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.
THE VIRTUE OF CONSTANCY
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.
THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE
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.
THE VIRTUE OF PERSEVERANCE
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.
THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT
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.