60 in 60: #4 – Thomas à Kempis’ The Inner Life (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

The Inner Life
by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471)

Memorable Line
“Avoid public gatherings as much as possible, for the discussion of worldly affairs becomes a great hindrance, even though it be with the best of intentions, for we are easily corrupted and ensnared by vanity.”

The Skinny
Three essays that provide guidance on how to live a God-friendly life, including call and response between a hypothetical Christ and a hypothetical Disciple. It’s also something of a how-to guide, as in “how to avoid temptation,” or perhaps more accurately, a methodical “reminder guide” of what’s important to a Christian.

Relevance? Argument?
At the beginning of The Inner Life, Kempis writes, “A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.” Assuming that “countryman” doesn’t mean “country gentleman” but instead “goatherd” or “feudal farmer,” I found this interesting from a class perspective. The audience for Kempis’ thoughts had to be the educated upper classes, or perhaps a merchant class (or just priests?), unless these three essays were read aloud to the uneducated. The conceited intellectual would thus be the one reading, the one being asked to envision a somewhat idealized “countryman” who put his own book learnin’ to shame through simple piety.

But in my mind’s eye, I see that “countryman” happily farting, spitting, and cursing while smacking the butts of goats ahead with a stick. Dirty in the same clothes from the day before. About to go home and just as happily have a quick one with the wife or the neighbor’s wife. All the while no doubt oppressed by a landed baron or even, perhaps, the church itself. Now, I might have just as much of a caricature of a “countryman” at this time as the humble man of God, but it is a good deal less abstract. Just probably not what Kempis had in mind.

Still, it’s easy to see such a “countryman” attending church, worshipping Christ, and even taking comfort from Kempis’ pronouncements, wherever or however encountered. Kempis preaches humility, peacefulness, patience, and many other admirable character traits–always wedded to and given sense by a belief in God. This insistent rhetorical device of linking morality and religion creates the kind of repetition that, in the mind of the believer, provides continual reaffirmation of faith. From an outside reader’s perspective, however, it gums up the works, pads the actual content, sometimes as annoying as talking to a man who is wearing three or four collared shirts at the same time. “Please take at least one of them off so you don’t look so puffy. It offends my eye.”

Indeed, as an argument for the God-filled life, Kempis repeats the saying “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Yet very few of us consistently see or hear what is around us, Seneca might argue. So how can we know that there is not more to each, intrinsically, perhaps even spiritual in the detail?

The most interesting section, “On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace,” describes the opposition between the two–in essence sets up black-and-white characteristics for the one and the other. For example, “Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy.” Such pronouncements are comforting and horrifying at the same time. They make things simple, easy to understand. But they also promise no reconciliation, only constant war–literal and figurative.

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca appear to have believed in deities from my prior reading, but in their teachings the sense of dogma is relieved by a clear-eyed view of the practical–and an understanding that the world itself is not something from which we should turn away. There is none of that here.

Ritual and commonsense advice, no doubt of great comfort to many Christians.

Question for Readers
Kempis offers reflections on humility and spirituality. What book on this subject has been most comforting or useful to you?

Next up, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince…

16 comments on “60 in 60: #4 – Thomas à Kempis’ The Inner Life (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

  1. Allen says:

    Kempis. Never been a big thrill for me. But I must point out he was primarily writing for cloistered individuals.

  2. Aha! That was one of my suspicions. Again, I’ve decided to retain my tunnel vision on those texts I haven’t previously read, but getting context after is great.

  3. Larry says:

    Pie Iesu domine, dona eis requiem…

    As Allen says, it was written with monks in mind. I read it last year as a meditative guide and that’s pretty much the only practical use for it. As for which books have been of most comfort, besides reading the main sacred texts, I would go with Bishop Fulton Sheen’s works. He has a way about him (and his old 50s-60s TV shows demonstrate this even more than his books do) that is comforting and instructive without ever being pedantic.

    Damn, I sound almost like someone who’s about to join a monastery, rather than a recent convert :P

  4. Derus says:

    I picked up the book yesterday. I thought it would be fun to read along. I was able to knock out two of the three essays but was bored by the time I got to the third. I decided this was your conquest not mine. I really liked the first one. And you are right it is a great comfort. I like how he talks about pseudo intellectualism. His advice on humility is something that I think scholars both secular and spiritual could benefit from.

    My favorite quote is “Therefore, do not be conceited of any skill or knowledge you may possess, but respect the knowledge that is entrusted to you. If it seems to you that you know a great deal and have a wide experience in many fields, yet remember that there are many matters in which you are ignorant.”

    That being said there were a lot of Do’s and Don’ts. It got a little repetitive. And the bit about not meeting together to avoid gossip seems silly.

  5. I think my thoughts about pseudo intellectualism are guided by the anti-intellectualism you find in the US these days. I would much prefer attempts to be more thoughtful, whether humble or not, than the kind of “aw shucks, we’re all just regular folks” approach that has distinguished the last eight years, and helped largely to destroy us. So in the context of Kempis’ times, I’m sure “pseudo intellectualism” had a very different meaning.

  6. Dan Read says:

    I would like to nominate “folks” as one of the worst words in current popular usage.

  7. Derus says:

    I see your point. It’s hard not to look at this work through the lenses of 21st century America.
    I would say that the ‘aw shucks’ anti intellectualism is more false humility, at least from Kempis’ point of view. I feel like his humility brings forth more moderate thinking. It says, “While I still have my opinions I’m willing to listen because I may have strayed somewhere along the way.”

    Unfortunately for me, I seem to be surrounded more by the pseudo intellectuals then rednecks. People who know things because they read a book or can quote a scholar but have failed to do true research. Let me tell you, personally, arrogant poorly thought out intellectualism is far worse. It tends to breed anger and single mindedness more than answers.

    On and unrelated note, how long does it take you to polish one of these books off in the evening? They are not huge but they are dense. Although I guess they are also abridged. Just curious.

  8. Most of them are abridged. It usually takes me about 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours, and I’m scribbling notes as I read. Then I re-read certain sections. If a section is boring me, I skip it and come back to it, like I’m taking the SATs. LOL.

  9. Anne S says:

    I recall I received Thomas a Kempis “Imitation of Life” as a prize for coming top of Religion at school one time. Nobody was more surprised than me as I was not that devout.

    It’s a nice little leather bound book with a ribbon marker and gold lettering.

    Can’t say I’ve read it for years, if indeed ever.

  10. Anne S says:

    OOps! that should read Imititation of Christ, old age is catching up with me.

  11. hello reading man
    i read about you
    i’ve been reading these books two
    wait till you get to Soren Kierkegaard and his despair
    he’s a funny guy old Soren
    but he says some interesting things
    Soren values seriousness
    and the need to go deeper within the self
    not enough people value seriousness anymore
    reading David Hume at the moment
    he’s a big player
    and got Arthur S on the pile, which i’ve read before
    Arthur speaks to me
    so does David
    and i’ve got Foucault and the scaffold torture, public violence one to read
    it’s a good series
    60 in 60 days is a bit much though
    i don’t understand you

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    hello broken line poet
    the required field must always be left blank
    60 in 60 days is a bit little then
    i don’t understand you

  13. Anon says:

    Whilst previously put off by what was then perceived as fire and brimstone read again and although a hard message this is a book which sits alongside not only The Gospel of Thomas and The Cloud of Unknowing but also the Sufi and Zen classics as well as the teachings of G I Gurdjieff.

    Some short quotations:

    Happy the man who is instructed by Truth itself, not by signs and passing words, but as It is in itself.

    He is truly wise who counts all earthly things as dung …

    A man who is not yet dead to self is easily tempted, and is overcome in small and trifling things.

    (man) is an exile here

    as Job says, ‘Man’s life on earth is a warfare.’

    The beginning of all temptation is an unstable mind and lack of trust in God.

    Thus the poet Ovid writes, ‘Resist at the beginning’: the remedy may come too late.’

    Without love, the outward work is of no value; but whatever is done out of love, be it never so little, is wholly fruitful.

    Oh, if only a man had a spark of love in his heart, he would know for certain that all earthly things are full of vanity.

    … consider our neighbour in the same light as ourselves.

    You should order your every deed and thought, as though today were the day of your death.

    ..the life of man passes away suddenly as a shadow.

    Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth.

    The kingdom of God is within you.

    ..attend diligently to your own affairs; then you may properly be concerned for your neighbour also.

    It would me more just to accuse yourself, and to excuse your fellows.

    Fire tempers steel, and temptation the just man.

    The two wings that raise a man above earthly things – simplicity and purity.

    ..take up the Cross, which is the road to the kingdom…..See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend……you must bear it as long as God wills…..Why then do you seek any other road than this royal road of the Holy Cross? The whole life of Christ was a cross and a martyrdom; and do you look for rest and selfish pleasure?….Resolve to bear the cross…..to endure many trials and obstacles.

    …live a dying life…

    “take up his cross and follow me”

    let your speech descend on me like the dew.

    I visit my chosen in two ways; with trial and consolation…I teach them two lessons.. I correct their faults and … I encourage them.

    Walk before me in truth

    Never think yourself to be anything because of your good deeds.

    You have nothing to boast about, but many things to be ashamed for you are much weaker than you realize.

    Love longs to be free, a stranger to worldy desire

    Love flied, runs, and leaps for joy: it is free and unrestrained. Love gives for all, resting in One ..

    Love does not regard the gifts, but turns to the Giver of all good gifts.

    Love knows no limits

    Conceal the grace of devotion; do not boast of it.

    Man’s life is not always in his control….some people, lacking discretion, have brought ruin on themselves through the grace of devotion, attempting more than lay in their power, ignoring the measure of their own littleness, and following the promtings of the heart rather than the disctates of reason.

    My will is that you do not find a place free from temptations and troubles. Rather, seek a place that endures eveb when you are beset by various temptations and tried by much adversity.

    The rich of this world will vanish like smoke.

    ..the very things whence they derive their pleasures often carry with them the seeds of sorrow.

    …you who are dust and nothingness …. what right have you to complain.

    Be as ready to suffer as to be glad; be as willings to be needy and poor as to enjoy wealth and plenty.

    ..nothing under the sun is hid from my kowledge….

    Keep guard over your whole life, your actions and words. Direct all your eforts to the sibgle purpose of …

    Forsake all, and you shall find all.

    attain that state where you cease to be a lover of self.

    renounce self, and you shall find me.

    desire this one thing – that you may be stripped of all selfishness ….

    The things of this world have no hold over the children of God; on the contrary they draw them into their service, and employ then in the ways ordained by God and established by the Heavenly Architect, who has left nothing in His creation without its due place.

    Do not judge by outward apearances, or reports as men do, but in each instance enter like Moses into the Tabernacle to ask guidance of the Lord.

    renounce self even in small things

    the old enemy, the Adversary of all good, never ceases to tempt man.

    He who attributes any goodness to himself, obstructs the coming of God’s grace.

    overcome self in everything, and you shall come to the knowledge of God.

    We are all weak and unstable, changeable and easily deceived. None of us can guard himself so carefully and completely that he is never deceived nor in doubt.

    So long as you wear this mortal body, you will be subject to wearniness and sadness of heart…When this happens ….resort to humble, exterior tasks, and to restor yourself by good works.

    Grace moves in simplicity…makes no attempt to deceive.

    Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.

    Grace …. teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided..

    Grace is a supernatural light …

    When toruble knocks unexpectedly …. these things happen for your own good… banish discourgaement…control yourself.. let no rash words escape you… the violence of your feelings will soon subside.

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