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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 40, New Delhi, September 21, 2019

On the Importance of the ‘Intellectual’

Monday 23 September 2019


by Arup Maharatna

It was about twenty years ago that I got deeply struck by happening to see a printed portrait of Mahatma Gandhi just next to the picture of an India-born Miss Universe in the same page of a sixth standard school textbook. When I casually queried with my neighbours about what appeared to me to be utterly unprecedented and disproportionate, they readily provided me with its simple rationali-sation, namely, since Gandhi and Miss Universe are both ‘celebrities’ (in terms of the number of people on earth who know their names) and great ‘achievers’ (in terms of perceived high ‘score’ in the minds of masses), it should be of little surprise when both are treated at par in a school textbook. I could quickly realise that this collectively shared response of the middle-class parents marks a gigantic (albeit not random) shift of values in the direction of evaluating societal worth and merit of everything or everybody in terms of how many of entire population expressly ‘like’ them, rather than whether they turn out to be truly valuable and admirable to the judgement of a select group of distinguished persons who demonstrably possess vast erudition, sophisticated taste, and genuinely creative mind with universal humanistic values and sensibility.

Indeed, a growing cohort of influential people with high political power/positions nowadays appears to be in a habit of championing a bias for numeric strength/popularity indiscrimi-natingly in all major societal evaluations on a popularly perceived ground that this is pretty much akin to a deepening of democracy and democratisation. Notably, this lately propagated concentration on the level of numeric popularity as a key criterion for evaluations and judge-ments—even in such deeply qualitative spheres as literature, statesmanship, political philoso-phy, culture and art—happens to have a close affinity with the fundamental free enterprise market principle: the larger the size of the demand base for a product, the greater are the chances for profit/investment in its pursuit.

In a capitalist market system, a business-person’s typical question of ‘how profitable would be a particular venture?’ is almost invariably answered in terms of the perceived response to a corresponding query of ‘how many like (or would like) it’. This orientation of being obsessively favourable to ‘how many’—or numeric popularity—unsurprisingly receives instant admiration both from free enterprise marketeers as well as political activists of a democratic polity. But such a rising predomi-nance of numeric counting, its associated majoritarianism and its implicated ‘inclusivity’ —especially when it is applied indiscriminately and extensively in cultural, artistic, humanistic or analytical and such other domains innately outside the orbits of stark politics and economics —has a serious long-term fallout.

And this is an overt tendency for denigration of the minority of intellectually talented people (loosely called elite) or their activities whose prime pursuits are unalloyedly academic, creative, insightful and intellectual—albeit mostly for larger societal good. I have recently heard a State Minister denouncing the very term, intellectual, by pointing out that every-body such as even a taxi-driver needs to engage her intelligence/intellect. Almost obviously, such concerted inattention and neglect to the intellectual vis-à-vis popularity/majority feeds into—gradually but steadily—a pervasive air of mediocrity in literature, fine arts, social sciences, films and such other spheres—a trend which has a great (potential) peril from the standpoint of civilisational progression and standards. Let me explain why and how this drift is highly grievous.

There is a subtle—if not very distinct— difference between the connotations of intellect and intelligence. According to the globalised cyber dictionary, intellect is ‘the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract matters’. And intelligence connotes much broader and more generalised cognitive capability than intellect, although both pertain to overwhelming use/application of brain vis-à-vis muscle/physical power/skill. Thus, it can reasonably be postula-ted that all intelligent persons are not to be necessarily intellectual. In fact, the world is often simplistically said to be inhabited by a broad binary of human population: persons of action and persons of intellect.

Although none is dispensable in the function-ing and organising of a human society, at least three general postulates are worth noting with reference to persons of intellect. First, persons of intellect are (perhaps because of biological/genetic reasons) much scarcer than those of actions across all classes, castes, religions or culture. Second, while persons of actions are extremely useful for running and organising human society on an immediate basis, intellectual people are absolutely essential for epochal change of paradigm/ideas and/or for improvement over the existing level/quality/standard of human living and civilisation. Third, while supplies of muscle power and related routine actions/activities can be relatively readily augmented (often at will) through various means such as better discipline, reorganisation of labour and of course inventions of labour-saving technology, the intellectual resource is neither abundantly available nor can it be produced readily, mechanically or through technological innovations. It only needs to be carefully nurtured and cultivated on a longer-term basis.

This probably gets reaffirmed by the fact that the globally most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize, is meant primarily for offering a special recognition, reward and regard to the people of superb (demonstrated) intellectual power, creativity, imaginations and insights which are all crucial for constant societal striving towards a better world and higher level of civilisation. There are of course prizes of lower prestige and fame for persons of stupendous actions, admini-stration and management.

All this is not to presume that there cannot be a person of both intellect and actions, Winston Churchill and Vladimir Lenin perhaps being two dazzling examples. For that matter, even animal species too have both, but the question is one of degree, proportion and quality.

How the world would have been if it were decided to select (prospective) Nobel awardees, or for that matter the membership to most prestigious academies of the world, just in the way the entire US adult population choose their President under its avowed democracy! That the majoritarian norm of relying on mass likings is not applied to the mode and modalities of selecting Nobel awardees speaks volumes about the tremendous importance, for entire society and the world at large, of a minority of illustrious people with extraordinary creative and constructive intellectual power together with passionate concerns beyond own self, family, fame and private prosperity! It is hard to doubt that it would be highly hazardous if the values generated in common minds by an overwhelming (indiscriminating) attention on mass or majority preferences is obsessively such as to downplay the key role and value of the minority of precious intellectual minds passionately committed to creativity, societal interests and to the ideational (and hence civilizational) progression, rather than self-interest, private wealth, or even personal fame.

Let democratic politics and capitalist economics be propelled primarily by the numeric vastness of people’s preferences, without the latter intervening into the intellectual universe. Otherwise humanity is bound to witness a terrible slowdown—not as such in materials, production, consumption or wealth but in what we can summarily call level and standard of our human civilisation.

The author is the Rajiv Gandhi Chair Proffessor, University of Allahabad. He can contacted at e-mail: arupmaha[at]

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