At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are “problems” created by existing institutions and that “solutions” to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals. This vision is both a vision of society and a vision of the role of intellectuals within society. In short, intellectuals have seen themselves not simply as an elite — in the passive sense in which large landowners, rentiers, or holders of various sinecures might qualify as elites — but as an anointed elite, people with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.
John Stuart Mill, who epitomized the intellectual in many ways, expressed this view explicitly, when he said that the “present wretched education” and “wretched social arrangements” were “the only real hindrance” to attaining general happiness among human beings. Moreover, Mill saw the intelligentsia — “the most cultivated intellects in the country,” the “thinking minds,” “the best and wisest” — as guides to a better world in their role of “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling.” This has been the role of the intelligentsia, as seen by the intelligentsia, both before and after Mill’s time — that of intellectual leaders whose deeper insights can liberate people from the needless restrictions of society.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous declaration — “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” — summarizes the heart of the vision of the anointed, that social contrivances are the root cause of human unhappiness and explain the fact that the world we see around us differs so greatly from the world that we would like to see. In this vision, oppression, poverty, injustice and war are all products of existing institutions — problems whose solutions require changing those institutions, which in turn require changing the ideas behind those institutions. In short, the ills of society are seen as ultimately an intellectual and moral problem, for which intellectuals are especially equipped to provide answers, by virtue of their greater knowledge and insight, as well as their not having vested economic interests to bias them in favor of the existing order and still the voice of conscience.
…This vision of society, in which there are many “problems” to be “solved” by applying the ideas of morally anointed intellectual elites is by no means the only vision, however much that vision may be prevalent among today’s intellectuals. A conflicting vision has co-existed for centuries — a vision in which the inherent flaws of human beings are the fundamental problem and social contrivances are simply imperfect means of trying to cope with that problem — these imperfections themselves being products of the inherent shortcomings of human beings. A classical scholar has contrasted modern visions of the anointed with “the darker picture” painted by Thucydides of “a human race that escaped chaos and barbarism by preserving with difficulty and thin layer of civilization,” based on “moderation and prudence” growing out of experience. This is a tragic vision of the human condition that is very different from the vision of the anointed.
“Solutions” are not expected by those who see many of the frustrations, ills, and anomalies of life — the tragedy of the human condition — as being due to constraints inherent in human beings, singly and collectively, and in the physical world in which they live. In contrast to the vision of today’s anointed, where existing society is discussed largely in terms of its inadequacies and the improvements the anointed have to offer, the tragic vision regards civilization itself as something that requires great and constant efforts merely to be preserved — with these efforts to be based on experience, not on “exciting” new theories.
In the tragic vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings, and civilization is simply ” a thin crust over a volcano.” This vision has few solutions to offer and many painful trade-offs to ponder. Commenting on Felix Frankfurter’s references to the success of various reforms, Oliver Wendell Holmes wanted to know what the costs — the trade-offs — were. Otherwise, while lifting up society in one respect, “how the devil can I tell whether I am not pulling it down more in some other place,” he asked. This constrained vision is thus a tragic vision — not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, but tragic in limitations that cannot be overcome merely by compassion, commitment, or other virtues which those with the vision of the anointed advocate or attribute to themselves.
In the tragic vision, social contrivances seek to restrict behavior that leads to unhappiness, even though those restrictions themselves cause a certain amount of unhappiness. It is a vision of trade-offs, rather than solutions, and a vision of wisdom distilled from the experiences of the many, rather than the brilliance of a few. The conflict between these two visions goes back for centuries.
…These opposing visions differ not only in what they believe exists and in what they think is possible, but also in what they think needs explaining. To those with the vision of the anointed, it is such evils as poverty, crime, war, and injustice which require explanation. To those with the tragic vision, it is prosperity, law, peace, and such justice as we have achieved, which require not only explanation but constant efforts, trade-offs, and sacrifices, just to maintain them at their existing levels, much less promote their enhancement over time.
…A tragic vision is a sort of zero-based vision of the world and of human beings, taking none of the benefits of civilization for granted. It does not assume that we can begin with what we already have and simply tack on improvements, without being concerned at every step with whether these innovations jeopardize the very processes and principles on which our existing level of well-being rests.