Politics & Policy

Conservatism and the Intellectual

Reflections on a troubled relationship.

In the weeks before and after last November’s election, a number of journalists at the New York Times, referring to the widely reported dissidence among conservative writers over Senator McCain’s candidacy, described these writers with the term “conservative intellectuals.” “In recent weeks,” wrote Patricia Cohen, “some prominent conservative intellectuals seem to have discovered they have two hands after all.” Frank Rich noted a “post‑mortem of conservative intellectuals descend[ing] into name-calling.” Tim Arango, in a story about National Review’s allegedly waning influence, mentioned the magazine’s “reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals.”

Less interesting than these journalists’ observations is the fact that the term “conservative intellectual” has now become part of everyday usage even in left-leaning mainstream newspapers. It wasn’t so used a half-century ago. When William Buckley died last year, several obituaries correctly remarked that in 1955, when National Review was founded, “conservative intellectual” was thought to be an oxymoron.

Common usage aside, the adjective “conservative” still fits uneasily with the noun “intellectual.” Liberals are far more at home with the term than conservatives. “We’re not intellectuals,” Truman Capote is supposed to have remarked to Gore Vidal. The latter’s response was characteristically unlovely: “Speak for your f***ing self.”

What is it about the concept of the intellectual that seems so (for lack of a better term) unconservative? Is it simply a matter of disposition or instinct — the feeling that people known as intellectuals tend to speak when they should listen, or that they are naïve about the real world? I don’t doubt there’s something to that view. As Sandor Himmelstein puts it in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick.”

But are there other, more intrinsic reasons?

The conservative’s aversion to intellectuals dates at least to Edmund Burke’s diatribe against the “men of letters,” as intellectuals were then called, who had advocated the destruction of the French monarchy. Burke had spent his political career warning of the dangers of political power in the absence of adequate checks, and he saw in these radical men of letters another, and in the long term more dangerous, form of untrammeled power. “What was not to be done towards their great end by any direct or immediate act,” he wrote in the Reflections, “might be wrought by a longer process through the medium of opinion.” The philosophes and their British analogues represented a “literary cabal” intent on demolishing everything in their way. Burke hated these men. He thought their morals low and their ideas fraudulent: “little shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour,” he called them in one of the Reflections’ most searing passages. But he feared them too. They could do a lot of damage.

Burke’s extreme hostility seems odd to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to prominent intellectuals writing and speaking from every conceivable viewpoint on every conceivable question. But in 1790, the thought of such a state of affairs appalled Burke and others like him — and not altogether without reason. Burke, writes J. G. A. Pocock in his brilliant introduction to the Reflections, “was beginning to see what intellectual energy might do when it ran outside the channels of established society.” He was “afraid of the power of the human intelligence when divorced from all social restraints.”

This begins to explain why left-liberals have usually filled the intellectual role more plausibly than conservatives. Paul Johnson, in his famous (and, on the left, notorious) book Intellectuals, defines his subject as those writers who believed “that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better.” For Johnson, the intellectual’s defining trait is that he refuses to accept limits on his intellect.

It’s possible, however, to take a different semantic route. Helpful in this regard is Stefan Collini’s book Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain. Collini’s work was widely reviewed in 2006 and deserved most of the praise it received on both sides of the Atlantic. Collini sought to discredit the assumption that the intellectual must somehow be larger than life or godlike; his own definition is straightforwardly descriptive, almost bureaucratic in its blandness. “The role of the intellectual,” he writes — and here he is speaking of intellectuals generally, not just British ones — “always involves the intersection of four elements or dimensions”:

  1. The attainment of a level of achievement in an activity which is esteemed for the non-instrumental, creative, analytical, or scholarly capacities it involves;

  2. The availability of media or channels of expression which reach publics other than that at which the initial “qualifying” activity itself is aimed;

  3. The expression of views, themes, or topics which successfully articulate or engage with some of the general concerns of those publics; and

  4. The establishment of a reputation for being likely to have important and interesting things of this type to say and for having the willingness and capacities to say them effectively through the appropriate media.

Contemporary intellectuals meeting these criteria might include Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins in Britain, Charles Murray and Paul Krugman in the United States.

Collini’s definition requires that we distinguish between intellectuals, on the one hand, and on the other the great number of people who assert views on a variety of topics in the public sphere but whose names are not recognized outside a narrow readership. The intellectual has a “name.” He has acquired a reputation for formulating arguments and observations taken to be wise or profound by large numbers of people, and his public assertions are thus bound up with a widely recognized persona. People pay attention to what the intellectual says, not only because what he says is in their view reasonable or cogent, but also, oftentimes especially, because he is who he is.

This is part of what makes conservatives uneasy about intellectuals, or anyway about the idea or status of the intellectual. The intellectual’s authority hasn’t been conferred on him by anybody, and often depends as much on his celebrity as on the reasonableness of his views. Nobody votes for an intellectual, and he can’t be fired.

But are intellectuals always to be found on the left, or is it possible to be a “conservative intellectual”?

There isn’t much room in Collini’s definition for the common assumption that the intellectual must strike an “adversarial” pose or that he must speak from the “outside.” “[I]t is not part of the concept of ‘the intellectual’ that persons so described should be ‘dissident,’ ‘oppositional,’ ‘marginal,’ and so on. There are good historical reasons why these characteristics are often associated with the use of the term, but they are precisely associated with it, they are not intrinsic to it.” Collini’s analytic approach allows for the existence of more than just the usual roll call of left-liberal or anti-establishment intellectuals. He includes chapters on E. P. Thompson and A. J. P. Taylor, but also T. S. Eliot. (For some reason books on British intellectuals always bristle with initials.)

Still, everybody knows intellectuals are more numerous on the left than on the right, and always have been. Collini’s insistence that there are “conservative intellectuals” just as there are “liberal intellectuals,” though technically true, obscures more than it clarifies. He is himself a man of the Left, and so presumably believes the Left’s overrepresentation among intellectuals to be a consequence of left-liberalism’s plain superiority rather than of any inherent philosophical trait in conservatism. In any case, he doesn’t appreciate the extent to which the intellectual’s role — as he defines it — favors those who endorse a left-liberal outlook. It’s far easier to cultivate a “reputation” for saying “important and interesting things” (no. 4 above) when those “important and interesting things” typically include proposals to restructure society in ways thought to be more rational. It’s more “important and interesting” to advocate universal health coverage, or to argue that the institution of marriage should be abolished, than to explain why these things may harm more than they help.

Predictably, Collini has no patience for “conservative intellectuals” who decry “intellectuals” as such. He views the anti-intellectualism of conservative intellectuals as dishonest. This “paradox of denial,” as he calls it, serves a need

for those intellectuals who have been in the anomalous position of promoting a picture of a pragmatic, tradition-governed people which, were it true, would allow no room for individuals like themselves. The ideological functions of the claim are particularly evident among contemporary Right-wing intellectuals such as Roger Scruton and Paul Johnson, whose doctrinaire denunciation of intellectuals as a virus in the British body politic reveal ever more desperate attempts to disguise the contradictory logic of their own position.

One wonders how Scruton and Johnson might have avoided this charge of logical contradictoriness. Perhaps they should simply have conceded that societies can and should be reordered according to the enlightened ideas of an educated elite. That would have made them consistent in Stefan Collini’s view. It would also have made them radicals.

Of course, Collini’s objection isn’t to the supposed “contradictory logic” of their anti-intellectualism at all, but to their conservatism. And while “conservative intellectual” may not be an outright oxymoron, such a species can exist only in a world already dominated by intellectuals of the opposite frame of mind. The advocacy of “conservative ideas” is necessary only in a world already transformed by radical ones.

Nor is it always clear what’s “conservative” about “conservative ideas.” The tension existing between conservatism and intellectuals represents of one of the most serious problems faced by conservatism in any era. How can conservatism oppose radicalism — how, in other words, can it oppose the belief that man ought to reorder his society from top to bottom on supposedly rational grounds — without itself becoming merely a “right-wing” version of that same radicalism?

Conservatives may not agree about how best to solve this problem. It takes ideas to win elections. But we ought to agree that it is, in fact, a problem.

– Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, out next month from Bucknell University Press.


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