By nature, modern America is a commercial-ideological construct, paradox enough for a culture to bear. Yet America is a pragmatic-ideological society as well—an unfortunate combination that nonetheless is less paradoxical than it sounds when one considers that pragmatic ideologism, or ideological pragmatism, is simply an alternative description of that hopelessly commonplace attitude toward life and the world called Philistinism. If ever there was a Philistine nation in the history of the world, that nation is the United States since about 1865. Sinclair Lewis thought he was witnessing Philistinism in excelsis when he wrote his debunking novels in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—and Lewis was a thoroughgoing and incorrigible Philistine himself! In fact, he hadn’t seen anything yet. When it comes to Philistinism, the America of 2006 surpasses that of the Roaring Twenties as Paris Hilton tops Zelda Fitzgerald or Carnival Conquest the R.M.S. Aquitania.
As late as the 1920s, the U.S.—like the Western world as a whole—retained a cultural memory through which it continued to uphold (however shakily) standards pertaining to the Western artistic, intellectual, and religious traditions, a trained cultural conscience demanding adherence to those standards, and a kind of cultural etiquette reflecting that conscience (however grudgingly).
During the Twenties, when mass advertising, mass entertainment, mass communications, and mass politics had yet to reach their fullest development, full-blown self-promoting phonies were discoverable mainly among the political and business classes, with here and there a Picasso in the fine arts, a Samuel Beckett in literature, a Schönberg in music. In scholarship, serious plagiarism was rare and instances of egregious intellectual fraud, such as Prof. Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (published in 2000), virtually unheard of. Hemingway, though a poseur and often a liar, remained a conscientious, if uneven, artist until near the end of his life. Most artists of whatever sort held strong political opinions that they did not hesitate to indulge in their work, frequently to a fault. Yet there remained in those days a broad range of political and social opinion, too various for any single idea—or set of related ideas—either to gain exclusive control of the distribution of artistic rewards or ensure the delivery of inevitable punishments to its rivals and detractors.
The same held even in political commentary before the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt and his American Blackshirts succeeded in foisting their New Deal standard upon elite opinion, thereby seriously damaging some major journalistic careers, including those of H.L. Mencken, John T. Flynn, and Garet Garrett. Even so, though the New Dealers could sideline these men, they never succeeded in silencing them, nor did the elite propaganda machine operating from Washington, D.C. and New York City ever fully succeed in discrediting dissent and supplanting it with the aggressive and vulgar uniformity of thought and expression that, developing from the 1960s, maintains a stranglehold on the Western mind today.
There never was a time in all of history when the reward for propagating one opinion was not greater than that bestowed for disseminating its opposite, when currying favor did not pay off better than ignoring or defying it, when catering to majority taste and sentiment failed to get you further than appealing to minority and private sensibilities, when prostrating yourself before the Great Lie was not, in the worldly sense, a far better bet than standing up for Truth—an act which, in previous times as now, could be positively fatal. That is how the world was, is, and ever shall be.
Yet the conscientious writer, thinker, or artist—the so-called “intellectual”—today finds himself in a compromised position in his relation to society in general, and to his fellow intellectuals in particular, that must be as historically unprecedented as it is precarious. In our age of universal primary and secondary education, compounded by mass education at the college and university levels, perhaps a quarter of the population have a claim to call themselves intellectuals of a sort, and to some degree or another. Moreover, conferment of the coveted appellation “intellectual” (the modern equivalent of an aristocratical title in previous times) is infallibly determined by the content of a person’s thought rather than by the quality of his thinking. To describe someone as an intellectual is not to identify his occupation but rather the social class, determined by his education, to which he belongs. Thus, the modern intellectual’s social milieu is his professional audience as well, a powerful determinant of what he thinks and what he says—and what he thinks he ought to think and say, as well. The same goes, of course, for his friends, family, and audience: they know what he should be thinking and saying—and what they ought to hear from him, aloud and in print—even before it occurs to him to think and say it.
As a young man, I was immensely confident that mass propaganda, including mass education, could never succeed in conditioning hundreds of millions of people to think and react, not just on command but reflexively, in predetermined ways. I have never been more wrong about anything—excepting, perhaps, my adolescent confusion of conservatism with Republicanism. Indeed, the program of indoctrination has succeeded to the point where the brainwashed masses, victims all of somnambulistic hypnopaedia, are convinced themselves that they truly are educated people! The situation brings to mind Stan Laurel in the role of the handyman at Oxford who starts talking and acting like a college don after receiving a blow to the head from a descending window sash.
The new, bantam-grade eggheads have been effectively conditioned to reject both the message and the messenger whenever and wherever they fail to match exactly with every received expectation and preconception. For this reason, the pressures exerted upon serious men and women of intellect to conform to the demands made upon them are simply terrific.
Partisans in the so-called Culture War have been insisting for a quarter-century now that every intellectual choose his side, declare himself for Progress or Reaction, Enlightenment or Ignorance, Humanity or Inhumanity, Superstition or Religion, the Glorious Future or the Benighted Past, Freedom or Slavery. In this war, neutrality on the part of any member of the intellectual class has become intolerable. What is more, a general acceptance of the hoary motto of the Left—“Everything is political!”—has resulted in the translation of the cultural conflict into partisan political warfare, setting Democrat against Republican, Blue State against Red State, no matter that the margin of disagreement between them is often very slight, the opposing sides having more in common than not owing to shared fundamental principles underlying the modern project. Society is riven by apocalyptic civil war (so the argument runs), the Forces for Good being pitted once and for all against the Forces of Evil. And so, quaint old rules regulating public discourse in the high bourgeois era, and still quainter standards of thought, logic, knowledge, and truth developed from classical times, are not irrelevant only, they are positively subversive of the war effort.
Whatever Truth might turn out to be in the long run, in the short term it is whatever wins the war on terms most favorable to the victor. Truth, for the time being, is simply effective propaganda, whose confection and dissemination is recognized to be the true work of the intellectual, whether one is talking about Alan Dershowitz or William Kristol. Obviously, this, again, is nothing new under the sun. The dedication of mind to the realization of utilitarian ends predetermined by ideology and forwarded by tendentious argument became standard practice not very long before the word “intellectual” was coined to describe people who think that way. Even so, the notion of the man of intellect as truth-teller has never been as ignored and discredited as in this opening decade of the 21st century.
The modern intellectual is encouraged to abandon and dishonor his true metier by temptations of the negative as well as of the positive sort. Either way, they are formidable inducements. On the one hand, there is the nearly certain prospect that the determination to tell the truth as he sees it, always and everywhere, will lose him close and important friends, alienate powerful people, deprive him of influence, put a luxurious and even, perhaps, comfortable life beyond his means, and end by making him a pariah among his fellow men.
On the other, there is the only somewhat less certain chance that a readiness to tell the truth as the world sees it —or wants it seen—will win him fortune, fame, praise, intimacy with the rich and powerful, and, very likely, a degree of power itself. Never have the rewards inherent in the intellectual life loomed so stupendously; never has the failure to acquire them appeared so disappointing and ignominious. Why, in a world that so frankly and shamelessly believes in nothing beyond success, should the man of intellect squander his life in defense of that something in which no one but ignoramuses and hypocrites professes to believe and that has only scorn, contempt, impotence, and relative poverty to offer as reward?
So far I have had in mind the choice confronted by public intellectuals, yet the same goes for painters, poets, novelists, composers, screenplay writers, sculptors, architects, philosophers, theologians, men of the cloth. All these, equally with pundits, scholars, commentators, “experts,” and specialists of every kind, are faced on a daily basis with the Great Decision either in large or in small: whether to commit themselves to honest, disinterested, and conscientious work—or work that, by its calculated mediocrity or meretriciousness, gets noticed, makes a splash, and earns fame, fortune, and influence for its creator.
The pseudo-intellectual, the pandering entertainer passing himself off as an artist, like the rich man gets his reward on earth. We need not concern ourselves here with him. Far more dangerous than temptation to the man of genuine intellect is the threat of demoralization the modern world offers him. Though there is of course no way of knowing, it seems unlikely that even the staunchest and most loyal devotee of Truth and Beauty is utterly impervious to the danger, which implies a further temptation of its own: the fatal despair that produces a sense of intellectual, artistic, and moral failure, the suspicion that one has accomplished nothing, that one has thrown one’s life away and is thereby guilty of mortal sin. The temptation is as natural as it is tragical. It must be resisted, and there is one way, and only one, to do it. That is for the conscientious intellectual to make a serious examination, not of himself alone, but of the nature and meaning of the pursuit to which he has been called.
This is no easy job. Fortunately, it has already been accomplished, once and for all, in a small work of genius published long ago in 1920—The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, by A.D. Sertillanges, O.P. For Père Sertillanges, the intellectual is not self-begotten: “he is the son of the Idea, of the Truth, of the creative Word, the Life-giver immanent in his creation.” In his preface to the 1946 edition, he adverts to
the testimony of innumerable letters: some thanking me for the technical help I gave to intellectual workers; others for the ardour that they said had been aroused in young or older hearts; the greater number for what seemed to the reader a revelation precious above all,—that of the spiritual climate proper to the awakening of the thinker, to his evolution, his progress, his inspiration, his work.
Reading the book for oneself, it is easy to understand these testimonies. For the serious thinker, the book is both deep consolation and vaunting inspiration. Whoever aspires to the status of “intellectual worker”—a term incomparably better than the pretentious “intellectual”—has, it seems to me, a kind of moral obligation to read this work, as he is morally obliged to have a care for his soul or to go for a physical exam every year. The life you save may be your own.
Sertillanges is not suggesting that thinkers and artists should waste their lives on futile and irrelevant work. Rather he argues, with Aristotle, that the end of intellectual endeavor is the work itself, not the accidental rewards that may (or may not) accrue from it. In the end, true work is always important work, valuable in ways that “significant,” “important,” and “relevant” pseudo-work—meretricious work—can never be.
Do you want to have a humble share in perpetuating wisdom amongst men, in gathering up the inheritance of the ages, in formulating the rules of the mind for the present time, in turning men’s wandering eyes towards first causes and their hearts toward supreme ends, in reviving if necessary some dying flame, in organizing the propaganda of truth and goodness? That is the lot reserved for you. It is surely worth a little extra sacrifice; it is worth steadily pursuing with jealous passion.
In our world of hype, Philistinism, self-promotion, and devotion to the Great Lie, whose sole standards of achievement and excellence are short-run influence and financial success, the thing needs saying, if only with the aim of instilling courage and hope in the souls of that tiny remnant still dedicated to honest thought and the apparently thankless work that results from it. Whoever and wherever they may be, they are doing heroic work—writing on the crystalline face of the universe with a diamond pen—and they owe it to themselves to recognize its value, if only so that they may persevere to accomplish more of it in the future.
Chilton Williamson Jr. is Editor for Books at Chronicles and the author of The Conservative Bookshelf.
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