Commentary Magazine


The Illusions of the Intelligentsia:
The Moral Question and the Secularists

Call it “the purge of eggheads” or the “tide of anti-intellectualism,” or what you will, there is no denying that the intelligentsia as a class has suffered a considerable decline in public esteem since its dizzying rise of the 30’s and 40’s. Many members of the class have reacted to this with cries of outrage, and certainly many of the attacks have come from dubious sources and been dubiously motivated. But there has also been considerable soul-searching, to which process this essay in self-criticism by Robert E. Fitch will, we believe, make a genuinely clarifying contribution. Certainly, few are likely to deny that the issues he raises are real and basic, whether we accept the direction of his answers or not. 

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It was the good fortune of this American republic that its founders were members of an intelligentsia. It was also the good fortune of that intelligentsia that its members were men of affairs, who held responsibilities as statesmen, businessmen, lawyers, farmers, and churchmen. Since then things have changed. The American intelligentsia has become a separate class—of writers, teachers, scholars, clergymen, scientists, and artists. This class was restored to political influence as the Brain Trust under the New Deal. Apparently its leadership was repudiated in the “revolt against the eggheads” in the presidential election of 1952.

If at this moment I choose to write about the illusions of the intelligentsia rather than about their positive skills and their true visions, it is because it would seem that the time has come for critical self-examination. Speaking as one who is a member of the class under consideration, I must insist on the importance and on the lightness of this criticism. It is no fairer to say that a critic of the intelligentsia must be a fascist than to say that a critic of the government must be a Communist. Fascism, like Communism, is not peculiarly an attack upon the intelligentsia, any more than it is an attack upon free enterprise in business, or upon the independence of labor unions, or upon the autonomy of the family or of the church or of science or of the arts. Moreover, the historical record does not suggest that the members of the intelligentsia have distinguished themselves above the members of other classes in the resistance either to fascism or to Communism.

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The illusions to be considered are four in number, and may be labeled and defined as follows. There is the illusion of the elite —that this class is especially fitted to rule. There is the illusion of monopoly—that this class has a monopoly of the wisdom which is its professional concern. There is the liberal illusion—that in a world Where all things are relative man is free to choose any thinkable abstraction and to make his own values de novo. There is the civilized illusion—that religious faith is an unnecessary support to moral ideals.

The first two of these illusions are generic in character. They may be found in any class. There is probably no class in history that has not had messianic delusions of grandeur concerning its special fitness to govern. There is no class that does not tend to believe, too, that it must have a monopoly of the particular value in which it specializes.

For instance, from the end of the Civil War until 1932, the American businessman was able to persuade not only himself but the rest of the country that his class was most fit to rule. Furthermore, he had a quite natural conviction that, whatever might be the other virtues and vices of his class, it must have a monopoly of business brains. But by 1932 neither of these illusions could stand. The American public decided that the businessman was no longer fit to rule—either directly or indirectly—and gave the power of government to a combination of other classes. Worse than that, the public became convinced that the businessman did not have even business brains, and so proceeded to turn over a large portion of business to the state.

The third and fourth illusions I have listed are quite different in character. They, too, are not the property of any one class, but they gain a peculiar intensity among the intelligentsia. Certainly there is room here for disagreement and for debate. Some people will deny the prevalence of these illusions. Others will assert that these are not illusions at all; that on the contrary they are just honest statements of fact. I have no desire to coerce the convictions of anyone; but let us see what persuasiveness there is in the argument.

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The Illusion of The Elite. The belief that persons of intelligence and of wisdom are the most fit to govern is as old as Plato and Confucius, as modern as Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and as recent and contemporary as the hero worship of Adlai Stevenson. Its formula is essentially that of the enlightened, benevolent despot. Nor does it really surrender the formula in the context of democracy, except to convert the despot into a sort of political prima donna of the people. Perhaps Nehru in India today comes closest to approximating the ideal at its best.

One finds a current elaboration of the formula in an article by Gerald W. Johnson in The American Scholar (Winter 1952-53). In the course of an elegiac essay on Governor Stevenson, Mr Johnson tells us that, apart from luck, there are three qualifications for the successful President. The first is a matter of histrionic talent—“a genius for interpretation.” The second is a “thorough comprehension of the operations of the mediocre mind.” The third is a “well-nigh limitless intellectual agility.”

The first talent, one notes, is the talent of the expert in public relations. Concerning the second qualification, let us remark how it combines both the vanity and the snobbery of the intellectual. Is it, indeed, the case that the mind of the American people is a “mediocre mind”? And if it be such, does the leader in a democracy comprehend that mind with his intellect? Does he not, rather, intuitively apprehend it, partly through frequent and intimate association with it, and partly because there is in his own mind some healthy element of vulgarity? As for the third trait, I can only say that among the successful leaders in church, or in state, or in business that I have been able to observe there has been in evidence plenty of agility, but I have never been able to persuade myself that the agility was essentially intellectual.

Whomever Mr. Johnson is describing in his ideal President—it appears to be Adlai Stevenson and it might be Franklin D. Roosevelt—it is certain that he is not describing the President of whom he speaks most fondly in his essay—George Washington. By any of the criteria of the intelligentsia George Washington would never have held a position of leadership. There has been some convincing argument recently that Washington was unskilled as a military strategist, that he was guilty of stupidities as a commander in the field. It is maintained, with a show of evidence, that the really talented fighting man was the brilliant but unappreciated Benedict Arnold. All of this may be true. There was only one thing wrong with Benedict Arnold: he was a traitor.

And suppose that the first President of the United States had been selected primarily for his intelligence and his wisdom. One can believe that just about any other candidate might have received the honor—a Jefferson, an Adams, a Madison, a Hamilton— anyone but George Washington. The father of this nation was not first among the minds of his people. He was first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Let us ask the key question: what are the talents of the chief executive in a democracy? Some measure of intelligence and of wisdom, to be sure. But also, strength of character, the ability to evoke trust and to instil confidence, the ability to keep poise under pressure, the capacity for good judgment that must often be swift and intuitive, the knack for surrounding oneself with other men of talent and for making them pull together as a team, a genius for foresighted action in accord with democratic principles, an executive genius.

The members of an intelligentsia may have the wisdom; they may even have the strength of character. It is rare that they have the other qualities. As a rule the saint or the sage is no executive. As a rule—except for an occasional Lincoln or Gandhi—the good executive is neither saint nor sage.

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The Illusion of Monopoly. I have suggested that the intelligentsia may be deficient in prudence and skill in practical affairs. But surely they must have wisdom, a knowledge and a love of the supreme values of life. If the doctor has a monopoly on medical skills, the engineer a monopoly on mechanical skills, the businessman a monopply on business skills, then it is only reasonable that the intelligentsia should have a monopoly on the wisdom which is the specialty of their craft.

Most of the time this is no illusion. Or it is only a partial illusion, to the extent that one thinks that the wisdom or the skills cannot be shared at all by those outside the ranks of the professionals. But at a time of social revolution, it becomes an illusion. It even becomes a radical falsehood. At such a time wisdom is taken away from the wise and given to others.

The issue has its classical illustration in the challenge of Christianity to Hellenistic culture. It was the philosophers of Greece and of Rome who were possessed of the official wisdom. Saint Paul was so conscious of the conflict that, in contrast to this wisdom, he chose deliberately to speak of the foolishness of his faith. Certainly the Hellenistic thinkers had a genius of intellect and of style way beyond that of any of the Church Fathers. Yet the critical question for the social historian remains: where did the true wisdom reside? Was it in the fading wisdom of Greece and of Rome, or in the insurgent foolishness of the Christian faith? Is it possible that in this context only the fools were the truly wise? Whatever one thinks absolutely of the merits of the case, the gross pragmatic judgment of history is clear.

The issue is illustrated again in the French Revolution. The French intelligentsia of the Age of Reason were not radicals. Voltaire and the Encyclopedists were still flirting with the ideal of the enlightened, benevolent despot. The truly revolutionary figures of the 18th century—a John Wesley in England and a Rousseau in France—were both of them outcast from the official enlightenment of the times. Yet it was the foolishness of a Wesley and of a Rousseau that contained the vital ferment for the new wisdom that was brewing.

The rise of Communism is another instance of the same thing. Karl Marx was numbered among the fools in the 19th century. It was not until the 20th, after his prophecies had reached both fulfillment and failure, that it became respectable among the intelligentsia to discuss dialectical materialism. In both the Russian and the Chinese revolutions there was a Menshevik phase—longer in China—when the intelligentsia could participate happily in social change. But when the radical doctrine of the Bolsheviks finally triumphed, the wisdom of the wise in Russia proved to be as vain and irrelevant as did the Confucian wisdom of the mandarin in China.

If we do not find the same phenomenon in the American Revolution, that is because our revolution was not a social revolution. Indeed, it was primarily a ratification of what had long been the status quo in this country. The significant social revolution had been initiated in the 17th century and, by the time we were ready to assert our independence, John Locke’s theory of the revolution was almost a hundred years old, and respectable. Burke was consistent in his conservatism when he denounced the French Revolution and applauded ours. In our case the intelligentsia were simply making explicit an established wisdom.

What all this amounts to—apart from the special instance in our own history—is that the intelligentsia can suffer from a hardening of the categories of their wisdom. At this point the intelligentsia cease to be the intelligent. It is not a question of whether we are favorably impressed by the revolutions cited—Christian, or Communist, or French republican. The fact remains that in each instance the intelligentsia failed to cope with the problem in all its seriousness. When this class fails, men will turn from intelligence to blood and iron and terror, or to faith and hope and love—and out of these things they will fashion a new wisdom. But their turning away from intelligence is because the wisdom of the wise has become folly.

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The Liberal Illusion. This is the illusion that everything in this world is relative, so that man is free to choose and to create his own values as he will. It may be called the liberal illusion only in a special, etymological sense of the word liberal, for the historic liberals of the 18th century entertained no such illusion.

The evolution of this illusion can be traced in three stages, through three centuries, as focused on three men of science. In the 18th century—under the influence of Newtonian mechanics—Christians, deists, and atheists found inevitable the belief in an objective, universal moral law. In the 19th century, under the influence of Darwin and evolution, the moral law appeared to support free competition and the survival of the fittest, and began to take on the character of an immoral law. By the 20th century, under the aegis but not under the authority of Einstein, the principle of relativity became the new absolute, and was applied to all values, moral, political, aesthetic, even logical and mathematical.

The critical impact on our thinking came from the science of anthropology. There is a straight line from William Graham Sumner’s Folkways to Ruth Benedict’s widely read Patterns of Culture, and, whether explicitly or by indirection, its teaching is that all values are relative to the mores. One finds the same notion in Justice Holmes’s correspondence with Harold Laski. It was written into a decision of the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Vinson. Innumerable treatises in aesthetics, in ethics, and in the social sciences take this dogma for granted. And even in that branch of neo-orthodox theology which is most influential among American Protestants today, while there is an insistence upon the categorical character of God’s command, there is the repudiation of any natural moral law to be discerned by the mind of man.

Of course within the context of loyalty to American traditions and American values, an ultimate relativism need not exclude a critical and creative attention to the things that we have cared for in this country. One thinks of the historical studies and of the analyses of current events by writers like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Sidney Hook, or James Burnham. I simply raise the question —and I do not know what would be the answer of any of these men: are the values that they cherish merely American values, or are they rooted in some universal and objective order of values? Because if they are merely American values and not universally human values, then the best defense of them is nothing more than an enlightened nationalism.

Whether it is an illusion, or a correct report of the facts, that all moral values are relative to changing cultures, everyone is obliged to face the consequences of entertaining such a belief. I see only two sets of consequences in the record. One is the practice of a soft relativism: let us learn to tolerate all differences, let us live and let live. This is the luxurious relativism of a prosperous and comfortable society where there is room for everyone. The other is the practice of a tough relativism which knows there are too many lives, and that there is not enough for all to live on, so that the strong must take away from the weak.

When circumstances press hard enough the soft relativist becomes a tough relativist, or else he becomes extinct. The logic of the movement from one extreme to the other is illustrated in the career of a Jean-Paul Sartre. In his early Existentialist phase he was a soft relativist, although already a desperate and disillusioned one. In his present Communist phase, he has simply turned to the toughest of all tough relativisms in the modern world.

But either under a soft or under a tough relativism it is clear that there can be no sanctuary for the values of a genuine intelligentsia. Truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, liberty: there is no reason why we should respect these things. Nor is there any device, ultimately, by which we can distinguish them from falsehood, ugliness, folly, injustice, and slavery. And if the members of an intelligentsia disclaim any service to these higher values, there is no reason why we should respect them either.

This does not mean that these values can be the monopoly of some class or institution: that is a sure way to suffocate them. Nor does it mean that these values should be enforced by coercion: that is a sure way to destroy them. But we may believe with Thomas Jefferson that such values, as more than mere human inventions, are rooted in nature, or in nature’s God, so that the minds of free men may come upon them and learn to cherish and to enlarge them.

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The Civilized Illusion. This is the illusion that religion is pure superstition; that, far from being the carrier of the great values of mankind, it is mere superfluous baggage which impedes rather than helps us on the march.

If I venture to call it the civilized illusion, this is because I am thinking of a brilliant passage in Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key where she describes how an urban, industrialized culture may separate man from the springs of a natural piety. I should say—although Mrs. Langer would not—that the separation from nature is only one step this side of the separation from God. The civilized illusion, let us say more simply, is a preoccupation with the fruits of life with an accompanying contempt for its roots.

It would be impossible to document the prevalence of this illusion among the intelligentsia. One finds only symptoms of it here and there: in the tone of a book, in the temper of discussion in a learned society, in the way a Harry Allen Overstreet takes over the moral values of Christianity but omits the religious faith, in the curious manner in which an Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., goes out of his way in a friendly review of The Irony of American History to inveigh against something he calls “compulsory godliness,” in Lewis Mumford’s apparent appropriation and paraphrasing of Reinhold Niebuhr’s doctrine of man with the careful exclusion of Niebuhr’s theology, in the tremendous furor in the press over Whittaker Chambers’ suggestion that the question of Communism is finally a question of religious convictions. If these are just isolated symptoms and prove nothing, then well and good. But if they reflect a pervasive condition, then the issue is joined.

Historically the important fact is that the great values of democracy have arisen and flourished chiefly within the context of the Hebrew-Christian-Protestant faith. This fact points to countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States, where a specific religious tradition was both the antecedent and the nurse of democratic values. There are, of course, scandalous exceptions —like the connection between German Lutheranism and the Nazi movement, and the present tie-up between Dutch Calvinism and rabid racialism in South Africa. It is demonstrable, however, that both of these instances are in contradiction to the preponderant impact of Lutheranism and of Calvinism over the rest of the world. In any case, the great stable democracies—unlike the unstable, anti-clerical democracies—have this religious foundation.

The ideological ingredients of this fact are threefold. There are three beliefs which underlie any viable democratic culture. Let us state them in the order of their chronological emergence. First there is the Hebrew prophetic passion for social justice—which, unlike Greek, or Hindu, or Chinese concepts of justice, is radically egalitarian and humanitarian in tendency. Next there is the New Testament concept of the sanctity of the individual person as a child of God and as a sinner for whom Christ died—a more drastic notion of the preciousness of personality than anything found in rationalism or in romanticism. Finally, there is a peculiarly Protestant development of the various liberties—personal, political, civil, and economic —liberties which are secular in function, but which rest on the foundation of the spiritual freedom celebrated by a Saint Paul or a Martin Luther. If these values are arranged schematically rather than chronologically, then the sacredness of the person lies at the center, and liberty and justice are its two chief implementations.

The crux of the issue is whether or not these values can be fostered and creatively furthered without the foundation of religious faith. The humanist maintains that this is quite possible, and presently desirable. It is not within the compass of this essay to provide proof one way or the other. However, by any calculus of probabilities based on historical evidence, the humanist must be at more of a disadvantage than the theist in establishing his case. If there is any point of agreement among assorted distinguished philosophers of history—Augustine, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee—it is that the values of any culture are tied into the total cultural Gestalt, and that, when the religious and metaphysical foundations are ripped out, the values perish also.

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Let me confess, finally, that in this whole discussion I have a selfish interest. That is, I am selfish for the interests of the class of the intelligentsia to which professionally I belong. Others of my colleagues may be concerned chiefly with the ruthless violence with which we are attacked. I am concerned more with our own frailty and futility in the fight.

For it seems that we are weak and divided. We spend more energy in berating one another than in standing together against a common foe. At one extreme we exhibit arrogance, intolerance, and self-righteousness. At the other extreme—and in greater numbers, I fear—we show ourselves to be cowardly, complacent, and eager desperately to hang onto the small comforts of life at whatever cost to the ideals we should cherish. In either case we bring ourselves into contempt before men.

But no man fights without faith. Least of all the intelligent man. If that faith were great enough, it might endow us with sufficient humility to know that there are others elect besides ourselves, to know that the wisdom of which we wish to be the guardians is no private possession of our own. It might also give us that courage in the fight which is born of the great conviction that the liberty and the justice and the truth whose banners we fly are written into the very laws of nature and are part of the eternal decree of its Creator.

This does not mean that triumph is always sure. If, indeed, the times are out of joint and freedom must fail for a while, then we should be able, like Socrates, to drink the hemlock with dignity, and in the confidence that there is a more terrible judge than death. But if the prospect is still hopeful—and I am convinced that it is—let us strike out like Voltaire to crush the infamous thing, wherever its infamy may lie, like warriors of a king before whom even the most infamous thing must yield to a greater power and glory.

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