Political Sociology: A Reader

By S. N. Eisenstadt | Go to book overview

65
The Intellectuals and the Powers: Some
Perspectives for Comparative Analysis

Edward A. Shils


Laity and Intellectuals

In religion, in art, in all spheres of culture and politics, the mass of mankind in all hitherto known societies have not, except for transitory interludes, been preoccupied with the attainment of an immediate contact with the ultimate principles implicit in their beliefs and standards. The directly gratifying ends of particular actions, the exigencies of situations, considerations of individual and familial advantage, concrete moral maxims, concrete prescriptions and prohibitions, preponderate in the conduct of the majority of persons in most societies, large and small. The systemic coherence and the deeper and more general ground of beliefs and standards only intermittently hold their attention and touch on their passions. Ordinary life in every society is characterized by an unequal intensity of attachment to ultimate values, be they cognitive, moral, or aesthetic, and an unequal intensity of the need for coherence. Ordinary life shuns rigorous definition and consistent adherence to traditional or rational rules, and it has no need for continuous contact with the sacred. Ordinary life is slovenly, full of compromise and improvisation; it goes on in the "here and now."

In every society, however, there are some persons with an unusual sensitivity to the sacred, an uncommon reflectiveness about the nature of their universe, and the rules which govern their society. There is in every society a minority of persons who, more than the ordinary run of their fellow-men, are enquiring, and desirous of being in frequent communication with symbols which are more general than the immediate concrete situations of everyday life, and remote in their reference in both time and space. In this minority, there is a need to externalize this quest in oral and written discourse, in poetic or plastic

expression, in historical reminiscence or writing, in ritual performance and acts of worship. This interior need to penetrate beyond the screen of immediate concrete experience marks the existence of the intellectuals in every society. The moral and intellectual unity of a society, which in the size of its population and its territory goes beyond what any one man can know from his average first-hand experience, and which brings him into contact with persons outside his kinship group, depends on such intellectual institutions as schools, churches, newspapers, and similar structures. Through these, ordinary persons, in childhood, youth, or adulthood, enter into contact, however extensive, with those who are most familiar with the existing body of cultural values. By means of preaching, teaching, and writing, intellectuals infuse into sections of the population which are intellectual neither by inner vocation nor by social role, a perceptiveness and an imagery which they would otherwise lack. By the provision of such techniques as reading and writing and calculation, they enable the laity to enter into a wider universe. The creation of nations out of tribes, in early modern times in Europe and in contemporary Asia and Africa, is the work of intellectuals, just as the formation of the American nation out of diverse ethnic groups is the achievement of teachers, clergymen, and journalists. The legitimation of the reigning authority is naturally a function of many factors, including the tendencies within a population towards a submission to and rejection of authority, the effectiveness of the authority in maintaining order, in showing strength and dispensing a semblance of justice. The legitimacy of authority is however a function of what its subjects believe about it; beliefs about authority are far from resting entirely on first-hand experience, and much of what is believed beyond first-hand experience is the product of traditions and teachings which are the gradually accumulated and attenuated product of the activities of intellectuals.

____________________
From Edward A. Shils, "The Intellectuals and the Powers: Some Perspectives for Comparative Analysis," Comparative Studies in Society and History, I, No. 1 (1958), 5, 7-11, 21-22. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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