Friday, September 02, 2016


… [Criticism] | The Watchmen — What became of the Christian intellectuals?, by Alan Jacobs | Harper's Magazine. (Hat tips, Christopher Guerin and Rus Bowden.)

The opening gambit of this piece struck me as somewhat off-putting. Why is there only ever concern about the right or the far right,  never the left or the far left? Moreover, the assumption that fascism is a right-wing phenomenon is dubious. Fascism is a fusion of left-wing, statist politics with nationalism. What the fascism and the communism that we have seen exercise power had in common is that they were governed by dictators. 
On the other hand, ordinary national pride, a concern for one's nation's integrity — especially the integrity of its borders — does not necessarily translate into xenophobia or nationalism in the aggressive sense. (I must also point out that it is Marine Le Pen, not Marion.)
Graham Greene was one of those Catholic intellectuals and his politics was hardly right-wing.
I am an educated Catholic, and I have occasionally been referred to as an intellectual, and it is true that I enjoy the play of ideas. But I do not regard that characteristic of mine as defining who I am — though it is certainly a factor in who I am. For me, an intellectual — in the sense the term has come to be used — is someone who misplaces the importance of ideas, who tends to see things, not in terms of themselves, but in terms of the ideas about them. That way lies, if not madness, certainly, sooner or later, error of one sort or another.
If I did think of myself as an intellectual, I would prefer to be thought of as a Catholic who happens to be an intellectual, than as a Catholic intellectual. I think that is what distinguishes the authors and thinkers referred to in this piece. They were Catholics who worked in the fields of the mind. And in their day, they were paid attention to, because secular orthodoxy had not yet decided to ignore anything outside itself.


  1. Protecting borders is nether right nor left. A huge problem that we have in the USA right now is that Nazis, Islamophobics, and Klan members consider themselves conservative right wing and aligned with Trump.

  2. "[S}omeone who misplaces the importance of ideas, who tends to see things, not in terms of themselves, but in terms of the ideas about them."

    Frank, this is the most precise and devastating definition of "intellectual" I've ever seen--thanks for it.

  3. Hi Rus:
    Well, I do not think protecting ourselves from Muslim terrorists is Islamophobia, since a phobia is an irrational fear, and there is nothing irrational about fearing people who go around beheading others. As for Nazis and Klan members, while they certainly exist, they are a distinct and tiny minority in a country of more than 300 million, and one of the Klansmen just endorsed Hillary Clinton (whatever that means). I do not think it is wise or true to categorize those whose politics one disagrees with as harboring views that are evil. Just as I disapprove of Hillary Clinton's calling Republicans "her enemies."

  4. Couldn't agree more. FYI, he's actually referring to Marine's niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

  5. I hadn't even heard of her. Thanks for the correction.

  6. Marilyn Robinson responds to this essay with a letter to the editor:

    Acts of Faith

    And Alan Jacobs responds to hers and others' letters:

    answering letters (to Harper’s)