The courage to think for oneself is the defining virtue of the intellectual life. In his short story Of This Time, of That Place (1943), Lionel Trilling, the great American critic who is the subject of Edward Alexander’s Critique this month, elevated this virtue to a tragic plane. The story revolves around the relationship between the poet Howe, who teaches at a liberal arts college, and his pupil Tertan, an eccentric genius on the edge of sanity. To his fellow students, Tertan symbolises “the respectable but absurd intellectual life”. Tertan reveres Howe as a “man of letters” who has been “persecuted” by a progressive critic. “It is,” Tertan declares, “the inevitable fate”. Not Howe’s fate, as it turns out, but Tertan’s.
Trilling believed passionately that the intellectual life required the courage to be an “opposing self”. In his 1955 essay Freud: Within and Beyond Culture, Trilling recalled a student saying: “Suppose a man is paranoid – that is, he thinks he is right and other people are wrong.” Treating nonconformity as pathological, Trilling said, was “the tendency of his culture”. That culture is dominated by an illiberal liberalism. Trilling foresaw the threat to Western values that this would pose. In George Orwell and the Politics of Truth, Trilling observed that “it was on his affirmation of the middle-class virtues that Orwell based his criticism of the liberal intelligentsia”.
These illiberal liberals, who then flirted with Stalinism as they do today with Islamism, are as contemptuous as ever of what Orwell meant by the middle-class virtues. Only in an exotic disguise do these virtues now gain the approval even of the middle classes themselves. One example is the Dalai Lama. Pico Iyer’s portrait shows him as a courteous old gentleman with a rich and rigorous intellectual life. Only as the hereditary spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet can he get away with practising eminently bourgeois Western virtues.