Can the “Intellectual Vocation” be redeemed?

Whether you think this image is appealing or repulsive, an image pops into mind when you hear the word “intellectual.”

I like intellectual work, and honestly, my gut reaction to the word is still negative. I think “snobbish,” “ivory-towerish,” or “vain.” And unfortunately, plenty of intellectuals in the world – both within the Church and outside it – at least come off this way, if they don’t actively pursue the demeanor. Many people do pursue the intellectual vocation out of vanity, just as people might pursue an athletic vocation out of vanity: it’s always tempting to show off what you’re good at.

But vanity aside, what’s the good of an intellectual life? Does a devotion to learning, reading, and thinking help anybody but the thinker? What makes an intellectual vocation worthwhile?

I recently stumbled on this gem of a book by the Dominican A.G. Sertillanges: The Intellectual Life. It promises to be a very practical book on how to set and follow habits of study and intellectual production; but the first chapters describe the necessary character and qualifications for living an intellectual vocation well, and I find his work fascinating. He’s obviously acquainted with the wrong sort of intellectual, and he actually begins the book by laying out some ground rules for the intellectual life. His big three are quite timely for us today:

  1. The intellectual pursues truth, not popularity.

This is the big one for Sertillanges. The intellectual vocation is the pursuit of truth – which, if you’re a Christian, leads ultimately to the Truth who is God. The intellectual is not a mouthpiece for popular movements; is not a PR agent; is not called to gather a paying fanbase. Whatever I study, whatever I write, I must work after what is true rather than what is popular.

Sertillanges is stark here: “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating truth to itself” (6). There will come a point where the intellectual’s road forks: where she can choose a path toward approbation and applause or a path toward truth. As the Truth Incarnate said, “No one can serve two masters.” The intellectual life may or may not afford someone a living wage (for me, right now? Nope), but we must be careful about what it is we’re searching after in our studies and our writing.

  1. The intellectual is a servant of others, not his own vanity.

This is another one that present-day intellectuals need to be presented with – or clubbed with, if necessary. Here’s Sertillanges: The Christian worker who is consecrated by his call must not be an isolated unit. Whatever be his position, however alone or hidden we suppose him to be materially, he must not yield to the lure of individualism, which is a distorted image of Christian personality (12).

I can see this temptation in my own heart to puff up my vanity with my learning: to drop names or reference concepts so that people know (or at least think) I’m learned. Or – since I, like many other would-be intellectuals, don’t have as much of other gifts like strength of body or personality – I could use my learning as a tool for self-validation. See how smart I am! How widely read!


Over against vanity, Sertillanges insists that the proper end of the intellectual life is the service of others. I love this line:

A true Christian will have ever before his eyes the image of this globe, on which the Cross is planted, on which needy men wander and suffer, all over which the redeeming Blood, in numberless streams, flows to meet them. (13)

Or even more directly:

Work always then with the idea of some utilization, as the Gospel speaks. Listen to the murmur of the human race all about you; pick out certain individuals of certain groups whose need you know, find out what may bring them out of their night and ennoble them; what in any measure may save them. (13)

If you have the capacity to bless others with your mind, as a bricklayer blesses others with his body, Sertillanges says, seek out others’ needs and work to meet those needs.

(This presupposes, of course, that people have objective intellectual needs and that it’s actually possible to meet those needs; that’s another conversation, perhaps, but it certainly is Christianity)

The intellectual is a servant, to steward her gifts for others’ good. Therein lies not only greater reward than the service of my own vanity; there also lies a necessary key to using the mind well.

  1. The intellectual is tethered to her own century, not those of others.

Generalizing from my own experience (riskily, but I think fairly), intellectual types tend to be dreamers: to at the least see weaknesses in our own age/reality, if not to actively enjoy participating imaginatively in another. The love of speculative fiction can definitely fall under this umbrella; but so also can the thought that other eras are preferable to our own.

We are here at a given point on the mighty wheel, not elsewhere. If we are here, it is because God has placed us here. (Sertillanges 14)

Sertillanges identifies “a certain archeological tendency” that can grip intellectual types: “a love of the past which turns away from present suffering, an esteem for the past which seems not to recognize the universal presence of God.” (15) If we are not careful, would-be intellectuals can pick a historical era – the Age of Discovery, the Puritans, maybe classical Greece – and esteem that era more worthy of study and attention than his own. We can wish for a Renaissance of that culture so much that we ignore both the goods and the needs of people right here, right now. Can we learn from the past? Absolutely. Is everything about the present better than the past? Absolutely not. But the present is where we’re working.

Let us not be like those people who always seem to be pallbearers at the funeral of the past, Sertillanges enjoins us: God does not grow old. We must help our God to renew, not the buried past and the chronicles of a vanished world, but the eternal face of the earth. (15-16)

Well put.

I’m looking forward to the rest of this work, and (if I can keep it from the library) sharing more of Sertillanges’ wisdom.

Happy thinking!


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