The Intellectual and Politics

PRAGUE: Does an intellectual - by virtue of his efforts to get below the surface of things, to grasp relations, causes and effects, to recognize individual items as part of larger entities, and thus derive a deeper awareness and responsibility for the world - belong in politics?

Put that way, an impression is created that I consider it the duty of every intellectual to engage in politics. But that is nonsense. Politics also involves a number of special requirements relevant to it only. Some people meet these requirements; others don't, regardless of whether or not they are intellectuals.

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It is my profound conviction that the world requires – today more than ever– enlightened, thoughtful politicians who are bold and broad-minded enough to consider things which lie beyond the scope of their immediate influence in both space and time. We need politicians willing and able to rise above their own power interests, or the particular interests of their parties or states, and act in accord with the fundamental interests of today's humanity -- that is, to behave the way everyone should behave, even though most may fail to do so.

Never before has politics been so dependent on the moment, on the fleeting moods of public or media. Never before have politicians been so impelled to pursue the short-lived and short-sighted. It often seems to me that the life of many politicians proceeds from the evening news on television one night, to the public in the morning opinion poll the next morning, to their image on television the following evening. I am not sure whether the present era of mass media encourages the emergence and the growth of politicians of the stature, say, of a Winston Churchill; I rather doubt it, though there can always be exceptions.

To sum up: the less our time favours politicians who engage in long-term thinking, the more such politicians are needed, and thus the more intellectuals - at least those meeting my definition – should be welcomed in politics. Such support could come, among others, from those who - for whatever reason - never enter politics themselves, but who agree with the former, or at least share the ethos underlying their actions.

I hear objections: politicians must be elected; people vote for those who think the way they do. If someone wants to make progress in politics, he must pay attention to the general condition of the human mind; he must respect the so-called ordinary voter's point of view. A politician must, like it or not, be a mirror. He dare not be a herald of unpopular truths which, though perhaps in humanity’s interest, most of the electorate do not see as in their interest at the present time, or may even regard as antagonistic to their pursuits.

I am convinced that the purpose of politics does not consist of fulfilling short-term wishes. A politician should also seek to win people over to his own ideas even when unpopular. For politics must entail convincing voters that there are things which the politician recognizes or comprehends better than they do, and that it is for this reason that they should vote for him. People can thus delegate to a politician certain issues which they - for a variety of reasons - do not sense themselves, or do not want to worry about, but which someone has to take up on their behalf.

Of course, all seducers of the masses, potential tyrants or fanatics, have used this argument to make their case; the communists did the same when they declared themselves the most enlightened sector of the population and, by virtue of this alleged enlightenment, arrogated to themselves the right to rule arbitrarily.

The true art of politics is the art to win people’s support for a good cause even when the pursuit of that cause may interfere with their particular momentary interests. This should happen without impeding any of the many ways in which we can check that the objective is in a good cause, and ensure that trusting people are not led to serve a lie and suffer disaster as a consequence, in an illusory search for future prosperity.

It must be said that there are intellectuals who possess a very special ability for committing this evil. They elevate their intellect above everyone else's, and themselves above all human beings. They tell their fellow citizens that if they do not want to understand the brilliance of the intellectual project offered to them, it is because they are of dull mind, and have not yet risen to the heights inhabited by the proponent of the project. After all that we have gone through in the twentieth century, I think it is not very difficult to recognize how dangerous is this intellectual, or rather quasi- intellectual attitude. Let us remember how many intellectuals helped to create the various modern dictatorships!

A good politician should be able to explain without seeking to seduce; he should humbly look for the truth of this world without claiming to be its professional owner; he should alert people to the good qualities in themselves, including a sense of the values and interests which transcend the personal, without giving himself an air of superiority and imposing anything on his fellow humans; he should not yield to the dictate of public moods or of the mass media, while never hindering a constant scrutiny of his actions.

In the realm of such politics, intellectuals should make their presence felt in one of two possible ways; They could - without finding it shameful or demeaning - accept a political office and use that position to do what they deem right, not just to hold on to power. Or they could be the ones who hold up a mirror to those in authority, making sure that the latter serve a good thing and that they do not begin to use fine words as a cloak for evil deeds, as happened to so many intellectuals in politics in the past centuries.