The Role of The Intellectual in Society
An intellectual’ is a person who has developed his brain and concerns himself with new ideas and thoughts through his writings and speeches. He often frowns upon the existing order of things. He expresses himself fearlessly and sticks to his guns. Volte-face is unbearable to him.. Capital punishment or prosecution does not agonies intellectuals. We are reminded of Socrates and Thomas Paine. More often than not, an intellectual does not attach any importance to wealth or position in society.
When we think of intellectuals, the name that comes first to our minds is Socrates, who had to face martyrdom simply because of the fact that he had spoken against the evils of his day. He was a great seeker after truth. He regarded wisdom as the greatest wealth. The Athenian Society could not forgive him for challenging their age-old beliefs. Ile was accused of not worshipping the gods and of corrupting the youth. The court found him guilty and he was condemned to death. His friends advised him to escape but he refused to do so. He wanted to die as a law-abiding Athenian. His manner and language were noble and fearless even in the hour of death. For Socrates, knowledge was virtue and ignorance was vice. He felt that “an uncriticised life is not worth living”. He said truth is beautiful and enduring. According to Will Durant, Socrates felt himself rich in poverty and was a model of moderation and self-control. Plato said that he was the wisest, justest and the best of all the men whom he had ever known. His contribution to philosophy is very great.
Spinoza, one of the great philosophers on the continent, questioned what the religious authorities had taught. He was summoned to appear before the authorities. He was asked to defend himself. He denied the accusation and tried-to explain many things in scriptures, which had been wrongly interpreted by the Jewish religious authorities. He was excommunicated. When his life was threatened, he took refuge with a Dutch physician. He was in indigent circumstances, but eked out his livelihood by honest toil. He believed that all evils were the result of man’s ignorance. He had no or animosity towards anyone who spread evil rumours about him. The greatness of his moral teachings has been recognised by the world, though the orthodox society of his day viewed him with hatted-and suspicion.
Rousseau was a writer of great intellectual excellence.He lived a vagrant life. Many of the basic ideas in” modern, democracy, such as universal justice through equality before law, a more equitable distribution of wealth, the definition of government as fundamentally a matter of contract, providing for the exercise of power in accordance with the ‘general will’ for the common good by the consent of the citizens as a whole in whom sovereignty ultimately resides, etc. were propagated by him. He preached the recognition of man’s true nature and expressed his strong protest against the indifference to human misery shown by the feudal aristocrats of his age. This led to the initiation of a theory of the rights of all men. “No citizen should be rich enough to buy another and none so’ poor that he is obliged to sell himself,” is one of the declarations of the Social Contract. Its opening sentence is “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. “In Voltaire,” said Goethe, “we see the end of a orld, a in Rousseau the beginning of new one.”
There were several intellectuals in the Victorian era, who.raised their stentorian voice against the evils that had spread as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The contribution made by Ruskin deserves special mention. The ugliness of the industrial system and the selfishness of its economics repelled him. He wanted to bring about a thorough change in the production and distribution of wealth. His sharp criticism of the Victorian society which he regarded as immoral in its acquisitiveness, materialism and exploitation, pooh-poohed his contemporaries. But they made headway later, though not always-in the forms-which he might have approved. “No writer in Victorian times,” said Compton Rickett, “did more than Ruskin to draw attention to the terrible wastage going on in the social organism…. and to stir the individual to more serious effort in the cause of human brotherhood not in the spirit of condescending charity, but in the saner and ample spirit of-common justice.”
Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell were two great intellectuals of the last century. Shaw, to quote A.C. Ward, , “behaved consciously as a mountebank, employing the weapons of laughter and ridicule to attack bad housing, bad education, bad conditions of labour, bad morals and other social evils…” Russell had to suffer a lot for his pacifist views. His compatriots called him a traitor. All the same, he remained a conscientious objector. He was a great humanitarian who used all his erudition to bring home to the people the terrible destructiveness of a nuclear war and the necessity of scientific temper.
Intellectuals have helped us greatly to pull ourselves out of the rut of conventions, customs and superstitious beliefs and other evils that- impeded human progress. Mankind would have been poorer indeed had not they lighted their torches of wisdom, rationality and human goodness.