Alexander Riley, Senior Fellow, The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), takes aim at academics who get paid, like himself, to think for a living. He does not like what he sees. In the February 2024 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, he asks, “What’s Wrong with the Intellectuals?”
Dr. Riley, professor of sociology at Bucknell University, posits that intellectuals in our society have increasingly installed ideology into curriculum for an open-ended search for the truth. Ideology substitutes what constitutes the truth for the necessary tools to allow persons to search for the truth themselves. Quietly, they deny the existence of truth altogether or, at least, in the process that leads to what the truth is not.
The dilemma, he observes, is that we need intellectuals to guide us. But there is shrinking evidence that the post-modern intellectual’s “greater immersion in the world of abstraction and ideas will lead him to a position of greater wisdom than the average citizen.”
Dr. Riley characterizes the current crop of intellectuals as “remarkably monolithic in their values and politics,” notwithstanding their professed “diversity.” They display “alienation, aggressive secularism, progressive politics, and overweening self-confidence…. The intellectual classes are also alienated from the society surrounding them and from many of its core values.” They fancy that they are the true cosmopolitans in that they are fixed “to no place and no one in particular.”
Post-modern intellectuals wed themselves to secular religions or transcendent values such as Marxism rather than reverence or obedience to a particular deity worshipped by their ancestors. “Because of their abstraction from real life, intellectuals are more prone to utopian and overly abstract, rationalistic thinking than other social groups.” In part, their alienation stems from a society that has failed to award them commensurately for their services. They grossly distort “their value and contributions to the world.”
Dr. Riley uses the German philosopher Eric Voegelin’s essay about the Gnostics, a sect that came to the fore in the Greek and Roman world after the first century A.D., to highlight the new post-modern Gnosticism. The Gnostic insists, remarks Riley, that the world “can be fixed by an elite graced with esoteric knowledge accumulated through ascetic study.” Utopian perfection, proclaims the Gnostic, can be achieved in this world. The damage they are doing to tradition and heritage only redoubles their efforts to make the world anew.
The post-modern Gnostics’ “millenarianist project proceeds apace in American higher education and other sites of the elite culture.” Mores the pity.