Wisdom in Plenty vs Wisdom in Crisis

When times are good, there are a lot of people to learn from.

When times are dire, there’s almost no wisdom to be found.

It seems when the world is humming along and freedom and prosperity are abundant, there are many experienced hands in many fields with a lot of interesting and useful advice and input.

When the shit hits the fan, prosperity ceases, and freedom is strangled, nearly everyone ceases to bring wisdom or insight to the table. People who seemed smart and creative in prosperity become dull and reactive in a pinch. People who seemed free and courageous become groveling quick.

And some of the people that seemed the least insightful and the most crazy in the good times appear among the remnant of insightful and courageous in crisis.

Open This Content

Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Jason Brennan: Do We Have a Duty to Obey the Government? (58m)

This episode features an interview of philosopher and political scientist Jason Brennan from 2013 by Trevor Burrus and Aaron Powell, hosts of the Free Thoughts podcast. Conventional wisdom holds that governments make laws and their citizens have a duty to obey them. Most people think that’s so obvious that we don’t even really need to discuss it. But is it? Governments certainly want us to obey them, but what sort of arguments are there for why we should? Purchase books by Jason Brennan on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (58m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content

Six More Presidents

Nobody asked but …

I’ll say again, the Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 clunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  But I have practically no regard for the intellects of any of today’s half-dozen.  With the exception of the monstrous Jackson, the other 5 are bound for the oubliette of history.  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been a POTUS places a black mark on that career.  Few (ie none) have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the downward slide to the oval office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the second six (7-12):

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.

As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.

The chains of military despotism, once fastened upon a nation, ages might pass away before they could be shaken off.

Let it be henceforth proclaimed to the world that man’s conscience was created free; that he is no longer accountable to his fellow man for his religious opinions, being responsible.

I would bring the government back to what it was intended to be – a plain economical government.

If elected, I would not be the mere president of a party – I would endeavor to act independent of party domination and should feel bound to administer the government untrammeled by party schemes.

But every person who has served in furtherance of this inauspiciously mediocre capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

 

Open This Content

Six Presidents

Nobody asked but …

The Presidents of the United States are a motley crew.  So far the scorecard reads 45 attempts, 45 klunkers.  I am not saying there were no honorable persons in the group (“honorable” itself is a very iffy word).  I have the highest regard for the intellects of Jefferson and Madison.  I believe that John Adams was among the greatest lawyers (a rare occurrence).  But, to me, there is no such thing as a great President.  To have been one places a black mark on that career.  Few have risen above.

On some occasions, some wisdom has been dispensed independently of the degradation to the office.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from the first six:

It is far better to be alone than to be in bad company.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.

America… goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

But every person who has served in this inauspicious capacity, in my view, has a great atrocity to their name.  Again, the list:

— Kilgore Forelle

Open This Content

Glimpses of Hidden America

I’m a pretty cynical guy when it comes to nation-states. So it might be surprising to hear that I sort of love in the vision of America most of us learned in school.

It’s a place where people generally tell the truth, work hard, love their families, help each other, stand up for the weak, tolerate differences, resist tyrants, chase frontiers, do justice, and create wealth.

If this seems like a dream, it is. This is “hidden America.” Probably the America you’ve experienced hasn’t worked out quite this way.

Part of the problem is that we may be looking in the wrong place.

I don’t believe the “United States” has very much to do with a good vision of America. The bureaucrats and the enforcers typically just control, manipulate, and harass. The politicians grandstand, and the legislation corrupts and impoverishes. The corporate types join in.

But there’s a whole lot more to America than the government, the big corporations, or the culture wars. I catch little glimpses of this “hidden America” here and there.

I see it in people who volunteer their free time to make things better, like when my friends and I showed up to help a forest cleaning crew this Saturday. They hardly asked any questions: we just grabbed saws and got to it. There was trust there, and an openness to strangers I doubt you’d find much elsewhere.

I see it in countless small businesses. There’s a plumber I know who comes home every day to feed his horses alongside his wife and two young daughters. And he has the biggest grin and joy to spare for his kids despite a hard job.

I see it in every old-timer who passes on wisdom and every young person who listens. It’s there in the kids who leave the countryside for the big cities, or leave the big cities for the countryside. It’s the high-fives at 5Ks, the fierce competition that ends with a handshake, and the company that makes electric scooters the new fad.

In hidden America, cooperation is the norm, and people couldn’t care less what your politics are. Character comes before party or belief. It’s the America that could live without the American empire. It’s the America that shares a common thread with the pioneers, the farmers, the inventors, the musicians, and all the decent people who came before us.

This is the America I suppose I will always love, even if it is a myth 9 times out of 10. And every now and then, I get to meet it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content