The Temptations of the Intellectual

Intellectuals often suffer from a deep vanity, the emptiest of all manifestations of envy or pride. But their intellect often leads them to accept the most stupid of ideas.

I’m not the first to have said that there are some ideas so stupid only an intellectual can believe them. I can think of three reasons why.

The first, the most fundamental, is the intellectual’s propensity to mistake words for things. Sometime in the next few days, I will be climbing over rocks in a field exposed to the sea-winds to gather lingonberries. Rocks, winds, berries, weeds, the occasional bear that likes the berries too, the waxwings that make sure they are around just when the berries are best—these are realities, not just words. 

Perhaps ten years from now I will be too old to engage in this pastime. Old age is not just a word. At one of the spots, reachable when the tide is out, some man has attached a thick rope to a tree trunk, so you can climb down the escarpment with one hand free to carry the bucket of what you’ve gathered. Ropes and buckets are not just words.

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My wife and daughter will save the berries—they freeze well, and they don’t soon go bad—or they will turn them into jam, the richest you’ll ever taste. I suppose you could call this division of labor—which makes sense when you are thinking about good, firm, physical objects with their healthy resistance to human manipulation—an example of “sexual stereotyping,” or “subconscious patriarchy,” or “oppressive binarism,” or whatever le mot du jour happens to be. 

I call it getting a job done with the most success and the least fuss, and in a way that makes me grateful for my wife and daughter and makes them grateful for me. The closer we remain to what Fr. Aidan Nichols has happily called “the warmth and wonder of created things,” including the most splendid wonder of the sexes, the more likely we are to retain our sanity in a mad and unhealthy time.

But many an abstract word is like a cobra, dancing before the eyes of the little bird with its bird brain, until, flash!—the bird is no more. “Democracy,” “equality,” “economic development,” “self-affirmation,” and (used without qualification) “science” are cobras that fascinate by attraction; while “sexism,” “racism,” “marginalization,” “fascism,” and “religious extremism” are cobras that fascinate by repulsion. All are vague in their common use, or worse than vague; they obscure reality and obstruct thought. 

Before a sensible person talks about “equality,” he’d like to know in what respect the two items in question are to be considered equal. Before a sensible person talks about “fascism,” he would like to know what kind of political program it describes and exactly how it is akin to what Mussolini, who coined the term, defined as fascism’s essence: “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

But words dazzle the second-rate mind. I saw it at work in graduate school. The best students did not gape at the impenetrable prose of Judith Butler, or Jacques Derrida and his heaping one negation atop another in his virulent hatred of common-sense Thomism. 

The best students believed in and loved literature first—the rocks and trees, you may say; and they valued literary theory only insofar as it helped to illuminate that literature, or insofar as the literature itself confirmed the theory. The theory, they thought, was at best a tool for seeing, like a flashlight, or a plan for organizing what you have seen. The lesser students, who were not that good at interpreting the literature to begin with, turned instead to the theory, and that provided them with a good stock of abstractions to go job hunting withal.

The second reason is related to the first. It is vanity—the emptiest of all manifestations of envy or pride. Now, most human beings can’t hit a baseball hurled at them at ninety to a hundred miles an hour. That does not excite envy. But if I say that most human beings can’t write a penetrating essay on King Lear, even a friendly reader may begin to grow jittery. And yet it is no less true, and for the same general reason. 

Talents are not distributed equally. A sane and grateful person is happy to acknowledge an excellence in someone else because the excellence is a gift to everyone. I am glad there was a Bach in the world. And I know that I could not have been Bach, not under the most favorable of circumstances.

But a vain person, someone puffed up with pride, or envious of intellectual excellence that he cannot attain, will turn to one or another form of unreality. It is hard to write a Bach oratorio. It’s not hard to bang the ivories and call it music. It is hard to paint a Raphael Madonna. It’s not hard to splash or smear paint on a canvas. You have to study carefully and practice, often to an excruciating degree, just to get the anatomy of the human form right. Far easier to toss an abstraction up in the air and try to cover your incompetence with a fine term that makes you out to be quite the intellect. 

We thus have many a nonrepresentational artist, as we have nonmetrical poetry, and nonmelodic songs, and politicians who have never studied history or the political thought of careful men but who are rather proud of dismissing the former and scorning the latter. 

I am not saying that there cannot be a great work of abstract art, or great free verse poetry, or great music that eschews melody. My observations are general, not universal. But the sheer difficulty of the basic work to be done—to write in meter, to draw a human body, to say something interesting about King Lear—encourages those who cannot do that work to change the nature of the job. Those who cannot write well write badly and declare that it is better that way.

But here we come to the most dreadful form of the illness. The person who suffers it has, in his soul, engineered a complete inversion of values, prompted by what I once called physiophobia: hatred of that which exists. Now it is no longer a matter of foggy abstractions and blinkered theory posing as intelligence, or of bad art posing as profound. The physiophobe knows very well, to take one area of currently willed madness, that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, but he hates it, and he would burn the world to a cinder to compel people to lie, to join him in the reality-hating pretense that it is not so. 

In this case, the stupidity is powered by all the fire of intelligence; it is a lie, feeding on itself and devouring everything in its path. Some people say things that are false because they cannot see the truth; others, because they have blinded themselves to the truth; but these last, because they do see the truth and they hate it.

And here my heart seeks out what you might say are the rocks and trees and streams of life in the Church. I have no idea what “synodality” is. If it is anything like a committee meeting when the people who are meeting do not have any clear task to perform, please, dear Lord, keep it far from me. I do not know what a more democratic Church would be like, nor am I sure I would like it better if I knew. 

But I do know this. If I enter a church when no Mass is going on, and I see someone there quietly praying, that is a good thing. A Sunday full of people of both sexes and all ages, dressed for a celebration, and in the mood for worship—that is a good thing. 

A family saying grace before meals; a young man and woman, as innocent as children, approaching the altar to be married; a choir of men singing to make the roof tremble above; someone reading, quietly, and without any further intent, a good book, perhaps a holy book; a woman, wearing a modest cross around her neck, bringing a meal to the new mother next door; these are good things. And all our practical aims for the Church—not the highest of aims, but not the lowest either—must be to make those scenes increase in number and grow in influence and deepen in the power and the beauty of the truth.  

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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