Celebrate Civilisation in All Its Precariousness

‘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’

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.

Dr Jerald Block’s analysis of computer addiction points towards a different but related danger. The seductiveness of the virtual world depends on addicts glorying in their isolation – a solitary revolt against society that may become pathological. It is as if Westerners were retreating into a fantasy world rather than face the real one.

So let us celebrate our civilisation in all its precariousness. For a contemporary monument to an intellectual hero of the Enlightenment, consider Alexander Stoddart’s brooding bronze of Adam Smith, just erected in Edinburgh and featured here. Or turn to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s diaries, where he recounts his anticlimactic return after investigating the last days of Hitler in 1945-46. He is, however, reconciled to Oxford – a convivial, if philistine, branch of civilisation that is still visible today in John Fuller’s Toast to James Fenton. This fine example of occasional verse offers a bravura tribute by one poetic virtuoso to another – using the word both in its modern sense of technique and its older sense of connoisseurship.

This convivial (though not bibulous) spirit is apparent also throughout the Dialogue between Simon Gray and Charles Spencer. They see the theatre as part of social rather than intellectual life, but playwright and critic deplore the timidity of the dramatic establishment. Gray castigates the “very easy sort of liberalism” that is “fearless in attacking Christianity” but dares not deal with Islamism. Trilling would have agreed – but his kind of liberalism is now an endangered species.

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