17 January 2009

Intellectual, Ideologue, Highbrow, Egghead, Which One Are You?

(by Clifton Fadiman)

We can slightly decrease the sum total of bad temper in our land by separating four words. Currently these are four violent words, full of unnecessary or carefully built-up heat. Let’s see whether we can induce them to simmer down. The four words are intellectual, ideologue, highbrow, and egghead.

An intellectual is simply a man in whom is writ large what makes you and me specifically human – an interest in the rational mind and an ability to use it. As such he is nothing more nor less than the most important kind of person the human race can produce. One early intellectual figured out the sue of fire. A recent one figured out how the universe hangs together. Between Ugug and Einstein stretches a long intellectuals, great and small, able to supply nothing but ideas. These ideas, however, make everything else possible – including attacks on intellectuals, for these very attacks depend on a series of ideas dreamed up by such visionaries as the inventors of the alphabet or those nineteenth-century lunatics who worked out the equations that have made radio and television possible. In a way, the rest of us, no matter how industrious or transiently useful, are parasites’ living luxuriously on the work of a handful of superior minds. Those in whom the death wish is unusually strong, such as Hitler, are precisely those who really hate intellectuals.

An ideologue may be defined as a mad intellectual. He is not interested in ideas, but almost the exact contrary in one idea. When he erects this idea into a system and forces the system to give birth to a way of life, confusion often results usually to his great surprise. Two examples are Robespierre and Lenin. The intellectual is often blamed for the work of the ideologue, which is like condemning the psychiatrist because he and the patient are both involved in the same thing, mental illness. The ideologue is often brilliant. Consequently most of us distrust brilliance when we should distrust the ideologue. The ideologue is often more persuasive than the intellectual because he has a simpler line of goods to sell and never questions its value. Sometimes he achieves great success by attacking the real intellectual. The intellectual level of any society must be measured not merely by its ability to produce intellectuals but also by its ability to distinguish them at once from ideologues. Both intellectuals and ideologues are pros. Both live by ideas, just as the farmer lives by the soil.

But the highbrow is not a pro. He doesn’t usually work at the job, any more than the audience works at the writing of a play. He takes in and enjoys what intellectuals, particularly artists, produce. This is his avocation. His vocation may be anything. Like the lowbrow, the highbrow is limited in his conversation. He will stick to Sartre or Stravinsky or Picasso because they are what his temperament permits him to enjoy. The highbrow may also be an intellectual; he is more often simply an appreciator. Equipped only with a blank notebooks the highbrow would go crazy – though less rapidly than would the nonhighbrow. The highbrow is never an ideologue, it is the lowbrow who more apt to be also the ideologue.

The egghead is not an intellectual, not ideologue, not a highbrow. He is not any of these things because he doesn’t exist. He is a political invention or, better, a cartoon character. Certain qualities of those very different types – the intellectual, the ideologue, the highbrow – which some average voters could be persuaded they disliked, were built up into a synthetic figure who was then christened egghead. It would be a good thing to drop the word from the national vocabulary. It would be a good thing, too, to use the words intellectual, ideologue, and highbrow with some feeling for their different meanings.

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