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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oh, there you go bringing class into it again!

In the essay "The Intellectual and the Masses", Hoffer notes that for most of history the educated classes felt more solidarity with the powerful than the masses.  He attributes the modern intellectual sympathy for the masses to a feeling of precariousness among the intellectuals:  Historically, when the low-born were elevated in social station they generally turned their back on their class of birth in order to prove their worth.  If you feel that you can make your place among the high-born and enjoy the benefits you will try to prove yourself worthy.  If you feel that it isn't an option then maybe you'll advocate for the class that you're at risk of falling back among.

Also, as we have expanded the number of educated people (or at least the number of credentialed people) the value of an educational credential drops, so the intellectuals will have less reason to feel as though they enjoy privileges worth defending.  This is consistent with the modern economic situation.

On the other hand, I think that in America some of the precariousness felt by intellectuals is about more than just a feeling tied to their immediate security and prospects.  In the 19th century, a time of expansion and optimism noted by de Tocqueville, it was also observed that America was hardly a society that valued intellectuals.  Even in times of a secure economic and political order, an intellectual can feel as if he or she is of low status, especially in a democratic culture like America.

Finally, I like Hoffer's observation on how hard it is to strike an ideal balance, presuming one wants such a thing.  On the one hand, intellectuals with great freedom (usually via the patronage of the powerful) tend to have brilliant starts, but then the society can stagnate.  Intellectuals who feel a bit precarious will advocate for the advancement of the masses (which is a good thing), but an excess of egalitarian and democratic feeling in society does not necessarily lead to a flowering of the fruits of intellect either.  You need a certain amount of tension to keep people pushing but not so much pressure and challenge that creativity is put aside in favor of satisfying immediate needs.

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