This is both a brilliant book and a maddening one—brilliant because Dr. Sowell has with searing accuracy skewered intellectuals, and maddening because he has not addressed the nature of the problem.
The problem is “intellectuals”—in particular the intellectuals of the Western world today—and their baleful, sometimes disastrous influence on society. Sowell explains who the intellectuals are, what they believe, and how they influence the world. Practically all of what they believe is wrong, and practically all of their influence has been for the worse.
Before we discuss what Dr. Sowell has missed, let’s look at some of the many direct hits he scores against his target.
Who Are They?
As defined by Sowell, “An intellectual’s work begins and ends with ideas” (p. 3), and intellectuals are those “whose occupations deal primarily with ideas—writers, academics, and the like” (p. 2). Actual intelligence, let alone wisdom, has nothing to do with it.
Sowell repeatedly points out that people like engineers, surgeons, and chess masters are just as intelligent (if not more so!) as any professor of sociology, women’s studies, or linguistics. An engineer, a surgeon, or a chess master is not a pure “intellectual,” because he performs work in the real world and that work must meet objective, real-world standards. An engineer who designs bridges that fall down will be considered a failure. No such standard applies to an intellectual who spouts inanities. “George Orwell said that some ideas are so foolish that only an intellectual could believe them, for no ordinary man could be such a fool,” writes Sowell (p. 2).
Intellectuals claim to possess special knowledge that qualifies them to make decisions for the rest of society. “John Dewey, for example, spelled it out: ‘Having the knowledge we may set hopefully at work upon a course of social invention and experimental engineering.’ But the ignored question,” Dr. Sowell adds, “is: Who—if anybody—has that kind of knowledge?” (p. 18). Who indeed?
John Dewey (1859–1952), the “pragmatic” philosopher, is one of Sowell’s favorite targets: this punching bag gets hit twenty-five times in the course of the book. A dominant figure in the intellectual history of the twentieth century, Dewey—to boil his thought down to its essentials—was a statist whose vision of “democracy” was a mass of docile plebeians micromanaged by a tiny class of intellectual patricians. For Sowell (and for us, too), Dewey is the quintessential elitist fathead who ordains himself an oracle for all of humankind. As such he is a typical intellectual.
What Do They Believe?
What do intellectuals believe?
Sowell draws on one of his earlier books, The Vision of the Anointed, to show that intellectuals, overwhelmingly, share a particular vision of the world and their place in it. You might think there would be as many core beliefs as there are intellectuals, but you’d be wrong. Despite their incessant appeals to “diversity,” intellectuals display a surprising uniformity of thought.
To sum up this “vision of the anointed”:
- The world’s problems are not due to human nature but to faulty institutions such as the family, capitalism, religion, etc.
- If these institutions are properly torn down and reconfigured, the problems of the world will disappear.
- Intellectuals are uniquely qualified to do the reconfirming, and the rest of humanity should yield to them.
“Above all,” writes Dr. Sowell, “they exalt themselves by denigrating the society in which they live and turning its members against each other” (p. 313). He repeatedly chides them for their penchant for offering their “credentialed ignorance” as a substitute for actually knowing what they are talking about (p. 29).
Virtually to a man, or woman, Western intellectuals believe in big government, internationalism, redistribution of wealth, the promotion of sexual license as a form of “liberation,” and the creation of an earthly paradise by means of government coercion following the prescriptions laid down by themselves. Sowell makes these points again and again throughout the book, so there is no need to reference page numbers.
Why Do They Believe Such Things?
Here we must deviate from the usual procedure of a book review to explain something that Dr. Sowell has not explained—why do intellectuals believe as they do?
The explanation is simple: it’s because intellectuals have explicitly rejected God.
Consider this from the preface to Humanist Manifesto II, a 1973 document signed by thousands of intellectuals, including hundreds of Nobel Prize winners in various fields:
“As in 1933”—the publication date of Humanist Manifesto I, written by John Dewey and others—“humanists still believe that traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God, assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers, and to be able to do something about them, is an unproved and outmoded faith. Salvationism, based on mere affirmation, still appears as harmful, diverting people with false hopes of heaven hereafter. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.”1
And a little further into the document:
“We believe, however, that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not do so … We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural; it is either meaningless or irrelevant to the question of survival and fulfillment of the human race … we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species.”2
There it is—the very foundation of what intellectuals believe. It could not be more plainly stated.
Having rejected God, it is inevitable that just about everything else intellectuals believe will be wrong: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). Why should this lead them into error? R. J. Rushdoony explains:
“But if God has created heaven and earth and all things therein, and has decreed beforehand all things that come to pass (Acts 15:18, Rom. 9, etc.), then nothing can be understood apart from the sovereign God and his word.”3
Rushdoony also speaks of “the elitism which marks the intellectual. The intellectual believes that his rationality gives him an autonomy from God and from the herd-like emotions and appetites of the masses. As a result, he feels that he can determine what is good or evil for mankind. For him, the tempter’s program (Gen. 3:5) is the epitome of wisdom which he is called upon to impart to mankind.”4
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” the Bible teaches (Ps. 14:1). Without God, intellectuals cannot reason from a basis of truth: some of them, indeed, are in the business of “the discrediting of truth” itself, Dr. Sowell notes (p. 195). They can only reason—if we can even call it reasoning—from a false premise, the nonexistence of God.
Having rejected God, they must find something to put in His place. They offer the state as God; but the state is a false god, an idol manipulated by its priests, the intellectuals. They see themselves in God’s place as the determiners of good and evil, the arbiters of truth, and even as the rulers of the world.
From that point on, their arc of folly becomes predictable. With themselves in God’s place, they must reject original sin and insist on human perfectibility—as defined and directed by themselves. Wise in their own eyes, blind to their own failings, they must promise utopia. Where God gives us salvation and regeneration, they must promise “social justice,” “equality,” “democracy,” “fulfillment,” etc.—all to be brought about by the irresistible coercive power of the state. The historical fact that the state never, never gets past the coercive phase and always seems to get stuck on oppressing or even murdering its own citizens does not register with intellectuals.
We do not understand why Dr. Sowell addresses these issues from a purely secular plane of reference. The problem with intellectuals is obviously spiritual. They don’t believe in God. Therefore they can never be anything but blind guides who fall into the ditch. Their entire body of thought rests on the foundation of a lie.
How could Thomas Sowell have let that pass? We tried to ask him, but he was not available. But to ignore the religious dimension of this problem makes it impossible to understand it, let alone find a solution. That in itself is a kind of blindness. It is as if Dr. Sowell wrote a book on diseases without writing about germs.
How Do They Influence Society?
Intellectuals have two ways of influencing society, according to Sowell.
Usually, he explains, their influence is not direct, but rather exerted indirectly on society by what he calls “the intelligentsia,” and defines thus: “Around a more or less solid core of producers of ideas there is a penumbra of those whose role is the use and dissemination of those ideas. These latter individuals would include those teachers, journalists, social activists, political aides, judges’ clerks, and others who base their beliefs or actions on the ideas of intellectuals” (p. 5). This would also include most of the media, including entertainers and commentators. Where would any intellectual-originated movement be today without rock stars, movie stars, and other celebrities to push it? Think of Sheryl Crow promoting global warming.
Intellectuals wouldn’t count for much without this “intelligentsia” to make sure their ideas reach the public. This is accomplished in school and college classrooms, on the airwaves, in print, on stage, and in the offices of Congressmen and judges.
Intellectuals and intelligentsia, writes Sowell, are motivated by the same thing: “a huge investment of ego” (p. 314), which gives them a vision of themselves as superior to the rest of society. “The one over-riding consistency … is the self-exaltation of the intellectuals,” he says. “Unlike great cultural achievements of the past, such as magnificent cathedrals, which were intended to inspire kings and peasants alike, the hallmark of self-consciously ‘modern’ art and music is its inaccessibility to the masses and often even deliberate offensiveness to, or mockery of, the masses” (pp. 316–317). We see innumerable examples of this in television programming, movies, and art exhibitions—even going so far as to cast verbal and actual filth on symbols of the Christian religion.
Strange, isn’t it, that people who are mostly hostile to the society they live in would have much influence on it? What are we to make of a mostly Christian populace who sends tens of millions of its children, every day, to public schools and universities staffed by persons who despise Christianity and Christians, and who themselves spend many hours watching television shows written by persons who hold Christians and their beliefs in deep contempt? We think Dr. Sowell should have hit this nail quite a bit harder.
In addition to having their ideas furthered by a rather large and obtrusive class of intelligentsia, intellectuals can make their ideas seem convincing by employing what Dr. Sowell calls “verbal virtuosity.” It does take a big bag of tricks to make intrinsically asinine ideas look reasonable, even wise or noble. Among the rhetorical tricks analyzed by Sowell are these “arguments without arguments” (p. 80):
- Assuming the “unworthiness” of opponents and opponents’ arguments. Such arguments are deemed simplistic, foolish, even immoral. To argue with a pacifist, for instance, is to be accused of “loving war.” To argue against welfare programs makes you “greedy” or “uncompassionate.”
- “Virtually any answer to virtually any question can be made to seem simplistic”—that is, unworthy—“by expanding the question to unanswerable dimensions and then deriding the now inadequate answer as simplistic” (p. 81). A good example of this would be to reject police action while demanding to know the unknowable “root causes” of crime (p. 82).
- To describe any social or legislative innovation favored by intellectuals as a “right” hitherto denied to some class of victims by a heartless society is the Rolls-Royce of intellectual “arguments without arguments.” Examples abound: the “right” to same-sex “marriage,” the “right” to enter the United States illegally, “abortion rights,” “animal rights,” “transgender rights,” ad nauseam (p. 88). It always looks bad to be opposed to someone else’s “rights,” even when the “right” in question has only just been invented by intellectuals and pushed by the intelligentsia at teachers’ union conventions, in TV sitcom episodes, and in editorials in Newsweek.
- Intellectuals also discredit their opponents by verbally banishing them to “the right wing,” a term which for Dr. Sowell has no meaning beyond expressing dissent from the prevailing intellectual groupthink (p. 91). “The far right,” he says, is very largely a straw man created by statist intellectuals.
All of this “verbal virtuosity” is very clever and has been shown to be effective, especially when backed up by friendly media and education establishments. It all falls under one generic term: lying. But if one has rejected God, the basis of truth, it is a small step to the rejection of truth itself.
Why are intellectuals more influential now than they were a hundred years ago? Sowell’s analysis is simple: because there are many more schools and colleges than there were, and many more people attending them; there is more media, more different kinds of media, and more people consuming media (and more leisure time in which to do it); there are more ways to create a climate of public opinion shaped by intellectuals: more lobbying groups, more community organizing, and more special-interest fund-raising—making it more tempting to politicians to go with the flow and harder for them to swim against it. It is easy to imagine, for example, what would happen to any presidential candidate who said, “I’m opposed to what is commonly but misleadingly called gay rights.”
But here again, by ignoring the religious dimension of the problem, Thomas Sowell has missed something important.
They Never Learn
He has not missed the fact that intellectuals are often so hopelessly wrong in their opinions as to stray into out-and-out evil. George Bernard Shaw, for instance, when he wasn’t busy praising and promoting Hitler (p. 11), or Stalin’s Russia (p. 254), where he bewailed the very existence of “detestable” working class people who, he said, “have no right to live” (p. 98). One cannot think of any blood-soaked tyranny of the twentieth century that was not extolled by Western intellectuals, and they’re still at it today. New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman recently wrote, “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose [emphasis added] the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”5 Confoundedly messy, those free countries—it would be so much more efficient to have a communist dictatorship running the show! Intellectuals haven’t learned a thing since the 1930s.
But what if America were a more solidly, deeply Christian culture? Would intellectuals like Shaw and Friedman have any power to influence us at all? Would a Christian society generate whole tribes of Christophobic teachers, professors, newsies, entertainers, and pundits to disseminate the intellectuals’ ideas? It’s hard to imagine they would have gotten very far with “gay marriage” or government control of health care in 1810. How would they make themselves heard in a society that doesn’t breed a friendly intelligentsia to be their megaphone?
Or what if the intellectuals themselves were Christians? If they were, they certainly wouldn’t be stumping for Stalinism, lauding sodomy, or teaching college students that there’s no such thing as objective truth. They might even come up with ideas that did society some good.
Dr. Sowell does not take into account the creeping de-Christianization of the Western world. The French Revolution, Darwinism, Marx, Freud, two world wars unprecedented in devastation and loss of life—Christendom has taken some very hard hits in the past two hundred years or so. At the same time, the material prosperity of the Western nations dramatically increased—leading into a well-known, ancient pattern of complacency and ingratitude. The Bible describes it: “For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant” (Deut. 31:20). Human nature has not changed since Moses’ day.
What if Americans repented of their estrangement from their God and earnestly sought His face again? What if they removed their children from the public schools and gave them Christian education? What if they formed strong, Biblically faithful churches and tithed to them? What if they consciously stopped consuming anti-Christian “news” and entertainment?
“Tragic Vision” vs. Christian Vision
Dr. Sowell has not offered a solution. The best he can do is to oppose “the vision of the anointed” with what he calls “a tragic vision of the human condition”—“not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, for much happiness and fulfillment are possible within a constrained world, but tragic in limitations that cannot be overcome merely by compassion, commitment, or other virtues which those with the vision of the anointed associate or attribute to themselves”
We don’t think his “tragic vision” takes into account the power of God or of God’s promises. As Christians, we offer something better:
- God is sovereign over all Creation, all-wise and all-powerful.
- Christ reigns, and the Father has promised to make His enemies His footstool and to put all things under Him.
- God has promised to regenerate all Creation.
- As Christ’s people, we have been ordained to work for the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on the earth. As impossible as that task may often seem to us, we do have Almighty God to make it come to pass.
We salute Dr. Sowell for cataloguing the idiocies and the crimes of intellectuals, but he has not penetrated to the heart of the matter—faith in God vs. unbelief. We hope he will address it in his next book.
Meanwhile, we advise the intellectuals to practice being footstools.
3. R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1977: 1987 edition), 328.
4. Ibid., 127.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.