Prince Mashele

Let people think

2009-05-25 11:45

Once in a while, let us share thoughts about serious thinking. If you thought you have read a book that is both theoretically sharp and witty, wait until you read Terry Eagleton's After Theory.

It is not for nothing that the Guardian newspaper in the UK declared that "Eagleton is second to none among cultural critics writing in the English language today".

After Theory is a veritable repository of crude (and yet profound) witticism.

Consider, for example, what Eagleton says about the difference between classical and modern scholarship: "It is remarkable how intellectual life for centuries was conducted on the basis of the tacit assumption that human beings had no genitals. ...Intellectuals also behaved as though men and women lacked stomachs."

If you think Eagleton is a misrepresenter of truth, think of such names as Emmanuel Kant, Aristotle, Hegel, Adam Smith Marx - to name a few. Those who read works by these thinkers would not hesitate to agree that these were machines that manufactured original ideas.

Who amongst you can today think of the relationship between the state and citizens without the mind extending its hand to pull Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract from the shelve? Who amongst you can today think of capitalism without calling to mind Smith's The Invisible Hands? And who amongst you can today think of wealth distribution without the memory of Marks' Capital flashing?

Intellectual clowns


If you were to think of books produced over the past twenty years globally, who would such an author be to come close to these magna opera? Terry Eagleton's response in this regard is: "...the new generation came up with no comparable body of ideas of its own".

Yet a month in South Africa hardly goes by without one or two clowns who - on the basis of having studied at this or that American University - proclaim that they are thinkers.

Some of these people have no shame in calling themselves "leading public intellectuals", without any serious intellectual work that speaks for them. If you are lucky to come across something they flaunt as a book they authored, it would most probably be a pamphlet full of stories about their parents, a rural village they grew up in, invective directed at people they dislike, and/or a reproduction of their newspaper articles.

These are intellectual clowns of whom, in Man Alone with Himself, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

      "They belong, in short and regrettably, among the levellers, these falsely named 'free spirits' - eloquent and tirelessly scribbling slaves of the democratic taste and its 'modern ideas', men without solitude, good clumsy fellows who, while they cannot be denied courage and moral respectability, are unfree and ludicrously superficial..."

Through this apposite description of our self-proclaimed "public intellectuals", Nietzsche brings us very close to what Eagleton means by classical thinkers having conducted intellectual life "...on the basis of the tacit assumption that human beings had no genitals... [and that] Intellectuals also behaved as though men and women lacked stomachs."

Too much focus on stomachs

This is an accusation that the long-departed men of letters spent all their lives in libraries and coffee shops churning out tomes as without remembering that life is not all about the life of the mind.

Paul Johnson's book, Intellectuals, is among those that have shed better light in this regard. For example, he describes Rousseau as "An Interesting Madman", who - as it is well-known - donated all his children to an orphanage in order to avoid hindrance to his intellectual life.

The problem with our society today, however, is that we pay too much attention to genitals and stomachs that we no longer allocate time for ideas - to use Eagleton's words. From classical intellectual life, we swung to the worse extreme; where if you share with a friend, that you read an interesting book over the weekend, the friend immediately bursts out laughing - wondering why you did not have fun with a boyfriend or concubine.

We no longer have time and indeed little intellectual capacity to interrogate complex concepts and issues, but we rather choose to indulge in entertainment as if there is no tomorrow. Eagleton could not have put it better: "Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex."

Damage to critical thinking

Indeed, the stomach continues to do a lot of damage to critical thinking and intellectual life in our society. Those who call themselves intellectuals cannot resist the temptation of material lure. They want to be as wealthy as industrialists, and are as fast in chasing money as stockbrokers.

You find these self-proclaimed "leading public intellectuals" stampeding into the same Italian boutique with bankers for latest-fashion suits and ties. Since most of them have no tangible skills to sell to the private sector, they either join the public sector or place themselves for sale to those in power.

In Let the People Think, Bertrand Russell warns of intellectuals who make themselves available for sale: "The work of the intellectuals is ordered and paid for by governments or rich men, whose aims probably seem absurd, if not pernicious, to the intellectuals concerned." Do we not know of "leading public intellectuals" in South Africa - like those described by Russell - who unashamedly have sold themselves either to government or to rich men?

But why do those in political power and money buy our self-proclaimed "leading public intellectuals"? Principally, it is because the ruling class does not want ordinary people to be awakened about the predatory activities of the rulers. In Oeuvres Complètes, de Maistre says:

      The people's reason must consist of feelings: we have to direct them, and from their heart rather than their intellect...reading and writing have to do with neither their physical nor moral happiness...

Reality is reality

If this is the ulterior motive of the ruling class, should we, therefore, be surprised when government and the rich are prepared to pay huge sums of money to buy our self-proclaimed "leading public intellectuals"?

But those who do not believe that truth should be subjective to human motives must keep screaming form the margins. If it is only history ears that will finally hear, let it be so! Reality would be reality even if we, human beings, did not exist. Therefore, he who attempts to hide reality only has himself to fool.

Whether we like it or not, Terry Eagleton has told us the truth: classical thinkers conducted intellectual life as if human beings had no genitals and stomachs, while our generation came up with no comparable body of ideas of its own. The question is: when will we begin to think?

Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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