In a university town like Auburn, it may be of interest to some readers of the Auburn Villager to ask who and what makes an intellectual? There are tons of answers to such a question but scant agreement about what makes a person an intellectual. When it comes to discussing what makes an intellectual, there seem to be more questions than answers.
Must an individual be a professor at a community college or university to qualify as an intellectual? Are those who graduate college with a bachelor’s degree automatically intellectuals and are those attending an institution of higher learning de facto intellectuals?
Are there different types of intellectuals? And do intellectuals play a distinct role in liberal democracies? There are influential intellectuals in communist countries like Russia and China who speak truth to power, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of the “Gulag Archipelago” written between 1958-1968 that speaks about the millions of people tortured/murdered between the Bolshevik Revolution and the 1950s.
There’s also the Chinese dissenter, Liao Yiwu, who told the story of the gruesome prison life in China, and more recently Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who, as a lawyer, studied at Yale for a year, and organized a political party in Russia and exposed the corruption in the Russian government.
I would note that an intellectual may best be thought of as a person for whom the life of the mind is extremely important. An intellectual, then, would be a person who puts a premium on ideas that matter, particularly ideas that are abstract, aesthetic, political or philosophical in nature.
One must not have to attend college or be extremely intelligent to be called an intellectual. Take, for example, Erich Hoffer. He qualifies as an intellectual though he was a longshoreman working on the docks and authored several books for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
My Dad was an intellectual who never went to college but was self-educated. He worked for 38 years mainly on the assembly line of General Motors in Linden, New Jersey, where a car a minute was turned out. Dad rose at 4:15 a.m. to get to work on time and took a short nap as soon as he came home.
To my surprise, Dad read three or four newspapers a day, and when visiting our family when we resided in Albany, New York, he read a book a day. He loved to read novels, and when he visited us once and ran out of novels, he read cookbooks cover to cover. He also wrote poetry.
Intellectuals like Erasmus of Rotterdam and Emile Zola had a huge appetite for reading books. In his essay, “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth … by considering their value alone.”
In the same essay, Emerson wrote that the “scholar is the man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future.” He should have said that the scholar is the man or woman who did all the above things. Emerson also believed that the scholar is the world’s eye and the world’s heart on the proviso that an intellectual never caves in to the people’s cry. The intellectual must be her/his own person.
Intellectuals in England and the American Revolution successfully combined power and thought. In this connection Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Ben Franklin come to mind. Before 1750 “men of letters” in France may be regarded as the forerunners of intellectuals in modernity. They spoke authoritatively and were the leading political figures of their day.
Intellectuals after the French Revolution that began in 1789 were quite different from those before the Revolution. How so? Those after the French Revolution put their focus on Reason and the development of the natural sciences.
Finally, down through the centuries there were intellectuals who today we would call “public intellectuals.” Public intellectuals are thinkers and writers who address an educated and general audience. In this matter I think of such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Cornel West, Simone Weil, Rabindranath Tagore, Edward W. Said, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, Noam Chomsky, James Cone, and T.S. Eliot.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.