Essays Gathered to Celebrate, Lament Modern Intellectual rigors.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 6, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Essays Gathered to Celebrate, Lament Modern Intellectual rigors.(BOOKS)


Byline: Lee Congdon, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As a general rule, book editors show little enthusiasm for collections of the occasional essays. Even if well written, they are likely to seem dated and to lack a unifying theme. When, however, they come from the pen of a writer as practiced as Roger Kimball, they can retain their freshness and exhibit a satisfying coherence. Mr. Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion, a monthly review in the tradition of T. S. Eliot's Criterion, and so dedicated to the uncertain survival of high culture.

Broadly and well educated, Mr. Kimball writes with insight and verve on a remarkably wide range of artistic, literary, and philosophical matters while taking the role and record of modern intellectuals as his special province. Most of the essays gathered here were prompted by new publications, but they offer extended reflections on famous and undeservedly neglected "lives of the mind."

The guiding theme of "Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse," Mr. Kimball tells us, is that intelligence may be abused as well as used to good purpose. Like the rather obscure Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-94), whom he greatly admires, he thinks that the abuse of intelligence is almost always a result of some defect in character. Like Stove too, he is, as readers of an earlier work, "Tenured Radicals," know, at his best when on the attack.

Although not always entirely fair; for example, Mr. Kimball makes mincemeat of Georg Hegel and other "academic professors of philosophy" whose livelihood "is bound up with verbal legerdemain." Naturally, then, he thinks highly of Soren Kierkegaard's famous attack on Hegelianism, his use of intelligence to battle overweening intelligence. At the same time, however, he sees weakness of character in the way SK nursed his melancholy. W.H. Auden was right, he believes, that one searches the gloomy existentialist's writings in vain for any recognition that "whatever sorrows and sufferings a man may have to endure, it is nevertheless, a miraculous blessing to be alive."

Something similar might be said of Bertrand Russell's oeuvre. Certainly no one who has read Ray Monk's two-volume biography of Russell can be unaware of that brilliant mind's character flaws. Aside from an addiction to "causes," Mr. Kimball calls particular attention to what he regards as Russell's craving for disillusionment, a perverse desire he believes to be typical of the kind of intellectual who prides himself on his ability to "see through" and unmask the manners and morals that give direction to the lives of others.

Although Mr. Kimball admits to being an "intellectual pathologist," he does not overlook those who in his judgement have turned intelligence to good account, those who possess common sense because they maintain a "healthy contact with reality." He praises Raymond Aron, for example, as one who upheld common sense at a time in French history when it was in short supply, the postwar period when Jean-Paul Sartre ad Maurice Merleau-Ponty employed Hegel's (Karl Marx's) dialectic to prove that humanism, rightly understood, was Soviet terror.

In Alexis de Tocqueville, Aron's master, Mr. Kimball sees the incarnation of that conservative liberalism to which he himself inclines.

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