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Musings on The Intellectual Life

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The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by A. G. Sertillanges (repr. CUA Press, 1998) is a classic of which the seminarian should be aware. I draw attention to a few of the salient points made by Sertillanges in hopes that the reader will pursue matters further by reading the whole book. Its preliminary chapters treat matters of vocation and virtue, and later chapters offer practical advice for how to carry out the work of the mind.

The Intellectual Vocation

At the beginning, Sertillanges defines the intellectual vocation as follows:

When we speak of vocation, we refer to those who intend to make intellectual work their life” (3).

How is this vocation related to the seminarian? Much of what we do at seminary is related to the mind. After all, we are commanded to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (cf. Mark 12:30). The activities of reading and writing will fill the time of the seminarian and also the future pastor. If this is so, then how will our intellectual work deepen?

He continues saying:

I say the deepening [that is, the calling to the intellectual life], in order to set aside the idea of a superficial tincture of knowledge. A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings. It requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort, so as to attain a fullness of development which will correspond to the call of the Spirit, and to the resources that it has pleased Him to bestow on us” (pg. 3).

A seminarian as intellectual is called to the deep things of the study of God and his Word. Not only are these good and right objects of study in themselves, but deep study of them will lead to a faithful ministry of the Word (2 Tim. 2:15).

The Virtues of an Intellectual

Lest one think that the intellectual life is merely a matter of the mind, Sertillanges unpacks the intellectual life in the next chapter with a clear discussion of virtue. He says:

The qualities of character have a preponderant role in everything. The intellect is only a tool; the handling of it determines the nature of its effects….Life is a unity: it would be very surprising if we could give fullest play to one of its functions while neglecting the other, or if to live our ideas should not help us to perceive them (17–9).

Sertillanges argues, “virtue in general is necessary for knowledge, and that the more moral rectitude we bring to study, the more fruitful the study is” (24–5). He illustrates this point earlier:

How will you manage to think rightly with a sick soul, a heart ravaged by vice, pulled this way and that by passion, dragged astray by violent or guilty love? … Think it out. On what, first and foremost does all the effort of study depend? On attention, which delimits the field for research, concentrates on it, brings all our power to bear on it; next, on judgment, which gathers up the fruit of investigation, Now, passions and vices relax attention, scatter it, lead it astray; and they injure the judgment in roundabout ways…(21).

Right and fruitful thinking essentially depends on right and virtuous living.

The Work of Direct Meditation: Piety

But what fuels the soul? Devotion or piety is the source of a flourishing intellectual. There will be a temptation to lay personal devotion aside in the name of study. The reality is that disregarding devotion will dry up one’s ability to study rightly and to discover the truth because it neglects the basic order that study of things is an indirect meditation while devotion is a direct meditation on the Creator of all things.

Sertillanges captures this reality well:

But study must first of all leave room for worship, prayer, direct meditation on the things of God…Study carried to such a point that we give up prayer and recollection, that we cease to read Holy Scripture, and the words of the saints and of great souls—study carried to the point of forgetting ourselves entirely, and of concentrating on the objects of study so that we neglect the Divine Dweller within us, is an abuse and a fool’s game. To suppose that it will further our progress and enrich our production is to say that the stream will flow better if its spring is dried up” (28–29).

The cultivation of the virtue of studiousness depends on devotion and piety. We will not succeed in the work of the mind if we neglect the Triune God. When we read Holy Scripture, worship, pray, and directly meditate on the things of God, we return to the source of all good and truth, to the source of the matters with which we are engaged. In short, we should devote ourselves to God and then to the work God has called us.


Sertillanges challenges the reader to conceive of the work of the mind as a vocation. The book calls the reader to the deeper things of the intellectual life, and the seminarian must be acquainted with aspects of that life. Later in the book, Sertillanges provides a clear treatment of the organization of life and the various aspects of the work he envisions. Above, I have attempted only to show something of the vocation and virtues of the intellectual life. This life is a unity, and its depth of knowledge depends on its source in piety and devotion to God.

About the Author

Dr. John Meade joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2012 and he teaches Old Testament and Hebrew. You can learn more about him at his faculty page here.

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