Creators and Intellectuals

I recently found myself reading Thomas Sowell’s newest book, Intellectuals and Society
, a study of intellectuals — those who are dedicated to ideas and who, in his estimation, are growing in public influence but who are also woefully uninformed and wounding society. His complaint is basically that intellectuals are leftist, unaccountable to the public, immune to falsification and seemingly incapable of losing their reputation when they are (sometimes laughably) wrong. I’ve tried to read on both sides of issues, and Sowell is an uncompromised conservative — a wide-ranging intellectual himself, brilliant in capacity, and clear enough a writer to dispense his goods to non-experts. I suppose Sowell’s book could make many angry, angry enough to get up from their reading chair and march to DC and demand change. Instead, his relentless critique wearied me and depressed me and made me wonder why he can’t appreciate the genius and brilliance of so many intellectuals. So, I put him down and turned to…

Paul Johnson’s Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney (P.S.)
. I just might do a series on this book: such a refreshing and positive sketch of the brilliance of folks like Chaucer and Duerer and Picasso and Disney. That opening chapter, anchoring creativeness in God as creator and humans made in God’s image and the hard work involved and the courage it takes — with dips into creators in a variety of fields (art, music, writing). Johnson, formerly a leftist, is now on the right side of the political spectrum and is a conservative Roman Catholic, if also one with some moral confessions.

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  • taylor

    Looks like Thomas Sowell agrees with you about Paul Johnson. Sowell says Paul Johnson is “one of the best writers and best minds of our time.”

  • Mike MC

    It is interesting that Johnson starts his book with a fundamental understanding of God and his creation. The problem with intellectuals is the often either do not believe in God or do not have the transcendence and eminence of God correct. Since many start their arguments with this flaw their conclusions are wrong. I may marvel at the reasoning and think of them quite brilliant. But how brilliant is a person when they cannot or refuse to try to understand the foundations of Christianity?

  • I have read two books by Paul Johnson: Intellectuals and a history of the Renaissance. Both have wonderful insights and are well written.
    Johnson’s adultery is troubling on a number of levels: it went on for many years, he himself said that one’s ideas are inextricably tied to one’s personal life, and the right’s ongoing hypocrisy in venerating him.
    The Church fathers said you could only understand Scripture properly if your life was pious. Does this apply to history and current events? Paul Johnson himself says it does!

  • ChrisB

    Why would he “appreciate their brilliance” if he thinks they’re “woefully uninformed and wounding society?”

  • James

    “I suppose Sowell’s book could make many angry”
    If you find that he has exposed untruth that affects you directly, then that seems like a reasonable conclusion. Like, say, if your tax dollars were going to go for things diametrically opposed to your basic beliefs, and more-so, you found that you had supported those who increased your taxes and took that money and sent it to those places based on false pretense… yup, you could get angry.
    Instead, his relentless critique wearied me”
    Wearied rather than excited? Is that perhaps because he was breaking down some things that you hold true, but can’t continue to hold true in the face of truth layed bare?
    “and depressed me”
    Depressed? Rejoice always! Unless perhaps there is some emotional commitment to an agenda based on untruth?
    “and made me wonder why he can’t appreciate the genius and brilliance of so many intellectuals.”
    Because their clever words are not true wisdom, nor even truth. Was it wearing and depressing and worrying to you because you’re surrounded by a faculty at Northpark that are deeply entrenched liberals?
    Perhaps it would be better to find factual errors, or logical errors in Sowell’s writing, or grant that he may be right, and that seeking truth is worth the cross, I mean cost.

  • Jeremy

    #5 James: Your comment is terribly loaded. Part of the problem with writing like Sowell’s is a righteous conviction that one side has a monopoly on truth and is absolutely correct. “Liberal” is a straw man as it takes no single argument on its own merits. Nice job on what appears to be an attempt to tie conservatism to correct Christian values with that last sentence though!

  • Scot McKnight

    ChrisB, maybe that sentence wasn’t clear enough. By “their” I meant intellectuals overall … he seems to make the word “intellectual” a bad thing and not appreciate what intellectuals have done. I wasn’t suggesting he should appreciate those intellectuals with whom he disagrees.
    James, it’s always best to avoid guessing at others’ motivations and also avoid inferring on the basis of those guesses.

  • I think there is an on going tension between … if you will … contemplative creativity and active creativity.
    I’ve known several entrepreneurs over my life and read about many more. The common theme is their incredible creativity. Their ability to evaluate circumstances, isolate the pivotal issues, stand common perspectives on their heads and innovate new solutions, is amazing. When you really engage them in conversation about their work you repeatedly hear the passion to create coming through. It varies from individual to individual but there is frequently passion about having created living breathing business, created livelihoods for others, and improving other peoples lives through business they have created. The idea of being the first to create something is very rewarding.
    This type of creativity is frequently treated dismissively by intellectuals. The work of entrepreneurs is not reflective of philosophical or theological insight. In fact, it is precisely the ability quickly “get to the point” without endless nuanced reflection that makes their creativity possible.
    And that leads to the rather dismissive attitude that many entrepreneurs have of intellectuals … endlessly contemplating without action, thus without “real world” feedback that would modify what is in their heads … yet still filling themselves qualified to lecture others about action.
    And this brings me back to the need for appreciation of the various types of creativity God has created us with and the need to recognize the contribution of those who process the world differently from us. IMO, a world run by intellectuals fraught with peril from those who believe that because they have been more contemplative in their thinking that they have achieved an elite status to lecture others without reference to the pragmatic realities of the world. A world run by the pragmatists is equally scary because without reflection it is far too easy to wander into destructive behaviors that may be destructive in ways not immediately apparent without careful reflection. Much of the discord I see in politics and in the church often strikes me as an unhealthy friction between contemplative creativity and active creativity.

  • People still take Thomas Sowell credibly?
    An economics author who showcased intellectual dishonesty by heralding Reagan “tax cuts” as revenue boosters while overtly ignoring more substantial FICA tax raises that actually buttressed federal revenue coffers?
    A polemicist engaging in name calling, branding a SCOTUS justice (Sotomayor) a “racist” and frequently referring to POTUS as a dictator in the likes of Hitler, Mao, etc.…
    A cheerleader for an illegal, immoral war and occupation based on fraudulent justification…
    A man who stated the racist hate monger Rush Limbaugh possessed “very well-informed and savvy understanding of the political issues of our time”…

  • “A polemicist engaging in name calling, branding a SCOTUS justice (Sotomayor) a “racist” …”
    “A man who stated the racist hate monger Rush Limbaugh …”
    Interesting juxtaposition. 🙂

  • Is it “name calling” to state the truth? Or is the litany of public gaffes and/or statements by Mr. Limbaugh insufficient to warrant what one would conclude a most apt tag?

  • Peggy

    Thanks for stopping by and adding your voice to this thread, Michael!
    Love your work, bro….

  • Jjoe

    I believe it was a recent NYT article that claimed professors tend to be liberal simply because academics is seen as a liberal profession. And the more we label and identify acadamia as liberal, the higher the tendency for liberals to enter that career field.
    That’s one explanation. But common conservative beliefs such as cutting taxes to reduce deficits, putting more firearms into circulation to reduce gun crimes, and stopping terrorism by torturing terrorists seem to me to come from some anti-intellectual planet where ordinary logic is turned on its head.

  • The single most helpful line I’ve read this year came from Johnson’s book. He said, “Courage and creation are linked … It is frightening to enter your workroom early in the morning and a blank sheet of paper” (12-13).
    I found this deeply inspirational. In fact, the entire introduction to The Creators is gold for any writer, artist, or musician. I suppose, courage in creation is a theme that could easily be mined by a thoughtful theologian as well.

  • Jeff Cook

    That is, “Courage and creation are linked … It is frightening to enter your workroom early in the morning and stare at a blank sheet of paper” (12-13).

  • Mich

    OK–first I haven’t read Sowell. But if you want to read a terrific left wing intellectual who will give you hope try:
    Susan Neiman, “Moral Clarity”

  • Rick

    “But common conservative beliefs such as cutting taxes to reduce deficits, putting more firearms into circulation to reduce gun crimes, and stopping terrorism by torturing terrorists…”
    Although some conservatives (including some conservative intellectuals) may believe in some/all of your points, I think that is more political jargon some conservatives use for: “it’s better to keep spending low and don’t overtax, allow people to defend themselves, and harsh measures may be needed to stop horrific attacks.”
    If you are correct about Limbaugh being a racist, why would Sowell (an African-American) be so supportive of him- even appearing on his show? Sowell may not agree with that aspect of your take on Limbaugh (and I say that someone who is not likely to defend much of what Limbaugh does/says).

  • JoeMofo

    Way to go James! And McKnight, your condescending response doesn’t speak well of your brand of intellectualism.