The Crisis of the Intellectuals

“The French concept of the intellectual remains bound up with the notion of a social, political and moral crisis. Better still: it implies the notion of a permanent state of crisis. Given this state of crisis, the intellectual considers it his obligation to intervene.”—Victor Brombert

In his study, The Intellectual Hero, Brombert is by no means unsympathetic to his subject. Yet he discloses some interesting vulnerabilities in the “aristocracy of the intellect” which rose to prominence in the nineteenth century and has since become a permanent fixture of modern culture. Discussing leftist authors like Rousseau, Stendhal, Jules Valles and Sartre, Brombert describes their creed as

faith in the efficiency of ideas as an organizational force in the tangible world; the utilization of culture as an instrument for criticizing tradition; the unselfish, gratuitous pursuit of truth, but simultaneously the pursuit of a humanitarian ideal.

The intelligentsia emerged as a significant and distinct social stratum. Brombert even refers to the “proletarianization” of the intellectuals as they became a wage-earning class of academics, journalists and bureaucrats. At the same time, their growing self-awareness resulted in a sense of alienation. According to Brombert, they experienced the “sensation, now proud, now humiliating, of existing outside the social framework.” One could argue that while this feeling was frequently projected onto other groups, it was really unique to their own situation as a class out of sync with the responsibilities and ambitions of most of humanity.

Ironically, even as intellectuals proclaimed solidarity with “laborers” and various “oppressed” segments of society, they have often been viewed as outsiders if not actually shunned by the very groups they idealize. Such frustrated attempts at “self-identification” have no doubt made them painfully aware of their bourgeois origins:

[T]he intellectual, vulnerable and articulate, is at the same time the least curable victim and the sternest denouncer of this bad conscience. To give society a sense of guilt, to shock it out of its ethical complacency and make it aware of its bad faith, is indeed for recent generations the primary function of the writer.

This combination of factors has led to the self-perpetuating “state of crisis” that seems to justify leftist thinkers in their function as society’s conscience. Their real challenge in the long run, however, is that their status as a privileged elite, subsidized by the productive members of society, becomes more obviously ineffectual and open to criticism.

Brombert offers an interesting look at one of the chief critics of “intellectualism,” Paul Bourget. Another important commentator on this subject is Raymond Aron, a French philosopher who dissented from Sartre and the intellectual left.

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