Let’s start by making a clarification: it is obvious that every intellectual is different and unique in his own way and it would be unfair to say that intellectuals are all the same. But at the same time we can identify common characteristics that allow us to formulate a hypothesis of sociology of today’s Western intellectual, to try to identify the traits of the “average” intellectual – perhaps not of top-level intellectual figures but the blue collar workers of the intellect, the representatives of the mainstream, the intellectual clergy. Of course for intellectuals, hypercritical and incredibly sensitive individuals, there is no “average intellectual”, but that’s okay: it’s not even a secret that most intellectuals don’t love each other too much – for an intellectual there is no average Joe, a person is an absolute genius or a hopeless cretin. But let’s get back to our theory.
In the West, as indeed in the rest of the world, the young intellectual usually distinguishes himself as an intellectual already at school or in the early years of university. He learns to make his intellectualism one of his main characteristics if not the main defining characteristic of his personality. Perhaps the young intellectual fell in love with French literature, German philosophy or sociology at an early age, it doesn’t really matter exactly with what. What is important is that at some point the young man or woman understands that he wants to dedicate his life to understanding the world seriously – at least in theory.
Educational, social and cultural indoctrination (here we do not want to see anything malign or sinister in the word indoctrination, it is understood only as a set of predefined ideas, a necessary simplification) persuades the young Western intellectual from the first years of his awareness that he lives in the best of all possible worlds; after all, when one is young who does not feel like living in the best of all possible worlds? In this best of all possible worlds everyone has the opportunity to freely realize themselves according to their potential and their potential will always and necessarily have to correspond to an ongoing transformation, the fulfillment of their destiny… sooner or later. Thus the sense of destiny is formed in the young intellectual, a full and necessary correspondence between potency and act.
This is a fundamental notion that permeates the thinking, consciously or not, of all Western society: our world, for the first time in history, is the best of all possible worlds. Utopia is always around the corner, it can still be reached in our lives; Is this desire not a legacy of that ancient ideal of paradise? At the same time, however, already during the first years of intellectual apprenticeship, sometimes when he is still at school, the young intellectual realizes that the promised best possible world can be reached in theory, but it is always elsewhere, always a little more further.
Our world, the “world of adults”, the “world of the powerful”, is plagued by a series of serious and irreparable injustices, even in our era of the completion of history. Women feel discriminated against; sensitive and thoughtful young men become convinced that women are discriminated against in all aspects of life and become more feminist than feminists; ethnic minorities are eternal victims of racism, perhaps the closest thing there is to absolute evil; the rich are too rich; the poor are too poor; homosexuals are made fun of, which is a horrible thing, therefore we must love and defend homosexuals… These are all absolutely intolerable things on which the young intellectual cannot compromise. A new generation of intellectuals must form and emerge: the best way to get noticed is naturally to protest and complain. In intellectual jargon this phenomenon is called “critique”.
Further troubles for the young intellectual begin with the choice of university – in our technical-scientific age as a rule the most brilliant minds head towards the exact sciences which promise tangible certainties and economic and professional rewards. Future engineers, doctors, computer scientists will deal with the material progress of the sciences – but as a rule it is not up to them to tell about our era and our society in a way only intellectuals can do. The various students of history, philosophy and political science, aspiring novelists, on the other hand, unless they are truly exceptional figures and therefore able to write a besteller or at least to pursue an academic career to perpetuate the circle of the humanities, risk ending up to work as a clerk in a clothing store or even worse in a call centre. It is certainly a sad fate for the would-be new Dostoevski or Faulkner to end up answering calls from angry customers. Reflecting on ideas and understanding the world of ideas is an extremely interesting thing, but as a famous political figure once said, “you don’t eat culture”…
The young intellectual is Platonic, he is practically and almost exclusively interested in the world of ideas. Physical reality is only a pale mirror of the only truly real world, the transcendent one, that of ideas. His scientist rivals, on the other hand, are Aristotelians, interested in cataloging the world, but risk getting lost in too many details. In any case, even the young Platonic intellectual, in spite of his Platonism and his belief in the superiority of ideas over vulgar matter, has an abstract cult of science. An abstract and total science that he perceives as the possibility of absolute and perfect knowledge, the ultimate ideal to which the young intellectual, standard bearer of progress, always aspires – Socratic modesty can be set aside.
The young intellectual, imbued with the Enlightenment cult of reason and intellect, feels an authority grow within him not in the sense of triumph of pure intellect, the domain of the sciences of which the intellectual has only generic knowledge, but as a moral authority, a kind of priest of the new zeitgeist, a secular preacher, a moralizer. Here we find a paradox: we have a part of self-celebration and self-glorification of our age of infinite freedom, where everyone by principle, by paradigm, must be free to do whatever he wants and become what he wants; on the other, endless complaints because the world is full of injustices and is never perfect enough.
The third phase of this dialectic of the intellectual’s becoming is finally that of recognition, of the place in society, the transition to adulthood and of pragmatism. It’s a stage that not all aspiring intellectuals get to, it’s the stage of completing the intellectual’s destiny. After all, since the world and the world have many been called and few have been chosen. Criticism of society is fine but in today’s world an intellectual who is not socially recognized as such in the “beau monde” of culture and thought professionals finds himself on the border between being and nothingness and is painfully aware of it. A solitary intellectual may enjoy the most sophisticated intellect in the world, but if he lives in obscurity he will never be a true intellectual. Today fame is made instantly or never. Therefore a true intellectual who wants to be such must “be successful” in his job.
This necessarily means learning to voice the conventional wisdom of the world of contemporary intellectual discourse. Intellectuals in the West are all, for example, ardent supporters of the universal principles of democracy and freedom and sworn arch-enemies of populism. The line between democracy and populism is obviously quite thin, but it doesn’t matter. There are no legitimist or monarchist intellectuals today, there are no intellectuals who defend the ancient virtues of masculine virility – and if they are stupid enough to do so, they know they will face accusations of sexism, misogyny, fascism. Now the intellectual can finally throw off the masks and not be ashamed of his snobbery in denouncing populism as the antithesis of democracy and show all his disdain accumulated over the years of formation for the plebeian masses, those who vote for Trump, those who dislike migrants, those who are not in favor of homosexual marriages. And as a rule intellectuals are as a rule very sensitive personalities, sometimes a little bordering on narcissism – among their many virtues there is not that of reacting constructively in the face of criticism.
The intellectual discourse of conventional wisdom, the fashionable ideas of the moment must be faithfully reproduced in the content, but one is free to provoke and experiment with the forms, provided of course that the ideological content remains simple and unquestioned. Even a little obscurantism and the typically postmodern taste for the absurd are forgiven, if the ideas are the right ones; it is the ideology of the “open society”, globalized, without borders, without sex, without class distinctions and it cannot be otherwise – a “retrograde”, “conservative” intellectual in today’s western world is a contradiction in adjecto. The intellectual sets himself the goal of acting in the best of possible worlds to improve and free him from the ballast of tradition and bigotry.
In the “great” eras of a past, the intellectual could afford to live only on his ideas. The philosopher Diogenes was a beggar, Spinoza supported himself by forging lenses for microscopes and telescopes. Nietzsche became famous when he was already in a state of madness and printed books at his own expense; a fate similar to that of his master Schopenhauer, whose main work ended up in the pulping mill and who only knew fame in his old age. Today’s intellectual, on the other hand, is condemned to have immediate success if he doesn’t want to risk ending up being seen as a failed intellectual. For an intellectual, there is nothing more painful than that.
Contemporary ideology therefore translates into ruthless criticism of our age and at the same time and paradoxically into apology of the system, a dialectic that the intellectual must know how to reconcile. A postmodern and post-ideological apology in the desert of ideas, but where one can only talk about equality, justice, values and many other beautiful high-sounding words. The humanist intellectual, powerless in the society of science and technology, of which as a rule he has a cosmetic understanding, can only adhere with religious fervor to the cult of science and infinite progress, the true cult of our era, but that the intellectual himself could only accept passively because he is not a scientist. But the intellectual, as pure self-awareness of the intellect that recognizes itself, cannot admit that it does not know – the Socratic doubt would deprive him of the full meaning of its function, which lies in the myth of an absolute knowledge forged by Hegel. And so in the end the intellectual finds himself and his epoch in perfect harmony, unifying potency and act. And we are back again to the best of all possible worlds…