I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?
I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.
We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.
Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.
Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’. The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.
In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.
How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was “of equal value … with poetry”’.’
The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.
Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’
I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.
That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’
And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.
Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.