Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Intellectuals Are People?

As a participant in the "academy" and an intellectual/academic denizen of the ivory tower (and intending to make this my place in life), I have often considered how to strike the balance between "social life" and academic pursuit and meditation on issues of great import. It seems that it is more comfortable and easy to go one way or another. Either become the sheltered academic who shuns and scorns the "real world" or fall into the typical culture of anti-intellectualism which is endemic in the United States (in a sense, distance oneself from the nerds).

In my readings, I have recently encountered just such a discussion that really shed considerable light on the subject of the intellectual in society. It comes from the great Encyclopedie, compiled by Jean Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot in the forty years preceding the French Revolution in what is commonly called "the Enlightenment." I will not get into debates about the meaning of this movement here, but suffice to say that this was a time when a certain sector of European society began a period of great intellectual effluescence considering the place of man in the world and the limits of the human mind to concieve society, politics, economy and culture anew.

The particular passage is from the definition of a philosophe from the Encyclopedie, which was written by French grammarian and philosopher Cesar Chesneau Dumarsais in the 1740's.

I will let M. Dumarsais speak for himself:
  • "The philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection: he walks in the dark but by a torch."
  • "Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes is to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful and for probable what is only probable...he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgement."
  • "The philosophic spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness which relates everything to true principles; but the philosopher does not cultivate the mind alone, he carries his attention and needs further."
  • "Our philosopher does not believe in exiling himself from this world...he wishes to find pleasure with others, and in order to find it, he must make it: thus, he tries to be agreeable to those with whom chance and his choice have thrown him, and at the same time, he finds what is agreeable to him. He is an honest man who wishes to please and make himself useful."
  • "The majority of the great...are savage towards those whom they do not believe to be their equals. The ordinary philosophers who meditate too much or rather meditate badly, are savage towards everybody; they flee men and men avoid them. But our philosopher who knows how to strike a balance between retreat from and commerce with men, is full of humanity."

Oh, what eternal strife to strike the perfect balance! We should hope to get close in our lives.

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