Intellectuals and Society

There has probably never been an era in history when intellectuals have played a larger role in society. When intellectuals who generate ideas are surrounded by a wide range of others who disseminate those ideas– whether as journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges– the influence of intellectuals on the way a society evolves can be huge. Trying for years to understand the nature of that influence eventually led me to write the book “Intellectuals and Society ,” which has just been published.

Intellectuals generate ideas and ideas matter, whether those ideas are right or wrong, and they matter far beyond the small segment of society who are intellectuals. Ideas affect the fate of whole nations and civilizations. Nowhere is that more true than in our own times, when some people make suicidal attacks to kill strangers who have done nothing to them, as on 9/11, because the attackers are consumed with a set of ideas– a vision– and driven by the emotions generated by those ideas and that vision.

Whether in war or peace, and whether in economics or religion, something as intangible as ideas can dominate the most concrete things in our lives. What Karl Marx called “the blaze of ideas” has set whole nations on fire and consumed whole generations.

Those whose careers are built on the creation and dissemination of ideas– the intellectuals– have played a role in many societies out of all proportion to their numbers. Whether that role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times.

The quick answer is that intellectuals have done both. But certainly, for the 20th century, it is hard to escape the conclusion that intellectuals have on net balance made the world a worse and more dangerous place. Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals– not only within his own country, but in foreign democracies, where intellectuals were free to say whatever they wanted to.

Given the enormous progress made during the 20th century, it may seem hard to believe that intellectuals did so little good as to have that good outweighed by particular wrong-headed notions. But most of those who promoted the scientific, economic and social advances of the 20th century were not really intellectuals in the sense in which that term is most often used.

eam of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals. Nor were those who conquered the scourge of polio and other diseases, or who created the electronic marvels that we now take for granted.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

Whether their ideas turn out to work– whether they make life better or worse for others– is another question entirely.

The ideas that Karl Marx created in the 19th century dominated the course of events over wide portions of the world in the 20th century. Whole generations suffered, and millions were killed, as a result of those ideas. This was not Marx’s intention, nor the intentions of many supporters of Marxian ideas in countries around the world. But it is what happened.

Some of the most distinguished intellectuals in the Western world in the 1930s gave ringing praise to the Soviet Union, while millions of people there were literally starved to death and vast numbers of others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

Many of those same distinguished intellectuals of the 1930s were urging their own countries to disarm while Hitler was rapidly arming Germany for wars of conquest that would have, among other things, put many of those intellectuals in concentration camps– slated for extermination– if he had succeeded.

The 1930s were by no means unique. In too many other eras– including our own today– intellectuals of unquestionable brilliance have advocated similarly childish and dangerous notions. How and why such patterns have existed among intellectuals is a challenging question, whose answer can determine the fate of millions of other people.

by Thomas Sowell – a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust

About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place". At age 62 I find myself fighting inoperable uterine Cancer and thanks to the man upstairs and the prayers from so many people including many of my readers from AskMarion and JustOneMorePet... I'm beating it. After losing our business because of the economy and factors related to the re-election of President Obama in 2012 followed by 16-mos of job hunting, my architect-trained husband is working as a trucker and has only been home approximately 5-days a month since I was diagnosed, which has made everything more difficult and often lonely... plus funds are tight. Our family medical deductible is 12K per year for two of us; thank you ObamaCare. But thanks to donations from so many of you, we are making ends meet as I go through treatment while taking care of my father-in-law who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer's and my mother-in-law who suffers from RA and onset dementia as well as hearing loss, for which there are no caretaker funds, as I continue the fight here online to inform and help restore our amazing country. And finally I need to thank a core group of family, friends, and readers... all at a distance, who check in with me regularly. Plus, I must thank my furkids who have not left my side through this fight. You can see them at JustOneMorePet.
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One Response to Intellectuals and Society

  1. Pingback: Welcome to the 1930s | askmarion

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