Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals

When I first began to post on Paul Johnson’s excellent book on secular intellectuals, I thought I would post a little here and a little there on each of the figures he chronicles. But what I discovered was that to do so would be to sound like a broken record. The personal circumstances and the extent of the influence of each person he describes vary, but the ideals to which they were committed being the same, their character and behavior were for the most part identical. So rather than making as many posts as a full review would require, let me simply quote Johnson’s own summary.
We are now at the end of our enquiry. It is just about two hundred years since the secular intellectuals began to replace the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind. We have looked at a number of individual cases of those who sought to counsel humanity. We have examined their moral and judgmental qualifications for this task. In particular, we have examined their attitude to truth, the way in which they seek for and evaluate evidence, their response not just to humanity in general but to human beings in particular, the way they treat their friends, colleagues, servants and above all their own families. We have touched on the social and political consequences of following their advice.
What conclusions should be drawn? Readers will judge for themselves. But I think I detect today a certain public skepticism when intellectuals stand up to preach to us, a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that skepticism. A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia. But I would go further. One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is – beware of intellectuals. Nor merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice. Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements issued from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders and important events. For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and non-conformist people, follow certain regular patterns of behavior.  Taken as a group, they are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. That is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which themselves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action. Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget, that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.

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