Intellectuals and Society: Revised and Expanded Edition
by Thomas Sowell.
New York: Basic Books, 2012,
669 pages, $19.99.

In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor promenades a remarkable gallery of grotesques through the life of her protagonist Hazel Motes, a self-made intellectual and the lone prophet of the Church without Christ, a denomination of his own making. Among the characters he encounters is a rival, a shrewd quack preacher named Hoover Shoats who goes by the nom de swindle “Onnie Jay Holy.” Perceiving a potential business partner, the Reverend Onnie Jay attempts without success to entice Hazel to join him in fleecing the gullible; rebuffed, he bitterly dismisses Hazel: “‘That’s the trouble with you innerleckchuls,’ Onnie Jay muttered, ‘you don’t never have nothing to show for what you’re saying.’”

As is the case in much of O’Connor’s fiction, words of wisdom fall unexpectedly and unbidden from the lips of the corrupt and the depraved. In this case, a yokel preacher restates Jesus’ somber warning about “false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly … are ravening wolves.” He concludes, “Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them.”

There are indeed wolves in the world, men and women in positions of fame or authority who exercise influence over others in baneful ways. In his revised and enlarged edition of Intellectuals and Society, economist and social critic Thomas Sowell examines the manner in which this self-styled elite have sought to shape American culture through ideology-driven theory, planning, and decree, and failed miserably in their attempts. They are kin to the pretentious individuals described by Tom Wolfe in Radical Chic (1970), preening Beautiful People who attended a high-end party to support the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s Fifth Avenue penthouse duplex: “And suddenly everyone feels, really feels, that there are two breeds of mankind in the great co-ops of Park Avenue, the blue-jowled red-tied Brook Club Junker reactionaries in the surrounding buildings . . . and the few attuned souls here in Lenny’s penthouse.” The attuned, the anointed, are the men and women within the worlds of politics and the academy who believe their connections, educational pedigrees, and all-around progressive with-it-ness make them the natural masters of life, destined to rule and shape the lives of the lesser breeds who share their country.

It is their lack of humility and blindness to the foibles of sinful humanity that is the undoing of the anointed. It might be called secular Puritanism: a desire not merely to work for the conservation of a just and ordered society, but to remake humanity itself through positive legislation and the conventions of societal reordering articulated in Orwell’s 1984, the law of unintended consequences be damned. There is no ill to which human flesh is heir—be it substandard housing, racism, violent crime, or garden-variety ignorance—that cannot be corrected by a program, a slogan, a new statute, or a transfer of wealth from the evil “haves” to the intrinsically virtuous “have-nots.” The fact that such programs, slogans, statutes, and transfers fall far short of what they promise bothers the anointed not at all: what is needed is simply more of the same—more public largess flushed into failed policies, such as the disastrous War on Poverty. As Mr. Sowell has written recently, “People convinced of their own superior wisdom and virtue have not time to spare for what other people want, whether in housing or heath care or a whole range of other things.” These public intellectuals have nothing to show for all they have to say.

In his richly footnoted study, Mr. Sowell methodically takes apart the assumptions of America’s intellectuals and the dire effects of their policies, as they live up to Bertrand Russell’s definition of an intellectual as “someone who pretends to have more intellect than he has.” Unfortunately for Lord Russell, in Intellectuals and Society he, along with a pantheon of other thinkers, is presented as just that: a person given to pronouncing dogmatically on matters far outside his realm of expertise, believing that the social and political pronunciamentos that sound oh-so-enlightened over a tot of wine within the cozy confines of the faculty lounge should be rendered into law next day, if not sooner.

At the heart of our present turmoil in America at present, according to Mr. Sowell, is a conflict of visions. The first vision, embraced by the anointed and articulated most famously by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, views man as a creature who is born free but everywhere in chains. Opposed to this is the “tragic vision of life” as stated by Miguel de Unamuno and owned by men and women for many centuries: the tragic vision perceives man as a wondrous creature capable of much good but hobbled by sin and error. Mr. Sowell notes that the latter is a tragic vision “not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, for much happiness and fulfillment are possible with a constrained world, but tragic in inherent limitations that cannot be overcome merely by changing institutions or by compassion, commitment, or other virtues which those with the vision of the anointed advocate or attribute to themselves.”

As is the case in much of Mr. Sowell’s work, the author’s sentences resonate with common sense and clarity—and the temptation to quote him at length is strong. It will suffice to quote the following remark, which clarifies much that many readers have intuited but never seen articulated quite so clearly and succinctly:

The two visions differ fundamentally not only in how they see the world but also in how those who believe in these visions see themselves. If you happen to believe in free markets, judicial restraint, traditional values and other features of the tragic vision, then you are just someone who believes in free markets, judicial restraint and traditional values. There is no personal exaltation inherent in those beliefs. But to be for “social justice” and “saving the environment,” or to be “anti-war” is more than just a set of hypotheses about empirical facts. This vision puts you on a higher moral plane as someone concerned and compassionate, someone who is for peace in the world, a defender of the downtrodden, and someone who wants to preserve the beauty of nature and save the planet from being polluted by others less caring.

In short, one vision makes you somebody special and the other vision does not.

Thus stated, those who hold to the tragic vision of life stand at a marked disadvantage; for who wants to hear talk of limitations and outmoded concepts like sin and the imperfectability of man when one can embrace the soaring rhetoric of boundless achievement and unlimited vistas of greatness that can be attained for the asking? In his play Back to Methuselah, Bernard Shaw included the words, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’—which doubtlessly inspires men to reach higher, to seek the higher dream. On the other hand, the Preacher’s observation that there is nothing new under the sun inspires what—spiritual resignation? Perhaps; but resignation is not the same as assignation or accommodation to life as it truly is (or, to believers, the sovereign will of God); and it is good to remember that within the context of his play Shaw’s quotation was spoken by the Serpent, the Deceiver, to Eve, promising the oldest of destructive delusions: Ye shall be as gods. The history of the twentieth century displays what happens when human beings, unmoored from a sense of accountability to any power higher than themselves, exercise unlimited power over the lives of those who are deemed inferior, imperfect, or otherwise insufficiently in tune with some strutting overlord’s vision of his own Thousand-Year Reign.

To attempt to achieve heaven on earth leads to a terrestrial hell on earth, and the hallmark of the intellectual ideologue is both a haughty contempt for the existing culture and an impatient damn-the-torpedoes belief that any new concept or law that cracks the cake of custom is preferable to custom and gradual change—the way the slack-jawed yokels of Middle America prefer to live. To pledge one’s allegiance to that way of thinking is to embrace looming disaster. “To live with a gnawing grudge against one’s own civilization is the way to a personal Hell, not to a Terrestrial Paradise,” warned Russell Kirk on one occasion; and his words apply equally to the health of the commonwealth as to the state of the soul. As Mr. Sowell demonstrates in Intellectuals and Society, the rise and flow of the grievance industry in America since the mid twentieth century, the assault on religious expression, traditional marriage, and the fate of the unborn, and the denigration of accountability and standards in education, along with the balkanizing demagoguery that have furthered them, have worked much mischief upon American culture.

The traditionalist understands that human beings are put into this world to suffer for a while, to work to alleviate suffering and want, to help the helpless, and to contend against the sin in ourselves and others without embracing messianic means. A transformative vision of life as it can be, couched in terms of few details but much emotion (and little realization of human frailty), whether articulated by America’s left or right, is the way of ideology: what John Adams wryly called “the science of idiocy.” Eschewing ideology, it is possible to be in favor of prudent social or political reform without being in favor of a vague, much-touted program of Change. It is possible to be in favor of a sound education and yet entertain strong doubts about the need for the Department of Education. It is possible to be in favor of fairness in academic admissions and workplace hiring practices while at the same time speaking out against the myriad props, set-asides, ready-made excuses, and preferential practices that clutter those fields today. And it is possible—pace Aaron Sorkin—to believe in the high value of intellectual and academic achievement without embracing the blind belief that everyone with a college degree from an esteemed institution or who has achieved stature in Hollywood are the natural lords of life whose every thought, word, and deed deserve consideration and emulation by the contemptible proles out in Flyover Country. To the Anointed, there is no such demarcation: it is all or nothing.

The United States is a relatively young country as nations go, Russell Kirk told Richard Nixon forty years ago, with much of her life before her. But America’s future as a land of ordered freedom and justice can be shortened by destructive folly. “Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it,” writes Mr. Sowell, “so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity, and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive, without at least the will to resist.” In Intellectuals and Society Mr. Sowell provides an eloquent discourse on la trahison des clercs and states the need to resist the influence of those have nothing to show for all they have to say. 

James E. Person Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Kirk Center, a longtime book reviewer, and the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999).