In his landmark study The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), John Gross sketched out the lives and careers of the various writers who shaped literary opinion in England from the late eighteenth century through the Victorian era and into modern times. Gross was mainly concerned with the critics, reviewers, and editors who came into their own during the nineteenth century by bringing art and literature under the purview of critical judgment. In many ways, the vocation of critic and reviewer emerged in tandem with the rise of literature itself as a subject of public consumption, entertainment, and instruction.

The “man of letters,” as Gross understands him, is one who lives by writing and makes a living by doing so—that is, a professional writer, albeit one with literary interests. Though he is mainly concerned with the journalists and critics of the era, he does not slight major writers like Carlyle, Mill, and Matthew Arnold. These—the major and minor figures alike—were literary men (and, occasionally, women) who were associated with the leading literary journals and magazines that thrived during the Victorian period: The Edinburgh Review, The London Magazine, Blackwood’s, and The Spectator, among others. Their main preoccupations, mirroring their readerships, were with literature and poetry, along with related pursuits like history and philosophy. Politics was not yet the obsessive concern that it later became. The men of letters of the Victorian age were the opposite of specialists or pedants: the figures Gross portrays might as readily assess a novel or poem as a work of history.

In many ways, the vocation of critic and reviewer emerged in tandem with the rise of literature itself as a subject of public consumption, entertainment, and instruction.

Carlyle held to the view, one held also by many at the time though rejected by Gross, that literature represents a modern expression of the religious impulse. Thus he went so far as to say, in his lectures On Heroes and Hero Worship, that the man of letters is “our most important modern person,” placing him alongside the priest, prophet, and poet of previous ages. Here, of course, he was referring to the creative writer rather than to the editors and critics that are the subject of Gross’s study. Gross deftly traces the implications of this idea as they worked themselves out over the latter part of the nineteenth century, wryly showing how it eventually led to the incorporation of English studies into the university curriculum with all of the attendant controversies over the definition of the subject and who was qualified to teach it. By the time the academics took control, there were few who any longer held such an exalted view of literature.

The disintegration of the literary culture of the nineteenth century was accompanied by the gradual disappearance after 1900 of the man of letters himself. Within a short time, the man of letters began to appear as a dilettante, a dabbler, a dying species, even as a crank. The term itself came to be used as an instrument of abuse to signify an aged and somewhat eccentric bookman. In short order, modern life began to evolve its own substitutes for the dying breed. “Instead of men of letters,” Gross writes, “there are academic experts, mass media pundits, cultural functionaries.” He is right to wonder if we have gained or lost from the exchange, and the passage of nearly four decades since the publication of his important book has only reinforced our skepticism.

It seems plain, however, in looking back across the century that the man of letters, no matter how he is defined, was pushed aside not so much by academics and experts, but by that distinctive twentieth century phenomenon—the intellectual. The term itself is more or less coeval with the century, having been coined in 1898 to describe the collection of writers and teachers that came to the defense of Captain Dreyfus. The pedigree of the term was thus more political than literary, was associated with protest and opposition, and associated also with the political left. These have been enduring characteristics of the intellectual, and perhaps they serve as well to distinguish the species from the man of letters it supplanted. It might even be said, pace Carlyle, that the intellectual has been our most important modern person, interpreting events for expanding democratic publics and even shaping those events themselves. The immense volume of books and articles that have appeared in recent years seeking to define, understand, or interrogate the intellectual might be taken as evidence for such a conclusion. Yet there is some sense that, in a new century with many of the old shibboleths (Marxism) in decay, the influence of the intellectual in contemporary societies is on the wane. Is it possible or likely that the intellectual will go the way of the man of letters?

This is precisely the kind of question that Stefan Collini is at pains to put to rest in his fascinating new volume, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain.1 Collini, professor of intellectual history at Cambridge University, has written an unusual book that focuses less on what intellectuals have had to say about the major issues of their day than on what they have had to say about intellectuals themselves and the intellectual vocation. The title is taken from a question posed by Anthony Hartley in 1963: Is there such a thing as an English intellectual? The question will appear strange to Americans who have long had the deferential habit of looking to the British for guidance on matters of intellectual taste and judgment. Yet, as Collini shows, there has always been a strong sense among British intellectuals that the culture of their nation is too practical or self-satisfied to nurture genuine intellectuals of the kind found in, say, France. Collini’s excellent volume seeks to demonstrate not merely that the “absence thesis” is wrong but also that the intellectual has been a vibrant force in British life for more than a century. More generally, he asserts the continuing importance intellectuals in contemporary society against claims that they are too specialized and out of touch with the main currents of modern life or, alternatively, that they have betrayed their vocation by chasing power, influence, and celebrity.

Many of the misconceptions and contradictory expectations about intellectuals go back to the very origins of the term in the Dreyfus Affair. The concept itself, however, did not arise full-blown in the midst of this controversy. Coleridge had earlier in the century used the term “clerisy” to refer to the “learned men” of the nation, but Collini shows he used the term more as a way of calling for spiritual leadership among writers and poets than as a means to political influence. In addition, the term “intellectual” (intellectuel) began to make occasional appearances in French in the late 1800s, usually as a pejorative reference to educated men who had no practical sense. There is little doubt, however, that the Dreyfus Affair established the enduring significance of the term.

The day after Emile Zola published his open letter J’Accuse, indicting military authorities of fabricating the case against Captain Dreyfus, a radical Paris newspaper carried a short protest along the same lines signed by 1200 writers, teachers, and students grouped by their academic or professional qualifications. Georges Clemenceau, himself a member of the radical party and also owner of the paper in which Zola’s letter was published, quickly referred to this as “the protest of the intellectuals.” The term stuck as a description of academics and writers who are active in political causes. What was new and important about the protest was that the signatories sought to use their academic qualifications or professional achievements to suggest that their views should be given privileged standing in a political context. Their protest generated an immediate counterattack from conservatives who associated the term “intellectual” with disorder, treason, and abstract reasoning. The way in which the Dreyfus affair played out established a template for the understanding of later conflicts and controversies. In so doing, Collini writes, “the Affair also carried forward a paradigm of the operation of intellectual authority in politics.” It is this paradigm, he argues, that has led intellectuals in Britian and elsewhere to conclude falsely that they lack the status, influence or, even, the authenticity of intellectuals in France.

Collini uses the term “intellectual” in three distinct senses. There is, first of all, the sociological sense in which the intellectual is a member of an occupational grouping of professors, teachers, writers, journalists, government workers, and the like. This meaning corresponds to the concept of an intelligentsia or a “new class” of intellectuals that has come into being in modern societies and works to advance common interests. There is, secondly, a more subjective sense in which the term is used to identify persons with interests in books, ideas, and intellectual debate. There is, finally, a third sense in which those who have developed intellectual authority on the basis of achievements or appointments try to use that authority to appeal to the broader public on subjects that go beyond their specialty. This third sense is the one generally employed by the author—and it is the sense that best fits the intellectual protesters in the Dreyfus Affair. Yet this understanding has created endless controversies among intellectuals over how and for what ends such authority should be used.

This was evident in the first great attack on intellectuals from another intellectual—Julien Benda’s 1927 classic La Trahison des Clercs, later translated into English as The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. Among all the works dealing with the duties of intellectuals, Benda’s probably remains the one with the most enduring influence, though his concept of clerc was imperfectly translated into English as “intellectual.” Benda asserted that through the history of mankind there existed a class of men whom he designated the clercs whose duty consisted of abstract speculation about justice, good and evil, and the common good. Their kingdom was not of this world; practical affairs, including politics and government, were the province of laymen. The vocation of the spiritual men and the men of learning was to hold up in front of kings and laymen an ideal of justice that ought not to be betrayed. But in the previous fifty years, Benda argued, the clercs had betrayed their calling by becoming spokesmen for class and national passions, thus helping to bring about the disasters of world war and communist revolution. As a consequence, he wrote, the modern age is characterized by “the intellectual organization of passions.”

Yet, as Collini observes, Benda’s otherworldly conception of the clerc had already been repealed by the rise of the intellectual whose identity was wrapped up in bringing ideas into the service of political causes. This, however, was merely another way—a conceptual way—of making Benda’s point. T. S. Eliot, who published two reviews of the book, had grave misgivings about its thesis, writing that it is “a counsel of despair, for it advises leaving the regiment of the world to those persons who have no interest in ideas whatever.” Benda had thus crystallized one of the continuing debates about the duties of intellectuals—whether they should remove themselves from the world or intervene to influence or shape it.

Absent Minds contains insightful chapters on many of the leading intellectual figures of the century, including especially Eliot and Orwell, along with fine chapters on intellectuals in America and France, the latter containing a reprise of the disputes between Sartre and Aron over the role of the intellectual. Collini is surprisingly harsh to Orwell, concluding that he was guilty of that “most unlovely and least defensible of contradictions, the anti-intellectualism of the intellectual.” There is certainly something to this, as it is true that Orwell could be unsparing in his attacks on what he called “the left intelligentsia” or, alternatively, “the pansy left.” Yet here one feels that the author has lost his moral balance by giving more weight to Orwell’s commentary on intellectuals than to his far more important writings on tyranny and totalitarianism. In reading this chapter, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Orwell as he adjusts his early left-wing views in light of harsh experience to become by the time he died a peerless defender of liberty and democracy.

If there is a general weakness in Absent Minds, it is that Collini approaches his subject from a liberal or left-wing standpoint, assuming thereby that a proper intellectual must take a progressive line on political affairs. The only immoderate or extreme statements that the reader encounters in the book occur when the author is forced to say something about the Thatcher government. Except for an insightful chapter on Eliot, Collini rarely engages conservative or free market ideas at all. Hayek, who wrote extensively on intellectuals and whose Road to Serfdom was one of the most influential books of the century, is mentioned only once in passing. Perhaps here Collini implicitly acknowledges that there is a tension between conservative ideas and the activist and interventionist role that intellectuals have assumed. Indeed, Eliot disdained to be called an intellectual at all, preferring instead that more dignified title of man of letters. It is true also that the religious sensibilities of conservatives run against the grain of the secular and activist assumptions of most intellectuals. Conservatives are thus far more likely to criticize intellectuals than to dilate on their proper role.

Collini has little patience with those who are convinced that the intellectual is likely to die out because of the disappearance of the “grand narratives” of socialism and communism, the steadily encroaching reach of the mass media into the world of ideas and intellectual life, or the temptation for intellectuals to retreat into the specialized world of academe. The impending demise of the intellectual, he says, has been a recurring theme in intellectual discourse for some time. In addition, many of these modern temptations have in fact been with us for some time and have thus far been resisted with some success. A scholar or intellectual, moreover, still has the right to say “no” to such inducements that distract him from his true calling. There is also the possibility that intellectuals might even begin to use media outlets to reach the wider public, much as the BBC’s Third Programme served in the 1950s as an avenue for intellectual discourse.

Still it is true, he writes, that intellectuals themselves as well as the broader public have contradictory expectations as to what the intellectual vocation really entails:

We want our intellectuals to engage with the world, not to live in monkish withdrawal, but we also want them not to be tarnished by the vulgarity of the world. We want them to have achieved intellectual distinction, but we also want them not to be narrow specialists. We want them to speak out, but we also want them not to be all mouth.

These contradictory assumptions suggest to Collini that some powerful wish is concealed within them—the wish, namely, that “intellectual inquiry or aesthetic creativity might yet yield some guidance about how to live.” In his mind, this wish or longing points to a continuing role for intellectuals in Britain and elsewhere and suggests that predictions about the death of the intellectual are greatly exaggerated.

Collini makes a strong case in this important book for the durability and adaptability of intellectuals in the modern world. Yet, thorough as he is, he does not address some of the vexing questions raised in the course of this essay. Why did the intellectual displace the man of letters as the chief figure in the world of ideas? Why did Eliot, and other conservatives who followed him, reject the term? Why, after a full century, is the intellectual still associated with the political left?

Both Gross, in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, and Collini, in Absent Minds, treat their paradigmatic subjects—the man of letters and the intellectual—more as vocational or functional types who perform influential roles in society than as carriers of specific ideas. It is certainly the case that an almost infinite variety of views might be associated in the past with either men of letters or intellectuals. With respect to the man of letters, it would be fair to say that he was associated over the centuries with classical learning.

Thus, the man of letters did not originate in the nineteenth century with the rise of the critic and reviewer but probably centuries earlier with the re-discovery of the ancient Greek and Roman texts. The ancient authors, as their works were reproduced by the printing press and then widely circulated among the universities and monasteries of Europe, provided laymen with a wide field of moral and philosophical study that was independent of theology and sacred texts. Such texts, in turn, provided a basis for a secular education and the development of a secular outlook, though many thinkers from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment had little difficulty in squaring ancient philosophy with Christian doctrine. Others, however, especially Enlightenment figures like Hume, Gibbon, and the French philosophes, saw in the ancients a powerful alternative to Christianity and, indeed, an instrument for attacking it. Throughout this period, the sign of an educated man—the man of letters—was through his knowledge of the ancient languages and texts. The man of letters as a classicist probably reached something of a high point in the late eighteenth century when many of the leading writers and statesmen in Europe and America, including the leading figures of the Enlightenment, could converse readily on Greek and Roman history and the major ancient writers. This tradition, however, began to exhaust itself in the nineteenth century as it lost its sense of freshness and its connection to the wider world and as competing modes of thought pushed themselves forward. These latter developments were probably connected in some way with the decline and eventual fall of the man of letters.

Why did the intellectual displace the man of letters as the chief figure in the world of ideas? Why did Eliot, and other conservatives who followed him, reject the term? Why, after a full century, is the intellectual still associated with the political left?

Julien Benda, in La Trahison des Clercs, traced the disasters of his time to the rise of German historical and nationalist thought in the nineteenth century. The triumph of German ideas, he wrote, led to the “bankruptcy of Hellenism”—that is, to the tradition of classical learning that had earlier been so influential. Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, wrote something similar when he pointed out that the ideals of liberty that prevailed among thinking men in 1800 were gradually overtaken during the nineteenth century by German historical thought that originated with Hegel and Marx. By the time of World War I, he wrote, most intellectuals had been converted to one or another version of socialism. By this Benda and Hayek meant not that most intellectuals were Marxists or Hegelians, but that they accepted the main presumption of historicism that history is moving in some identifiable direction toward a grand destination. In the case of left-wing or progressive thinkers, this meant that history is moving inevitably in a secular and egalitarian direction which will culminate either in socialism or a version of a democratic welfare state. The proper role of the intellectual, then, given the assumptions of historicism, is to assist the movement of history along this general path. If we are to believe Benda and Hayek, the intellectual advanced through the twentieth century in tandem with the historical premise.

Collini is confident that intellectuals will survive and prosper because they fulfill a deep human need for “guidance about how to live.” Yet this is precisely the kind of guidance that intellectuals cannot provide to the degree to which they are concerned with the march of history, the social and economic organization of society, and the promotion of “progressive values.” The question “How should we live?” in fact originated with the ancient Greek philosophers and was incorporated into the tradition of classical learning. Thus, the men of letters of old were far more capable of addressing this question than the progressive intellectuals of modern times or our highly specialized and overly theoretical academics.

In a postscript to the 1991 edition of his book, Gross acknowledged that his diagnosis of the “fall of the man of letters” may have been slightly exaggerated. The man of letters, he writes, is with us still and may be more urgently needed than ever. Gross, like many others, lamented the academic takeover of literary criticism, but neither he nor anyone else a generation ago could have predicted the malevolent directions that academic criticism would eventually follow. The pervasive influence of critical theory in the universities has established the priority of theory over literature in those hallowed precincts. That is bad enough, but, as Gross writes, the situation is even worse for “a great deal of critical theory is devoted not so much to illuminating literature as to undermining it and robbing it of its autonomy.” The answer to the academic theorists, Gross says, and the antidote to their claims for theory over literature, can only come from the man of letters whose commitment to the ideal of literature as common property is as valuable today as it was a century ago. Indeed, it may be true that, because of the vacuum created by the academics, those who are willing and able to defend the traditional ideals of the humanities to a broad audience of educated laymen can have greater influence today than they have had in more than a century.

Some years ago Francis Fukuyama published an influential article titled “The End of History?,” in which he argued that the fall of socialism and communism had left liberal democracy as the only form of government and social organization that can be defended by universal reason. He concluded from this that the long history of conflict over forms of government had been brought to an end, that liberal democracy represented the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” This meant, in turn, that history, defined as the long struggle over forms of government, had itself been brought to an end. Fukuyama cleverly flipped the analysis advanced by Marx, who claimed that the end of history would occur when communism overthrew bourgeois liberalism and inaugurated a classless society. Fukuyama turned Marx on his head, arguing that the triumph of capitalism had brought about the end of history.

It is now apparent with the rise of Islamism that Fukuyama overstated the case and that clashes among civilizations and nations over religions and forms of government are bound to continue into the infinite future. Yet the fall of communism and socialism, along with the loss of confidence in the welfare state, has in fact discredited the powerful idea that history is headed in a progressive direction. Fukuyama’s thesis might thus have been more aptly titled “The End of Historicism,” for what he was suggesting was that the grand historical narratives of socialism and liberalism had been discredited by events that no intellectual was able to foretell. If this fundamental idea has in fact been marched off the stage of history, one wonders if the intellectual might not be far behind.

  1.   Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, by Stefan Collini; Oxford University Press, 526 pages, $45.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 52
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