Thursday, April 8, 2010

Beware the Intellectual?

In 1987, Paul Johnson published a powerful and enlightening tract in the Wall Street Journal entitled The Heartless Lovers of Humanity. The above-linked article is well-worth a full read.

An objection to Mr. Johnson's article might be made along the lines that he conflates intellectualism and detachment from objective reality. Though many of the intelligentsia are but petty tyrants of the principalities of the mind in the insular ivory castles of academe, there are intellectuals who are sufficiently sensitive to the dangers of abstraction and the superficial imposition of categories on natural phenomena as to take the necessary precautions against overgeneralization and the reification of ideals.

A note on the much-discussed foibles of a Ms. Ayn Rand. Though Rand may have treated many of her courtesans with a certain measure of damnable contempt, she was an advocate of the integration of philosophy and the life of individuals; along with the right to act as they deign fit, so long as they are the final repository of merits in this life, individuals are permitted to direct the debauched stage-plays of the Marquis de Sade so long as they are able to requisition the willing accomplices. Thus the connexion of Rand's tendency for abstraction and her private peccadilloes is tenuous indeed. A fierce opponent of collectivism, and particularly the "categorical imperatives" of the German idealist Immanuel Kant, Rand was not as much an advocate of imposing her ideals on a faceless humanity than having faceless humanity cease imposing its ideals on the individual.

Below is an aperitif to whet the reader's appetite:

In the past 200 years the influence of intellectuals has grown steadily. It has always been there, of course, for in their earlier incarnations as priests, scribes and soothsayers, intellectuals have laid claim to guide society from the very beginning. From the time of Voltaire [1694-1778] and Rousseau [1712-78], the secular intellectual has filled the position left by the decline of the cleric, and is proving more arrogant, permanent and above all more dangerous than his clerical version.

It was Percy Bysshe Shelley who, in his 1821 tract "In Defense of Poetry," first articulated what I might term the Divine Right of Intellectuals. "Poets," he wrote, "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This claim is now taken for granted by the large if amorphous body that sees itself as "the intellectuals" or "the intelligensia." The practical influence of intellectuals has expanded enormously since then. As Lionel Trilling [1905-75] put it, "Intellect has associated itself with power as perhaps never before in history, and is now conceded to be itself a kind of power."

I believe the reflective portion of mankind is divided into two groups: those who are interested in people and care about them; and those who are interested in ideas. The first group forms the pragmatists and tends to make the best statesmen. The second is the intellectuals; and if their attachment to ideas is passionate, and not only passionate but programmatic, they are almost certain to abuse whatever power they acquire. For, instead of allowing their ideas of government to emerge from people, shaped by observation of how people actually behave and what they really desire, intellectuals reverse the process, deducing their ideas first from principle and then seeking to impose them on living men and women.

Almost all intellectuals profess to love humanity and to be working for its improvement and happiness. But it is the idea of humanity they love, rather than the actual individuals who compose it. They love humanity-in-general, rather than men-and-women-in-particular. Loving humanity as an idea, they can then produce solutions as ideas. Therein lies the danger, for when people conflict with the solution-as-idea, they are first ignored or dismissed as unrepresentative; and then, when they continue to obstruct the idea, they are treated with growing hostility and categorized as enemies of humanity-in-general.

Thus the way is opened for what W.H. Auden [1907-1973], a typical hard-nosed intellectual of his day, approvingly called "the necessary murder." "The liquidation of class enemies," to use the Leninist expression, and "the Final Solution" as the Nazis put it, are both the terminal point of intellectual process.

Insensitivity to the needs and views of other people is, indeed, a characteristic of those passionately concerned with ideas. For their primary focus of attention is, naturally, with the evolution of those ideas in their own heads; they become, in the full sense, egocentric. The intellectual's indifference or hostility is not directed merely towards those who do not fit into his schemes for humanity-in-general but also those in his own circle who, for one reason or another, refuse to play their allotted roles in his own life.


The more I study the lives of leading intellectuals, the more I perceive the ravages of a common, debilitating scourge, which I call the heartlessness of ideas. The rise of the new secular intellectual has produced some notable specimens. [...]

Wherever men and regimes seek to impose ideas on people, wherever the inhuman process of social engineering is set in motion -- shoveling flesh and blood around as though it were soil or concrete -- there you will find intellectuals in plenty. Pushing people around is the characteristic activity of all forms of socialism, whether Soviet socialism, or German National Socialism, or, for instance, the peculiar form of ethnic socialism, known as apartheid, we find in South Africa; that sinister set of ideas, it is worth noting, was wholly the invention of intellectuals cobbled together in the social-psychology department of Stellenbosch University. Other African totalitarian ideologies are likewise the work of local intellectuals, usually sociologists.

So one of the lessons of our century is: Beware the intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they also should be objects of peculiar suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice. Beware committees, conferences, leagues of intellectuals! For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and nonconformist people, are in fact ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. This is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, because it enables them to create cultural climates, which themselves often generate irrational, violent and tragic courses of action.

Remember at all times, that people must always come before ideas and not the other way around.


Reaganx said...

1) There's nothing wrong in clinging to abstractions and "ideals," provided that they are the correct ones. This Paul Johnson guy falls prey to the mainstream pragmatist bias of modern culture. The problem with modern intellectuals is not that they're trying to impose ideals but that they're trying to impose erroneous ideals. And, yes, Ayn Rand believed in free will and that's why thought that attempts to impose any ideals, even correct ones, by force would be futile.
2) I don't think Ayn Rand had any major "peccadilloes." The fifth that Mr. Johnson is repeating is a rehash of the smear campaign started by Rohtbard and some other ex-Rand fans who were disappointed that she didn't give them the attention they "deserved" (isn't this infantile behavior?). "Facts" cited by those people are either false (or at best cannot be confirmed) or don't prove anything.

Reaganx said...

And, by the way, pragmatists and those who reject "ideals" have much more in common with idealist intellectuals than with Ayn Rand.

Reaganx said...

correct - "the filth that Mr Johnson"...

Reasonsjester said...

I agree with much of what you wrote, ReaganX, especially the part about pragmatism. The smears of Rand continue, especially in retarded associations with Alan Greenspan.