Unreal Nature

April 8, 2017

Changing a World Based on Prejudice and Passion

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… if you can make people miserable enough, you can eventually induce them to think about the causes of their misery.

Continuing through the essay ‘Hunting the Highbrow’ by Leonard Woolf found in The Hogarth Essays (1928):

Altifrons altifrontissimus,* or the highbrow intellectual, is an animal in whom this faculty for enjoying the use of his intellect is abnormally developed. Sometimes he is content to confine the exercise of his intellect to safe subjects, and then, if his mind be of a very high order, you get a chess champion like Dr. Lasker, or a mathematician like Newton, or a philosopher like Aristotle. But there have always been a certain number of highbrows who insist upon applying the intellect to all subjects and all departments of life — and then the trouble begins.

[line break added] If you begin to think about religion, or the relation of the sexes, or the party system, or education, or patriotism, you are lost, but, what is much more serious, they are lost too. They are the superstructures of illusions and prejudices, and as soon as reason is applied to their foundations they come down with a crash.

Hence the real intellectual is deservedly one of the most unpopular animals in the world. And he is, as I said, unlike the aesthetic highbrow — a poor, soft, gentle, long-haired creature — a dangerous and savage beast. In ordinary times, it is true, we usually succeed in cutting his claws and in making him harmless. We do this by the simple method of making him ridiculous. It is not difficult to do.

… But if you can make people miserable enough, you can eventually induce them to think about the causes of their misery. The whole of history shows both that you have to make people in large bodies extraordinarily miserable before this happens and that if communal misery gets beyond a certain point it does happen. But nothing is so dangerous as thought applied to the structure of society, for once people begin to think, you let in the highbrow, and anything may happen.

It is at such periods that the intellectual highbrow becomes a powerful and dangerous animal. At the end of the eighteenth century, and again during the Great War, the sum of human misery reached the point at which quite a large number of people began to think about the causes of their misery and the political and social structure. Naturally that was the opportunity for the intellectual highbrow, who had never been doing anything else and had made himself ridiculous by doing it.

[line break added] The hunted suddenly became the hunter, and President Wilson and Lenin, two magnificent specimens of altifrons altifrontissimus, were, for the moment at least, as powerful as the Tsar, the Kaiser, M. Clemenceau, Mr. Lloyd George, or Mr. Bottomley. It is true that the moment is never a very long one. The difficulty of suddenly changing a world based on prejudice and passion into a world based on reason, the vested interests in unreason, the weight of tradition against reason and the enormous mass of people who have grown up in that tradition — all these things make it inevitable that there is a pretty rapid return to what a famous statesman called a healthy state of affairs — every one for himself and God for us all.

… One’s judgment of the intellectual highbrow must depend, I think, very much upon one’s estimate of how far and how widely it is possible that mankind may be induced to apply reason to the arrangement of their communal affairs. If human psychology is such that men in groups will never act rationally towards one another, and will allow no permanent place to reason and intellect in the practical organization of society, then the sooner altifrons altifrontissimus is exterminated the better for the world. For under such circumstances he is usually a nuisance and at times a positive curse.

[line break added] It is much better that a man be drunk all the time than that he should be sober for only a few hours once every six months, for during those few hours he will probably behave like a suicidal and homicidal maniac, whereas, if he is perpetually drunk, he will merely be asleep or soddenly stupid. So with society, the administration of minute doses of reason into its constitution is only a useless irritant, and the sudden injection every century or two of large doses completely upsets its balance. On the other hand, if there be any real possibility that man may become a rational, political, and social animal, I should be in favor of preserving and even encouraging the intellectual highbrow.

*From the first part of Woolf’s essay, in last week’s post:

1. Altifrons altifrontissimus, the original, primitive, and real highbrow or intellectual who, as Mr. Magill puts it, prefers the appeal to his intellect rather than that solely to his senses.

2. Altifrons aestheticus var. severus, the man who only likes what is best in literature, art and music, or, as Mr. Magill puts it, good stuff.

-Julie

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