July 31, 2007

The Intellectuals and the Masses

Category: Miscellaneous,Politics :: Permalink

At several points in The Ordeal of Change, Eric Hoffer deals with the intellectuals.  He points out that in the past, the intellectual (or the equivalent thereof) was often a member of the ruling elite or part of a privileged sector of society.  So in India, the highest caste of the Brahmins was the educated caste.  In classical Greece, the influential men in society were often philosophers, poets, historians, and artists.  But beginning in the fourteenth century or so, various changes took place, among them the introduction of the printing press, which made education no longer the privilege of an elite class.  As Hoffer says, “There emerged a large group of non-clerical teachers, students, scholars, and writers who were not members of a clearly-marked privileged class, and whose social usefulness was not self-evident” (p. 15).

That last clause is particularly significant because one of the characteristics of the intellectual, according to Hoffer, is his desire to be socially useful:

In the modern Occident power was, and still is, the prerogative of men of action — landowners, soldiers, businessmen, industrialists, and their hangers-on.  The intellectual is treated as a poor relation and has to pick up the crumbs . He usually ekes out a living by teaching, journalism, or some white-collar job.  Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scientist, or educator is generally recognized and rewarded, he does not feel himself one of the elite.

The intellectual’s passionate search for an acknowledged status and a role of social usefulness has been a ferment in the Occident since the days of the Renaissance.  He has pioneered every upheaval from the Reformation to the latest nationalist or socialist movement.  Yet the intellectual has not known how to retain a position of leadership in the movements and new regimes he has done so much to initiate and promote.  He has usually been elbowed out by fanatics and practical men of action (p. 15).

In Communist countries, mind you, things are a bit different: “In a Communist country writers, artists, scientists, professors, and intellectuals in general are near the top of the social ladder, and feel no doubt aobut their social usefulness” (p. 16).  But in the United States, in particular, intellectuals have a harder time, Hoffer says.

The intellectual, seeking an elite status and a role that’s socially useful, makes alliances.  He makes alliances with the downtrodden and underprivileged.  And, as Hoffer says, “his most potent alliance has been with the masses” (p. 39):

The intellectual goes to the masses in search of weightiness and a role of leadership.  Unlike the man of action, the man of words needs the sanction of ideals and the incantation of words in order to act forcefully.  He wants to lead, command, and conquer, but he must feel that in satisfyin these hungers he does not cater to a petty self.  He needs justification, and he seeks it in the realization of a grandiose design, and in the solemn ritual of making the word become flesh.  Thus he does battle for the downtrodden and disinherited, and for liberty, equality, justice, and truth, though, as Thoreau pointed out, the griveance which animates him is not mainly “his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail.”

Once his “private ail” is righted, the intellectual’s ardor for the underprivileged cools considerably.  His cast of mind is essentially aristocratic….  He sees himself as a leader and master.  Not only does he doubt that the masses could do anything worthwhile on their own, but he would resent it if they made the attempt.  The masses must obey….

There is considerable evidence that when the militant intellectual succeeds in establishing a social order in which his craving for a superior status and social usefulness is fully satisfied, his view of the masses darkens, and from being their champion he becomes their detractor (pp. 39-40, one paragraph break added).

So various intellectuals have spoken out against the masses.  Hoffer quotes Emerson, who says that the masses are

rude, lame, uonmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered but to be schooled.  I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide and break them up, and draw individuals out of them….  If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply, the population (cited p. 43).

In fact, when the intellectuals have gained power and elite status, as in Communist countries, they often become the fiercest slavedrivers:

And what of the masses in this intellectual’s paradise?  They have found in the intellectual the most formidable taskmaster in history.  No other regime has treated the masses so callously as raw material, to be experimented on and manipulated at will; and never before have so many lives been wasted so recklessly in war and in peace (p. 42).

And yet the intellectual still needs the masses.  For one thing, he needs their money.  For another, he craves their worsihp: “He has a vital need for the flow of veneration and worship that can come only from a vast, formless, inarticulate multitude” (p. 45).

Summing up, Hoffer says:

The intellectual’s concern for the masses is as a rule a symptom of his uncertain status and his lack of an unquestionable sense of social usefulness.  It is the activities of the chronically thwarted intellectual which make it possible for the masses to get their share of the good things of life.  When the intellectual comes into his own, he becomes a pillar of stability and finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak (p. 46)

The trick, then, according to Hoffer, is to keep the intellectuals “chronically thwarted.”  That’s the recipe for creativity.  Real intellectuals, real artists and writers, are often not much good at statecraft and rule, so it is usually “the pseudo-intellectual who rules the roost, and he is likely to imprint his mediocrity and meagerness on every phase of cultural activity” (p. 47).  Besides, “his creative impotence brews in him a murderous hatred of intellectual brilliance and he may be tempted, as Stalin was, to enforce a crude leveling of all intellectual activity” (p. 47).

But if the intellectuals aren’t given rule and authority, they end up at their creative best:

The creativeness of the intellectual is often a function of a thwarted craving for purposeful action and a privileged rank.  It has its origin in the soul intensity generated in front of an insurmountable obstacle on the path to action.  The genuine writer, artist, and even scientist are dissatisfied persons — as dissatisfied as the revolutionary — but are endowed with a capacity for transmuting their dissatisfaction into a creative impules.  A busy, purposeful life of action not only diverts energies from creative channels, but above all reduces the potent irritation which releases the secretion of creativity (p. 47).

In short,

the chronic thwarting of the intellectual’s craving for power serves a higher purpose than the well-being of common folk.  The advancement of the masses is a mere by-product of the uniquely human fact that discontent is at the root of the creative process: that the most gifted members of the human species are at their creative best when they cannot have their way, and must compensate for what they miss by realizing and cultivating their capacities and talents (p. 47).

I pass all of this on to you because I found it fascinating.  But I also wonder whether it has any application to the life of the church.  The church also has her intellectuals and her pseudo-intellectuals, her men of creativity who are often not given positions of leadership but who — maybe precisely by virtue of their marginalization — produce great and important work (I think of men such as James Jordan!), and men who crave power and leadership and who work to rise to the top so that they can impose their ideas on the masses of the church.  It’s possible, for instance, for a pastor to denigrate his elders as if he’s the only one with the sense to know what ought to be done, or for a seminary professor to castigate pastors in his denomination because they don’t know sound doctrine the way he does.  At any rate, Hoffer’s understanding of the intellectuals should provide food for thought, not only as we look at the world around us (why are so many politicians these days lawyers?) but also as we look at the life of the church.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:17 pm | Discuss (0)

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