On a visit to Williams College not long ago, I encountered a young man who was studying theoretical physics and comparative literature. The science was beyond me, so I thought I would try him on the literature. Fluent in Japanese and Spanish, he was pursuing a thesis that, if I have got it right, explored parallels between the criollo literature of 17th-century Mexico and the waka poetry of Japan in the period of the warring states.
I was wondering how best to dissemble my ignorance before the prodigy when he observed that the great thing about Williams is that one of its trustees is a big gun at a Wall Street bank, and is helpful in getting promising Williams applicants into the pipeline.
There was a time when a young man of such gifts might have wavered as he contemplated the different paths he could take in life. But educated elites today — graduates, by and large, of the top 30 or so colleges in the country — are more narrowly invested than their predecessors in a handful of careers, most of which revolve around finance and technology.
Doubtless this is partly because such careers offer the best return on capital for those who have paid extravagantly for their schooling. “Admission to the Ivies,” Harvard’s Steven Pinker writes, “is increasingly seen as the bottleneck to a pipeline that feeds a trickle of young adults into the remaining lucrative sectors of our financialized, winner-take-all economy.”
Yet money does not by itself account for the violence of the affinity that talent shows for these ways of getting a living. In every age the upper crust finds its justification in a particular myth or piety. It might be the virtus of the Roman patrician, his public efficacy and patriotic devotion, or the noblesse oblige of the medieval baron, a fealty to those to whom he was bound in honor. But whatever it is, it is a piece of mysticism that purports to justify, perhaps to sanctify, the ruling group’s ascendancy.
Four centuries ago Francis Bacon predicted that the “knowledge which we now possess will not teach a man even what to wish.” Crack the algorithms of nature, Bacon believed, and human beings could liberate themselves through technology. He went so far as to suggest that they could repair the damage of the Fall and restore a lost paradise.
Today’s elites are in thrall to messianic Baconism. Jeff Bezos speaks of the “beginning of a Golden Age.” Mark Zuckerberg prophesies a new world of meaning and purpose, to be contrived by ever-more-poignant algorithms. The drudgery of uncongenial labor will be eliminated as robots take over the more irksome tasks of life. In the ensuing embarrassment of riches, every citizen will enjoy a guaranteed income paid out of the treasury of the state. In place of dead-end jobs, we will have not only new virtual communities, but new synthetic realities, to which we will turn with relief from the dreariness of our actual ones. Mortality itself will yield to the wizard’s wand, or so investors in Calico, the California Life Company, foresee.
Which translated means: The dream that animates Silicon Valley and Wall Street — the world of applied science and the capital that underwrites it — is now as revolutionary in its aspirations as the dreams that inspired the Enlightenment philosophes of the 18th century and the Bolshevik and Maoist iconoclasts of the 20th. It is where the action is: It is supplying the madder music, the stronger wine, that were once the property of the old utopian creeds. And it is monopolizing the talent of the nation.
The question is what happens when so much of our collective intelligence is drawn into the service of a particular ideal (in this case apocalyptic Baconism) that very little is left over to question the presumptions of those who uphold and administer it. Who is left to probe the weaknesses and diagnose the morbidities of that dominating vision?
Go back to 1825, when William Hazlitt published his account of the elite opinion-shapers of his day, The Spirit of the Age. Hazlitt’s mistake was to concentrate too narrowly on poets and intellectuals, sages like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bentham and Malthus. There was not a single entrepreneur or commercial adventurer on his list, even as the entrepreneurial spirit of the industrial revolution was transforming Britain.
Today, the case is nearly reversed. The great commercial adventurers are our foremost sages. Warren Buffett enjoys semi-official status as the national prophet laureate, and the words of Steve Jobs figure on yearbook pages beside those of Gandhi and Thoreau.
The doers are now the sages, and the poets and prophets who might once have questioned their doings sulk obscurely in the shadows. Hazlitt’s and Coleridge’s clerisy — a concert of minds capable of standing up to the technicians and challenging their hubris — is all but dead.
As late as the middle of the 20th century, the clerisy could still draw blood. It got many things wrong, but it got a few important things right. When educated elites in the 1930s and 1940s drank the Kool-Aid of messianic socialism, a group of inspired clerics, liberally educated and versed in the humane traditions of the culture, rode to the rescue. George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and William F. Buckley Jr., among others, exposed the Pelagian naïveté of the disciples of Marx and Lenin.
Today, as we confront a new messianism — the ambition, in the words of Yuval Noah Harari, to “upgrade humans into gods” and “turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus” — the clerisy is dumbly impotent. There are no Buckleys or Orwells to disturb the complacency of the latest messianists, gilded beings who, for all their devotion to their golf games, are in their own estimation so many stout Cortezes on the peak in Darien, perceivers of a new universe of human possibility.
So shrunken and debased has the clerisy become that it is unable to put its finger on the folly here, or effectually point out the dangers that ensue whenever men with power in their hands get it into their heads that they are building the new heaven and the new earth. Today’s rotting intellectual caste boasts no men or women of letters of the stature of John Ruskin or George Eliot, George Santayana or Rebecca West: The occupation is obsolete. As for academic generalists, of whom Lionel Trilling was one, they were even in his day rare, and are now nearly as extinct as the prose they wrote, happily innocent of jargon.
Journalism, another pillar of the clerisy, is fatally weakened. As advertising revenues fall and publications compete for subsidies from tycoons, writers find themselves shorn of their independent dignity; they join the ranks of kept littérateurs, and in those unseemly seraglios must take care not to offend the instruments of their creative destruction.
With this occupational decay has come a loss of moral force. What remains of the old intellectual establishment fears its audience and lacks faith in itself. It survives by catering to the masochism of elites, telling them, as writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates never tire of doing, how racist and oppressive they are. Whipped into pleasant ecstasies of remorse, the powers that be overlook what is really wrong with them, the warped altruism that casts them as stars in the redemption of humanity.
Yet even as today’s clerisy assuages its overlords by preaching a tolerance that no one beyond the lunatic fringe objects to, it is itself hysterically intolerant of challenges to its own orthodoxies and party pieties.
The intellectual establishment that in its prime heard Trilling out and even, though more reluctantly, admitted Bill Buckley to honorary membership has lost its nerve. It is difficult to imagine this demoralized rump assimilating such a renegade as Buckley, a provocateur who would rather have been governed by the first 100 names in the telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard. Yet Buckley was so far amenable to the old clerisy that he could carry on friendships with such clerical eminences as Norman Mailer and John Kenneth Galbraith, and could see his writing printed in magazines that frankly disavowed his politics.
Momentous decisions will be made in the coming years, and made by an elite that, for all its chiliastic absorption in future grandeur, is too narrowly engrossed in its own narrow technic to be trusted to make the judgments on its own.
At the same time, an ever-greater proportion of talent will shun the dying clerisy vocations and embrace the dominant futurist orthodoxies. Those with a gift for questioning power gone mad will instead be tamely serving what might prove to be insanity.
Their capitulations will only exacerbate the human shrinkage that comes whenever what Trilling called an elite’s “disgust of humanity as it is” is exceeded only by its “perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.”
Editors’ note: This is the first of two pieces. The second will examine how the brave new worlds preached by today’s elites impoverish the present and disfigure the soul.