Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

This originally ran at Pajamas Media. Because of the recent article “Mao’s Little Helpers” at Standpoint and a current review at American Spectator, I thought there would be interest in seeing it again. Happy Friday all.


Intellectuals and Society

by Thomas Sowell

Says brother T.S. Eliot:

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it; or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

Sowell produces this apt quotation, a neat summary of his important new book. And what a frustrating book it is! It can be read only in snatches, absorbing two, at the most three, examples of the insufferable arrogance and unteachable ignorance of those who “exalt themselves by denigrating the society in which they live and turning it members against each other.”

What is an intellectual? It is a person who thinks that because he knows the precise dimensions (in millimeters) of thimbles used in medieval Poland, or can translate Mayan hieroglyphs into Hattic, that this qualifies him as the ideal spokesman for the poor and downtrodden.

An intellectual acts

as if [his] ignorance of why some people earn unusually high incomes is a reason why those incomes are suspect or ought not to be premitted.

An intellectual is the kind of person who can say with a straight face what dead playwright Harold Pinter said—“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false”—and be perfectly oblivious of that statement’s logical contradictions. Its farcical impenetrability, which should bar its utterance in polite company, instead induces the same emotion as when a kindergartner is awarded a gold star for scissor work.

An intellectual is a person who substitutes what could have happened, but did not, for what did happen, when what did happen was at variance with his desire. And does this not just once, but repeatedly—and then uses this pseudo-history as confirmation that his deepest beliefs are justified.

For example, Ronald Reagan was excoriated routinely by intellectuals because they assumed that his policies would cause a nuclear confrontation with Russia.

That assumption was demonstrated to be false when President Reagan’s military buildup in the 19802 proved to be more than the Soviet Union’s economy could match—as Reagan knew. The fact that the actual consequence of Reagan’s policy was the direct opposite of what the “arms race” argument had predicted—that is, the consequence was the end of the Cold War, rather than the beginning of a nuclear war—has had as little effect on the prevailing [intellectual] vision as other facts which directly contradict other premises of that vision.

In short: an intellectual is a self-inflated, self-congratulatory, lover of self; a person so in thrall to beautiful theories that he is incapable of correction and impervious to evidence. Superman had kryptonite: but an intellectual’s shield of self-assurance cannot be breached by any known substance, especially fact.

Exceptions exist. Or, rather, it is the term “intellectual” which is the problem. There are always among us the brilliant, but the proportion of these immortals is always far smaller than recognized—or desired. The void in desire we fill with pesky, unqualified volunteers whom we label “intellectuals.”

What separates intellectuals from the brilliant is the standard of verification. Physicians, engineers, rocket scientists, and other such folk bursting with gray matter submit themselves to the harsh judge of reality. Prescribe a patient the wrong pill and he craps out; screw in the wrong bolt and the bridge collapses. The mistake-prone in these fields aren’t awarded lucrative book contracts or chairs at universities.

But an intellectual can agitate for minimum-wage laws and then ignore the reality of increased unemployment rates. He will say he is appalled that so many are imprisoned, yet the subsequent decrease in crime “baffles” him. On Tuesday, he shouts “Free Mumia!”, and by Friday he is penning an op-ed condemning excessive force by the police.

The utterly un-self-critical attitude of many intellectuals has survived many demonstrably vast, and even grotesque, contrasts between their notions and the realities of the world. For example…[intellectuals] were throughout the 1930s holding up the Soviet Union as a favorable contrast to American capitalism, at a time when people were literally starving to death by the millions…and many others were being shipped off to slave labor camps.

For the self-anointed, what counts is not fact but esteem. Intellectuals look to the mirror and to the soothing cooing of their coterie for confirmation of their convictions. “Does my position make me feel good?” is their driving question. “Does it work?” or “Could it cause harm?” are never asked.

The glow from their halos blinds. To cushion the inevitable blows caused by stumbling into unseen reality, the intellectual wraps himself with the warm blanket of self-righteousness. But this suffocates and creates fever and hallucination; it causes the intellectual to imagine he is soaring.

The “ruthlessness with which the anointed assail others” is astonishing. Those who oppose him are condemned as immoral, thieving, baby-seal-clubbing, rapacious, toxic-chemical-spill-loving, war mongering, hate-filled maniacs.

The arguments used against him are irrelevant: it is the act of dissent which enrages. Intellectual shibboleths are anyway not constant and have undergone, as Paul Johnson tells us, a “shift in emphasis from utopianism to hedonism.”

We know this because a century ago intellectuals were telling us that the white race was the most eugenically pure; now they insist it is the least among equals. As Wilsonians we were assured that war and conquest were noble and just; now it is evil and motivated by filthy lucre. Once dissent was the highest form of patriotism; now it is one step shy of open rebellion.

Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it.

But there are limits beyond which the infestation becomes a menace. So if you see an intellectual in the wild, do not approach him! Do not attend his lectures, or read his books; neither subscribe you to his paper nor comment on his blog. Intellectuals feed on attention: the only way to eradicate them is to starve them of it.


  1. commieBob

    Here’s another book along the same lines:

    The author argues that society is over-intellectualized ie. dominated by left brain thinking. He sees the consequences as being quite serious.

    The right brain is supposed use its lived experience to mediate the left brain’s logic. The left brain thinks it is smarter than the right brain and ignores it.

    My favorite factoid from the book is this: If you disable a person’s right brain, that person will believe whatever you tell him (or her) as long as what you are saying is self-consistent.

    In other words, the average intellectual (with badly weakened right brain) will believe anything as long as it logical. Boy does that ever describe most of the AGW tribe (and, sadly, half the skeptics too).

  2. Ken

    RE: “…a person who substitutes what could have happened, but did not, for what did happen, when what did happen was at variance with his desire. And does this not just once, but repeatedly—and then uses this pseudo-history as confirmation that his deepest beliefs are justified.”

    COMMENT: this is a nice summary of what amounts to a break from reality such people demonstrate. Be aware, to put their ‘temperment’ into perspctive, that the single common denominator to all mental illness is an inability to accept, recognize, etc. reality.

    RE: “…what counts is not fact but esteem. Intellectuals look to the mirror and to the soothing cooing of their coterie for confirmation of their convictions. “Does my position make me feel good?” is their driving question.” and “So if you see an intellectual in the wild, do not approach him! Do not attend his lectures, or read his books; neither subscribe you to his paper nor comment on his blog. Intellectuals feed on attention: the only way to eradicate them is to starve them of it.”

    COMMENT: both are very good examples illustrating the self-centered nature of this beast. In a word this is narcissism. At an extreme it is sociopathic or sociopathy. A brief but very informative summary of the personality is at:

    The author, Sam Vaknin, was, or still is, himself a narcissist (he claims) who was forced to confront things as his life broke down in ways he couldn’t ignore or rationalize away. He’s got a very lengthy book, nicely subdivided into bite-sized pieces, regarding this personality. Much of it he’s posted on-line at:

    If at all interested in what these people are like & why, and how to cope, etc. I strongly recommended one peruse the latter site as well. And keep it for reference. Such people show up in organizations, and are very disruptive, all the time.

    Another book to consider: “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. Many libraries have it in audio form.

    If/as you study this personality type, keep in mind that people’s degree of affliction falls along a spectrum of a touch here & there to some to a lot to total absolute. In most cases the behavior manifests & becomes apparent/problematic in certain situations. Very often, such people go undetected & wreak havoc that is attributed to others.

  3. DAV

    I wonder if Thomas is aware of the irony in his quoting Eliot: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people … in the endless struggle to think [So-] well of themselves.” And his initials are “TS” to boot.

    I heard a rather compelling argument that minimum wage laws are discrimination in disguise. If it takes two unskilled workers to do the same job as a skilled worker then why hire two when one at the same or lower price will suffice? Don’t forget about the overhead of employment. Getting a job then becomes nearly identical to that of getting credit.

    I prefer to think of myself as an immoral, thieving, baby-seal-clubbing, rapacious, toxic-chemical-spill-loving, war mongering, hate-filled independent thinker, thankyouverymuch!

  4. Rob

    While there is much to agree with here, I note that all of the examples involve “left wing” or “liberal” intellectuals. And please note that I DON’T disagree with them. However, there are plenty of examples in the “right wing” or “conservative” milieu.

    Those who say “eliminate the regulations on the banking industry” and are then dismayed by self-dealing in the financial industry would be a good example.

    Another would be those who say “reduce taxes” and fight the Taliban, depose Sadam Hussein, and eliminate Al Qaeda then are shocked to see deficits increase.

  5. Rob;

    You are spot-on that wackos on the right exist. But not too many are pushing for all-out war with the Taliban. Their enemy is Al Quaida, which is patently not the same. Nor do they seek to eliminate financial regulations while continuing to bail out failed banks. Your contrarian examples don’t work. Not saying you’re wrong, just not logical.

    Matt; You never go wrong quoting Dr. Sowell He is a national treasure. Thanks.

  6. JH

    Today, under the turbulent political climate, it seems that a fine word can be easily turned to a dirty word to inflammatorily label our opponents.

    With his eloquent political discourses on intellectuals and his magnetic charisma, Mao convinced ignorant and discontented peasants, workers and young Red Guard fighters that intellectuals were the “dark elements” of the society. Consequently, there was the catastrophic Proletarian culture revolution. A lesson to be learned.

  7. Rob


    That’s the position now but not 5, 10, and 15 years ago for those issues.

  8. Bernie

    My wife teaches ESL at a local University to graduate students who are getting ready to take the TOEFL. She is frustrated because the textbook is dominated by exercises and readings that reinforce progressive memes like global warming.

    Over breakfast this morning this essay sprang to mind. My wife and I were talking about the textbook and by way of illustration she referenced one chapter, Hypothetical Conditionals, that included an exercise that posed the question “If I ruled the world…” There followed the quintessential progressive wishlist: End world hunger; develop renewable energy sources; control population growth; protect the environment; abolish war; ensure political stability; and maintain economic growth. (They are listed in that order)

    Two things struck me. First what is on the list and what is not on the list. (Think of the benign and fanciful lyrics to the song “If I ruled the world”.) Second, the very question itself reflects a utopian mindset which in turn leads to the necessary diminishment of the individual, an appeal to magical thinking and, ultimately, to coercion – viz, Goldberg Liberal Fascism.

  9. DAV

    The only reasonable response to the question of ruling the world is: “If I ruled the world I would quit” if the goal is Utopia.

  10. Bernie

    Great minds think alike, … That was precisely my response.

  11. GoneWithTheWind

    It’s too late. It gets worse by the day. The administration is trying to prop up the economy with massive amounts of borrowed and printed money until the election is over. After Nov 2nd there will be no more reason to do this and the house of cards will collapse.

  12. Luis Dias

    Another right-wing rant in ad hominem style against left-wing people.

    Figures. Right wingers usually come down to that line. I’d say that it’s an “intellectual” thingy. From the right wing.


  13. “If I ruled the world”

    The trouble with utopians is they forget that there IS ultimate evil in the world. Even the best of their plans can’t withstand a clever devil like several I can think of running loose right now around the world. History shows this too. Stalin thought his commie utopia would be just fine if he trusted Hitler – ha ha! The Brits were no less stupid. Thank god they had Churchill.

  14. Amos

    And there’s Luis Dias, quite sure – and quite wrong – about the meaning of the words he’s using.

    It’s not a rant. A rant has no specific direction and very little structure, is full of invective, lacking in reason, logic or evidence. Rants are scarcely topical. Your post is closer to a rant than this essay.

    It’s also not an ad hominem. Ad hominem, Mr. Dias, does not mean, “argument about my people that I don’t like.” Ad hominem arguments, generally, may be structured, Y believes B; we know B is bad/wrong/evil/stupid, therefore when Y says C, C must also be bad/wrong/evil/stupid.

    This essay (again, not a rant: sorry) is of the structure Y is bad/wrong/evil/stupid; here’s the evidence/examples.

  15. Rich

    “To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say
    Is a keen observer of life
    The word `Intellectual’ suggests straight away
    A man who’s untrue to his wife” W.H. Auden

  16. Luis Dias

    Don’t make me laugh Amos, this rant is nothing but a series of self-infatuated right wing ego-trip chock full of stereotypes about the kinds of things this *type* of intellectual despises or hates, for he assumes certain truths to be so evident that are above contention, and then chastising others for not seeing the obviousnessness of it all, while calling themselves “intellectuals”. It suffers from the Dunning–Kruger effect, in the sense that it doesn’t even understand where itself fails.

    Yes, it may “seem” structured, but that is only an illusion. In reality, it is a stamp collection of caricatures, probably sussed out of some kind of Fox News reality distortion field. Or something. The gall from which he compares the racist bigots from a century ago to the egalitarians today is despicable and telling: here’s a guy who doesn’t *get it* by miles, even if it hit him in the face.

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