The Rich and the Intellectual

The Rich and the Intellectual May 19, 2011

The rich and the intellectual share many of the same temptations. They  are both leaned upon by people who hope to receive something from them; in return, the rich and the intellectual both see that they have attained something which puts them in a state “above” others, and they enjoy the status they have obtained. Instead of taking what they have been given as a gift to be used for others, they turn it into a something which is to benefit themselves. This is what we can get from Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He was, himself, an intellectual, who found himself possessing a great deal of power as the chief advisor to the Tsar for the Russian Orthodox Church. When he reflected upon what he learned, he often showed insights which we must consider, insights which post-modernism would embrace; on the other hand, he was human, and found many actively opposed to him because they felt he abused his power. One can acknowledge that abuse while recognizing his genius, and appreciate the value of what he said as it relates to the world today.

Wealth sets in motion a multitude of the basest impulses of human nature. It imposes on men great responsibilities, and binds and restricts their freedom in many things. It becomes the object of exploitation, and is surrounded by a web of falsehoods of every kind. If the feelings of the rich were not benumbed, they would daily feel that their relations to men had changed, that many, even of their nearest friends, behaved no longer with simplicity; and that for a great number of the people with whom they dealt, their personalities did not exist but had been replaced by their external figure, their capital. By men of sensibility such a position is unbearable, and the rich man must possess great simplicity of heart to continue in pure and benevolent relations to the people around him, and to escape the demoralization and perversion which arise under the influence of his wealth.[1]

Note here one of the neglected aspects of wealth: the one who possesses it becomes entirely associated with it; it becomes who they are to others, and, if they are not careful, to themselves. They become a number, the number being the amount of wealth they possesses; it is what others see in them, and they feel the need to keep to it, or to increase it, thereby becoming its slave. While money is seen as an access to power, such power often reduces the one who possesses it, turning them into a slave while they have the appearance of a lord. This does not justify their actions, if their actions are reprehensible; however, it does explain that they are, in themselves, a victim of their own wealth and we must be merciful to them even as we should be merciful to anyone else dehumanized by their wealth. They lose their personhood, as they reduce themselves to being what their wealth dictates.

Intellectuals share a similar problem.

To a similar fate is subjected another great human force – intellect, more particularly intellect above the general level, and above all, the intellect of the ruler. When an able man attains authority, when his name has become celebrated, all the basest impulses of human nature awaken in him. To approach him is an honour: he is no longer approached simply, but with the ulterior motive of appearing clever and awakening his attention. When the clever man is in fashion there is no baseness too low to put on the mask of ability, and to display before him all the affectations of which baseness Is capable. The consciousness of this falsehood and affectation would be intolerable, and would force him to avoid his kind if he were not himself the victim of similar weaknesses. Thus, too often we find clever men who, accustomed to the affectation of others, poses before their subordinates with all the absurdities of little minds, and find more pleasure in such society than in the society of their equals. Few minds are free from this weakness.[2]

Intellectuals find themselves to be rich, not with material wealth, but with the contents of their mind. They, like those who are materially wealthy, enjoy those who would fawn over them. They, like the wealthy, find themselves often enslaved by the gifts which have been given them. They enjoy the appearance they provide to the public, and want to keep it up.  They will at once be with their intellectual inferior and look down upon them, not just because they enjoy feeling superior to others, but also because they enjoy the power such associations give them. They are able to control and manipulate others who are not their equal,  and this allows them all kinds of power. However, they are enslaved by this, they are limited by this, they are not willing to push themselves, because if they did so, they would likely find the same people rejecting not only their output, but them as well. They want to keep up the appearance even if it limits what they can and will do in reality.

Wealth and intellect are gifts. They are meant to be used by the person who has them, not for themselves, but for the sake of others. As with all gifts, they provide a means of personal salvation if one uses them properly, but they contain, within them, the path to perdition for those who become entrapped by the pleasures they provide. One of the problems we find in the United States today is that the wealthy and the intellectual, for the most part, do not transcend themselves; they do not overcome, but rather, embrace the temptations which come with their gifts. The result is, as we should expect: society is falling apart, and the few people willing to take it on suffer greatly as they receive little to no consolation. They give themselves to a public which ignores them, making them wonder, what use the world has for their contribution. It is because they love others they go on, but they are human too, and though they work for others without expectation of adulation they do need consolation; without it, they will end up in a state of despair, and the little they give to help prevent social collapse might vanish and everyone will suffer as a result.

[1] Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Reflections of a Russian Statesman (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1973), 121-2.

[2] Ibid., 122.

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  • Thanks for this, Henry. I’ve never thought about the commonalities of wealth and intellectual gifts, and by making the links you’ve made here, you’ve increased my capacity for compassion.

    • Matt,

      You are welcome; and yes, I thought the connections were interesting and might help many people in understanding what goes on in the world

  • Dan

    A brilliant observation

  • Another challenge here is actually the symbiotic relationship between intellect and wealth. On the one hand, those trained for the life of the mind are more often than not acculturated to appreciate and desire the kind of thing which wealth makes either uniquely or at least more readily acceptable: travel to distant places, access to high culture (museums, opera, etc.), introduction to politically, culturally, or otherwise significant persons from across the globe, etc. They may also want to pursue studies which are only possible through a level of expense that exceeds their own resources. Indeed, their whole mode of life sets of patterns of need and desire which only others can make possible.

    For the wealthy, it seems that, out of a desire not to be reduced to wealth or the business interests that produced the wealth, both intellectuals and artists are seen as happy solutions. That is, including them in one’s circle might serve to humanize, or elevate, or enlighten what otherwise might seem to crass or materialistic.

    While this dynamic need not be vicious, I fear that it often is, for the reasons you note, namely, while it draws intellectuals and the wealthy together, in inclines them to view the other in terms of knowledge for the former or money for the latter, and not as persons whose mutually helpful gifts invite an openness and humility to receive from others what one cannot (and was not meant to) provide by one’s own means.