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The Opium of the Intellectuals

Communism, that is.

A triple blog in honor of May Day.

May Day was an important official holiday of the Soviet Union, celebrated with elaborate popular parade in the centre of the major cities. It was first openly celebrated on May 1, 1917. The biggest celebration was traditionally organized on the Red Square, where the General Secretary of the CPSU and other party and government leaders were greeting the crowds from the Lenin's Mausoleum. (Wikipedia)

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Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?

By Robert Nozick

It is surprising that intellectuals oppose capitalism so. Other groups of comparable socio-economic status do not show the same degree of opposition in the same proportions. Statistically, then, intellectuals are an anomaly.

Not all intellectuals are on the "left." Like other groups, their opinions are spread along a curve. But in their case, the curve is shifted and skewed to the political left.

By intellectuals, I do not mean all people of intelligence or of a certain level of education, but those who, in their vocation, deal with ideas as expressed in words, shaping the word flow others receive. These wordsmiths include poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors. It does not include those who primarily produce and transmit quantitatively or mathematically formulated information (the numbersmiths) or those working in visual media, painters, sculptors, cameramen. Unlike the wordsmiths, people in these occupations do not disproportionately oppose capitalism. The wordsmiths are concentrated in certain occupational sites: academia, the media, government bureaucracy.

Wordsmith intellectuals fare well in capitalist society; there they have great freedom to formulate, encounter, and propagate new ideas, to read and discuss them. Their occupational skills are in demand, their income much above average. Why then do they disproportionately oppose capitalism? Indeed, some data suggest that the more prosperous and successful the intellectual, the more likely he is to oppose capitalism. This opposition to capitalism is mainly "from the left" but not solely so. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound opposed market society from the right.

The opposition of wordsmith intellectuals to capitalism is a fact of social significance. They shape our ideas and images of society; they state the policy alternatives bureaucracies consider. From treatises to slogans, they give us the sentences to express ourselves. Their opposition matters, especially in a society that depends increasingly upon the explicit formulation and dissemination of information.

We can distinguish two types of explanation for the relatively high proportion of intellectuals in opposition to capitalism. One type finds a factor unique to the anti-capitalist intellectuals. The second type of explanation identifies a factor applying to all intellectuals, a force propelling them toward anti-capitalist views. Whether it pushes any particular intellectual over into anti-capitalism will depend upon the other forces acting upon him. In the aggregate, though, since it makes anti-capitalism more likely for each intellectual, such a factor will produce a larger proportion of anti-capitalist intellectuals. Our explanation will be of this second type. We will identify a factor which tilts intellectuals toward anti-capitalist attitudes but does not guarantee it in any particular case.

The Value of Intellectuals

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. But, by and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals. Ludwig von Mises explains the special resentment of intellectuals, in contrast to workers, by saying they mix socially with successful capitalists and so have them as a salient comparison group and are humiliated by their lesser status. However, even those intellectuals who do not mix socially are similarly resentful, while merely mixing is not enough--the sports and dancing instructors who cater to the rich and have affairs with them are not noticeably anti-capitalist.

Why then do contemporary intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards their society has to offer and resentful when they do not receive this? Intellectuals feel they are the most valuable people, the ones with the highest merit, and that society should reward people in accordance with their value and merit. But a capitalist society does not satisfy the principle of distribution "to each according to his merit or value." Apart from the gifts, inheritances, and gambling winnings that occur in a free society, the market distributes to those who satisfy the perceived market-expressed demands of others, and how much it so distributes depends on how much is demanded and how great the alternative supply is. Unsuccessful businessmen and workers do not have the same animus against the capitalist system as do the wordsmith intellectuals. Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus.

Why do wordsmith intellectuals think they are most valuable, and why do they think distribution should be in accordance with value? Note that this latter principle is not a necessary one. Other distributional patterns have been proposed, including equal distribution, distribution according to moral merit, distribution according to need. Indeed, there need not be any pattern of distribution a society is aiming to achieve, even a society concerned with justice. The justice of a distribution may reside in its arising from a just process of voluntary exchange of justly acquired property and services. Whatever outcome is produced by that process will be just, but there is no particular pattern the outcome must fit. Why, then, do wordsmiths view themselves as most valuable and accept the principle of distribution in accordance with value?

From the beginnings of recorded thought, intellectuals have told us their activity is most valuable. Plato valued the rational faculty above courage and the appetites and deemed that philosophers should rule; Aristotle held that intellectual contemplation was the highest activity. It is not surprising that surviving texts record this high evaluation of intellectual activity. The people who formulated evaluations, who wrote them down with reasons to back them up, were intellectuals, after all. They were praising themselves. Those who valued other things more than thinking things through with words, whether hunting or power or uninterrupted sensual pleasure, did not bother to leave enduring written records. Only the intellectual worked out a theory of who was best.

The Schooling of Intellectuals

What factor produced feelings of superior value on the part of intellectuals? I want to focus on one institution in particular: schools. As book knowledge became increasingly important, schooling--the education together in classes of young people in reading and book knowledge--spread. Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher's favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.

The schools, too, exhibited and thereby taught the principle of reward in accordance with (intellectual) merit. To the intellectually meritorious went the praise, the teacher's smiles, and the highest grades. In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.

The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?

In saying that intellectuals feel entitled to the highest rewards the general society can offer (wealth, status, etc.), I do not mean that intellectuals hold these rewards to be the highest goods. Perhaps they value more the intrinsic rewards of intellectual activity or the esteem of the ages. Nevertheless, they also feel entitled to the highest appreciation from the general society, to the most and best it has to offer, paltry though that may be. I don't mean to emphasize especially the rewards that find their way into the intellectuals' pockets or even reach them personally. Identifying themselves as intellectuals, they can resent the fact that intellectual activity is not most highly valued and rewarded.

The intellectual wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated. By incorporating standards of reward that are different from the wider society, the schools guarantee that some will experience downward mobility later. Those at the top of the school's hierarchy will feel entitled to a top position, not only in that micro-society but in the wider one, a society whose system they will resent when it fails to treat them according to their self-prescribed wants and entitlements. The school system thereby produces anti-capitalist feeling among intellectuals. Rather, it produces anti-capitalist feeling among verbal intellectuals. Why do the numbersmiths not develop the same attitudes as these wordsmiths? I conjecture that these quantitatively bright children, although they get good grades on the relevant examinations, do not receive the same face-to-face attention and approval from the teachers as do the verbally bright children. It is the verbal skills that bring these personal rewards from the teacher, and apparently it is these rewards that especially shape the sense of entitlement.

Central Planning in the Classroom

There is a further point to be added. The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the "anarchy and chaos" of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

Our explanation does not postulate that (future) intellectuals constitute a majority even of the academic upper class of the school. This group may consist mostly of those with substantial (but not overwhelming) bookish skills along with social grace, strong motivation to please, friendliness, winning ways, and an ability to play by (and to seem to be following) the rules. Such pupils, too, will be highly regarded and rewarded by the teacher, and they will do extremely well in the wider society, as well. (And do well within the informal social system of the school. So they will not especially accept the norms of the school's formal system.) Our explanation hypothesizes that (future) intellectuals are disproportionately represented in that portion of the schools' (official) upper class that will experience relative downward mobility. Or, rather, in the group that predicts for itself a declining future. The animus will arise before the move into the wider world and the experience of an actual decline in status, at the point when the clever pupil realizes he (probably) will fare less well in the wider society than in his current school situation. This unintended consequence of the school system, the anti-capitalist animus of intellectuals, is, of course, reinforced when pupils read or are taught by intellectuals who present those very anti-capitalist attitudes.

No doubt, some wordsmith intellectuals were cantankerous and questioning pupils and so were disapproved of by their teachers. Did they too learn the lesson that the best should get the highest rewards and think, despite their teachers, that they themselves were best and so start with an early resentment against the school system's distribution? Clearly, on this and the other issues discussed here, we need data on the school experiences of future wordsmith intellectuals to refine and test our hypotheses.

Stated as a general point, it is hardly contestable that the norms within schools will affect the normative beliefs of people after they leave the schools. The schools, after all, are the major non-familial society that children learn to operate in, and hence schooling constitutes their preparation for the larger non-familial society. It is not surprising that those successful by the norms of a school system should resent a society, adhering to different norms, which does not grant them the same success. Nor, when those are the very ones who go on to shape a society's self-image, its evaluation of itself, is it surprising when the society's verbally responsive portion turns against it. If you were designing a society, you would not seek to design it so that the wordsmiths, with all their influence, were schooled into animus against the norms of the society.

Our explanation of the disproportionate anti-capitalism of intellectuals is based upon a very plausible sociological generalization.

In a society where one extra-familial system or institution, the first young people enter, distributes rewards, those who do the very best therein will tend to internalize the norms of this institution and expect the wider society to operate in accordance with these norms; they will feel entitled to distributive shares in accordance with these norms or (at least) to a relative position equal to the one these norms would yield. Moreover, those constituting the upper class within the hierarchy of this first extra-familial institution who then experience (or foresee experiencing) movement to a lower relative position in the wider society will, because of their feeling of frustrated entitlement, tend to oppose the wider social system and feel animus toward its norms.

Notice that this is not a deterministic law. Not all those who experience downward social mobility will turn against the system. Such downward mobility, though, is a factor which tends to produce effects in that direction, and so will show itself in differing proportions at the aggregate level. We might distinguish ways an upper class can move down: it can get less than another group or (while no group moves above it) it can tie, failing to get more than those previously deemed lower. It is the first type of downward mobility which especially rankles and outrages; the second type is far more tolerable. Many intellectuals (say they) favor equality while only a small number call for an aristocracy of intellectuals. Our hypothesis speaks of the first type of downward mobility as especially productive of resentment and animus.

The school system imparts and rewards only some skills relevant to later success (it is, after all, a specialized institution) so its reward system will differ from that of the wider society. This guarantees that some, in moving to the wider society, will experience downward social mobility and its attendant consequences. Earlier I said that intellectuals want the society to be the schools writ large. Now we see that the resentment due to a frustrated sense of entitlement stems from the fact that the schools (as a specialized first extra-familial social system) are not the society writ small.

Our explanation now seems to predict the (disproportionate) resentment of schooled intellectuals against their society whatever its nature, whether capitalist or communist. (Intellectuals are disproportionately opposed to capitalism as compared with other groups of similar socioeconomic status within capitalist society. It is another question whether they are disproportionately opposed as compared with the degree of opposition of intellectuals in other societies to those societies.) Clearly, then, data about the attitudes of intellectuals within communist countries toward apparatchiks would be relevant; will those intellectuals feel animus toward that system?

Our hypothesis needs to be refined so that it does not apply (or apply as strongly) to every society. Must the school systems in every society inevitably produce anti-societal animus in the intellectuals who do not receive that society's highest rewards? Probably not. A capitalist society is peculiar in that it seems to announce that it is open and responsive only to talent, individual initiative, personal merit. Growing up in an inherited caste or feudal society creates no expectation that reward will or should be in accordance with personal value. Despite the created expectation, a capitalist society rewards people only insofar as they serve the market-expressed desires of others; it rewards in accordance with economic contribution, not in accordance with personal value. However, it comes close enough to rewarding in accordance with value--value and contribution will very often be intermingled--so as to nurture the expectation produced by the schools. The ethos of the wider society is close enough to that of the schools so that the nearness creates resentment. Capitalist societies reward individual accomplishment or announce they do, and so they leave the intellectual, who considers himself most accomplished, particularly bitter.

Another factor, I think, plays a role. Schools will tend to produce such anti-capitalist attitudes the more they are attended together by a diversity of people. When almost all of those who will be economically successful are attending separate schools, the intellectuals will not have acquired that attitude of being superior to them. But even if many children of the upper class attend separate schools, an open society will have other schools that also include many who will become economically successful as entrepreneurs, and the intellectuals later will resentfully remember how superior they were academically to their peers who advanced more richly and powerfully. The openness of the society has another consequence, as well. The pupils, future wordsmiths and others, will not know how they will fare in the future. They can hope for anything. A society closed to advancement destroys those hopes early. In an open capitalist society, the pupils are not resigned early to limits on their advancement and social mobility, the society seems to announce that the most capable and valuable will rise to the very top, their schools have already given the academically most gifted the message that they are most valuable and deserving of the greatest rewards, and later these very pupils with the highest encouragement and hopes see others of their peers, whom they know and saw to be less meritorious, rising higher than they themselves, taking the foremost rewards to which they themselves felt themselves entitled. Is it any wonder they bear that society an animus?

Some Further Hypotheses

We have refined the hypothesis somewhat. It is not simply formal schools but formal schooling in a specified social context that produces anti-capitalist animus in (wordsmith) intellectuals. No doubt, the hypothesis requires further refining. But enough. It is time to turn the hypothesis over to the social scientists, to take it from armchair speculations in the study and give it to those who will immerse themselves in more particular facts and data. We can point, however, to some areas where our hypothesis might yield testable consequences and predictions. First, one might predict that the more meritocratic a country's school system, the more likely its intellectuals are to be on the left. (Consider France.) Second, those intellectuals who were "late bloomers" in school would not have developed the same sense of entitlement to the very highest rewards; therefore, a lower percentage of the late-bloomer intellectuals will be anti-capitalist than of the early bloomers. Third, we limited our hypothesis to those societies (unlike Indian caste society) where the successful student plausibly could expect further comparable success in the wider society. In Western society, women have not heretofore plausibly held such expectations, so we would not expect the female students who constituted part of the academic upper class yet later underwent downward mobility to show the same anti-capitalist animus as male intellectuals. We might predict, then, that the more a society is known to move toward equality in occupational opportunity between women and men, the more its female intellectuals will exhibit the same disproportionate anti-capitalism its male intellectuals show.

Some readers may doubt this explanation of the anti-capitalism of intellectuals. Be this as it may, I think that an important phenomenon has been identified. The sociological generalization we have stated is intuitively compelling; something like it must be true. Some important effect therefore must be produced in that portion of the school's upper class that experiences downward social mobility, some antagonism to the wider society must get generated. If that effect is not the disproportionate opposition of the intellectuals, then what is it? We started with a puzzling phenomenon in need of an explanation. We have found, I think, an explanatory factor that (once stated) is so obvious that we must believe it explains some real phenomenon.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 1998 edition of Cato Policy Report.


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Why Are Universities Dominated by the Left?

By Edward Feser

The hegemony of the Left over the universities is so overwhelming that not even Leftists deny it. Whether the institution is public or private, a community college or an Ivy League campus, you can with absolute confidence predict that the curriculum will be suffused with themes such as:

  • capitalism is inherently unjust, dehumanizing, and impoverishing;
  • socialism, whatever its practical failures, is motivated by the highest ideals and that its luminaries -- especially Marx -- have much to teach us;
  • globalization hurts the poor of the Third World;
  • natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate and that human industrial activity is an ever-increasing threat to "the environment";
  • most if not all psychological and behavioral differences between men and women are "socially constructed" and that male-female differences in income, representation in various professions, and the like are mostly the result of "sexism";
  • the pathologies of the underclass in the United States are due to racism and that the pathologies of the Third World are due to the lingering effects of colonialism;
  • Western civilization is uniquely oppressive, especially to women and "people of color," and that its products are spiritually inferior to those of non-Western cultures;
  • traditional religious belief, especially of the Christian sort, rests on ignorance of modern scientific advances, cannot today be rationally justified, and persists on nothing more than wishful thinking;
  • traditional moral scruples, especially regarding sex, also rest on superstition and ignorance and have no rational justification; and so on and on.

Every single one of these claims is, in my view, false; in some cases demonstrably so. At any rate, in every case the opposite point of view can be, and has been, defended powerfully by thinkers as worthy as any the Left can muster. Yet you will, in the modern university, rarely hear these assertions seriously challenged. Each one is usually treated either as so obvious that any opposing view can be readily dismissed as motivated by ignorance or vested interest, or as so obvious that there is no opposing view worth the trouble of dismissing in the first place. The great thinkers of the past who defended such opposing views are treated as archaic museum pieces, silly caricatures of their arguments trotted out only to be ridiculed; thinkers of the present who defend them are, when not ignored entirely, also presented in cartoonish form before being consigned to the memory hole. Should you visit a modern university campus, you will encounter the "diversity" mantra so mind-numbingly often you will want to scream. What you will not encounter is a kind of diversity that matters most in the academic context: diversity of thought on the most fundamental issues of religion, morality, and politics.

Now all of this is, of course, old news, and has been documented in such studies as Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate's The Shadow University. What is surprising is how little attention is paid to the question of why the university has come to be so dominated by the Left. That is the question I want to consider. There have been various theories presented, and many of them no doubt contain part of the answer. But none has gotten to the nub of the matter, or so it seems to me; certainly none has gained much notice or widespread acceptance. The present essay will survey the theories that have been proposed so far, and indicate (what I take to be) their most glaring deficiency. Part II will attempt to develop a more adequate explanation.

Is the Left Correct?

One theory that can, I think, be dismissed as readily as right-of-center ideas are typically dismissed by most of the professoriate is the suggestion that Leftish views of the sort listed above are simply correct, and that the typical academic, being (so it is thought) more intelligent than other people, can see this more easily than others. Nor is it merely my own personal rejection of each of those views that leads me to say this. It is also because it is just naive to suppose that the majority opinion of university professors or even intelligent people in general is a priori more likely to reflect reality than the opinion of the common man, at least where practical affairs are concerned. Counterintuitive as this claim may seem, there are in fact deep philosophical reasons why it should be so, reasons which we will be exploring. Suffice it for now to note that there are clear counterexamples to the claim that academic opinion is a reliable guide to the truth -- the most glaring of which is the popularity of socialism, as an economic doctrine, among intellectuals for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Socialism as a vague kind of moral vision is, to be sure, very much alive among contemporary intellectuals; but, outside of the lightweight academic "disciplines," and particularly those completely innocent of empirical testing or theoretical rigor (contemporary literary theory, huge swaths of sociology, and much of what is done in highly politicized ethnic- and women's studies departments), no one takes socialist economics seriously anymore. The reason is not that intellectuals have gotten smarter, but rather that cold hard empirical reality has so decisively falsified socialism as an economic doctrine that even the otherworldly inhabitants of the Ivory Tower have had to take notice.

But -- and this is the point -- it shouldn't have taken a nightmarish seventy-year experiment in real-world socialism to break its grip over the intelligentsia. For it is not as if the theoretical arguments for the socialist economy were ever anywhere close to decisive in the first place: as a worked-out theoretical edifice, socialism never had much to be said for it, and was always more sentiment and bluff than serious, rigorous analysis, a way of expressing one's disapproval of capitalism rather than a realistic alternative.

Moreover, critics of socialism had always predicted the tyranny and economic incompetence that it turned out to exhibit when implemented, on the basis not only of common sense (which should have been enough) but also of sophisticated theory -- including the arguments of Mises and Hayek, who had, beginning in the 1920's, presented objections so powerful that it is difficult to see how any honest man could thereafter take socialism to be the rational default position in economics and politics.

In short, had neutral, dispassionately evaluated intellectual considerations alone ever been most intellectuals' motivation for adopting socialism, it would have been a minority view at best decades before the fall of communism. Here we have a vivid example of how emotion and fashion can, to the detriment of cool analysis, have as much of a hold over the mind of the intellectual as over that of the "ordinary" man -- albeit that, in this case, we are dealing with emotions and fashions that have (for reasons we'll be looking at) more of a pull on intellectuals than on others.

Other Explanations

But there are, as I've said, more promising accounts of the phenomenon under discussion, which I want now to consider in turn. The first might be called:

1. The "survival of the left-est" theory: The idea here would be that university professors will, chatter about diversity notwithstanding, tend to take on as colleagues only those who are in broad agreement with themselves where matters of politics, morality, and culture are concerned. Since professors tend to be left-of-center, those noticeably right-of-center will tend to get "selected out" when hiring and tenure decisions are made. Now this is, without question, a very large part of the story.

The trouble is that this theory explains at most how a Leftish professoriate will come into being once the number of left-of-center academics reaches a critical mass, and how it preserves itself thereafter. But why does it ever attain critical mass in the first place? And why aren't there any significant countervailing conservative forces that might potentially reverse the trajectory, or at least preserve an ideological balance? It would seem that there must be something in the very nature of the profession itself that inclines its representatives in a leftward direction. That, anyway, is what each of the other proposed theories have suggested. There is, for example:

2. The "society as classroom" theory: Robert Nozick, in his essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" suggested that the explanation we are seeking may lie in the formative years of the average intellectual. He is typically the sort of person who, in school, did well academically and not so well socially. That is, he was rewarded for his exemplary compliance with the directives of a central authority (the teacher) who implemented a comprehensive plan (the curriculum) within a regimented social setting (the classroom); he was not rewarded for any contributions he tried to make to the decentralized, unplanned sphere of voluntary interactions that constitutes the life of a young person outside the classroom (the playground, parties, dating situations, and so forth). He thus naturally tends to think the first sort of setting more reasonable and just than the latter, and in generalizing (perhaps unconsciously) to the level of society as a whole, will accordingly tend to favor policies that involve centralized planning by governmental authorities rather than the unplanned results of free interaction by citizens in the marketplace. Related to Nozick's theory is:

3. The resentment theory: Not only in their preparatory years, but also in carrying out their life's work, intellectuals are bound to see themselves as treated unjustly by their peers. As Ludwig von Mises emphasized in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the higher monetary rewards accruing to businessmen, athletes, and entertainers in a capitalist society -- to, we might note, the very same sorts of people who, in youth, would have been more popular on the playground and at parties than the nerdy bookworm -- are resented by intellectuals, who see their own, less lucrative work as being of far greater importance. If P. Diddy's latest album sells millions of copies and Prof. Doody's magisterial five-volume history of Liechtenstein sells precisely 106 copies, all of them going to university libraries, Prof. Doody begins to wonder whether a free market is the fairest way of distributing economic rewards.

Now someone could, of course, prefer Doody to Diddy and yet fail to see how it is unjust (as opposed to just tough luck for Doody) that his fellow citizens do not agree. But this brings us to:

4. The "philosopher kings" theory: Many an intellectual is likely to see it not just as an injustice to himself that others do not appreciate his work, but as an injustice to those others too: it is, in other words, of such great value that these others do themselves a disservice in not preferring it, and are also done a disservice by any society which aids and abets them in their slovenly intellectual (and other) habits. For their own good, then, people ought not to be allowed very much freedom of choice, and experts in running human affairs ought to be found to direct their lives for them. The intellectual, fancying himself to be just such an expert, selflessly volunteers to do the job.

Here we have in effect the ideal of the "philosopher king" and with it another possible explanation of why intellectuals tend toward the Left, viz. the prospect that increased government power might give them an opportunity to implement their ideas. As F.A. Hayek suggests in his essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism," for the average intellectual, it just stands to reason that the most intelligent people ought to be the ones running things. Of course, this assumes they are in general capable of running things better than others are, an assumption many of these purportedly always-questioning minds seem surprisingly unwilling to question. Yet there are very good reasons for questioning it, some of which are related to the failure of socialism discussed above.

As Hayek himself has famously argued, large-scale social institutions are simply too complex for any human mind, however intelligent, to grasp in the amount of detail necessary to create them from scratch or redesign them from top to bottom in the manner of the socialist economic planner or political or cultural revolutionary. The collapse of the French Revolution into bloody chaos, its immediate Napoleonic sequel, the long decay and sudden collapse of the Soviet empire, and the institutionalized lunacy that was communism in general are only the most vivid and undeniable confirmations of this basic insight.

Still, the intellectual is forever a sucker for the idea that things would be much better if only everyone would just go along with the vision of the world he and his colleagues have hashed out over coffee in the faculty lounge and in the pages of the academic journals. As Hayek put it in The Fatal Conceit, "intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence," and they will even find it scandalous to suggest that intelligence is the sort of thing that can be overvalued. But of course it can be, as long as it has limits, which even the most brilliant human being's intelligence does. To see this requires nothing more, though also nothing less, than simple humility -- something intellectuals tend to have in short supply, especially if their intellectual accomplishments are great.

Yet even in the absence of humility, wouldn't the intellectual, being by profession a critical thinker, eventually just come to see the cold, hard evidence against his being terribly effective as a social engineer? Not necessarily; at least, not if we endorse:

5. The "head in the clouds" theory: This might be the favored theory of the average non-intellectual: the notion that professors and other intellectuals are, however clever where abstract or theoretical matters are concerned, utterly lacking in common sense and everyday wisdom where practical affairs are concerned -- that they are "out of touch" with the real world. So, since left-wing ideas are paradigmatically unwise, contrary to common sense, and unconnected to reality, it is no surprise that intellectuals are drawn to them. There is surely considerable merit in this theory, given that even the most empirically-oriented thinkers inevitably tend to emphasize the construction of theoretical models -- models which might take considerable effort to construct and articulate, and on the success of which one's professional reputation may well rest. Intellectuals are thus understandably disinclined to give such models up, and often will, at least unconsciously, choose the model over the facts if the facts seem to conflict with it.

There is also the consideration that the average college professor functions, in his day to day life, within a highly artificial environment. His absurd faith in the United Nations, say, or tendency at least to flirt with pacifism, becomes less mysterious when one considers that he is used to resolving disagreements, not through force, nor even through an appeal to an opponent's self-interest (economic or otherwise), but via high-minded and near-interminable discussion and debate -- in the classroom, at academic conferences and in journals -- undertaken in an attempt to persuade and understand. He finds it easier to believe than most do, then, that disputes with Third World dictators, terrorists, and other thugs might be solved if only we "just keep talking." After all, the people he deals with from day to day all tend to be as amenable to such civilized jawboning as he is. So isn't everyone, at least deep down?

The average academic also lives rather comfortably, whatever complaints he might have about the purportedly undeserved higher earnings of businessmen and entertainers. He may teach two or three courses a semester, come in to work only three days a week, and have summers off (and even the five or so courses taught by a part-timer coupled with freeway shuttling between campuses are hardly the equivalent of burger-flipping). If he's got tenure, he's got it made: good health care and other benefits, the occasional sabbatical, and job security for life. It can easily seem that everyone could live that way if only taxes were raised high enough and the right regulations written. It never occurs to him, unless he is an economist (and sometimes not even then) that the specific economic forces that make his cozy lifestyle possible are isolated, highly idiosyncratic, and artificial, parasitic upon a larger economic order that would be undermined were the state to try to impose the professorial standard upon everything done within it. Nor is he typically familiar with the real-life circumstances of, and pressures upon, the average businessman. That such a person probably prefers talk radio to NPR, and the Reader's Digest to The New York Review of Books seems sufficient, in the intellectual's mind, to exclude him from the sphere of his sympathy. Plus, it is not as if the intellectual knows nothing of the world of business: he has, after all, read Dickens and seen Death of a Salesman. What more could one ask?

Finally, even the worst teacher has what the entertainers, athletes, and salesmen he often resents all crave: a captive audience, full of young, ignorant, and naive people who assume him to be infallible. This can naturally go to one's head, and lead to delusions of competence. The professor makes his living lecturing to people, and most of them think he's pretty smart. Who could be better qualified, then, to lecture to society as a whole? And if he's fortunate, and his ideas really do get a hearing from policy makers and the public, he's not likely to pay much of a price if they turn out to be wrong-headed. Repeatedly falsified apocalyptic predictions have made many a fundamentalist preacher into a laughingstock; they made Stanford University eco-alarmist Paul Ehrlich into a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner. The eggheads who gave us the Great Society inadvertently created an entire underclass: millions of children have grown up without fathers in the decades since, but the eggheads kept their tenure. The average person would get fired or put in prison for such incompetence; the intellectual is merely advised to add a new Afterward to the next edition of his book.

Now with a set-up this cushy, intellectuals might be expected to do everything in their power to preserve their pampered existence. This brings us to:

6. The "class interest" theory: This was a favorite of Murray Rothbard, who delighted in turning Marxoid tactics against their usual wielders. On this theory, the professoriate is, all its self-serving noblesse oblige sanctimony aside, hardly the disinterested Educator-of the-People it presents itself as being. It is, instead, little more than yet another grubby special interest group, struggling alongside the other herd animals of the welfare state for access to the governmental teat. Being more articulate than those others, however, it can more effectively mask its true motives, and do so in a way uniquely pleasing to its master: it presents itself as a new priesthood, whose socialistic religion offers the state a justification for its existence in return for permanent employment in the state's propaganda factories -- "public" schools and universities -- and the opportunity to create the plans the state's officials will implement, fresh off the intellectuals' drawing board. The Leftism of intellectuals is readily understandable, then, given that it is precisely the ideology one would expect of the class of the state's professional sycophants.

Now as should be expected of any account inspired by the Marxist theory of ideology, this sort of explanation can be taken too far; and no conservative ought to emulate the vulgar Marxist's penchant for knee-jerk dismissal of all points of view opposed to his own on purely ad hominem grounds. Still, there is no reason to doubt that intellectuals -- who do, after all, put their pants on the same way as everyone else (even if they are smarty-pants) -- are susceptible to self-interested rationalization to the same extent as anyone else. And it does indeed pay for an intellectual to support left-wing policies: policies which inevitably amount to jobs programs for "policy experts," viz. intellectuals themselves.

More to the Story

Thus have the few theorists who've turned their attention to our topic spoken. That these theories each have much to be said for them is, in my estimation, evident as soon as one considers them. Still, they seem to me to fail, even when taken collectively, to tell the whole story. For none of them accounts for a noteworthy fact about the views often taken by left-of-center intellectuals: the sheer perversity of those views -- the manner in which they not only differ from common sense, but positively thumb their nose at it with contempt. The "head in the clouds" account would lead us to expect intellectuals to be eccentric; but even that theory does not lead us to expect them to be mad. Yet what is it but a kind of madness to believe such things as, for instance, that punishment does not deter, that freedom is possible without private property, or that there is no biological basis for male-female psychological and behavioral differences? It is true, of course, there are many intellectuals, including left-of-center ones, who do not believe such claims. But there have been a great many who do believe them, and, more to the point, it is of the essence of modern intellectual life that such claims, and many that are even more bizarre -- e.g. that marriage is comparable to rape and sexual intercourse an expression of contempt for women (Andrea Dworkin), that Soviet communism would have been worth the murder of 20 million people had it worked out (Eric Hobsbawm), that Greek civilization was "stolen" from Africa (Martin Bernal) -- are regarded as at least "worthy of discussion." The rankest claptrap is given the most serious consideration, while common sense and tradition are dismissed without a hearing. Why is this so?

The mystery only deepens when we consider that intellectual life was, for centuries -- even millennia -- not at all like this. The most influential views among Western intellectuals in particular once were, even when they were in error, of a decidedly down-to-earth and common sense nature where morality and politics were concerned, the Aristotelianism that dominated intellectual life through the Middle Ages being the chief example. There have always been eccentrics too, of course; but perversity, at least where theorizing about practical affairs is concerned, is largely a modern phenomenon. Indeed, it is only very recently in modernity that it has become something of the norm: specifically, with the great frontal attack on received ideas about human nature and society represented by late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

The astute reader will have noticed that, at least as I have described the situation, the era of common sense coincides with the medieval Age of Faith, while the thinkers cited as heralding the era of perversity are the great representatives of modern atheism, a kind of Four Horsemen of the secular Apocalypse. And here, I believe, lies the answer to our riddle. For if the great minds of the Middle Ages saw their mission as upholding a religious view of the world, so too, would I argue, do the intellectuals of the modern world. Here Rothbard was, in his own somewhat crude way, the closest to the truth: the modern professoriate is best understood as a kind of priesthood, and its religion is Leftism. Developing this theme will be the task of Part II [below].


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The Opium of the Professors

By Edward Feser

It is said of Woodrow Wilson that when asked what the purpose of a liberal education is, he replied "To make a person as unlike his father as possible." He was, at the time, merely the president of Princeton University, and had not yet become schoolmarm-in-chief of the United States or waged the war that ended all wars and made the world safe for democracy.

But as with his better-known schemes of social uplift and gauzy internationalism, so too with his philosophy of education, Wilson was the very model of the progressive academic. Whatever bland official statement of purpose might appear in the introduction to a modern university's college catalog, its true raison d'etre is in practice nothing other than to destroy utterly whatever allegiance a young person might have to traditional conceptions in morality, religion, politics and culture, to "do dirt" on the faith of his fathers, on his country, and on what most human beings have historically understood to be the imperatives of decency. It is, in short, to propagate Leftism.

In an earlier article, I surveyed various theories put forward to account for this phenomenon, and found them inadequate. Here I want to develop what seems to me a fuller, deeper explanation. We can note first that the de facto function of the modern university is precisely the opposite of the traditional idea of education, which was to socialize the young by instilling into them, at a higher intellectual level, the culture they have inherited from their forebears. The professor was the guardian of a tradition greater than the student and greater than himself, a tradition which it was his duty to impart -- not uncritically, to be sure, but at the same time with a reverence and humility appropriate to the grandeur of a civilization that has existed for over two and a half millennia, and for the wisdom that its institutions embody and its thinkers have articulated.

The civilization of which I speak is, of course, Western civilization, whose origins lie in Greece, Rome, and ancient Israel, and whose characteristic modern elements include the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the political ideals of individual rights, limited government and the rule of law, and a free-market or capitalist economic order. One would expect, then, that a curriculum designed to impart to the young a sophisticated understanding of the intellectual foundations of this civilization would emphasize, for example: Plato and Aristotle, the Old and New Testaments, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Smith, Burke and Tocqueville, Oakeshott and Hayek. But of course, it is extremely easy to acquire a bachelor's degree from a modern university without having encountered a single one of these figures or texts. It is also extremely easy for the student's sole encounter with the issues dealt with in such serious sources to be mediated instead by a steady diet of such spiritual poison as the shrill screeds of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, works which amount to little more than vulgar political pamphlets devoid of intellectual heft, third-rate even by left-wing standards.

Fully to appreciate this shift in institutional purpose, let's imagine a young man just entering the contemporary academy, at great cost to immigrant parents of simple religious faith, who fled foreign tyranny to find in the United States the political liberty and economic opportunity that have always been its hallmark. Their ambitions for him are: that he comes to love his new country as much as they do and makes the most of the freedoms it offers him; that he thanks God continually for the great blessing He has provided in making that freedom possible; and that he strives to live his faith in a way that is worthy of that freedom -- a way that will make of him an asset to his country and to his fellow citizens, and that will bring honor to his family. In short, they dream of him returning from school an educated gentleman, whose piety and patriotism have been enhanced by an exposure to learning and high culture. Yet what remains after four years at the contemporary university, after the professors have had a chance to mold him according to their own vision of New Progressive Man? A dope-smoking, Che-Guevara-T-shirt-wearing foul-mouthed serial fornicator, whose conception of the higher moral life comprises recycling and voting a straight Green Party ticket, and whose idea of "spirituality" is hanging out with other New Age flakes at a Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. He has been taught nothing about his religion except that it is a repressive sham, nothing about sexual morality except that there isn't any, nothing about his country and its history except that it is "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," and insensitive to people in wheelchairs, and would be much better if only if it was more like the country his parents had crawled under barbed wire to escape from.

The leftist orientation of the contemporary university is thus merely a corollary of its tendency toward subversion of tradition. As noted in my earlier article, however, it is not merely this subversive left-of-center bias of the curriculum that is curious, but the sheer perversity of it -- the manner in which it positively thumbs its nose at common sense, refuses to learn anything from the actual historical record of communism and other revolutionary movements, and, despite its purported interest in "diversity" and "critical thinking," resolutely ignores the many serious and sophisticated arguments given, historically and by contemporary thinkers, in defense of traditional attitudes and institutions. What accounts for this?

Older Ideals

The beginning of the answer lies where one might expect it to given that the older ideal of education I've described was most fully realized in the Middle Ages. The standard story about that period is this: for more than 1500 years after the advent of Christianity, European civilization lay in darkness; then came modern science, and all was light. The story is, of course, merely a fairy tale of the sort PBS viewers tell their children -- in fact the scientific revolution was largely a natural and gradual outgrowth of Medieval intellectual trends, and the Medievals were more enlightened, and the moderns more superstitious, than either is given credit for -- but it has had a mesmerizing effect on the minds of contemporary intellectuals. That the sun turned out to be at the center of our solar system and man possibly descended from apes has seemed to them to invalidate, or at least cast serious doubt on, pretty much anything anyone ever said or thought before, say, the time Voltaire uttered his first blasphemy.

As the philosopher David Stove has argued, the modern tendency toward hyper-skepticism seems largely to be the result of a massive overgeneralization from a mere handful of cases where common sense turned out to be mistaken. Another philosopher, Michael Levin, has given a name to the peculiar form this error in reasoning has taken in modern thinking: the "skim milk" fallacy, the fallacy of assuming, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, that "things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream," so that common sense can in general be presumed to be wrong.

Now where phenomena remote from everyday human experience are concerned -- the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms, and so forth -- it is perhaps not surprising that human beings should for long periods of time have gotten things wrong. But where everyday matters are concerned -- where opinions touch on human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction -- it is very likely that they would not, in general, get things wrong. Biological and cultural evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before too long be weeded out. The details of why this is so need not concern us here -- they comprise the conservative justification of tradition and common sense associated most closely with Burke and Hayek, which I have defended elsewhere. Suffice it for present purposes to note that there are powerful reasons to be skeptical of the skepticism about commonsense and traditional attitudes that so permeates modern intellectual life.

That modern intellectuals themselves half-recognize this is evidenced by the fact that they are unfailingly solicitous toward the traditional ways of non-Western cultures: even such hard cases for the Burkean-Hayekian thesis as African ritual clitorectomies find apologists among a few very culturally sensitive (though apparently not very corporeally sensitive) Western feminists. It is, in fact, only the traditional attitudes of the average Westerner which get the academic cold shoulder. So the "skim milk" fallacy can't be the whole story behind the phenomenon we're trying to explain: modern intellectuals commit it too selectively for it to be merely an honest mistake.

Unique Hostility

What then is the source of this unique hostility toward Western traditional and commonsense attitudes? Let us look more closely at the fairy tale alluded to above. For it to have any semblance of truth, something absolutely crucial to the worldview of the Age of Faith would have to have been refuted by modern science; and for it to justify a unique bias against the Western tradition, that something would have to be a peculiarly Western idea or set of ideas.

So what was it exactly? The obvious answer might seem to be the traditional idea that the human race began as a direct result of Divine action in the Garden of Eden, an idea famously challenged by Darwin's account of evolution. But there are problems with this answer. For one thing, the hostility of intellectuals to the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West, though it reached full throttle only in the twentieth century, began long before Darwin ever set sail for the Galapagos. For another, the Western religious tradition was hardly the only one to take a supernatural view of human origins. Yet while no Western intellectual takes seriously traditional Hindu, Chinese, or Native American accounts of human origins as scientific theories, neither do they scorn these traditional accounts -- on the contrary, such accounts form part of the gorgeously diverse multicultural salad-bowl mosaic (or whatever the hell it is) that we are required unceasingly to "celebrate." Even the most belligerent non-Western religious traditionalists who resist the modern scientific study of man are treated with the greatest deference: think of the US Army's Corps of Engineers obligingly burying possible "Kennewick Man"-related evidence against certain American Indians' views of their ancestors' origins. By contrast, the fundamentalist Protestant who politely suggests at a PTA meeting that Darwinism ought at least to be open to debate is treated as if he ought to be in a museum display, alongside the other Neanderthals.

Moreover, the Judeo-Christian tradition, which had after all always taken human beings to have pretty lowly material beginnings -- Adam was made from "the dust of the ground" -- and had never denied the evident anatomical continuities between men and animals, was never primarily interested in the origins of the human body in the first place. Man's being made in the image of God was always understood instead to be a matter of his having the unique capacity for abstract reason, a capacity which has in the Western tradition been regarded as the essential attribute of the human mind; and the mind's immateriality or inexplicability in purely physical terms has -- from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas to Descartes and Leibniz to Popper and on down to a growing number of contemporary thinkers -- always been a purely philosophical (and thus rationally demonstrable) conclusion as much as, or even more than, a theological presupposition.

Metaphysics and Science

Here we come to the true crux of the matter. The assumptions central and indispensable to the traditional Western religious view of the world are in fact not the origins of human beings qua organisms, nor the position of the earth relative to other heavenly bodies, nor any other matter of purely scientific concern. They are rather metaphysical in nature, and their truth must accordingly be determined, ultimately, by philosophical argument rather than empirical investigation. The immateriality of the human mind -- or the soul, to use the more traditional language -- is but one of these assumptions (an assumption usually referred to as dualism). Another is the existence of a Necessary Being who serves as the ultimate explanation or First Cause of the world of our experience and of the scientific laws that govern it: the existence, that is to say, of God (belief in whom is referred to by philosophers as theism). A third is the reality of a realm of abstract entities (mathematical truths, Plato's Forms, and the like), i.e. of objectively existing, immaterial, unchanging essences or natures of things, of which everyday material objects and organisms are merely imperfect realizations (an idea known as Platonism).

If each of these assumptions were established, the Judeo-Christian religious worldview would be largely vindicated, whatever empirical science might discover; and if each of them were refuted, that worldview would itself be decisively refuted, even if the biologists all got de-converted from Darwinism tomorrow. So the findings of science per se are in fact irrelevant.

Have these crucial assumptions been refuted by philosophers, though, if not by scientists? No contemporary philosopher could honestly say so; quite the contrary. Each of these assumptions is, among philosophers, as much a living issue today as it ever was. Anyone cognizant of what is going on in contemporary philosophy knows that the central focus of debate is whether such phenomena as the human mind and its capacity to represent the world beyond itself, our knowledge of the world in general and of mathematical truths in particular, and our general metaphysical account of what are the basic constituents of reality, can be "naturalized." That is to say, the main debate in each branch of philosophical inquiry is over whether such phenomena can be explained or accounted for in purely natural terms, in terms that make no reference to non-physical or immaterial entities or principles. And the reason why this is such a hot topic of debate is that no one has been able to show that any of them can in fact be so explained. Of course, this or that philosopher may well have his own pet theory; and most contemporary philosophers, being the modern intellectuals they are, think that these things eventually will -- someday or other -- be "naturalistically" explained. But there is a general understanding that no one has yet pulled it off in a decisive, convincing way.

Whence their confidence, then? You might say it is a matter of faith; for there is definitely no rational ground for it. Indeed, the arguments given by contemporary "naturalists" (as materialists -- those who believe that material reality is all the reality there is -- like to call themselves these days) are little more than variations on the same arguments that materialists have been trotting out for millennia, and are subject to (variations on) the same objections that dualists, Platonists, and philosophically minded theists first formulated in ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, and which have plagued materialist accounts ever since.

My point is not that those objections are absolutely decisive (though I do believe that they are -- but this is, of course, a claim that would require far more than a short essay to establish). It is rather that they are serious and formidable objections, and are recognized even by materialist philosophers to be so: that is why such philosophers write book after book trying to refute them (again, unsuccessfully, in my view; and certainly inconclusively, seeing as the "Refuting dualism, Platonism, and theism" business has been a going concern for centuries).

The hoary "science vs. religion" conflict is, then, a myth. What exists in reality is a dispute between rival metaphysical systems: the theism, dualism, and Platonism of traditional Western philosophy and the modern naturalism or materialism that is less a result of modern science than an ideologically secularist interpretation of it. But for contemporary intellectuals there is, we might say, public relations value in maintaining the fiction that there is a war between science per se and religion, and that religion is losing: it is easier thereby to insinuate that in the real battle -- the philosophical one -- the "naturalists" rather than their opponents ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. There is, again, no rational justification for such an attitude; but there is a motive, which the philosopher Thomas Nagel has given voice to in a moment of frankness rare among the members of his profession. In his book The Last Word, he acknowledges that it is a "fear of religion" among contemporary intellectuals that keeps them from facing up to the deep problems facing naturalistic attempts to account for the nature of the human mind and human knowledge:

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind."

Hostility to Judeo-Christianity

But again, why the unique hostility to the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular? And how do its philosophical presuppositions make it more odious to the modern intellectual than those of any other religion? Consider some of the implications of these presuppositions. If there really is an objective realm of essences or natures of things, then man has an objective essence or nature, and this entails that there can be no sound morality that does not recognize this nature: it entails, that is, that the moral law is the natural law, and that man's rights are natural rights, the demands of both being absolutely binding and not subject to alteration according to the whims of libertines or the designs of social engineers.

If the seat of man's reason really is an immaterial soul, then man is in principle capable of grasping these objective natures and their moral consequences; furthermore, he is capable of living in accordance with those moral consequences, for having an immaterial soul he is not merely an animal, completely subject to biological drives and material forces, but a being with free will. And if there is a God in whose image man's soul -- with its reason, free will, and capacity for goodness -- is made, then this God may well judge human beings according to their compliance or non-compliance with the moral law.

Non-Western religions generally lack these elements: the ultimate reality in Buddhism and Hinduism, say, is not a personal God or moral lawgiver, but an impersonal Absolute utterly indifferent to us; there is in these religions no soul in the Western sense of that term, because there is no permanent or abiding self at all, the individual being an ephemeral and insignificant illusion; and there is, as a consequence, no ultimate significance to our compliance or non-compliance with moral requirements. To be sure, the traditional Hindu or Buddhist can be as austere a moralist as any orthodox Jew or conservative Christian; the point is that this moralism is not guided by a vision of a Last Judgment or the hope of personal immortality and eternal fellowship with one's Maker. It is, accordingly, easier for a Westerner looking for an "alternative spirituality" to take on the exotic Eastern metaphysics and chuck out the morality without fear of seeming inconsistent. Eastern religion just does not pose the same moral challenge to contemporary Western decadence that the traditional religion of the West itself does.

This moral challenge is, I suggest, the aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is hated by the modern intellectual, and that the challenge follows from the unique metaphysical vision of the West is the reason for his hostility toward the latter. Disputes over Darwinism are tangential, and even a creationist who was sufficiently "pro-choice" would, I daresay, be welcomed as part of the great multicultural smorgasbord. The real target is the idea of a metaphysically implacable natural order to which one must submit, with all that that implies about human nature and moral law. Its rejection is the deep source of the perversity that so dominates modern intellectual life.

So strong is the modern intellectual's hatred for the traditional morality of the West and the metaphysics that justifies it that he goes as far as to treat the Leftism that is defined by opposition to them as a dogma, an unchallengeable posit that must be propagated, and its opponents crushed, at all costs and in the face of all evidence against it. He treats it, that is to say, in exactly the way he accuses the Christian fundamentalist of treating his own religion.

Opium of the Intellectuals

In fact the modern intellectual is no less a religionist: Leftism is, in Raymond Aron's words, "the opium of the intellectuals," their faith-based commitment to the possibility of a world without the demanding moral vision of the Western tradition and the God Who has always been seen as its Author and Enforcer; and this, in addition to the factors cited in my previous essay, accounts for its hold over them.

Leftism is the distorted mirror image, the evil twin, of the great Western religious and cultural patrimony that used to be fostered in the universities, and the Doctors of the Counter-Church it informs are the professors of the modern academy, who are no less committed than were the Medievals of legend to indoctrinating the young into their favored creed. Yet they are not academic doctors so much as the worst kind of physicians: for if liberalism is, as James Burnham put it, the "ideology of Western suicide," the professors are cultural Kevorkians. The "medicine" prescribed in the university curriculum reflects this: "critical thinking" is always and exclusively criticism of traditional Western notions in religion, culture, politics, and morality; "open-mindedness" is always and exclusively open-mindedness toward ideas hostile to these same traditional Western notions; and so forth.

"But does this thesis not have one glaring defect," one might ask, "in that the common man, too, often considers traditional Judeo-Christian morality burdensome, yet nevertheless does not endorse the Leftist vision of the intellectuals?" But in fact the common man now does largely share this vision, at least in spirit, and that is one reason it continues to dominate the universities despite decades of conservative protest. This is true even though he maintains also, and inconsistently, a sentimental attachment to the older traditions of the West.

As the intelligentsia has gotten progressively more "progressive," so too under its influence -- via the universities, media, mainline churches, etc. -- has the average non-intellectual, just not as thoroughly or ideologically. He thus lives in a state of cognitive dissonance, torn, to use the argot of commentators on the 2000 presidential election, between the "blue state" devil whispering enticingly into his left ear and the ever more desperate pleadings of the "red state" angel at his right ear. The call to self-reliance and self-restraint, to family and faith, still has for him its charms; yet the prospects of ever-expanding government handouts at others' expense, and of endless sensual indulgence without consequences (except to one's children, ex-spouses, the unborn, and future generations, but never mind them) -- such prospects exert a pull too powerful for the average citizen of the modern West to resist, flabby and desiccated as he is already from half a century or so of welfarism and sexual "liberation."

The New Religion of the intellectuals is something he is already half-converted to. His great-grandparents would have recoiled in horror from it and all its works; his great-grandchildren seem destined to swallow it wholesale, and even to extend its anti-traditional and anti-commonsense perversity to lengths the contemplation of which would, even at this late stage of Western decline, boggle the mind.

Sin can cloud the mind of any man. In most, the result is a bad character and a bad conscience. But with an intellectual, given his greater powers of imagination and rationalization, it can generate an entire worldview. For though intellectuals are not always to be trusted where first principles are concerned, they are, unlike non-intellectuals, remarkably proficient at drawing out consistently the implications of such principles.

That is why Leftism has gotten, with the passing decades, ever closer to sheer lunacy; and also why, as such lunacy has permeated ever more deeply into modern Western society, the ideas of conservative thinkers have come to seem to the common man increasingly romantic, unrealistic, and unattainable. If the typical contemporary Westerner does not quite resonate to the ravings of Marxists and postmodernists, neither is he much drawn to the doctrines of Thomists, Burkeans, or Hayekians. He is too far gone for that. He wants his conservatism heavily watered down, at least enough to leave room for a Federal prescription drug benefit and easy access to pornography, should the mood for it strike him. If this makes for inconsistency? well, he's happy to let the professors worry about such things.

And if what they tell him is that he ought to discard the conservatism altogether and opt instead for a worldview specifically designed to justify the benefits and the porn, he is, with the passing years, ever increasingly ready to listen. The modern intellectual plays just the role his Medieval predecessor did: justifying, propagating, and systematically working out the consequences of a worldview the common man is already committed to in an unsophisticated and inchoate way. The opium of the intellectuals promises to become the opium of the people.


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