a second way in which the desire for knowledge may be wrong is seeking knowledge from the wrong sources, e.g., from your neighbor’s answer sheet. On a wider basis here, one commentator mentions seeking knowledge from horoscopes or fortune tellers. St. Thomas mentions the case of “those who seek to know the future through the demons.” (Now we’re getting into some other faults besides just a lack of studiousness.) However, it might be noted here that relying on infused knowledge from your guardian angel to get you through a history test would also be a violation of the virtue of studiousness.

3.   A third way in which the desire for knowledge may be wrong in its nature is if one seeks knowledge of creatures without referring this knowledge to God—the beginning and end of all creatures. Thus we must try to understand the subjects we study not only in themselves but in their proper place in the universe and in relation to God. This is why it is important to study at a university that keeps these priorities, that has a strong theology department and vibrant spiritual life on campus: so that we do not forget the Ultimate Reality to which all else relates.

4.   Finally, St. Thomas says, a desire for knowledge may be wrong if one seeks knowledge beyond one’s capacity, “since by doing so, men easily fall into error.” Now I think the best way to concretize this for our students would be the following: listen to your advisor. If he tells you, as a freshman, that you’re not ready for a 400 level course, believe him. In all things, be ready to humbly recognize your limits.

To summarize positively: the virtue of studiousness would have us rightly order, direct and limit our curiosity or desire to know (1) by studying first those things which are obligatory or most important, (2) by doing the work of going to the right sources, (3) by relating what we discover to God, and (4) by realistically accepting our limits.

Thus does studiousness combat an undisciplined curiosity. But studiousness also faces another foe: sloth. Now this may come in the form of sheer, crass laziness—and I’m afraid often does—but it may also take more subtle forms. For instance, as one commentator says, a student may think, “I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it”—but then feel no compunction about neglecting his definitions. Or, similarly, a student may feel the urge to do “some good work” (active charity) rather than to “waste time studying,” not realizing that studying is precisely an exercise in virtue and ultimately in charity. It is an exercise in virtue as answering the call of the moment in his life as a student. This means exercising the necessary discipline and temperance to live up to his vocation and avoid distraction from it—there is an asceticism to the intellectual life. But ultimately and rightly understood, this is also inseparable from charity. To quote St. Bernard: “There are some who desire to know merely in order to have knowledge and this is curiosity; others wish to know in order that they may be known and this is vanity; others wish to know (only) in order that they may sell their knowledge and this is greed; (but) others wish to know in order that they may be spiritually built up and this is prudence; and there are those who wish to know in order that they may spiritually build others up and this is charity.” (Quoted by St. Thomas in 1 Cor., Ch. 8.) So, let it not be thought that it is selfish to sit and study rather than to go and do “some good work.” Certainly that depends upon the motive for the study and the nature of the “competing” good, but it is a difficult and sometimes heroic (and painful) thing to sit and study when you know you should. It can be lonely too. But be assured that it is also a virtue.

Finally, before concluding, let me just briefly mention a few prerequisites or dispositions required for study. For instance, mental dispositions for study would be such things as absence of distraction, a calm mind, and the ability to concentrate. This is why we have quiet hours in the residence halls. This is why—though it does sometimes happen—I would not normally recommend scheduling your wedding right at the end of final exam week. You need a calm mind and freedom from distraction and the ability to concentrate on academics during finals week. But, ultimately, what is it which brings a calm mind in any situation, facing any agitation, trouble, or evil? What is it but prayer and closeness to God? This is one of the ways in which a strong spiritual life helps to lay a good foundation for being a successful student. This is one of the positive ways in which the strong spiritual life on this campus helps you, our students, to be successful in your vocation.

Furthermore, there are certain bodily dispositions for study: namely, good health and all that is required to maintain it in order to support and further mental activity, which is draining. Therefore, it becomes an obligation (not a luxury) for you as students to attend to the following:

1.   Diet. You have to eat enough and of the right quality of foods. So, for instance, you must watch out for doing too much fasting (either for bodily or spiritual reasons). Real study is taxing and requires strength.

2.   Sleep. It must be regular and plentiful, and this is not a pampering or a luxury, but an obligation to support your vocation as a student. You need to eat and sleep adequately, like someone preparing for the Olympic games. Otherwise, you hurt yourself; you study with less efficiency and get less accomplished while taking a longer time to do it.

3.   Exercise. Again, you need to stay physically strong and healthy. One commentator, in a masterful understatement, says that the amount of exercise for a student should be “at least sufficient to maintain circulation.” (Now there’s a serious student!)

4.   And finally, you must have recreation, by which is meant not “vacancy of mind,” but a change of occupation, which includes mental relaxation.

Thus, it is no good to go from intense study to intense prayer and back to intense study again. You will turn grim (and die!). You are not an angel and cannot yet mentally concentrate in full depth and focus for an eternity. Thus you must develop a further virtue which St. Thomas calls (in various translations) pleasantness, wittiness, friendliness, cheerfulness—the opposite of being totally grim—and recreation is needed for this. That is, to maintain a cheerful disposition, you need some healthy fun in your life. And once again, this is an obligation not a luxury (but, not a grim obligation—ok?).

Study, over time, brings a weariness of soul, and, to quote St. Thomas, “one man is more soul-wearied than another, according as he is more intensely occupied with works of reason. Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul…The remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasantness, by slackening the tension of the reason’s study. Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man’s mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.” (S.Th. II-II, q.168, a.2)   Thus times of play and recreation are also essential to your life as a successful student at Franciscan University. Such times are not just “goofing off” or “wasting time” but provide a necessary balance to the tensions and responsibilities of the academic life. Moreover, as Josef Pieper affirms in his great work Leisure, the Basis of Culture, play also carries with it a certain note of joy and celebration. This reminds us that human life is not to be reduced only to “toil” and duty. Recreation and celebration are not only necessary but justified in the Christian vision of life. It is an interesting fact (and mysterious) that times of play are absolutely necessary for our growth development as children. Similarly, recreation is still necessary to our health as adults—though, of course, not quite as much playtime is necessary for adults. Yet St. Benedict, the strict father of western monasticism under the motto ora et labora (to pray and to work) required a full hour of recreation each day for his monks.

So, to conclude, even with “wars and rumors of wars,” even with an abortion going on every few seconds, even with all the other evils and oppressions going on in the world, if your vocation (your call from God) right now is to be a student, then you must order your life—your priorities, your time, your effort—in such a way as to concentrate successfully on your studies. You are here to learn about God and about His creation, about yourself and about each other. You are preparing yourself for the rest of your life and the contributions you will be expected to make in it.

Moreover, even with the world situation and national tragedies and other personal worries, even if you at times find your studies overwhelming with term papers, tests, special projects and journals all coming due, you must not be grim! There is still a place, in temperance and moderation, for play. n

Dr. Healy, who has been Dean of Faculty at FUS since 1986, is currently on sabbatical from administrative duties. He is a professor in the department of philosophy. This article is adapted from a talk he gave at the FUS Academic Convocation in January of 1991.