A review of a recent biography of the logical positivist philosopher A. J. Ayer, in the Times Literary Supplement, enumerated the philosopher's personal virtues. Among them was the fact that he was unconventional--but the writer did not feel called upon to state in what respect Ayer was unconventional. For the reviewer, Ayer's alleged disregard of convention was a virtue in itself.
Of course, it might well have been a virtue, or it might equally well have been a vice, depending on the ethical content and social effect of the convention in question. But there is little doubt that an oppositional attitude toward traditional social rules is what wins the modern intellectual his spurs, in the eyes of other intellectuals. And the prestige that intellectuals confer upon antinomianism soon communicates itself to nonintellectuals. What is good for the bohemian sooner or later becomes good for the unskilled worker, the unemployed, the welfare recipient--the very people most in need of boundaries to make their lives tolerable or allow them hope of improvement. The result is moral, spiritual, and emotional squalor, engendering fleeting pleasures and prolonged suffering.
This is not to say, of course, that all criticism of social conventions and traditions is destructive or unjustified; surely no society in theworld can have existed in which there was not much justly to criticize. But critics of social institutions and traditions, including writers of imaginative literature, should always be aware that civilization needs conservation at least as much as it needs change, and that immoderate criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principles, is capable of doing much--indeed devastating--harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work out everything for himself, so that the wisdom of ages has nothing useful to tell him. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.Dalrymple goes on to explain the importance of intellectuals, cultural critics, and artists, and their power to shape either good or bad culture. His words should motivate those of us working in academia, journalism, and the arts. The battle waged in our small arena, surprisingly, will shape the thoughts and lives of many ordinary people for the next couple of generations. Our influence is broader than scholarly readership and gallery attendance numbers suggest.
Having spent a considerable proportion of my professional career in Third World countries in which the implementation of abstract ideas and ideals has made bad situations incomparably worse, and the rest of my career among the very extensive British underclass, whose disastrous notions about how to live derive ultimately from the unrealistic, self-indulgent, and often fatuous ideas of social critics, I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as being of incalculabe practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, artists, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it.Our cultural ideals have been handed to us by intellectuals of the past generation. If we want our culture to change, the intellectuals of our day must hand the next generation a different set of ideals. And along with those ideals, some inherited practical wisdom and mores from a rich, once lived, Christian tradition.