We are not meant to leave things as they are; God commanded Adam and Eve to till and keep the garden and exercise dominion. Society and the soul need to be subjected to a constant, cultivating scrutiny: Are we living as we should? It’s not a question that can be easily answered, and therefore we’re duty bound to draw on all the intellectual resources at our disposal to try to formulate a humane answer, a true answer.
One crucial resource is our capacity for observation. In order to think accurately about how to live, we need detailed information about the world, fortified with nuanced observation. More powerful still is our capacity to theorize. We can formulate a concept, for example, of human motivation and behavior, developing psychological or sociological theories. In this way, we hope to see the anatomy of social reality—the muscles and bones and metabolic systems of culture.
There is nothing uniquely modern about the move toward theory and abstraction. Thucydides did not simply report on the Peloponnesian War; he analyzed motives and dissected tactics through an implicit theory of social behavior. The Book of Proverbs features the allegory of Lady Wisdom and Dame Folly, an imaginative and poetic expression of what amounts to a theory of the moral life.
However, an exaltation of theory is unique to late modern culture, and it’s what makes an intellectual an intellectual rather than what used to be called a “man of letters.” For example, Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold—two men with very different views of religion, morals, and literature—achieved a rhetorical rather than theoretical synthesis. They analyzed their experience with an integrated sensibility rather than an all-explaining system of thought. The same was true for Edmund Burke, who gave a rhetorical defense of the interplay of prejudice and tradition that he thought allows us to achieve an integrated sensibility.
Consider, by contrast, the modern intellectuals. Burke’s contemporary Jeremy Bentham was the father of utilitarianism. He had a formula with which to answer every moral, legal, and social question: the greatest good for the greatest number. The appeal is obvious. A Benhamite can go from London to Lhasa and understand everything, needing nothing but metrics of pain and pleasure to feed into the adding machine of utilitarian calculation. Johnson, Burke, and Arnold’s understanding, as conveyed through their rhetorical images, is embedded in the historical and cultural particularity of his time and place, and therefore they travel poorly.
Marxism also promises answers to all questions, and it does so with far more elaborate theoretical apparatus. This theoretical complexity has its own appeal, lending itself to scholastic arguments about how many proletarian revolutionaries can dance on the head of a bourgeois counter-revolutionary, the sorts of debates that please clever men eager to show their command of world-historical truths.
The paradigmatic twentieth-century intellectuals have been Marxists, neo-Marxists, post-Marxists, and Marxists become Neo-Conservatives. Freud and the Freudians of various stripes played a smaller but similar role. Today, what is often wrongly called conservatism tends to be dominated by an all-explaining theory of markets. In each instance, the intellectual is an intellectual because he has attained a Benthamite apotheosis. No matter the topic, he has a formula by which to answer the important questions, and all from the comfort of is study in, well, wherever.
Ortega y Gasset once wrote against the theoretical impulse: “To create a concept is to leave the world behind.” An overstatement, no doubt. Our ability to enter into abstractions and use concepts allows us to see life not just as a series of instances, but also as a web of relations. Reality has an architecture, and we benefit from discerning its structural principles.
But there is a real temptation in theory, one to be resisted. It is the temptation to become an intellectual in the modern sense of the term. We search for a magical key, a general theory, a philosopher’s stone of the intellect that will turn the vast heterogeneity of life into the filigreed gold of a comprehended coherence. We hope for vision that will give us mastery, and through mastery release, release from the need to return again and again and again to the question of how to live.
I don’t think we can underestimate the power this temptation today. It is easy to become an intellectual, someone intoxicated with the promise of theory and addicted to vain images of its triumph.
Indeed, by my reckoning, modernity as a whole is characterized primarily by thirst for answers that will put an end to the agonies of our always unfolding responsibilities, duties and obligations that take on flesh in the concrete particularity of life. We want justice without virtue, a better world by formula rather than one sustained by irreducibly unique people whose sensibilities and desires have been painstakingly trained in relations to others.
So, yes, of course race, class, and gender—or for that matter supply and demand—as well as any number of other conceptually elaborated structures of culture and reality shape our lives. But knowing these and other aspects of the architecture of our humanity does not absorb or exhaust our responsibilities as men and women called to know and understand and live in the world.
The concrete particularity of life shimmers with the power of reality, a power that always overflows and floods our concepts with more than we can theorize, analyze, and fix with our general concepts and abstractions. We can dissect. We can organize. We can categorize. Yet as modern intellectuals we can’t get to the reality of life, especially not the reality of others and ourselves.
The fullness of reality we can only reach by abandoning ourselves to life’s particularity, allowing the truth of things—especially the truth of other human beings and our common life together—to dissect our souls. The proper word for this abandonment is love. Love works very differently from theory. It conquers the lover rather than the beloved. Love renders, and thankfully so, for truth shines from the outside.
So mark me down for love, not theory. I don’t want to live my ideas (even and perhaps especially my theological ideas) rather than my life. I hope I’m up to the task of having something intelligent to say about a wide range of issues, but not as a modern intellectual.
R.R. Reno is senior editor of First Things.