Weekend Reading From New Criterion: The Treason Of The Intellectuals & “The Undoing Of Thought”

by William Skink

I’ve had a vague sense for awhile that something happened to academia, but I didn’t know what. I figured it had something to the systemic corruption creeping through all our once respected, trusted institutions.

The Treason of the Intellectuals by Roger Kimball offers a more detailed summation of the deleterious changes to the societal role of the intellectual. The article should be read in full, but here’s a taste:

More and more, intellectuals were abandoning their attachment to the traditional panoply of philosophical and scholarly ideals. One clear sign of the change was the attack on the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanity and the concomitant glorification of various particularisms. The attack on the universal went forward in social and political life as well as in the refined precincts of epistemology and metaphysics: “Those who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences … have now come to praise them, according to where the sermon is given, for their ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ for the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’” In short, intellectuals began to immerse themselves in the unsettlingly practical and material world of political passions: precisely those passions, Benda observed, “owing to which men rise up against other men, the chief of which are racial passions, class passions and national passions.” The “rift” into which civilization had been wont to slip narrowed and threatened to close altogether.

Writing at a moment when ethnic and nationalistic hatreds were beginning to tear Europe asunder, Benda’s diagnosis assumed the lineaments of a prophecy—a prophecy that continues to have deep resonance today. “Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds,” he wrote near the beginning of the book. “It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity.” There was no need to add that its place in moral history would be as a cautionary tale. In little more than a decade, Benda’s prediction that, because of the “great betrayal” of the intellectuals, humanity was “heading for the greatest and most perfect war ever seen in the world,” would achieve a terrifying corroboration.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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