How intellectuals come to sell their soul to the state is one of the great mysteries of history.
If one didn’t know better, one might suppose that this class of people is dedicated to the life of the mind, that they enjoy the discovering of truth and the freedom of inquiry implied by the very process. This class must surely value the need to tell the truth, and would even take some risks to do so. It would surely never allow itself to be enlisted into cheerleading for despotism or otherwise propagandizing for the crude, preset, regimented mode of thought that political propaganda requires.
History shows otherwise. Intellectuals are very valuable to the state and the state is constantly recruiting them. But it takes two to two-step, and many intellectuals have been all-too-willing dance partners. Reading the gibberish about the glories of Bush’s global hegemon in conservative/Republican publications, one is reminded of this sad truth. Nobody is threatening these people with jail if they refuse to say that Bush is godlike, yet they jump at the chance to say it.
On the topic of why some intellectuals give in and others do not, let me first offer the thoughts of Mises:
It is a matter of temperament how we shape our lives in the knowledge of an inescapable catastrophe. In high school I had chosen a verse by Virgil as my motto: Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito. “Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.” In the darkest hours of the war, I recalled this dictum. Again and again I faced situations from which rational deliberations could find no escape. But then something unexpected occurred that brought deliverance. I would not lose courage even now. I would do everything an economist could do. I would not tire in professing what I knew to be right. Notes and Recollections, p. 70
And here is Rothbard commenting on Mises’s life and work:
In the ultimate sense, of course, no outside person, no historian, no psychologist, can fully explain the mystery of each individual’s free choice of values and actions. There is no way that we can fully comprehend why one man trims his sails to the prevailing winds, why he “goes along to get along” in the infamous phrase, while another will pursue and champion the truth regardless of cost. We can only regard the nobility of the life and actions of Ludwig von Mises as an exemplar, as an inspiration and a guide for us all. “The Role of the Economist in Public Policy”
Just as we are surrounded by astonishing examples of intellectuals who sell their souls, our own times offer inspirational examples of intellectuals who have not and will not. These are men and women who can be counted on to tell the truth regardless of the political moment, people who will not allow their talents to be used in the service of the party in power, people who have paid something of a professional price for refusing to go along. They have contributed immensely to our understanding of the world, and they have done so without official boosting or sponsorship. They are models for us, and they deserve recognition, now, while they are living and working and writing.
Thus, inspired by Walter Block’s archive, does LRC inaugurate a new series: Intellectual Heroes of Our Times. I have written the first one below, drawn from a speech I gave at Grove City College in honor of Hans Sennholz. I am willing to consider submissions from anyone on your own living intellectual heroes. It is the time to give these great men and women the plaudits they deserve, and that the state will never give them.