The Virtuous Intellectual

French philosopher and spiritual writer Antonin Sertillanges has described three virtues essential for the serious intellectual. I try to live by these virtues myself, or at least, by a slightly modified version, and have expanded Sertillanges’ brief definitions to make the merits more clear.

A Mosaic Depicting Plato’ and His Academy

There are three important intellectual virtues, but you can still be an intellectual without them. (Image: public domain)


Nothing is more useful for an intellectual than the quality of being unchanging or unwavering in purpose. This does not mean you cannot sidle off on a diversion when you stumble on something intriguing. Nor does it mean you must carve your goal in stone. It does mean you must maintain some overarching goal that has enough flexibility to allow for adjustments as the work progresses. Without such a goal, you are unlikely to accomplish much and run the risk of getting lost among the tempting possibilities encountered along the way. A goalless intellectual fritters away the concentrated effort needed to put together a complete work or viable set of new ideas.


What could be more mundane? We have all heard the old adage, “Patience is a virtue.” Yet for the intellectual this homely quality is indispensable. We may best describe patience as the ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay. Few things in life face delay more often than serious intellectual inquiry so staying calm and focussed is definitely a useful skill. Sophisticated thinking follows no set schedule and some insights may be a long time coming. After long work, when things suddenly fall into place, we experience the rewards of patience.


If patience is about managing emotions, perseverance is about pushing forward the work. Perseverance is steady persistence in a course of action or purpose especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement. It is about steadfast and long-continued application. You cannot reach a distant destination unless you insist on arriving there.


Virtues are wonderful. We all have at least a few. An intellectual with the qualities described above is at a decided advantage. However, since virtues are a product of the authentic self, and your particular self may not have these particular virtues, what then? Does your lack disqualify you from being an intellectual?

You must remember that there is always more than one way to reach your destination.

It is possible you do have some of these qualities, but they are not well developed. Making yourself aware that these qualities are important and then trying to live by them will soon reveal whether or not you possess them. If you do not, then you must be more selective in what you choose to work on. The key to personal authenticity is learning how to make the best of what you have. It is vital to remember that anything genuinely willed will be pursued, if not with lofty constancy, patience, and perseverance, then at least with stormy, stubborn, perhaps even obsessive, tenacity. Work only on those things that genuinely and deeply interest you and – while your progress may be far from serene – you will get there in the end.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

22 thoughts on “The Virtuous Intellectual”

  1. An excellent post on different ways of arriving at a destination. Have you posted any on how to determine your destination?

  2. And incidentally, I like the way I have to find my thinking cap before opening your post. I have so little need for it in the rest of my life.

  3. I’m glad you liked the post, Jean. As someone who sees the self and its associated will as the driving force in the psyche, I do post about finding direction in life. The post “Make Bliss Your Creative Compass” deals with what I call “spiritual emotions” and how they can (and should) function as a guide. Another post, “How Do We Acquire a Calling?” talks about finding a purpose in life. In “The Lonely Thinker’s Path,” I deal specifically with the (often rather solitary) intellectual person and “the life of the mind.” Much of what I post is related to these themes in one way or another.

  4. Not everyone is a cerebral type, Jean. My exposure to your blog is as yet limited, but you give the impression of being very sophisticated in other ways. However, if you find donning your thinking cap satisfying, perhaps the time has come for you to explore the intellectual side of life. Personally, I have never found anything so rewarding as the life of the mind.

  5. Human motivation is a fascinating subject. I divide motivation into two parts: one part driven by the need or desire to maintain and enhance a false persona, and the other by the need to express aspects of the authentic self. Most people, perhaps all, are a blend of these two urges. My understanding of psychology comes from the work of C.G. Jung and a life-long struggle with manic-depressive illness has determined what I focus on.

  6. Way to *ice the cake* Thomas! Great thoughts as always.

    I need a couple good book referrals from you if you wouldn’t mind. Throw some good philosophy reads my way when you have a minute to think about it.

  7. If you are asking how I maintain constancy in my life in general, the short answer is that for much of my life, I have had no constancy whatever. My life has been an unmitigated ruin and a shipwreck. All of my relationships have crashed and burned. I spent sixteen years living as a deeply troubled hermit on the edge of the Great Canadian Wilderness. Although I knew something wasn’t right, I didn’t know I was bipolar until I reached midlife when an anger problem, a massive ego inflation, and subsequent nervous breakdown brought me to the attention of the local mental health authorities. I spent two years wrestling with clinical depression. Those difficult years alone and a community-based cognitive behaviour therapy program spawned many of the insights you see here in my blog. Whatever value the “wisdom” I present may have, it was bought at a terrible price. The years as a philosophizing hermit and the intense therapy taught me to recognize my limitations. I live quietly and simply.

    Recall that this post is about being an intellectual. In this one area, I enjoy a singular degree of constancy, patience, and perseverance. For decades, I have pursued creative, psychological, and philosophical insights with a tenacity that is quite remarkable for anyone, let alone a manic-depressive. I am constant because the quest comes straight from my authentic self. It is quite literally who and what I am. I was born to be an intellectual. When you find what you were born to be, you will enjoy the same constancy *in that one area*. This will be your anchor.

    I still have to wrestle with mood swings and an unstable personality. On top of the seasonal swings, I’m also a rapid-cycler, which means I may go from normal to extreme irritability to depression in a matter of hours. As incredible as it sounds, it is possible to deal with this. I’m hypersensitive to mood changes and have learned to shift cognitive gears quickly. Up talk when I’m sinking, down talk when I’m inflating. An intellectually demanding task when I’m feeling down, some quiet reading or lying in a darkened room when I’m getting cranky. It’s like walking a tightrope, but you get good at it.

  8. Try these Adam: Robert M. Pirsig’s *Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance*, Friedrich Nietzsche’s *Thus Spake Zarathustra*, Henry David Thoreau’s *Walden*, and Marcus Aurelius’ *Meditations*. Everything except Pirsig is public domain so you can download them free from the Project Gutenberg website. All four books were big influences for me.

  9. I’m intrigued by the Nietzsche and Thoreau picks. I’ve always wanted to read both of them, but keep putting it off. I favorited the links. Thanks for the suggestions!

  10. Good luck with the books. I hope they prove worthwhile. And congratulations on the enormous success of your recent post on blogging. It is well deserved. I enjoyed the post and found it illuminating.

  11. Thanks so much! I’m really glad that you enjoyed it and found it useful. I’m not sure if you aspire to go through that whole thing yourself, but if you do, I’ll gladly forward one of your posts to the “story-wranglers”. I follow them on Twitter. The handle is “@Freshlypressed” if you’re interested in following.

    In my mind, you’re long overdue for massive exposure. You’re *the* best writer I’ve come across on WordPress to date. Both style and substance.

    Let me know. I’d be glad to do whatever I can to make you heard. If you’re not interested, I completely understand. Keep me posted.

  12. Thanks, Lucinda. (I think! lol) Btw, I’m making progress with *Sylvia’s Lovers*. The EPUB version I’m reading (complete) has 433 pages so I’m farther along than my Goodreads status panel suggests. Where might I post a few remarks on Goodreads? I’m still clueless on that site.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: