On a cloister wall in Florence there’s an old, fifteenth-century fresco of Dominic de Guzmán. The Spanish saint, founder of the Dominican Order, sits in a posture of easy grace, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. His attentive gaze draws our eyes to the object he holds – an open book. Dominic is at study.
The portrait is idyllic, charming even. It’s also misleading. The real drama of the painting takes place in the plane beyond Dominic’s figure. There we see Christ crowned with thorns, blindfolded, and mocked. Spittle streams toward his face, while the hands of unseen assailants hang in midair – impossibly – heightening the inhumanity of the scene. In the foreground opposite Dominic sits the sorrowful Virgin, her own eyes cast down and heavy with grief.
The effect of Fra Angelico’s Mocking of Christ is stunning, but also confusing. For a contemporary audience it raises a real problem: What does study have to do with holy sorrow?
Most of us will have a hard time answering this question because the world in which we live has forgotten something Dominic and the medievals knew, something about the very human act of study. What we’ve lost, in fact, is the virtue of studiousness. And there are very good reasons for Christians in particular to be concerned with its recovery.
As the religion of the Word made flesh, Christianity consecrates the human intellectual life in a unique way. But not all Christians are aware of this, others aren’t quite convinced, and very few have any idea where to begin. But the virtue of studiousness shouldn’t be strange and intimidating to us. It should be as familiar as our own creatureliness.
Our Need-to-Know Basis
Each one of us has a natural desire for knowledge that has nothing to do with whether we consider ourselves the intellectual type or pride ourselves on being readers. Our desire for knowledge is fundamentally human and so deeply seated that Saint Thomas Aquinas – a spiritual son of Dominic – compares it to the body’s desire for its own natural goods: just as the body craves food and sex, the soul craves knowledge. In fact, because the soul is the highest, and governing, part of us, its desires are arguably greater and more urgent than those of the body. Put simply, we really, really want to know things.
This is where study comes in. Study is the keen application of the mind to truth. It is the way we feed our hunger for knowledge. And because this desire is God-given, study itself shares in the urgency of our lifelong search for happiness. Unless we apply our minds to truth, we will never be happy.
The idea that study leads to happiness may seem far-fetched to anyone who has never been happy while studying. The fact is that most of us think of study as something we really ought to do, something we wish we enjoyed, or something that would make us better versions of ourselves. In other words, we think study is for the mind what routine exercise is for the body – an amoral exertion with no lasting value. If this were true, study would make us happy like being in good shape makes us “happy.” And, currently, some of us might feel either a little guilty, or a little self-satisfied, about our level of performance.
It may surprise us, then, to learn that, in the Christian vision of things, study is neither a personal lifestyle choice nor a habit of self-care – it’s a moral virtue.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II–II, q. 141, a. 2, ad 3. Cf. “Whether the Honest Is the Same as the Beautiful?” ST II–II, q. 145, a. 2.
- Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, trans. R. & C. Winston (New York: Pantheon, 1958), 81.
- Pieper, 75.
- Ibid, 87.
- ST II–II, q. 85, a. 2.