I often have a critical view towards intellect. It seems to me that intellect has become a destructive presence in this day and age. So many modern day infrastructures that we may take for granted are intellectual monuments. Finance, Law, Medicine come to mind (ironically these were the supposedly “most cherished occupations” in the minds of parents of my generation) – all hugely elaborate and complex systems that are intellectual products of our times. Yet, in my mind, these three (and many others) are not only failing to support humanity at large but actually working against it – attacking it.
My stubborn insistence that all is good in the world … forces me to ask why this is so? Is there something that I am missing? If not, how am I misinterpreting my perception of the world? This time these questions came to my mind as I was beginning to collect notes for another post. And this time, I remembered to go back to Robert Pirsig where I feel I have found, once again, some comfort.
Robert Pirsig suggests that at the beginning of the 20th century, society (at least western society) went through a shift from social dominance to intellectual dominance. The test of what was good shifted from ‘Does it meet society’s approval?’ to ‘Does it meet the approval of our intellect?’.
“… November 11, 1918 … the end of World War I … President Woodrow Wilson belonged in both worlds, Victorian society and the new intellectual world of the 20th century: the only university professor ever to be elected president of the United States. Before Wilson’s time academicians has been peripheral within the Victorian power structure … intellectuals were not expected to run society itself. They were valued servants of society … Leadership was for practical, businesslike ‘men of affairs’.” read more
But apparently that revolution didn’t hold out very long. Intellect was premature:
“The intellectuals had preempted all the causes. Causes were to the 20th century intellectuals as manners had been to Victorians … They had everything figured out … ‘pursuit of happiness’ seemed to have become like the pursuit of some scientifically created mechanical rabbit that moves ahead at whatever speed it is being pursued. If you ever did catch it for a few moments it had a peculiar synthetic, technological taste that made the pursuit seem senseless.” read more
And ultimately the freedom it had achieved backfired on itself:
“… The Hippie revolution of the 60’s was a moral revolution against both society and intellectuality … children of well-to-do … people of the world who suddenly turned upon their parents & schools & society with a hatred no one could have believed existed …” read more
I believe that, as Robert Pirsig suggests, we are still deep in the clutches of a moral void. However, intellect has not stood still – it has shot forward in the hands of social institution such as academics and business. Intellect is sprinting to the future yet it never took the time to learn to walk. Intellect forgot to forge a healthy relationship with the society which it serves and upon which it stands. Try to imagine the USA as a country without its constitution – it would have no purpose (to fight for, to fight against, to refine). Such is the state of intelect:
“The intellect’s evolutionary purpose has never been to discover an ultimate meaning of the universe. That is a relatively recent fad. It’s historical purpose has been to help a society find food,detect danger, and defeat enemies. It can do this well or poorly, depending on the concepts it invents for this purpose … Knowledge has grown away from this historic purpose and become an end in itself, just as society has grown away from it’s original purpose of preserving physical human beings … and this growing away … towards greater Quality is a moral growth. But those original purposes are still there. And when things get lost … it is useful to remember that point of departure.” read more
This explains to me why it seems (to me) that so many core social institutions we expect to support us in life seem to be working against us. This is why so much intellectual artifacts feel like, what I like to call, intellectual masturbations (it feels good thinking it but is ultimately useless or even destructive).
I suppose, in my spirit of embracing a goodness of the world, that there will be two artifacts to this untamed energy. The first is that sometime in the future it will bring us to social disaster (personally I feel we are really close if not already there). The second is that we will have at our disposal tremendous tools, born of rigorous intellectual efforts, to support us in crisis and to help us get through it and grow into a better future.
Final note: Though it felt extraneous to the central theme of this post I do feel it is worth noting that Robert Pirsig further suggest that the social moral values that surfaced in place of replaced the Victorian ones that were ousted by intellectuals were ultimately adopted from the next best and conveniently neighboring society: native Indians who it seems have since been trampled into dirt.