Intellectuals and Courage
By John Lachs
The will to group is one of the most profound characteristics of the
modern world. Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (1969), p. 4
Intellectuals do not enjoy a distinguished history of courage. There are, of course, shining exemplars of heroism among thinkers, writers and scientists. Some told the truth unmindful of the consequences; others were dauntless in their criticism of the established powers; a few even went to their deaths for principle. Zeno bit off the ear of a tyrant, Gandhi spent years in jail for his beliefs, and a number of Russian scientists lost their health, their freedom and their jobs for their resistance.
Most intellectuals, however, are compliant workers who don’t want to bite the hands that feed them. Some, unfortunately, feel they are little people whose insignificance entitles them to cowardice. A few—we could all provide names—combine bad judgment with ambition and servility to emerge as particularly despicable human beings.
This is no different from the course of affairs among ordinary people. But intellectuals receive a great deal more public attention, and that is how the few courageous ones among them come to serve as icons of moral achievement. We focus on Dr. Schweitzer and on Dr. King, overlooking the acts of valor and endurance that surround us on all sides. Yet the proportion of fortitude among those who earn their living by the use of their minds is not likely to be greater than in the general population.
This is unfortunate for two important reasons. Being in the public eye, intellectuals serve as exemplars of how one is to behave. Thinkers and scientists seem to or ought to know what is acceptable or right. So people look to them for guidance in life, and such reliance imposes obligations. Furthermore, intellectuals in fact know or at least could know better than anyone else what is worth having and what we need to do to obtain it. The social investment such knowledge represents also confers serious, potentially burdensome responsibilities.
Freedom of thought and investigation, for example, is a structuring value of all the arts and sciences. Without it, we cannot hope to attain novel and sustainable results. Writers and scientists know the importance of being unhampered in their own work, so they have every reason to generalize this value and to support its application to social life. Although some parts of moral life are full of problems and doubts, there is no uncertainty about what is right in this case. Yet many intellectuals are willing to live with whatever restrictions church or state imposes, instead of acting as steadfast champions of freedom.
How can we understand such disappointing failures of nerve? A distinction might be helpful. Writers and scientists exhibit considerable intellectual courage. In the privacy of their studies and labs, they investigate boldly. They experiment with ideas and are always ready to abandon those that do not work. They follow the argument wherever it leads and are happy to embrace any conclusion the evidence warrants.
Intellectual courage, however, does not make for courageous intellectuals. One does not have to be very daring to think dangerous thoughts in quiet privacy; the test of valor is one’s readiness to publish them. Opening one’s mind to the public may have dangerous consequences, and it is just these consequences that one can avoid by remaining silent and letting the world go its way. Intellectuals worthy of the name do not lack the courage to think, but many of them lack the courage to speak, to act on what they believe, and to expose themselves to the effects of being unpopular.
We know why the people who run established institutions do not wish to be criticized. They think objections hurt their image and thereby diminish their power. To retain their privileged positions, they withhold information, which then entitles them to claim that things are vastly more complicated than any outsider can know. But why are intellectuals, who know that criticism is essential for the vitality of institutions, hesitant to provide it? There are at least two powerful reasons.
The first is well expressed by Benda in the claim that nowadays everyone wants to run with the crowd. The desire to be, at least in our opinions, indistinguishable from anyone else exercises great influence over us. Intellectuals no less than other people find it safe and comforting to fade
into the group, to mouth favored dogmas and prejudices so they may convince their friends and employers that they are just regular folks, after all. The day of the great British eccentrics is gone. Perhaps they could afford not to care what others thought about them; for us even the bizarre is governed by universal rules.
The second reason for the failure of intellectuals to offer criticism is the sad one that they are afraid. In most of us, petty concern for self overshadows all other allegiances. Intellectuals want to be safe, they want to do well, they even rationalize and say they want to take care of their families. The fact is that they know criticism draws punishment, and they can’t think of a principle for which they are willing to suffer. The great ideas of humankind are only abstractions, after all; concrete flesh and feelings, on the other hand, can really hurt. They reason that if the truth is destined to triumph in the end, it certainly doesn’t need their measly contributions.
Pervasive misunderstandings of the function of scientists and writers lurk behind this avoidance of responsibility. Managers and the public at large think of intellectuals on an analogy with other producers of social goods, and those normally do not, and perhaps cannot, threaten the stability of the existing order. At a minimum, "knowledge industry" employees are expected to be team players, although they are always welcome to do what Marx claimed they were hired for and develop justifications of the status quo. Intellectuals themselves seem not to understand that their social role, like that of doctors, firefighters and the police, involves the potential for self-sacrifice: it requires that they value truth more highly than their private good. This is what renders being a writer or a scientist not just a wonderful privilege, but also a costly duty.
What makes thinkers and researchers different from other producers is that their job is to generate ideas. Nothing is potentially more destabilizing and revitalizing than a new idea. Many major advances and major collapses in the history of humankind were precipitated by ideas whose time had come. In spite of the known connection, however, we have not learned to deal with thoughts in a way sufficiently deliberate to capture their potential. This is particularly surprising and distressing today, when the availability of information and rapid reaction to it are essential for commercial, social, political and national success.
A society’s thoughts constitute its most striking and most precious possessions. Learning to view the studies and laboratories of intellectuals as factories for manufacturing ideas might help the leaders of nations to keep this in mind. If they could think this way, they would insist on finding out about everything writers and scientists turn up: they would demand into each new idea be made public for assessment and potential application. It goes without saying that some notions are too clever or abstract or impractical to be applicable, while others have no conceivable use. Public laughter might eliminate a few of them, and open debate would show the weaknesses of many others. But that would still leave some whose potential value could be learned only by small-scale social experiments.
Politicians have, from time to time, paid lip service to just such trials, calling them pilot projects and hoping to learn valuable lessons from their successes and failures. Unfortunately, however, no one seems to have the courage to let them fail. As egos and careers become invested in them, they begin to be viewed as potential solutions to problems rather than as experiments. Moreover, knowledge that any experiment, once started, is difficult to stop makes us reluctant to try anything: we do not want society saddled with a string of enduring failures.
Convincing national leaders and the managers of institutions that ideas constitute our most important resource is, unfortunately, not enough. To be sure, it would make these individuals revise their view of their own roles: they would begin to welcome, even to seek, criticism and to think of themselves as initiators of improvement through change. But the public also needs to be taught to expect intellectuals to speak their minds. The central problem here is to keep people listening, in spite of the fact that a good deal of what thinkers and scientists and writers are likely to say will be of little value. Yet we can treat food with respect even if we do not carry home everything we see in the store. Similarly, we can dismiss many ideas as worthless, even as we look with interest to future fruits of thought.
Most difficult of all, we must find ways to overcome the diffidence and fear that beset intellectuals. Institutional reforms to eliminate punishment of criticism promise some results. But in the nature of the case, it is impossible to safeguard against secret retaliation. So a more positive approach might work better: we must bestow the highest honors on those who undertake to assess our practices and to pronounce judgment on them. Support of the existing state of things is necessary only when it is under external attack; for the rest, it has enough power and momentum to sustain itself. We can expect far more good from constructive, well-aimed critique. Criticism must, of course, be viewed as serious business. Fortunately, if we place a high social value on it, even those who engage in it will tend to respect its dignity and refrain from making it cheap or capricious.
If encouraging intellectuals to engage in public debate does not work, we may have to make it mandatory. As part of the job description of thinkers, writers and scientists, such participation would become a matter of habit. To get things going, we might have to impose the obligation that each intellectual undertake two or three critical sallies a year. Mechanical as this sounds, it would tend to break the cycle of fear and withdrawal in which many of the most intelligent humans are now caught. In the long run, intellectuals have to understand that they are on the payroll of the community in order, among other things, to warn us about our ways, to help us see our practices in perspective, to present arguments against what we are bent on doing and, again and again, to present interesting alternatives. Their job is to shake up state and institutional orthodoxies, instead of working to preserve them.
In unstable societies, intellectuals have an even more pressing obligation to contribute to public dialogue. Economic problems, social upheaval and political turmoil prepare fertile soil for irrationality. In hard times, it is attractive to look for scapegoats, to resort to desperate measures, to substitute naked power for consensual policy. Under such circumstances, thinkers, writers and scientists must have the courage to act as the consciences of their communities, even if they are the only people who speak on behalf of sanity and good sense.
The spectacular failures of human history hold important lessons about what simply does not work or works only for a short, painful time. The American philosopher George Santayana once said that those who do not remember their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.1 Who but intellectuals are in a position to remind us of these errors, to warn us of impending folly and to present sensible alternatives to failed or suicidal policies? Who but thinkers and scientists have the knowledge and the trained calm to overcome panic and point the way out of our difficulties?
When intellectuals take public positions, they may find themselves drawn into the political power struggles of their society. This is dangerous because once they are perceived as partisan, they lose their claim to speak on behalf of the good of the entire community and with that they forfeit the attention of all who disagree. For this reason, they must scrupulously retain their objectivity and remain above the fray. They do enough in providing ideas and nothing of value in trying to ride to power on their backs. They set a great example by showing that not everyone is out for selfish gain and that cool reason retains its hold on better minds.
Beyond that, they need to remind us that acting on even the best idea is not a solution, only an experiment. No one, therefore, has the right to claim possession of the answers to our social ills. As in science and in all constructive thought, we must try the hypothesis that looks most promising and continue with it if the results bear it out. Such experimental work has borne fruit in intellectual life. Although it denies us the comfort of certainty, it represents the only intelligent approach to the broader problems we face.