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The Three Enemies of Intellect
As we use them today, the words 'intellectual' and 'anti-intellectual' are scarcely more than sixty years old. Their continual use, in praise and blame, goes back to the Dreyfus Affair and points to the coming of age of the first generation taught under the free-education acts and penny press of the seventies. Men who are thirty today belong to the third generation so brought up, and, if intellectual, bemoan their fate. Misfortune -- they feel -- degradation, has overtaken the mind in western civilization. They blame capitalism, liberalism, the machine, the masses -- everything outside themselves, and thus attain the desired status of victim. The beleaguered intellectual -- it is a badge and a position in life.
The position is unexpectedly comfortable because, contradicting all the charges of anti-intellectualism and neglect of 'intellectual values' by a 'materialistic society,' is the plain fact of the intellectual's unprecedented share of public trust. The expert, the Ph.D. or his equivalent, is everywhere -- in government, industry, labor unions, banking, philanthropy, city planning, written and spoken journalism, espionage, national leadership and international councils -- as well as in the hobby that makes the whole world kin, preparing for war.
To understand our situation, this paradox must be kept whole. Both halves are true. Intellect is despised and neglected. Intellectuals are well paid and riding high. We may be able to reconcile the conflicting pair of truths when we notice the slippage from 'Intellect' to 'intellectuals' and look into the source of the complaints. Who makes thesecomplaints? Intellectuals, naturally. What are their grievances directed against? Institutions manned or led by intellectuals. Though it is assumed that some giant abstraction causes the particular evils -- 'commercialism' or 'power politics' or 'mass culture' -- the recrimination begins and ends with the intellectuals themselves. It is they who find one another corrupt and unsatisfactory. The name 'intellectual' itself they use with pride or derision, depending on the extent to which their ideas are 'advanced.' Thus Partisan Review is 'intellectual' and Life magazine is not, though both designations manage to give comfort to each side.
By the detached observer the two periodicals must indeed be called intellectual products, from which it follows that the intellectuals' chief cause of anguish are one another's works. The intellectuals do not attack bars and bowling alleys, or Tammany Hall and the chemical trust; they attack the philosophy of John Dewey and the State Department's policy on modern art. The humanists inveigh against science, and the scientists decry 'vague inspirational subjects.' The intelligent intellectuals who read or write for The New Yorker and are strong on civil liberties weekly ridicule 'the legal mind at work'; while everywhere that ironic form of reference, 'the professor,' is heard not among farmers and workingmen, but among intellectuals who profess something else than learning.
Nor does this war of words betray only the ordinary struggle for prestige. The complaints are in part disinterested; the criticism is just; the contempt is hard to resist. There is a degradation of Intellect. It is in the moment of success that it feels its powers failing.
This paradox is not resolved by pointing to the split between some ideal of Intellect and the sordid reality of aching intellectual groups. The groups and their relations must be described, the causes and effects of their divisions ascertained, and further paradoxes disclosed. But first we need a clear idea of what is properly meant by Intellect.
What most people think of when Intellect is discussed as a social force seems to be an echo of conventional history (Athens, the thirteenth century, the Renaissance), eked out with notions drawn from religion or science, or from reactionary and revolutionary utopias. To remove these images and replace them with more tenable ones is difficult, because the clichés have for so long served the contemporary intellect as a quite satisfactory means of attack or defense. The attempt to do without them must seem perverse and the appeal to common experience trivial. Yet personal testimony and illustrations from the unregarded in life are in fact the only evidences relevant to fresh inquiry.
That part of the world I call the House of Intellect embraces at least three groups of subjects: the persons who consciously and methodically employ the mind; the forms and habits governing the activities in which the mind is so employed; and the conditions under which these people and activities exist. There is an important reason for not calling this domain more simply the House of Mind. Mind is properly equated with intelligence, and by Intellect I most emphatically do not mean intelligence. Intellect is at once more and less than Mind. The House of Mind may turn out to be as large as the universe; to treat of it would require dealing with the mental prowess of apes and bees and, for all I know, of fishes and flowers. Mind or intelligence is widely distributed and serves an infinity of purposes.
We ought, parenthetically, to remember this when the United States is assailed, from within or without, as a nation lacking in Mind and hostile to it. We have in fact intelligence in plenty and we use it perhaps more widely than other nations, for we apply it with praiseworthy innocence to parts of life elsewhere ruled by custom or routine. We like ideas, new ideas especially, and we drive a brisk trade in them: the quickest way to get three Americans to travel a thousand miles is to propose an exchange of ideas. And there is reason to believe that this restless searching is becoming a habit the world over.
The modern educated democrat, then, is not anti-intellectual in the sense of shunning novelty or undervaluing intelligence. The truer and more serious charge is that he neglects or resists or shies away from one form of intelligence, which is Intellect. And this we see with peculiar vividness in the United States where, precisely, customs and routines do not mask the defect: it is for lack of Intellect that we have such a hard time judging persons and ideas; it is absence of Intellect that makes us so frightened of criticism and so inept at conversation; it is disregard of Intellect that has brought our school system to its present ridiculous paralysis. In any large collective enterprise, such as the production of rockets and satellites, it is dearth of Intellect -- not of intelligence -- that aggravates the normal causes of friction and slows down accomplishment.The House of Intellect. Copyright © by Jacques Barzun. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.