The Corner

In Praise of Idleness

I dunno about that, Lisa. I always bristle on the (admittedly very rare) occasions anyone refers to me as an “intellectual.” All right, let’s take as the index for our negative image of intellectuals, Paul Johnson’s book of that name, which exposes the arrogance and wrong-headedness of such big names in the 19th- and 20th-century preposterentsia* as Karl Marx, Betrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Now, these were certainly the folks who gave the word “intellectual” its negative connotations. Bookish they all were, for sure, but not particularly solitary. And I would not stick “lazy-minded” on a man who spent his leisure hours turning over the British Museum Library to write a heavyweight tome about economics; nor on the main author of Principia Mathematica; nor on a guy who graduated at age 24 from the École Normale Supérieure with a doctorate in philosophy.

I’d prefer to think that we bright-but-unscholarly inhabitants of middle-class suburbs, doing unremarkable jobs and consuming middlebrow novels in our spare time, are the happy medium—the intellectual ballast that can (but, alas, does not always) keep intellectuals well away from the levers of power, where their presence is never anything but a disaster.


*This lovely word is not PJ’s, though. I first saw it in a piece in the old Encounter around 1980, I think by Edward Pearce. If anyone else has an earlier coinage, I’d be interested to know.

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