Sunday, May 08, 2011

Some Books (2)--Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse

George Orwell believed that there were "some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them." Roger Kimball takes this line of reasoning and has some fun with it in his Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse, published back in 2002. The dust-jacket promises "a delicious study of genius and pseudo-genius," a study which asks "When does a love of ideas become a dangerous infatuation?" or "What antidotes are there for the silliness of unanchored intellect?"

Frankly, I have never read much in the way of intellectual history. I can aspire to becoming a scholar, and I may have a certain knack for piecing together tidbits of history into a coherent picture. Intellectualism, however, is beyond me. My mind just does not work that way. If given a choice, I have always chosen to keep my head buried in the likes of Herodotus, or Carlyle, or Parkman, or Thucydides, or Prescott, or Macaulay, or Gibbon, or Comnena, or Runciman, or Lukacs and the like. I never gave any attention to intellectual historians and their theories--the ideas of Descartes, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer, or Marx, or Kierkegaard, etc.

That is why Kimball's book was such a satisfying read. For example, I now have some vague idea of the meaning of the term "Hegelian" without having to (God forbid) actually read Hegel. (Were this term removed from the vocabulary of intellectuals, I firmly believe most would be rendered mute.) On the whole, Kimball's essays cover an interesting lot, and both he and his subjects are eminently quotable. A selection:

Kimball on Aron: Busyness-that curiously modern bane that mistakes movement for progress.

Aron: Marxism is undoubtedly a religion, in the lowest sense of the word.

Kimbell on Aron on Hegel: His was a sober and penetrating intelligence, sufficiently curious to take on Heel, sufficiently robust to escape uncorrupted by the encounter.

Bagehot: Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.

Scruton on Hegel: His work is like a beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense, and nowhere beneath the foliage is the ground really firm.

Kierkegaard: The curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others.

Kimball on boredom: The dark side of a life devoted to amusement, pleasure, diversion. What happens when amusement palls and pleasure fails to please? Boredom yawns before one, a paralyzing abyss.

Kierkegaard: A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics--it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.

Bertram Russell on sex to first fiancee: As to frequency, I am sure it ought not to be great.

David Stove: Not to understand religion is ...not to understand nine-tenths of human history.

Stove on Darwin: Darwinism says many things, especially about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any educated person, or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all for critical thought.

Wodehouse by way of Jeeves to Bertie after a close brush with matrimony: It was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

Peguy: Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.

Kimball is good at this sort of thing. I remember his work back when I used to read the New Criterion. And yet, I group him with Theodore Dalrymple, another writer I admire. Both are excellent at chronicling our slow descent. None are better in the Decline-of-the-West genre. And yet, both pull back in the end, watching and tabulating as the vines of our age pry loose the bricks of our edifice, one by one. Neither will acknowledge the true nature of the Crisis before us, or its remedy.


Reader John said...

You've got my attention. This book's now on my wish list.
And your final paragraph is potent and evocative. What if this descent is not an odd aberration, but the final expression of a cultural gene?

The Singular Observer said...

But be careful of Jeeves' phliosophy. He is hard on Nietzsche, sure, but he likes Spinoza.... :)

I like Wodehouse. His observations on humanity, humourous and over-the-top, are closer to reality than many a philosopher...

But the book sounds intruiging. I've checked and it seems the downtown library in Saskatoon has a copy available..

James the Thickheaded said...

Anyone who puts Wodehouse in the mix of an intellectual history gets points in my book... especially if they mean to suggest that most rationalists ultimately serve their appetites like Bertie and are as equally likely to need "one of Jeeves's" to put the morning head back in order.