SINCE the dawn of civilisation, the relations between politics and intellect have progressed in three steps. Plato said morality decided politics, but then came Machiavelli who professed that politics had nothing to do with morality. M. Maurras, the leader of the French loyalist, brought yet another twist; he argued that politics decided morality. Our bickering intellectuals come at the long end of that reversing tradition. No wonder they look like appendages of political parties!
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most influential minds in 20th century science fiction, gave his jesting definition of an intellectual. He said an intellectual was someone who has been educated beyond his or her intelligence. The gap divides writing hands, talking heads and thinking minds of this country into two sections. One section flaunts academic achievements to make up for shortfalls in intelligence. The other asserts intelligence to camouflage deficiencies in academic excellence. In short, our intellectuals are torn by the dilemma whether they ought to carry their brains in their mouths, or mouths in their brains.
One thing common amongst them is their cryptic confusion. If nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, nothing is more harmful than an idea which is manipulated by motivated men. Rogues and crooks have ideas. So do ordinary folks. But intellectuals are meant to be a breed apart for the same reason rocks aren't gems.
The erosion of that distinction has a history of its own. The 19th century French thinker Julian Benda writes that the intellectuals are responsible for opposing the passions of class, race and nation. In the early days of this civilisation, these clerks were dispassionate folks, loyal to abstract principles than the passions of the masses. Benda gives them credit because while humans committed evil, the intellectuals taught them to honour the good.
He gives examples from the French history to support his hypothesis. Clergyman Jean Gerson risked his life to denounce the murder of Louis d'Orleans. Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza wrote “ultimi barbarorum” on the gate of those who let loose an Orangist mob to lynch De Witt brothers. Voltaire stood up for Jean Calas, who was wrongly sentenced to death by the parliament of Toulouse. Emile Zola famously defended Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason, and he had to flee to England to avoid recrimination.
These are examples of times when intellectuals stood up for abstract justice, their minds untarnished by passion for worldly objects. It was in the nineteenth century that things started to change and the intellectuals turned to political passions. Since then truth for them started to be determined by the useful, the just by circumstances.
Benda argues that intellectuals became pragmatic and discovered local truth and morality as opposed to their universal contentions. At the same time, they started finding favour with the state. That transgression still continues.
If we can tell the age of a horse by its teeth, we can also tell the edge of our intellectuals the moment they open their mouths. Many don't mind wearing their convictions on their sleeves. Others try to hide in futility; the tone of their voice and carefully crafted words treacherously give away their guarded alacrity.
The reason why our intellectuals are disappointing is that they behave more like mouthpiece of their political masters, not mantelpiece of their own conscience. Many may not even know the difference. They get education, cultivate knowledge and exercise the power of thinking, oblivious that the ultimate purpose is to learn how to differentiate right from wrong. It's this rare ability that separates the barbarians from the civilised people, the criminal from the conscientious, the wicked from the worthwhile, and the Satan from the saviour.
Thus, what distinguishes the intellectual from the intelligent or the cunning isn't the quantity but the quality of learning. The intelligent mind extracts knowledge from information, while the cunning gets busy mining information from knowledge. But the intellectual is committed to transform knowledge into wisdom. The root cause of all discords in this country lies in the great confusion that blurs these momentous distinctions.
Now you know why intellectuals in this country are subservient to political passions. Instead of being free agents of their noble pursuit, they're the indentured servants of parochial interests. They don't stand up for truth and justice. They don't fight for freedom and dignity. When they should be the champions of ideas and defenders of idealism, they have relegated themselves to the crass role of playing second fiddle to the politicians.
When profound minds fail to agree, the passionate ones get worse. Intellectuals of the country, unite! You've nothing to lose but your brains drained by your inhibitions. This world is made in the image of your ideas depending on whether you play the role of fuel or fire.
The writer is Editor, First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.