by Tim Lacy
Jacques Barzun predicted the Culture Wars. Well, maybe not. He was both a historian and a product of his times, not a prophet. But there is little doubt that the Culture Wars of his early years, the 1940s and 1950s, bear at least some resemblance to today’s battles over books, religion, the arts, and education.
As such, passages in Barzun’s 1959 book, The House of Intellect, both describe his times and explain something about the causes of political and cultural skirmishes of the last quarter of the twentieth century, as well as first decade of the current one. If we read his book with the last 40 or so years in mind, we see the outlines not only of an explanatory theory for the problems of mixing culture and politics, but maybe also some potential solutions. With Barzun in mind, this essay both thinks historically and philosophizes about the present. He will help me demonstrate the usefulness of U.S. intellectual history today.
House of Intellect begins by outlining three primary enemies of the intellect, at least as Barzun saw them in the late 1950s. They were Art, Science, and Philanthropy. These separate but inter-related combatants work against the intellect by: demanding exclusive allegiance (art), garnering intellectual prestige and fearing the so-called regressive effects of the humanities (science), as well as fostering a demeaned equality and psychology of help (philanthropy). Barzun provides much more, of course. For instance, he dedicates an entire chapter (seven) to the insidious generosity of philanthropy.
Barzun defines the “intellect” as neither raw intelligence nor the accumulation of credentials. Rather it is a love for “order, logic, clarity, and speed of communication.” The intellect is characterized by a high degree of literacy (not mere reading skill) and a “feeling of mystery and awe” in learning. His notion of the intellect is not about compromise, material interests, public service, or social peace. The intellect might inform things considered practical and pragmatic, but practice and pragmatism will only be hampered if the intellect alone leads the way. Intelligence, cunning, craftiness, and industriousness work well in a democracy, if ordered toward comprise, but not the intellect. …
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