In the seventeenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Thomas à Kempis’ ‘The Inner Life’.
Like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, this book was published anonymously. However, it is widely believed that Thomas á Kempis – a German canon, copyist and writer – is the author after several sources of authority, including his own order, named him so.
A Christian devotional book, it was first composed in Latin between 1418 and 1427 ca. It is a handbook for life, on how to live it spiritually and in accordance with Christ, which arises from the Devotio Moderna (a religious reform movement). It is divided into four books, only three of which appear in this Penguin version, which detail instructions on how to live a peaceful, spiritual, happy life that ensures an everlasting presence with Jesus Christ. It emphasises the importance of the interior life, drawing away from the world and concentrating on your mind and soul in order to achieve this.
These writings are considered an important element of Christian theology and ethics, and are often referenced in early Christian documents such as the Pauline Epistles. St Augustine viewed the work as the fundamental purpose of Christian life and as a remedy for the sins of Adam. The Imitation of Christ was not so widely liked though, with Friedrich Nietzsche stating that it was “one of those books which I cannot hold in my hand without a physiological reaction”.
It is a book that certainly divides opinion; though whether religious or atheist, it definitely provides a guide to living a life that will make you happy and at peace.
Book one, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, introduces this idea of an inward life, with book two, Counsels on the Inner Life, and book three, On Inward Consolation, continuing this idea of withdrawing from the outward as much as duty can allow, and focusing on the mind and soul. To do this, Kempis suggests following the example of Christ as “the teaching of Jesus far transcends all the teachings of the saints”. He recommends personal humility, as it is through being humble that we can open ourselves up to life’s lessons and appreciate what we have.
He also discusses being prudent in our actions;
“We should not believe every word and suggestion, but should carefully and unhurriedly consider all things in accordance with the will of God. For such is the weakness of human nature, alas, that evil is often more readily believed and spoken of another than good. But perfect men do not easily believe every tale that is told them, for they know that man’s nature is prone to evil, and his words to deception.”
Through being aware of evil inclinations, we can avoid them better, so avoiding too much suffering and thereby helping our mind and souls to find peace. And in the long term, we become better people.
Avoiding vanity is also something that can help us to become better people. Kempis suggests that we should not be ashamed to be “the servant of others” or to “appear poor in this world” as God will bless our good intentions and honour us in the afterlife. Accepting who we are and what we have is a big step in achieving the inner peace that Kempis so wants us to achieve. After all, comparing what we have to those of others will only bring about jealousy and anger.
As well as their status in life, the actions of other men can also be detrimental to our inner well-being: “we could enjoy much peace if we did not busy ourselves with what other people say and do, for this is no concern of ours” – again highlighting the importance of looking inward to oneself in order to achieve peace and happiness.
Kempis admits that life is hard, that “so long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation”. This is what we need to accept in order to overcome them; if we expect them to happen, we can be better prepared to deal with them.
So many things can affect our happiness and the goodness of our person, and Kempis aims to make us aware of this – the book contains many meditations and ideas on how to live a life that can bring about inner peace, happiness and spirituality. While he guides us toward living a life of Christ, everything he says about being a better person doesn’t necessarily relate back to Jesus and could also guide an atheist on how to live a life that makes them a better person.
Review by Sophie Kingham
(The Inner Life is the name given by Penguin to their excerpts of The Imitation of Christ.)