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Intellectuals, mindsets, movements, and contradictions (3.5*s)
on December 20, 2009
The author contends, rightly so, that the modern American public is generally disdainful of intellectuals, regarded as "elitists," despite the fact that the United States more so than any nation is the "product of intellectuals" - an ideological construct. It is the role of intellectuals, who by definition continually interpret reality, to incorporate new information into broad understandings and convey that to the public in a variety of ways. As per the author, intellectuals have "made attractive to our citizens whatever the world has to offer," pushing the United States to be a cosmopolitan "nation of nations." The author distinguishes between cultures and civilizations. Cultures, consisting of "languages, ideas, values, myths, and symbols," can be exclusive and tribal, while civilizations are open to absorbing and organizing new customs and ideas - clearly this is how he sees the US. By his definition, civilizations decline when learning stops, "receding into folk culture status" with new information being proscribed by "politicians, traffic directors, bureaucrats, drillmasters, and fascists
Given an introduction that emphasizes the special talents and persuasive abilities of intellectuals, what kind of book has been produced? Actually, the book tends to be a somewhat hit-and-miss recitation of the history of various people - some major, some minor, movements, trends, mindsets, etc that only occasionally demonstrates the unique persuasiveness of intellectuals. Many of the leading literary figures who figure prominently in the book were read by few and unknown to most. His ideas of the cosmopolitan nature of American society and any clash between culture and civilization receive either vague or no treatment.
The author starts with reviewing the well-known intellectual influences on the Founders, all of whom subscribed to Enlightenment values, which included their absorption of a usable past from the Roman republic, the English revolution of 1688, and the 18th century radical Whig opposition to British government corruption, their placement of natural and English common law above mere legislation, the influences of Puritan redemption and renewal, and their agreement with Lockean natural rights and social contract theory - all of which impacted their reactions to the ill-conceived policies of the British government in the decade before the Revolution. Thomas Paine's tract, "Common Sense," may be the most complete statement of their thinking. In addition to a no-holds-barred indictment of British depredations, he formulated a universalistic vision of the future whereby the "rational common sense of men" and republican institutions would project America as the primary symbol of a "future of harmony and liberty" to the world. As the author points out, that kind of supreme confidence in their abilities to apply reason enabled them to orchestrate and coordinate a revolution.
With the rise of the Scientific Revolution in the 18th century, in some circles, only sensory, empirical data had validity in the formulation of knowledge. However, the author emphasizes Scottish Common Sense Realism as a broader philosophy with more appeal because it extended the scope of what was natural and reasonable to inner morality and thought, including an innate predisposition for socialization. "By 1820, it must have seemed as if the whole nation had turned to Common Sense." Because it was an adaptable, non-obscure philosophy, it became the foundation of various intellectual movements in the 19th century. Economic workings, technological progress, and legal proceedings were seen to fit in a harmonious natural order, which is not to say that there was not room left for individualism and eccentricities.
While it goes without saying that there was no lack of learning among the Founders, there was a certain amount of consternation that America did not have a native literary tradition into the 19th century, which was explained by a sameness of American culture and a continued dependence on British arts. However, by the Civil War, several writers in various groupings had surfaced who put America on the literary map, reflecting American universality and distinctiveness. James Fenimore Cooper, America's first truly successful writer, in his Leatherstocking novels examined the encroachment of civilization on nature and associated paradoxes and dilemmas. But American writing became more complex and probed even deeper into various philosophical and social contradictions.
The Transcendentalists, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, rejected conventional religious tenets, yet individualized and democratized religion by emphasizing everyone's symbolic perceptive powers to relate to nature, thereby discovering the mind of God. Their revolutionary thought was an attack on the materialism and commercialism of a rationalistic, clocklike world. It broadened the idea of freedom by accepting spiritual values and de-emphasizing "class and institutional" strictures. Some writers of this Romantic Renaissance, like Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, were far darker in calling attention to the decadence, sinfulness, irrationalities, and arbitrariness of society and the world. As per the author, this "gloomy questioning of reality signified an awareness that the 18th century-inspired American utopian adventure was in truth over." Both nature and man had become largely unfathomable. These Romantic writers did not shy away from criticizing American culture, while implicitly suggesting that the individual must forge his own way.
The dominance of individualism in 19th century America is probably no better seen than in the extensive exploration of the West, the Lewis and Clark expedition being only the best known, and its subsequent settlement. But the author notes that this expansion also "sectionalized the life of the mind," undermining American universality, and also, in a sense, created a vast inland colony dominated by Eastern institutions well into the 20th century. There is no better evidence for sectional thought than in the justifying chivalric mindset of Southern elites. However, John C. Calhoun and the lesser known George Fitzhugh were both sophisticated Southern thinkers who questioned such beliefs as Lockean freedom in a state of nature and the possibility of free labor under capitalistic industrialization.
The contributions and divisiveness of black intellectuals and abolitionists are also explored in the context of the greatest American contradiction: the enslavement of men in a nation founded on universal liberty. Women were somewhat prominent in abolitionist circles, but as the author notes, Common Sense Realism was not kind to the liberation and public role for women. Women were seen to occupy a special place in a rationally discernible, ordered world and their function needed protection more than freedom or equality. Given the sectionalism and other social divisions, Lincoln had the tremendous task of providing a definition to a nation that had never really had more than a vague consensus, not withstanding the rhetoric of the founders, among disparate elements, that had been held together by the superficialities of "anthems, symbols, heroes, monuments, rhetoric," and the like.
By the time of the Centennial celebration in 1876, Social Darwinism had captured American thought. It fit perfectly with the dominance of individualism and laissez-faire economics and, furthermore, gave huge social discrepancies justification, now based on the science of "survival of the fittest." But a reaction, Reform Darwinism, sought to counter the arbitrariness of Darwin's chance mutations that appeared throughout the universe, including human behavior, by purposely guiding chance for the good of the community. Intelligent man was not merely to be subject to the whims of chance. And in a democratic nation, man's collective destiny should be determined by maximum participation of citizens. This "pragmatic" philosophy constructed no grandiose moral structures and was thereby quite flexible in dealing with new situations, relying not on theories but on problem-solving methods.
The book could easily be questioned in terms of its emphases and omissions. Much time is spent on obscure literary analysis, while such items as evangelicalism, the women's equal rights movement, and the ramifications of industrialization are either ignored or given short shrift. In addition, the connection of the various philosophies, events, movement, etc remains quite fuzzy. So-called intellectuals appear throughout the book, but their impact as intellectuals, per se, is difficult to ascertain. The book is quite interesting: a lot occurred in the 19th century. But it is lengthy and somewhat scattershot. A reader could easily suffer from overload if not a certain amount of perplexity from this book. This attempt to combine intellectual and cultural history across an entire century is a huge undertaking that is only partially successful.