The Captive Mind, pt. 1

Over the summer, I helped teach a course on religious toleration.  Of course, we read Locke, who takes as a major conceit of his argument the position that religious belief cannot be compelled by force.  I took issue with this, as I do with a lot of Locke’s arguments.1  Primarily, I thought that Locke had not really considered the effect of what we might call “soft force” on religious belief, that people can truly be moved within a totalitarian system to alter their beliefs to (at least in part) conform with the reigning standard.

Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind is a study of precisely this phenomenon, specifically focused on the mentality of artists in Poland following the Soviet conquest.  The power of this book does not merely lie in the fact that it allows us to score points against Locke,2 but that it addresses the powerful question of how artists, ostensible free-thinking intellectuals, could become “suckered” into accepting and even advocating the ideals of a totalitarian society, ideals which run radically counter to the ideals these artists had previously championed or even destroy the very notion of art itself.3

It’s an important subject, because I believe we can see much of what Milosz diagnoses in “intellectual” society today, particularly in academia.  Thus, I thought it would be worth hitting a few of his major points.  You should really read the book, it’s excellent.

Milosz begins with the deep background to the problem.  Namely, the destruction of religion as a dominant force,4 particularly in art (and, we might add, in the academy).  Due to the lack of religion that unites the intellectual with the common people there:

arises the painful sense of detachment or abstraction that oppresses the “creators of culture.” Religion has been replaced by philosophy, which, however, has strayed into spheres increasingly less accessible to the layman…Music, painting, and poetry become something completely foreign to the great majority of people.

The Captive Mind, 7-8

One only needs to spend about 15 seconds looking around a modern art gallery to see the truth of this.

The intellectual has thus become alienated from society, a place no one wants to be and the intellectual least of all.  He needs his work to be important, else he has no reason for being.  Witness reactions to complaints about the uselessness of much academic research typically lobbed by conservatives.  They strike home, trust me.  Enter the new system, the new society.  Here, the intellectual’s work has meaning again, it is relevant:

The intellectual has once more become useful…He has been restored to society, whereas the businessman, aristocrats, and tradespeople who once considered him a harmless blunderer have now been dispossessed…We must not oversimplify, however, the gratifications of personal ambition; they are merely the outward and visible signs of social usefulness, symbols of a recognition that strengthens the intellectual’s feeling of belonging.

The Captive Mind, 9

Now, all of a sudden, that theory-ridden monograph on 15th century trade networks isn’t worthless (and, more importantly, all those hours spent reading becoming so theory-laden in the library).  No, not worthless at all.  The intellectual has a purpose.  He’s on the vanguard, a force of transformation, and the question of whether that transformation is for good slips away.  It must be good, because the past was bad,5 else how could the intellectual have ended up so alienated in the first place?  Thus, temptation.

Next time: Gnosticism!

1. Locke’s arguments are shockingly bad.  To his credit, sort of, Locke himself seems to pull back from this specific position over the course of his debate with Proast

2. Really, to pick on Locke is like being cruel to a child.  His ideal is impossible and incoherent and his arguments terrible.

3. To say nothing of human nature, etc.

4. Worth noting that Solzhenitsyn made the same diagnosis in his famous Templeton Address.

5. This principle must be defended at all costs.

3 responses to “The Captive Mind, pt. 1”

  1. […] When we last left the intellectual, he found himself increasingly drawn to the ruling ideology as a means of overcoming his alienation and general uselessness to the prevailing culture.  In the new world of theory, the intellectual is not merely useful, but essential and superior.   Alongside this attraction, Milosz identifies another form of alienation and concomitant resentment that draws the intellectual to the totalitarian ideology: his disdain for bourgeois culture. […]

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