The Intellectual Temptation: Dangerous Ideas in Politics

The Intellectual Temptation: Dangerous Ideas in Politics

by Frits Bolkestein


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" absorbing (and beautifully written) study that deserves a very wide audience."
- Joshua Muravchik
" erudite account of where [the] vision [of individual liberty] comes from, why some ideologues set themselves against it, and how our contemporaries have ceased to treasure it."
- Christopher Caldwell
"Bolkestein exposes today's fashionable, yet dangerous ideas, doing a great service not only to Europe but indeed to the whole of Western civilization."
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The dangers of intellectuals and their ideas in politics have rarely been written about by politicians themselves. This is not surprising, for few politicians are up to the task. However, Frits Bolkestein is a notable exception, bringing rare if not unique qualifi cations to this examination.
Not only has he held national and international offi ce in Europe, but he has also studied, read, taught and published broadly.
The thesis of The Intellectual Temptation is simple but penetrating:
intellectuals' ideas are problematic as political ideas because they are often neither derived from nor falsifi able by experience. These ideas are frequently dreams attempting to become reality through power politics.
There is also a cultural problem. Intellectuals are pack animals, looking to one another for approval. This affects the quality of their ideas,
as they are susceptible to fashionable ideology and group pressure
- frequently attracted to ideas that are appealing rather than sound.
Very few of them are brave enough to stand against the prevailing orthodoxy.
Beginning with a history of ideology, Bolkestein traces a nearly 300
year trend of bad ideas making worse politics, sometimes disastrously so. From his own experience he offers a vision of a politics of prudence,
proper pragmatism and Classicism as a way out of the "intellectual temptation" that we have fallen under.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781481709019
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/28/2013
Pages: 318
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)

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By FRITS BOLKESTEIN, Jonathan price


Copyright © 2013Frits Bolkestein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4817-0901-9



Three models and two intellectuals – Fashionable ideas in the 18th century

Three models of how to understand the world had great import amongst eighteenth century intellectuals, namely: Classicism, Enlightenment and Romanticism. Few founding fathers amongst intellectuals have sired more children (and orphans) than Rousseau. He will serve as the apogee of what I am rallying against – of dangerous, untestable and un-falsifiable ideas, not drawn from experience, that enter politics as ideology, usually through the work of intellectuals. One other intellectual, whose name I shall not give away too soon, will serve as an exemplar of a beneficial use of ideas in politics. Our story begins in eighteenth century Europe, since this is the place where modern ideology in politics begins. For a cursory idea of what I mean by "intellectual" and "ideology", which will help to frame the rest of this book, I refer the reader to the introduction.


Classicism sought perfection in the precepts and examples of classical antiquity. In the theatre this meant the three unities of time, place and action. In behavior it meant the overriding importance of order: as the Marquise de Rambouillet, the 'inventor' of the salon, insisted: "Every passion should be ruled by reason". In literature, regularity of form and beauty of proportion were sought. It rejected all that was amorphous, accidental and chaotic.

According to the contemporaneous literary critic Boileau-Dépreaux (1636-1711), Mme. de Lafayette was "the most intelligent woman of France". She saw romantic love as a disturbing influence on the peace of mind of honorable people and on their relations with each other, that is, on the very fabric of society. Truly unromantic, and a great difference between Classicism and Romanticism.

The praise of order was the provenance of a certain class at the outset of the eighteenth century, but it was not destined to remain the only option. I begin with Classicism not only because it is the historical forerunner of both Enlightenment and Romanticism but also because I have been influenced by it myself. Especially the values of prudence and cool-headed reasoning as well as a sense of order are invaluable to politics rightly done. What took their place has never measured up to the great expectations and promises of the intellectuals who promoted it. I am, however, aware of only a few intellectuals – apart from Goethe – who supported Classicism. Still, the seventeenth century French playwrights, Corneille and Racine, are fine examples of Classicism in literature. Antedating Classicism as a literary movement is Shakespeare, whose themes, worldview and some of his content – cf. Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar – participate in the Greco-Roman tradition that the French were to revive shortly after his death. One could add later English authors who easily fit the mold, such as Jane Austen, to the broad definition of Classicism that I am offering. Naturally, this movement was not only or even primarily literary, but also involved art, architecture and even a revival of classical republicanism, which saw both its greatest success and its failure in the eighteenth century, the American and French Revolutions, respectively.

I want to dwell on Classicism in literature a little while longer, as it provides the most complete portrait of this worldview, which can then be juxtaposed to Enlightenment and Romanticism. Take, for instance, The Princess of Cleves, a novel by Mme. de Lafayette. After its anonymous publication in 1678 it became an immediate success. The book described what had happened a century earlier at the court of King Henri II of France. Two matters had occupied courtiers: ambition and love. The first did not concern Lafayette; so, the second concerned her all the more. "One was constantly busy with pleasure or intrigues", because the main thing that interested the court was who was having an affair with whom and who knew of such a galanterie.

The novel is remarkable for both its content and its style. The Princess of Cleves is also an epitome of Classicist morals, which stand in stark contrast to the instant pleasures of our time. The story goes as follows: At her mother's urging, the future princess marries the Prince of Cleves. Even though he adores her, she does not love him; for her it is a marriage de raison. She senses something is lacking but does not really know what. Enter: the Duke of Nemours, one of the most distinguished men of his time, who falls as head over heels in love with her as she with him. Now her mother has explicitly warned her against erotic entanglements, or galanteries. A lady of quality should look after her reputation and her peace of mind. Both would be gone if she gave in to an impulse. She should be watchful, since "What appears [true] is almost never the truth", or at least not the whole truth.

The Princess feels ashamed of having amorous and unwarranted feelings for the Duke, rather than for her husband who merits them. But to submit to these feelings is impossible. She decides to avoid the Duke, however hard it might be. Then, in an ill-considered moment she owns up to her husband about her affection for the Duke. The husband is mortally stricken, assailed by all sorts of imaginings which seem to bring about his untimely death.

The Princess is now a widow. The Duke is unattached – after many a galanterie – so they can now marry. But they don't. Are they not in love with each other? In fact, the Princess sees to it that they meet as little as possible: "She resolved to flee from the thing in the world that she perhaps wanted the most". The Princess says, "It is through us that he died and because of me". She and the Duke are jointly responsible for her husband's death. She still feels duty-bound to her husband, even though she has done nothing improper – having never acted on her impulses for the Duke. She says: "It is true that I sacrifice much to a duty that only exists in my head". She also fears the jealousy which will inevitably poison her being once the Duke tires of her and looks for more galanteries. What is she to become but a bitter, jealous wife, bound to an unfaithful man and a memory of her unfaithful heart's doings?

Content aside, the second reason that The Princes of Cleves is remarkable is its style, which is both brilliant and clear. It does not waste a word, being compact yet precise – an example for writers to come. And for this the novel achieved its status as a jewel of French literature.

Yet, modern surveys of literature scarcely mention The Princes of Cleves. Perhaps it is thought to be boring. It was that great French novelist of the nineteenth century, Marie-Henri Beyle – better known as Stendhal (1783-1842) – who said the Romantic was modern and interesting, whereas Classicism was old and dull, and went on to mock and subvert its tropes in his novels. His contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), disagreed. Romanticism was a disease: it was the weak, the sickly, the battle cry of the school of wild poets and Catholic reactionaries; while Classicism was strong, fresh, gay, sounded like Homer and the Song of the Nibelung. Be that as it may, Classicism soon met with a new faith in reason and progress that would call into question its elevation of bygone eras and idealized, orderly relations.


The great historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, wrote that the common belief of the Enlightenment was that "the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by

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Table of Contents


Preface....................     xi     

Introduction....................     xiii     

Part I The Eighteenth Century....................          

Chapter 1: Three models and two intellectuals – Fashionable ideas in the
18th century....................     1     

Chapter 2: The Theater....................     27     

Chapter 3: German idealism is born....................     36     

Part II The Nineteenth Century....................          

Chapter 4: German idealism enters politics....................     49     

Chapter 5: The Russian intelligentsia....................     60     

Chapter 6: The Austro-Hungarian monarchy and its intellectuals.............     82     

Chapter 7: The philosophy of the Will....................     93     

Chapter 8: Fin de siècle....................     108     

Part III The Twentieth Century....................          

Chapter 9: "To end all wars": The beginnings of the First World War........     129     

Chapter 10: Fascism....................     146     

Chapter 11: National Socialism....................     155     

Chapter 12: Communism....................     166     

Chapter 13: The Counterculture....................     181     

Part IV Present....................          

Chapter 14: The European Union....................     197     

Chapter 15: Look back in anger – Development aid in Africa.................     213     

Chapter 16: 1968 - Sturm und Drang Revisited?....................     239     

Chapter 17: Multiculturalism....................     249     

Chapter 18: Intellectuals and capitalism....................     261     

Chapter 19: The Angel and the Beast - On the proper limits of government...     272     

Conclusion: Cultural masochism & the liberal death wish....................     281     

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