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We live in a time that too often seems to be characterized by a rejection of all that has been gifted to our age. As a whole, we seem to have a profound ignorance of history, both as a nation and as humankind. We muddle the meaning of words and concepts that have clear and precise meanings. We hear “follow the science” from the same people who will passionately declare that gender is determined more by “identity” than biology. Some fear “climate change” (which has been a constant throughout the existence of the Earth and much more profound than now, that IS science) more than they do socialism which has resulted in the death of millions.
I feel one of the most misused terms thrown around is “intellectual”. I am sure that each of us has some definition of a person to be considered an intellectual. But I fear that for most it is more of an impression than a title with definitive criteria. This allows far too many pretenders and far too many willing dupes to give them creditability that is only grounded in preference for their particular brand of snake oil.
If one wishes to define the intellectual they might first actually consult a dictionary. If the one chosen happens to be of an older variety published sometime before the contrived spread of “wokeness”, they might run into phrases such as “rational rather than emotional” or “engaging the intellect” or even “exercise of the intellect”.
Since this seems to be an era when the meaning of things can be bent to fit the temper of the time, I feel free to take a feeble stab at explaining my vision of an intellectual. I warn you ahead of time that it might seem quite traditional and unreasonably bound in reality.
I believe that there are a few things that true intellectuals are obsessed with and among them are understanding and explaining. You will notice that understanding came first. Intellectuals want to understand. They do not necessarily want to indoctrinate. But they do want to discuss, explain, debate, and learn. True intellectuals begin wanting to learn, to understand long before the explaining starts.
All intellectuals are educated – but not necessarily in the academic sense. I would hope that if one is not familiar with the great longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer they take the time to consume some of his signature work The True Believer before the end of this political season. Hoffer’s works are profound. But his insights were not gained by a bolt from the blue while sitting lazily in the park. They were hammered out through long hours of research and study during night time sessions in west coast libraries after a day of hard labor at the docks. True intellectuals never feel that understanding, like real science, is ever completely “settled”. It is their lifetime’s work…… until it becomes the next generation’s lifetime work.
I have been lucky enough to have listened to a few intellectuals I respect who have spent a lifetime in scholarship. I have been even luckier to have listened to other true intellectuals who never saw a high school classroom but applied all the necessary characteristics which resulted in a storehouse of wise observation to gently pass along either around a café table or the warm coals of a campfire.
Key to this is actual study and independent critical thinking, the development of which has been terribly neglected by our educational community for well over half a century. I am talking about actual critical thinking for one’s self, not critical theory which is mindless nonsense regardless of what topic follows it. It is simply the ability to weigh real information and develop a rational opinion.
The true intellectual wants you to make your argument and present your evidence. He does not want debate suppressed. He doesn’t hold in contempt those who don’t completely agree. But he does want to hear real arguments and actual facts.
Proof, evidence, and results are always on the intellectual’s radar. The goal is always Truth, that Holy Grail for the wise of every age. They are much like the “tin pan miner”, shifting through the sand and silt to find those flakes of gold washed down from the deep vein above. Each flake salvaged from the stream bed adds to a growing fortune that takes time, work, and luck to build. And no matter how much gold is captured in that “poke” it probably will never match the richness of the vein above at the source of all those flakes.
I consider one of the tests of an intellectual is that they understand that Truth is Truth. It was Truth a few centuries ago, it is Truth today and will be tomorrow. It is not fashion or fad or convenience.
And it is not relative. We do not each have our Truth. We each have our own preferences, opinions and experiences. But we do not have our own Truth.
My own unperceptive mind tends to identify some among us who have severe problems with this idea: an enteral, consistence, universal Truth that does not bend with the times or whims that beset man. Oddly enough these individuals like to call themselves “progressive”, “enlightened” and a few others terms, depending on the age, that carry the ring of intellectualism if not the spirit.
I would add that true intellectuals are aware of context. That is not the same as Truth being relative. The intellectual realizes that Truth will be consistent in any age but the surrounding and conditions are never the same. It does not change Truth but might well influence how you deal with it, right or wrong. In fact, enduring principles could be the only rational way to deal with an evolving situation be it individually or nationally.
How do we sort out the false intellectuals? I have already suggested the inability to even weigh a counter opinion as well as favoring suppression of speech. The reliance on feelings above evidence and provable facts could be included. I might add the ability to ignore actual results from policies or practices. Some have even been known to lie about such things!
But I will point mostly to the practice of proclaiming rage over reason, the very reverse of “rational rather than the emotional”. You will notice I do not say anger. Intellectuals are quite capable of being angry. Some angry can be quite motivating and productive. Eric Hoffer considered anger to be “the prelude to courage”. Rage is both unreasoned and unproductive. It is purposely destructive. Anger is the Boston Tea Party. Rage is the Reign of Terror. If some have a problem with the nature of these two events, I will simply refer back to some earlier comments about how the decades we have spent not educating have led us here.
Intellectuals realize that a degree of passion is a necessary ingredient in any great achievement, including the pursuit of Truth. But the history we have so poorly taught for decades also shows that passion without understanding is usually ruthless.
So, who are some of the “intellectuals” I would hold up as examples worth considering? For this moment I will refer back to some favorite examples, ones which I seek wisdom from on a regular basis through their written words. They all managed to replace the impulse toward rage with reason, use justified anger to point toward the true north of Truth, and exercise a faith in not just facts and measurements but also the spiritual and its role in giving the intellectual real meaning. Both Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams can look back on a period of life when they might have been considered “angry, young black men”. They served time in the military before beginning their academic pursuits and leaned more than a little toward radical leftist activism. But their clarity and reasoned minds settled more on facts, results, and reason. One of their gifts is not just to see but to explain in simple, direct ways that are hard to refute. Either talk down but also come armed with a legion of facts, measurements, and thoughtfulness. Their declared field of study is economics but, as we should all know, that can touch every aspect of human life. And their astute study and words usually do just that.
Now at 90 years of age, Dr. Sowell does not write columns as regularly as before but all that wisdom of the past is easily found at his website and in the multiple books he has blessed us with. Dr. Williams’ columns can still be found on a regular basis (his latest might be worth a read before visiting the voting booth, especially for Never-Trumpers). Both are a delight to listen to. Unfortunately, the regular media does not chase after them too much. I would guess their straight-forward, factual observations and logic is hard to spin. The main-stream guys prefer a little more rage and more leftist slant. But whatever the issue of the moment, no one is completely well-versed on it unless they have read or listened to these two sages.
Clarence Thomas is certainly another former “angry young black man” who the media prefer to either ignore or marginalize. But anyone who seriously intends to discuss the meanings and function of our Constitution has to read deeply in his opinions, regardless if they agree or not. His are (in the opinion of his handicapped observer) the most insightful opinions written in at least the last 50 years. And he is fearless in his defense of those opinions; quiet, steady, studied and always deeply thoughtful – unaffected by the heat of the moment or the pressures of fad and fashion.
Although I have probably over-stayed my time here, I could not finish even an incomplete discussion of the intellectual without noting the spiritual. If there is indeed an eternal Truth, there has to be a source or some sort of eternal measure. I have recently seen C. S. Lewis referred to as the greatest intellectual of our age. If he is not at the head of the class, he certainly sits in the front row. Few this side of the New Testament have offered more practical insight to the relationship between man and God. Lewis has stated that Man does not have a soul, a sentiment that may well take us back at first. But Lewis concluded that actually, the reverse is true. It is the soul, the true spirit of the human, that has the body for a short time.
No matter how they define it, it is my belief that the true intellectual places value on the human spirit and realizes that it is what in the end gives meaning to human efforts. Those efforts certainly have limitations and will create frustrations that carry the seeds of anger. When that anger turns to rage, it loses its direction and becomes destructive. Rage robs man of his gift of reason.
That human spirit grows and prospers with the eternal gifts of reason and free will which separates it from the rest of the physical world. This is fundamental enough that it is understood by the true intellectuals of any age, even those who never had the chance to study the God of Abraham or the Savior of the New Testament. Cicero tells us that “a man of courage is also full of faith”.
As a result of his belief in that spirit, the intellectual sees all men capable of some level of excellence, nobility, and beauty and as having the right to strive for them. That is a part of why I content that among the least intellectual are those who place faith in the management of man instead of his liberty. Those who advocate for central control to protect men from the challenges of life or to provide to them a safety of sameness have little faith in the possibilities of either their abilities or their spirit. Yes, socialism in all its forms is for the unintellectual, for the easily deceived or for the deceivers themselves.
Reason and free will (liberty) do not always promise safety or comfort. They do promise achievement and purpose. That partially is why man might build structures that lasts centuries past his lifetime or speak and write words which last even longer to touch spirits which then leave their own mark. Human spirit will outlast rocks and soil. Those who hope to be true intellectuals never forget that.
By now I have certainly over-stayed my time here. So my last thought is that a true intellectual might want to lead us but would never want to rule us. Choose wisely.Published in