The Chronicle Review

The Intellectual as Courtier

Reuters/Louafi Larbi

Throughout history, intellectuals have been linked to tyrants, says the historian Paul A. Rahe. Here, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi (left) listens during a debate on democracy with the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (far right) and the American political scientist Benjamin Barber.
March 07, 2011

What would it take to elicit servility from an intellectual? Money would help, of course. Just ask the Harvard professors who founded the Monitor Group—which for a time shilled for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in return for a quarter of a million dollars a month. And query the administration at the London School of Economics, recipient of a £1.5-million pledge from a foundation run by Seif, the tyrant's notably generous, charming, and debonair son and presumed heir, who earned a Ph.D. at the school with a dissertation alleged by some to have been at least partly plagiarized (LSE is investigating those allegations).

But money is certainly not the only coin in which the modern intellectual likes to be paid. There is, after all, nothing quite like celebrity, and proximity to power can easily become for an intellectual in search of renown what a candle is for a moth. If, as they say, power corrupts, then lack of power corrupts absolutely.

The allure of the tyrant is, to be sure, nothing new. Long before Lincoln Steffens traveled to the Soviet Union and returned to say, "I have been over into the future, and it works"; long before Mussolini and Hitler, Stalin and Mao, Castro and Hugo Chávez attracted intellectual acolytes from abroad; the poets of late archaic Greece flocked to the court of the tyrant Peisistratus of Athens at the behest of his free-spending sons. Plato advised Dionysius of Syracuse. Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great. The humanists of Italy flocked around Cosimo de' Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Erasmus and Machiavelli wrote famous tracts with an eye to becoming counselors to princes. To the same end, Voltaire sojourned with Prussia's Frederick the Great, and Diderot spent time at the court of Russia's Catherine the Great.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically dishonorable in the offering of advice upon invitation. One can always hope—though one should not expect—that one might thereby do some good. Public flattery is, however, another matter.

If, in The Washington Post, one were to describe the elder Qaddafi as "a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat," if one were to call him "flexible and pragmatic," if one were to go on to suggest that "Libya under Qaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally," one would be apt—and with good reason—to be compared with Leni Riefenstahl, as Benjamin Barber was by Ken Silverstein at Harper's Magazine.

Worse criticism would justifiably be in store for the intellectual sycophant who chose to write on the eve of the Libyan uprising, as Barber did at The Huffington Post, that Qaddafi "is not detested in the way that Mubarak has been detested and rules by means other than fear," especially if he were to add, "His son Seif, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the London School of Economics and two forthcoming books focused on liberalism in the developing world, has pioneered a gradualist approach to civil society in Libya, insisting along the way that he would accept no office that wasn't subject to popular elections. No dynasty likely there."

If one wished to understand why thinkers who pride themselves on their acumen so often find themselves sucking up to those who wield power, one would, I think, be well-advised to reread Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notorious "Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts" and the preface he wrote soon thereafter for his play Narcissus. In the latter work, Rousseau distinguished the philosopher from the man of letters. "The taste for philosophy," he claimed, "relaxes all the ties of esteem and benevolence that attach men to society" and renders men indifferent to acclaim. The "cultivation of the sciences" has the opposite effect on "the man of letters."

"Every man," Rousseau writes, "who occupies himself in developing talents which are agreeable wants to please, to be admired, and he wishes to be admired more than anyone else. Public applause belongs to him alone: I would say that he does everything to obtain it—if he did not do still more to deprive his rivals of it. From this is born, on the one side, refinements of taste and politesse; vile and base flattery; cares seductive, insidious, childish, which, in the long run, diminish the soul and corrupt the heart; and on the other side, jealousies, rivalries, the renowned hatreds of artists, perfidious calumny, duplicity, treachery, and every element in vice which is most cowardly and odious."

In his "First Discourse," Rousseau made the same argument concerning the artist who longs for "applause" and will do almost anything to obtain it. There he paid special attention to the figure who "has the misfortune to be born among a People and in times when Savants, having become fashionable, have put frivolous youth in a state to set the tone; when such men have sacrificed their taste to the Tyrants of their liberty," and there he contended that such an artist "will lower his genius to the level of the age and by preference will compose vulgar works that will be admired during his lifetime rather than marvels that will not be admired until long after his death." The figure whom he had in mind was none other than Voltaire, and it was in his regard that he suggested, in the preface to the work, that "the sort who acts the part of the Freethinker and Philosopher today would have been for the very same reason nothing more than a fanatic at the time of the [Catholic] League."

The charge that Rousseau leveled at Voltaire may have been unjust. He was inclined to exaggerate for effect. But it would be hard to deny that he identified a propensity evident within the intelligentsia. Think of the tyranny of fashion that besets the humanities and the social sciences. It is sufficiently powerful that one can pull a book off a library shelf, read a paragraph or two, and all too often know precisely when it was written and under the influence of what fad. When celebrity is the aim, a scholar who is ambitious is almost certain to become a sycophant—chained to the tastes adopted and the ideas embraced by the audience whose acclaim he seeks. In our time, the scholar, the writer, and the artist may not be parasites dependent on aristocratic patrons, but that does not mean they are truly free. The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it—and it is a short step from flattering one's public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.

Paul A. Rahe is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift and Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty (both Yale University Press, 2009).