Thomas Aquinas’ “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge”

Since I am a student and a Catholic one at that, I try to learn how to be a better student constantly. Thomas Aquinas once wrote a letter to a certain Brother John about the principles of good study. Aquinas lays out his philosophy of how to study. A lot of it has to do with avoiding social contact, which I find more applicable to a more monastic approach to study. It should be noted that Aquinas was not a monk, but a mendicant. Yet he did live a religious life in community as a priest. Despite the hermit/monk flavor of some of the precepts, this list is extremely helpful in learning to think like a professional. Some of the shortest maxims are the most helpful. Let me know what you think of it.

“My Very Dear Brother,
Since you have asked me how you ought to study in order to amass the treasures of knowledge, listen to the advice which I am going to give you.
As a mere stripling,

1. Advance up the streams, and do not all at once plunge into the deep: such is my caution, and your lesson. I bid you to

2. Be chary of speech,

3. Slower still in frequenting places of talk:

4. Embrace purity of conscience,

5. Pray unceasingly,

6. Love to keep to your cell if you wish to be admitted into the mystic wine-cellar.

7. Show yourself genial to all:

8. Pay no heed to other folk’s affairs:

9. Be not over-familiar with any person, because over-much familiarity breeds contempt, and gives occasion to distraction from study.

10. On no account mix yourself up with the sayings and the doings of persons in the outside world.

11. Most of all, avoid all useless visits, but try rather to walk constantly in the footsteps of good and holy men.

12. Never mind from whom the lesson drops, but

13. Commit to memory whatever useful advice may be uttered.

14. Give an account to yourself of your every word and action:

15. See that you understand what you hear, and never leave a doubt unsolved:

16. Lay up all you can in the storehouse of memory, as he does who wants to fill a vase. ‘Seek not the things which are beyond thee’.

Following these ways, you will your whole life long put forth and bear both branches and fruit in the vineyard of the Lord of Sabaoth. If you take these words to heart, you will attain your desire.”

-Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge by St. Thomas Aquinas

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas’ “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge”

  1. Peter

    Don’t mind if I do share my thoughts a few years after the post:

    I think Aquinas’ precepts are definitely helpful in seeking to be a better student, while, as you note, they are interspersed with sort-of an anti-social goad possibly connected to his association with monastic life. Though I may be misunderstanding what your pretext meant when you wrote that the precepts, “more applicable to a more monastic approach to study,” I would like to know more specifically what you mean by “monastic approach.” While the anti-social precepts seem to be distracting with respect to the purpose of the precepts, I think that my recent personal experience trying to read in a cafeteria setting could help to show where I’m coming from as I share my thoughts on this post.

    I had moved down to the faculty section of the dining hall of the high school where I work, and for once I was determined to stick to myself and just try to read without saying hi to every person who passed by. Even though I might know them, or unintentionally invite others to join me while I ate and read the book, I was just going to try to keep my head down directed at the book while I just read. And I mean, for the most part, no one really tried to say hi, and I was able to make progress in the reading that I was doing.

    So I might say that there needs to be some anti-social aspect of study, not only for one to be able to focus properly in order to understand the material, but also to let go of whatever there is happening around the person which might divert the attention of the reader, and thus loose track of the line of reasoning that they were following.

    Finally, getting to what Aquinas wrote, I think that #10 has the most direct relevance to the monastery as it clearly illustrates the divide that the person to whom Aquinas is writing inhabits, as he himself might as well from time to time. I might say that there exist some categories into which I might place the sayings as to layout a spectrum of his guidance to acquiring knowledge. On the one end, lies #10 and the anti-social, eremitic tendency of the guidelines. The next step away from #10 (towards some less anti-social advice?) might be the still anti-social, but less extreme guidelines of numbers 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11 and 14 in which there appears to be a priority on self-control with respect to inter-personal interactions. In other words, he might mean to stress in these numbers restraining from initiating contact with other people. This restraint could be highlighted in 8 & 9 where he basically says to ignore what others are doing, & especially not focusing on one person over another if you are to get involved at all. In conjunction, #14 also emphasizes great self-accountability for one’s own presence in the world. Maybe I’ll express it as maximalist goal setting where the most one can do is to know everything that one does and to be able to recount everything one does in the world by giving “…an account to yourself of your every word and action.” On the other hand possibly the 7th commandment, through its negative statement could be considered as an example of the minimalist goal of not bearing false witness through word or deed.

    In my mind the spectrum continues with the next set of precepts being 4, 5, 7, and 16 being more ambiguous advice in terms of social interactions, as well as focusing on the subject of study. Lastly numbers 1, 12, 13, and 15, the last being my favorite, seem to be more directed towards advice for the intellectual/conceptual side of the matter. (By the way, I think that I’m spending way to much time on this and I will skip to my favorite one, #15.) To me, 15 epitomizes his advice because, though it is not the last of his precepts, in it he uses the unconditional “never,” and speaks to something that each and every person who engages in learning must be confronted with, that is our own personal intellectual limits. The true test of acquiring knowledge then may not be the gifts of the mind with which the student is endowed, but the perseverance with which the student applies their gifts of the mind towards perfect understanding. Maybe in an act of giving, he may be serving all students who do not understand something by providing them with some lasting inspiration, “never to leave a doubt unsolved,” and always be determined to rest the mind by finding reasonable solutions to our questions. (I am being rash here for the sake of finishing the extended comment and assuming what Aquinas means by “doubt” here and ironically fall short of practicing the maxim by not knowing what exactly he means by it, and instead interpreting it as a question that someone might have about an unclear meaning.)

  2. Chuck Bumgardner

    A book that is well worth your reading, and loosely based on these sixteen precepts, is A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.

  3. Michael Kranzke

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you for posting this quote from Aquinas.
    I first read it when I was in college in the 50’s, a student for the priesthood.
    I’m married now and with children and grandchildren and a circle of many friends.
    I’m more a student now than I ever was then.
    I am most grateful for this message,still as fresh as ever.
    Michael

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