Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Intellectuals, Humanism and Democracy

Pedro Blas Gonzalez

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The first chapter that greets the reader in Jean-Francois Revel's incisive book How Democracies Perish is titled "The End of an Accident." The accident in question is no less than the future of the democratic process, more specifically, western democracies. Revel's eye-opening contention is simply that modern democracy is a historically innovative and experimental social-political organization of humanity. However, this experiment, he goes on to argue is ongoing. This notion of democracy as an experiment, he contends, is a notable innovation over other tyrannical and often haphazard political agglomerations that have appeared throughout history. This is sound advice for a time depraved of historical memory. The civilizing pathos of the democratic process is quite a significant accomplishment, Revel explains, because the open society is susceptible to attack by the very autonomous internal structure that defines it. Thus this experiment is always in peril given the great number of enemies that democracies must contend with - especially from within.

Let us compare this inherently debilitating weakness in democracy -- Revel suggests, even fatal - with what another seminal twentieth century political thinker, Karl Popper, has called the "tribal instinct" in his now classic work The Open Society and It's Enemies. Popper views democracy as being a system of values that is diametrically opposed to collectivism and as such as a movement of individual autonomy that strides away from a deeply seated collective tribal longing of man. For instance, Popper argues that what has traditionally been the lure of some intellectuals toward the totalitarian impulse is precisely a return to a more primitive, tribal, and communistic social set-up. This totalitarian longing is incommensurate with the humanizing values that democracy promotes. This is a significant analysis of the plight of democracy as a historical process, given Popper's as well as Revel's notion that the open society is an attempt at humanizing social-political reality. But, as both of these thinkers point out throughout their work, anti-humanistic ideology is perhaps the strongest threat to the virtues of the open society. Ironically, the greatest demand that the open society makes of its citizens is a good will.

What role should thinkers play in an open society? Clearly there are still conscientious humanists, poets and public intellectuals in this technological and ideologically expedient age who are plagued by such a question? The responsibility of intellectuals ought to be to respect and protect human dignity first, and thus preserve individual autonomy. And because human beings today form part of complex economic and social-political systems, it also makes sense to protect those social-political systems that best safeguard individual autonomy. My contention is that this is precisely the central question which must be continually asked of intellectuals, as is often posed to citizens in general. But this question must be fashioned in a humanistic manner - one that is founded on concern with intrinsic rather than utilitarian ends - as is the case with radical ideologies.

This question has been addressed in a variety of ways in the past. Some have been practical, while others remained fanciful and utopian -- often culminating in mass murder, the moral and "logical" outcome of tyrannical dystopias. The hope of some social engineers in the decades of the 1920's and 1930's, for instance, was to fulfill this vision with a society run by technocrats, that is, by scientists and engineers and with technology as its central rallying point. Technocracy it was to be called. Yet today perhaps more than ever given our global exigencies we are still left with the pressing question: "what ought to be the role and responsibility of the thinker in an open society?" The answer might actually prove to be more sincere, unaffected, and humanistic than some imagine -- it is certainly less pretentious than the authoritarianism that "post-modern" theorists propose.

Public intellectuals, philosophers, scientists, writers and humanists, I will argue, should keep an objective, plenary and disinterested distance from the political arena -- from party politics and an all-consuming ideology, that is. Discretion, I suppose, has always been the moral imperative and duty of the wise. Prudence in private affairs ought to serve as the strongest guidepost of moderation in the summum bonum of public ends. It is not that the world of politics ought to be shunned by the truly civic minded. But we can undertake our civic duty in a varied manner of ways. This is precisely what prudence requires. To educate and love our children is not only a moral obligation, for instance, but in doing so our moral behavior also crosses over to embrace a form of civic pride that has its origin in private honor. To take care of one's aging parents, again, is not only to do the work of conscience, but is also central to understanding our immediate role in promoting a greater civic responsibility. Perhaps a strong rule of thumb in such matters is that intellectuals should mind their own lives with a degree of dignity and sincerity that can serve as a clear example for the greater good. The most egregious staple of hypocrisy in this respect is the call for a form of collective, make-work "social justice" that one is unwilling to practice in more intimate settings and groups.

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset has eloquently argued that all disagreements at the political level are always indicative of a still greater confusion at the moral and metaphysical realm. My contention here is two-fold: First, that not all solutions to human problems can be construed as political in scope, and that militant ideologies run counter to true humanistic values. We must make clear, however, that in one way or other we all participate in the democratic process. Even those volatile malcontents who deface democracy by defending the indefensible reap great benefits from the democratic process. In fact, we often celebrate democracy, that is, those of us who feel the need to understand the value and whereabouts of our ennobling freedom. But we must remain vigilant of the destructive servitude that radical ideology and ideologues impose.

But are conditions that inhere in reason as a logical, self-regulating and conscience-building process equal in kind to those performed by mere intellectual craftiness? The latter is the hallmark of radical ideologues. By its very nature reason is a constructive and humanizing endeavor. The enlightenment project is very much alive and well regardless of the tyrannical and destabilizing tactics created by the irrational whim of "post-modernists." This enlightenment mode of reflection is directly responsible for defending the good will that is such a central part of the make-up of the democratic impulse. On the other hand, we have witnessed how intelligence, when not guided by an autonomous, virtuous principle of checks and balances, can be destructive and infrahuman, as is exemplified by blind devotion to fanatical ideology. Human reason has served as the major civilizing force that has kept mankind from entering fewer wars and being subjected to less tyranny than the double standard, irrationalism of "pacifists" might have delivered us into. But first we ought to make clear what is meant by ideology.

Ideology can best be explained as a system of beliefs whose sole purpose is to serve as the basis of some economic or political theory. Coined by the French philosopher, Destutt de Tracy in 1795, ideology, as Roger Scruton so aptly points out in A Dictionary of Political Thought is: "any systematic and all-embracing political doctrine, which claims to give a complete and universally applicable theory of man and society, and to derive therefrom a programme of political action."

Thus we can see how reason, as long as this is indicative of a frank, sublime and profound ethos always manages to remain a solitary wayfarer, moved only by the understanding of reality that it seeks. But the desire for understanding and wisdom is a prescription for reflective thought, not muteness. In addition, the gravitas engendered by private reflection is incomparable with the blind, herd, "political-action" for-its-own-sake noise that is the domineering mark of ideologues. This is what Socrates exemplifies by the notion of a private "daimon," or voice that guided him, as he tells us, into always taking the right and virtuous path. Reason, in other words, is a good indicator of the origin of this Socratic daimon. The nature of reason, as is also the case with truth in their respective make-up do not belong to the ill-willed and lazy generality that informs collective populism. Ours is a disquiet and insipid time when more often than not the loudest and most disingenuous, but politically correct gain an audience. Again, it is important not to confuse reason with mere politically expedient craftiness.

Reason, by its very make-up is universal and disinterested, always forcing us to embrace the logical outcome of its self-evident truths. It is also self-motivated and contemplative -- always willing to lead by example. In addition, reason can perhaps be best characterized as giving birth to virtue, discipline, moral struggle, self-understanding and above all, amor fati -- that is, that most difficult willingness to love our own fate. And to care about our destiny also means to take the necessary steps to secure the conditions where others, too, can do the same for themselves if they wish to do so. Reason dictates that the longest route taken is also the hardest won. As such, reason often makes its greatest contribution in the form of a social/public passing down of knowledge and values, conscience and good will and not through recourse to the tribal, political, herd mentality that ideologues incite.

Reason also concerns itself with a virtuous catharsis, a kind of spiritual purification, or perhaps better stated, with the aim of perfecting human virtue -- preferably our own. Is this not also the same autonomous solemnity for which democracy provides the impetus? The irrefutable truth remains that democracy allows us to become ennobled regardless of our inability to become "noticed" by society at large. This is the incessant gripe of intellectuals. Where in totalitarian countries intellectuals who are committed to the party line are handed control of ministries and cultural institutions that they are not suited for, in democracies these same intellectuals must carry their own weight in talent and vocation.

Democracy enables us to live dignified lives. A close and honest examination of the role that reason plays in creating and upholding a culture or civilization leads us to the realization that everyone is equally responsible in such an enterprise -- not only self-styled intellectuals. As such, this process of engagement with wisdom is the work of a lifetime of sincerity. The power of reason, then, guides us in the pursuit of truth - and truth exists as a central cog in the development of man. Reason and democracy are partners in the holistic development of morally and spiritually well-adjusted persons. Democracy does not have a moral obligation to make us happy, but it does go further than any other system of government in making us content. But in order to understand this truism a good will is already necessary, isn't it?

Many rational and conscientious intellectuals have participated in the political realm, often admirably and nobly. The list of these noble of spirit intellectuals, especially prior to WWII is extensive. The heightened level of learning and culture that they bestowed on the general public was the Socratic dictum that stressed that perhaps in order to improve the world one must first improve oneself through a vitally felt moral conscience. But this moral sense became ever duller as the twentieth century began to produce, more often than not, what Robert Musil has referred to as "the man without qualities" - one who lives out his life in a pseudo political reality that prevails over reason at all cost. Many intellectuals have been perpetually shielded from reality by such an ideological fog that they cannot help but to serve tyranny as "useful fools," as Lenin called them. Historically such intellectuals have had a central part in establishing and protecting tyranny.

Democracies today enjoy secular governments. Many thinkers have considered the separation of state and church to be a great progress in social-political organization. But secularism in itself is neither a great achievement nor is it a lamentable ill. This phenomenon is nothing new. This worldview was already systematically advancing from the time of the Italian Renaissance. The real problem is that radical ideological secularism, that is, the transfer of worldly power from an ecclesiastical to a civil order has "secularized" all aspects of the human condition. In other words, we have taken the very life, the vitality, the profundity and sublimity that is human existence along with all the apparent institutions in which such an existence resides and squeezed out its animating force. But this process, as has been achieved on such a grand scale in our time, has only recently managed to institutionalize the disastrous and nihilistic axiological inversion that we are currently witnessing, after the ideological radicalism of the1960's. Hence as a direct result of this penchant for cultural and moral destruction, all aspects of human existence have been politicized, including wisdom itself. What is leftover is none other than a tasteless, bankrupt and vacuous cultural carapace -- a mere semblance of profundity.

When intellectuals willingly enter into the political arena, reason deviates from that which is central and essential to thought: objectivity and the pursuit of truth. Intellectuals who participate -- to become "committed" some have called it, in the political arena and in party politics per se often end up by eagerly trivializing and politicizing all things human. The structure of social-political debate that ideologues propose today is devoid of all semblance of an impartial moral/axiological component. Radical ideologues refuse to take account of the overwhelming available empirical evidence that is at their disposition. The facts contained in history, especially in atrocities motivated by social-political "theories" do not lie. We can no longer turn human reality on its head and pretend that it will continue to make sense. The devastation that is currently being brought about by those who negate all objective valuation is unconscionable. Today's spirited negation of the aforementioned is not in keeping with the pursuit of truth. The imminent danger of these incessant cries for the establishment of hitherto tried and failed ideological dystopias is that everything becomes collectivized in the name of moral social/political "liberation." Radical collective populism excels in converting everything serious and sublime into a spurious cynicism, fashion, and cliché and, more often than not, into make-work political propaganda. This particular form of malcontentment is also a profound indication of pathological self-loathing. The dominant catchword today is "political correctness" -- for Soviet "theorists" - this same form of craftiness was called "doublespeak." It is a precariously dangerous state of reality that today western democracies have institutionalized the immoral and cultureless whims of radical ideologues in holding trials for writers such as Salman Rushdie, Michel Houellebecq, and Oriana Fallaci -- thinkers deemed "politically incorrect" by the ruling disingenuous fanatical radicals.

Spontaneity and not ideology is the staple characteristic of the humanistic thinker. This individual never auto-designates himself an intellectual. The humanist is always the practitioner of common sense and good will, where what matters most is a coherent appropriation of human existence. Ideology never achieves this end.

In 1960 Jean-Paul Sartre went to Cuba to witness firsthand the communist state that Castro's revolution had brought about in that island nation. During this time Sartre was a full-fledged communist, this, of his own admission. He brutally attacked Albert Camus when the latter refuted Sartre's celebration of "necessary" Soviet Stalinism. But to his naïve chagrin he discovered that Castro kept a leading Cuban poet, Heberto Padilla, as a political prisoner. Sartre, rightly so, took issue with this injustice. However, what Sartre failed to understand, as he failed to understand so many other things about the human condition, was not that there was one poet in prison, for there were thousands of men and women in Cuban prisons -- where they still remain - but rather that the system, which he so haled as the model of freedom was indeed a prison of the human spirit.

Books by Dr. Pedro Blas Gonzalez:

Dr. Pedro Blas Gonzalez teaches Spanish-American philosophy at Barry University, Miami, Florida and is finishing a book on Ortega's The Revolt of the Masses.

Posted: 04-Sep-05

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