The Circus of the Intellectuals

“I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel and Jerusalem. And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.”

With those words, King Solomon was voicing the lament of the intellectual. It is indeed a grievous role to be afflicted with. This verse from Ecclesiastes came to mind when reading Owen Harries’ article in the inaugural issue of The American Interest. In “Suffer the Intellectuals,” Harries, founding editor of The National Interest, wonders why the intellectual class seems to get the most important questions so grievously wrong.

“On political matters particularly, intellectuals tend to share these two characteristics,” Harries observes. “They are slaves of fashion, and, on the big questions, they tend to get things hopelessly wrong.”

The existence of an intellectual class is one of the hallmarks of civilization. After all, someone has to be devoted to the task of thinking big thoughts and attempting to develop a coherent understanding of reality. Nevertheless, intellectuals tend to overrate their analysis and to follow the intellectual fashions of the day. As Harries observes, intellectuals tend to fulfill Harold Rosenberg’s description of them as “a herd of independent minds.”

In Western nations, blessed with relative peace and prosperity in recent decades, intellectuals have formed a loosely organized counterculture. At times, the intellectual class has organized itself into a formidable political force. More often, the intellectuals exert their influence through the knowledge class–educating, advising, cajoling, and chastising those who actually do the work of organizing and running the society.

As observers like Paul Hollander and others have observed, America’s intellectual class has been overwhelmingly characterized by a sense of opposition to the nation’s mainstream values. This intellectual “adversary culture” desires nothing less than a comprehensive social and culture revolution in America–a revolution that would produce, presumably, a global paradise modeled after the University of California at Berkley.

Owen Harries takes a look at the intellectuals’ actual track record. In the early years of the 20th century, intellectuals like Norman Angell predicted that war was a dying institution and that a peaceful and borderless world would be produced by, as Harries explains, “the forces of Capitalism–of technology, free trade and liberal rationality.” The fact that Angell was disastrously wrong did not prevent him from being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

So, intellectuals in the early 20th century–at least in the years prior to World War I–believed that war had been rendered obsolete by democratic progress. Hostilities, they insisted, had been rendered obsolete by the forward march of civilization.

“Had you been a typical intellectual 25 years later, on the other hand, you would have believed the exact opposite,” Harries argues. Intellectuals between the wars observed the Great Depression and prophesied that “the world was witnessing the death throes of capitalism and liberalism, that the failed system was destroying itself due to its ‘internal contradictions.'” Certain of capitalism’s collapse, an entire class of English-speaking intellectuals such as John Strachey predicted “a fight to the death between Fascism and Communism.”

As Harries observes, “the belief that capitalism was finished remained intellectual orthodoxy in Europe well into the next decade.” In other words, the very revival of capitalism after World War II led some intellectuals to predict its almost immediate collapse. Harries sites British historian A. J. P. Taylor, who told the BBC: “Nobody in Europe believes in the American way of life, that is, in private enterprise. Or rather, those who believe in it are a defeated party, and a party which seems to have no more future than the Jacobites in England after 1968.” Then again, maybe not.

Directly in the aftermath of civilization’s victory over fascism, some of the most influential intellectuals were declaring “closing time in the gardens of the West.” As Harries explains, “All this as the West was on the eve of the biggest surge of economic prosperity ever witnessed in human history, brought about by the supposedly terminally ill capitalist system.”

During the Cold War, intellectuals were often absolutely certain that communism would prevail and that democracy would collapse. Interestingly, this analysis was often shared by intellectuals on both the right and the left. Harries cites “the intellectuals’ favorite economist,” John Kenneth Galbraith, who was insisting as late as 1984 that “the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years.” Galbraith went on to argue that “the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its man power.” The fact that communism was then well on its way to collapse in the Soviet Union should have been apparent to any fair observer of the Soviet economy during those days. Galbraith, Harries insinuates, was simply captive to his prejudices.

Interestingly, Harries does not cite the example of Whittaker Chambers, who, in making his break with communism in 1937, told his wife: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” Not so, as it turned out.

The parade of intellectual confusion continues in more recent years. During the 1970’s, the Club of Rome predicted the self-destruction of the world due to overpopulation and environmental limitation. As Harries remembers, the Club of Rome’s famous book, The Limits of Growth (1972) “was enthusiastically seized on by most intellectuals.”

“Why do intellectuals get things so wrong, so often?,” Harries asks. “The question is worth asking because they are still with us, still vocal, still taken seriously by many as interpreters of the course of human history.”

In answering his own question, Harries suggests that intellectuals are often wrong because thinkers tend to demand coherence in human affairs, looking “for pattern, meaning, and consistency.” Since intellectuals tend to be overwhelmingly secular, Harries observes that most intellectuals attempt to find such consistency in the form of ideology.

“Ideologies vary a good deal, but among the things they have in common is that they all require great selectivity with respect to empirical evidence,” Harries suggests. “That which supports the ideological creed is readily assimilated and emphasized; that which conflicts with it is either noisily rejected or quietly filtered out and ignored.”

Harries makes an important point here, and intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, should pay close attention to his analysis. The world is a great deal more complex than any intellectual analysis can fully understand or assimilate.

Harries also argues that intellectuals, having generally very little to do with the actual running of organizations, nations, and institutions, have little practical understanding of how the world actually works. “Thus individuals who have never organized anything more demanding than a round-robin letter to the editor or a university tutorial will without hesitation dismiss as simpletons and ignoramuses individuals who have been responsible for organizing and implementing vast practical projects,” Harries explains.

Harries then turns to one of the central intellectual conceits of the last two hundred years. Citing critic Edmund Wilson, Harries observes that the intellectual class found it “extraordinarily difficult” to surrender “the assumption of inevitable progress.” As he explains, “Brought up on it, their whole picture of the universe was constructed around it, and they were still likely to cling to it even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.”

For most of the last two centuries, this particularly intellectual fault has been primarily an affliction of the left. Liberal thinkers tended to argue for the inevitable progress and improvement of humanity. The left saw the rise of liberalism, Marxism, democratic socialism, and similar movements as vehicles for the spread of an inevitable progress towards ever greater human fulfillment and happiness.

In more recent years, some conservatives have fallen prey to this same intellectual temptation. Books such as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, reinterpret human history to argue for the inevitable victory of democratic ideals and freedom.

At this point, George Orwell steps into the picture. Harries cites his 1946 essay on James Burnham’s theory of a managerial take-over of modern civilization. Orwell conceded that Burnham was on to something, but then went on to critique Burnham and his fellow intellectuals for “power-worship.” Orwell’s point is this–intellectuals tend to believe that “whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” As history records, this is often just not the case. Seen from a secular perspective, the circus of the intellectuals serves as a significant warning against intellectual hubris. The problem with all secular theories of reality is that the reality tends to nullify the theory.

Intellectuals, like everyone else, can fall prey to their own egocentricity, ideological commitments, and blindness to reality. Furthermore, Harries observes that intellectuals tend to be characterized by “a narcissistic belief that what is happening now, in their lifetime, is uniquely important and valid.”

Owen Harries’ article should serve as a helpful warning against intellectual over-reaching and arrogance. Christians should observe the influence of the adversary culture and the intellectual class and be ready to present a distinctive Christian response in the intellectual arena. After all, Christians are assigned the task of intellectual engagement, and we have no right to be absent from the battle of ideas and the war of worldviews.

At the same time, we must be careful to enter the world of ideas with intellectual humility and a constant dependence upon our inheritance of Christian truth. “Behold I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge,” Solomon confessed. “And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also was striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” No one said this was going to be easy.