The role of the intellectualAnd for me being a working thinker goes hand-in-hand with being a catalyst and with my role as Hon. Secretary of the Anthony Powell Society.
Ideas are the motors of history. They take many forms and have many sources, and often assume a life of their own, and prove to be bigger than the epochs they influence. As such they are matters of vital concern; and therefore it is necessary that they be examined and debated, clarified and criticised, adopted when good and defeated when bad. The job of doing these things belongs to all of us, but in practice it falls to those with a particular interest in, and sometimes aptitude for, the task. Such are the 'intellectuals'.
Intellectuals are people who are not just interested in ideas, but who actively engage with them. They set themselves the task — some of them see it as a duty, given the opportunities they have had for acquiring the relevant interests and skills — to analyse, to ask questions, to clarify, to seek fresh perspectives, to suggest, to criticise, to challenge, to complain, to examine and propose, to debate, to educate, to comment, to suggest and, where possible, to discover. They see it as part of their remit to contribute to the conversation society has with itself about matters moral, political, educational and cultural, and to remind society of the lessons history taught it, and of the promises it has made for its future. And thereby the intellectual comes sometimes to be — as Socrates elected himself to be — a gadfly on the body politic, stinging it into alertness of mind.
The risk run by intellectuals is to seem pretentious, fatuous, pompous, self-congratulatory and given to polysyllabic mouthings of banality and cliché. And too often they actually are so — often enough to have a bad name in the Anglo-Saxon world, where blunt common sense is valued above Gauloise-wreathed nuances of gossip about concepts.
But the advantage to society of energetic intellectual activity is that it offers society self-awareness, wakefulness and clarity, inspiration and new ideas, and intelligence in debate and action. A sluggard community which never asks questions or inspects the world around it with a bright eye, and which never tries out different ways of understanding its circumstances, is sure first to stagnate, and then to slip backwards.
Thus do intellectuals perform a service: by keeping the hope of progress alive, and by never ceasing to argue about its nature and direction.
16 July 2011
Why do I matter? If I matter at all it's because I'm an intellectual. And society needs intellectuals, pace this short essay in AC Grayling's collection The Form of Things ...