The Virtuous Intellectual

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)

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.


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.

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The Creative Person’s Holy Grail

The Sangreal or Holy Grail

Creative people get lost and become blocked when they fail to recognize that the endpoint or goal of their project has shifted. (Image: public domain.)

American philosopher of mind and of art, Suzanne Langer, asserted that the expression of one’s vague feelings, to clarify them for oneself, is artistic creativity’s primary purpose. This is certainly true, but her further claim that communication to others is merely a peripheral by-product does not stand up to close inspection. Research has shown that artists have a powerful need to share what they have learned. Art is the medium chosen for the clarification attempt precisely because the creator can share artistic products with others. However, where the attempt to share fails, as in those cases where the artist cannot win an audience, the artist will usually continue producing art anyway.

According to Langer, “Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature.” That is, artists make their feelings about the world concrete by embodying them in some form of art, but since feelings are entirely subjective, the process results in an object that presents a subjective view of the world.

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