Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
How to study?
Saint of the Day, January 7th 1972
I am going to answer a question that I received: How to study rationally the outlines of the Saints of the Day.
For us to know how to study, we have to know what is study. When one studies, what happens in our mind? What is the sign, what is the symptom that shows that something was studied? Finally, in ultimate analysis, what is study?
To Understand, Analyze, Conclude
Nobody studies something just for adornment. Nobody studies something only to know. One studies something, firstly, to understand it well. After it is well understood, one ought to analyze it: is this good or bad, does it seize me or leave me indifferent, or does it produce a rejection from me? Why? How do I judge the movement of my soul in face of this? After having responded these questions, it is the moment for the deliberations. One should adorn the essential, so as not to forget afterwards, and take concrete, practical attitudes.
For example, I am speaking now about study. A person should ask the following about the scheme that I will dictate at the end of the exposition: Is this scheme clear? Did I understand it well? In second place: Is what I understood good or bad? Does this conform to Catholic doctrine, or no? If it does conform to it, it is true and good. If not, it is wrong and bad.
Afterwards: What was the movement of my soul in face of what was said? What kind of attitude did my soul take? Torpor? Indifference? Interest? Rejection? Was the movement of my soul good or bad? After all this, one should ask: Now what will I do? If I came to the conclusion that I should adhere to what was presented, what will I do? If it is a thing that Catholic doctrine declares worthy of rejection, what will I do in practice? I will take such and such measures.
This is how one studies, passing in order through these various stages.
How One Perceives That One Understands
Understanding that someone of the newest generation can say to me: “You think that you told me a very useful thing, but you deceive yourself; it is perfectly useless for me; I do not know when I understand. I don’t know if I understood the same thing or not. I don’t even know if the thing conforms to Catholic doctrine or not because I don’t know Catholic doctrine well in respect to this subject. And I don’t know what to gather of what my soul felt in regards to this because I felt so many diverse things (or nothing), that I am not capable of responding this question. And the result is that you think you taught something, your convinced: you did not teach anything.”
As this state of spirit can occur, and it occurs frequently, it is my role to seek to paternally aid in all the difficulties, and to arrive to the concrete of the most concrete. So, I will try to enter through there.
How do I know if I understood something or not? I say that there is a criterion, but you will not find this criterion to be very secure. It is the following: If I know how to explain it to another one, I understood it; if I don’t know how to explain it, I did not understand it. Because that which I do not know how to explain, I did not understand. This is the good criterion.
But I understand that one can make an objection: “This is wrong because the other one, which I consider as my point of reference, is like me and he will also not know if he understood. In such a manner, we do not get out of the deadlock.” I answer: It is on this account that I think that the test is not entirely accurate. But I will give another process and this one is excellent: seek to understand all that you can; you will end up understanding it well.
Exercise transforms man into the master
Imagine a person who always has a problem before him, and who seeks to understand it and afterwards resolve it. It is possible that he cannot know whether he resolved it or not. But if were to do this many, many times, he will end up acquiring a force of spirit by which he ends up perceiving when he resolves it or not. The exercise ends up giving certainty.
There is an German expression that says: “Exercise transforms the man into the master.” Do the exercise and you will end up knowing. Think, think, think; reflect, reflect, reflect; you will end up reflecting in the right way.
A child that never walked can ask the same question to his parents: “How will I walk? You tell me to stay standing; I stand up and I fall; what’s the use? How will I walk?” The father says: “Walk, you fall five times, ten times, and afterwards you will go walking.” The child says: “Oh, I don’t want to!” The father pulls the child by the ear and makes him walk. I can’t do this, but there is no doubt that these words have a bit of a respectful pulling of the ears. In other words, it is necessary to break the inhibition and to do it.
How do you teach a person how to swim? You can say: “Look, it’s like this, this and that. Understood?” Then he falls into the water, drinks water, goes to the bottom fifty times, afterwards he swims and there you go. One also has to do this in order to think. Lose that laziness and seek to understand and you will end up perceiving if you understood or not. To such a point that nobody comes to me to say that they are not able to understand because its wrong: you can end up understanding.
Someone will tell me: “But you are also wanting something that I can’t see clearly because you order us to decide if this is truth or error, good or bad. I have arrived at the end of my reasoning, I have not decided, and you impose on me: decide!” I say that if someone does not have certainty, he does not decide, but apply your spirit, in measure you can, in order to acquire this certainty. Using a trivial expression of my time (I think it is not used anymore), “squeeze the brains.” Squeeze, “it turns,” and the thing goes. But it is necessary to do it, and I don’t see much will to do this.
The Written Outline
And then comes the written outline, the written prayer: “Look here I have something of first class that Dr. Plinio dictated. I became very emotional when he spoke; I even saved it in my pocket. As far as studying, one beautiful day I’ll study. In the meantime, I’ll carry the outline in my pocket; its well kept.”
Outlines and prayers were made to be carried in the head; the best pocket for these things is the head. It is more or less as useless to keep something in the pocket without reading it, as it is to open the head and keep a relic inside of it. It is not the right place: relics are not kept in the head, concepts are kept there; concepts are not kept in the pocket, relics are kept there. It is that simple.
Where Should One Start
When there is a lot of material that has never been looked over, where should one start? I will give a piece of advice that is useful, I don’t say its for all cases, but for an enormous number of cases: When it is sort of difficult to know where to start, start from anywhere because, if not, you will never start. The Pioneers did this: “Where are the emeralds in Brazil? We heard that there are emeralds. Where does the jungle start? In some place.” They opened up the jungle and went in. It is the way out. Now imagine someone at the edge of the jungle, perplexed: “How is this? Should I enter through here, or over there? I don’t know. So I won’t go in the jungle.” This is not the way the Pioneers would go!
There is something called “thread of the skein.” After a while, when we are habituated to thinking, each one of us starts to perceive that we have interest for some subjects and not for others. We should enter the jungle from this side because it is the side of the primordial light. But, first, it is necessary to start to think, think, think. Otherwise, it does not work.