The Captive Mind, pt. 4

[part 1, part 2, part 3]

In previous posts, we’ve seen the tremendous appeal of the totalitarian ideology to the intellectual as a means of overcoming social alienation and the terrific social pressure on doubters that ensues after the ideology has become ascendant.  This ascendancy is unstable, however, because the totalitarian ideology is, ultimately, a lie.

Moreover, it is a lie that is quite often directly opposed to the work of the intellectuals themselves.  Can we truly square Plato, Confucius, Jane Austen with the ideology?  What can it mean to study these figures through a lens expressly hostile to their deepest convictions?  Or, to move beyond specifics, how can we pursue the truth through the means of a truth-denying lie?

The success of the ideology, therefore, leads to a sort of schizophrenia.  The intellectual must become double-minded, seeking truth in a conceptual framework that denies the existence of truth (implicitly or explicitly).  Double-mindedness manifests in a deep-seated anxiety:

A patient has a hard time, however, when the moment comes for him to swallow the [ideology] in its entirety. He becomes such a nervous wreck that he may actually fall ill.

The Captive Mind, 17

There’s a marked unhealthiness, mental and physical, to the intellectual world.  Interestingly, Milosz suggests that guilt is at the root of much of this anxiety, something I had not considered previously, but fits with the alienation between the Procrustean bed of theory and actual objects of study, the mutilation necessary to make reality “fit” the ideology.  There’s an awareness that something real, beautiful, and meaningful is being destroyed/lost in this process.  Since we crave reality, beauty, and truth this loss is deeply upsetting, even if only subconsciously.  Intellectual life is thus pervaded by a mournfulness for what was and what could be.

The result is acedia, that most besetting of modern sins.  Milosz doesn’t actually use the term, but it’s quite obvious that’s what he’s talking about:

The one thing that seems to deny the perfection of [the totalitarian ideology] is the apathy that is born in people, and that lives on in spite of their feverish activity. It is hard to define, and at times one might suppose it to be a mere optical illusion..Yet there is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate of such cities as Warsaw or Prague

The Captive Mind, 23-4

Apathy and torpor, despite frenetic activity, with an accompanying despair of any possibility for meaningful change.  As a result, we’re miserable, no matter how fancy our offices, how lush the campus, how privileged the position we hold:

Whatever we may call it, this much is certain; if Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.

The Captive Mind, 24

In the face of this misery, it takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the ideology, to buttress social pressures, to assuage misgivings with material comforts, to punish dissenters.  There comes a point where maintenance costs become untenable, where they system becomes deeply fragile and unable to respond to crisis without huge expenditures, expenditures which deplete the ability of the system to respond to subsequent crises and even to day-to-day stresses.  Increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to quash dissent and enforce intellectual hegemony are a symptom of what is likely an irrevocable decline.  Ketman proliferates.  Ideological collapse is imminent.

The sheer mass of machinery required to maintain the ideology is the greatest sign of its weakness.  The apathy and despair of the majority is to the advantage of the reformer.  To cast off the ideology is simpler than it seems, though not easy (like all good things).  One simply must have the will, the courage, to do so.  The true enemy, therefore, is not external structures or other people or even the ideology itself, but our own cowardice and torpor.  To overcome the forces Milosz so ably diagnoses, we must overcome ourselves.


The Captive Mind, pt. 3

[Part 1], [Part 2]

In the previous two posts, we’ve explored the social alienation afflicting the intellectual and the allure of the newly ascendant totalitarian ideology as a means of overcoming that alienation.  I think it’s important to note that this alienation is a very real and serious thing.  We are social beings and to be detached from society is the cause of considerable suffering.1  The intellectual does not err in seeking to become re-integrated into society, they err in that the ideology they are drawn to is wicked and false (and thus can only increase alienation in the end with a good bit of suffering on the way).  Thus, the point of Milosz’s book, and my summaries of it, is not to be cruel or act superior to the intellectual (there is considerable sympathy in the portrayals of individual artists under the Soviet regime that make up the bulk of the book), but rather to understand the complex, sobering reality of the intellectual life under totalitarianism.2

Once the ruling ideology has become dominant among the intellectual class, the pressure to conform becomes immense.  If the individual speaks out:

He would invariably be crushed by superior reasoning plus practicable threats against the future career of an undisciplined individual. Given the conditions of convincing arguments plus such threats, the necessary conversion will take place. That is mathematically certain.

The Captive Mind, 13

By “superior reasoning,” Milosz does not, I believe, mean that the Soviet ideology was in fact rationally superior to what it was supplanting, but rather that it had an answer for everything and that its supporters had a readily available stock of responses by which any challenge to the system could be disrupted and incorporated.  In other words, that any objection only serves to demonstrate 1.) the unworthiness/wickedness of the objector and 2.) the truth of the system.  This dynamic becomes self-reinforcing and moves outside the realm of ideas and into that of real-life consequences thanks to the ever-increasing control of the ideology over the means of disseminating ideas, hiring committees, media outlets, etc.:

I predict the house will burn; then I pour gasoline over the stove. The house burns; my prediction is fulfilled….I predict that a work of art incompatible with socialist realism will be worthless. Then I place the artist in conditions in which such a work is worthless. My prediction is fulfilled

The Captive Mind, 15

Thus, you end up conforming.  Although you might never truly agree with it, you give lip service to the ideology, nodding along as if you agree, while keeping your doubts hidden.  Milosz, borrowing a term from the Islamic tradition, refers to this as “ketman.”  He details a number of forms this can take, but the one most common to the Academy in my experience is the type he calls “professional”:

since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.

The Captive Mind, 69

Keep your head down, do your work, don’t rock any boats and all will be well.  The truth is, if you manage to avoid the occasionally-invisible shoals, all probably will be well.  You’ll carve out a quiet little space to be left alone and can ride out the storm.  Unless they stop leaving you alone.

We are left, therefore, with a loud and powerful group, likely the minority, that enthusiastically supports the ruling ideology, and a larger, but cowed, set that pays lip service to it, concealing disagreements behind a veil of acceptance.3  The intellectual class is converted, the dominance of the ideology appears complete.

Next, the final (?) installment: the problem is, this drives you insane and murders your soul.

1. The breakdown of social bonds, societal atomization and its attendant pathologies are perhaps the single most serious issue facing us today.

2. And perhaps to banish any idea that salvation from the totalitarian will derive from the intellectual class in their capacity as intellectuals or that they are somehow insulated from the effects of the ruling ideology by virtue of their intellect.

3. And periodically helping destroy the more courageous and outspoken challengers to the ideology, thankful that it is not them who is in the dock.  In these moments we see that ketman is not merely a survival strategy, but moral rot.

The Captive Mind, pt. 2

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.

The intellectual, being a cultured sort (and in the examples Milosz provides, being an artist himself), recognizes the essential vacuity of bourgeois arts and manners, an emptiness that is especially pronounced in the previously-diagnosed absence of a common faith.1  The intellectual, displaced from their cultural station due to the separation of intellectual pursuits from anything the average person is actually interested in, is drive into the bourgeois class and thus into this emptiness, a situation that generates considerable resentment.  But in the new world, under the new system, they get to be in charge again, to tell the bourgeois what they are allowed to enjoy and do and what art and activities, previously sanctioned, are now insufficiently revolutionary.2  Milosz:

The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of birth and death.

The Captive Mind, 11

Again, participating in the new system is a source of meaning, belonging, and social capital.  And this meaning, belonging, and status is purchased by the remaking of the world, the destruction of the old order.  Milosz sums up the mindset:

Let a new man arise, one who, instead of submitting to the world, will transform it.

The Captive Mind, 10

Here is where gnosticism enters the picture.  I use the term in the same sense as the great political philosopher Eric Voegelin, whose ideas are far to complex to easily distill in a single post.3  In brief, the gnostic thinker is dissatisfied with the situation of the world, and who wouldn’t be? It is fallen, after all.  But their reaction to this dissatisfaction is to attribute the world’s problems not to human fallibility, but to the system of the world itself.  In other words, the problem is not sin, but the order of things.  Thus, to overcome the evil of the world requires only human action, action taken to destroy the system of the world4 and usher in a more perfect system.

Milosz’s intellectual sets himself up as what Voegelin would call a gnostic prophet, the individual tasked with proclaiming the formula of transformation (a formula of destruction and renewal) to the masses.  And who wouldn’t want to be a prophet?  Much more fun than being a mere academic.

Next time: maintaining orthodoxy

1. Two points. First, you might object that modern intellectuals in fact appear quite enamored with popular culture.  Witness the enthusiasm of the “elites” for works like Harry Potter or the Disney Marvel films which can, at best, be classified as “entertaining trash.”  This doesn’t point to an error on the part of Milosz, rather it suggests that these works are themselves products of the totalitarian ideology.   Enthusiasm among intellectuals (and the hand they have in creating these works) is simply a sign that they have “bought in.”  In this view, the absurd over-enthusiasm works like these generate among the wannabe intellectual set (say, journalists) is a form of status signalling.

Second, to be fair to the intellectual, we should note that he’s correct about the cultural desolation in the absence of faith.

2.  I’m confident the reader can insert the appropriate modern condemnations.

3. I’ve long promised myself that I would similar series to the current on Voegelin.  Now, I’m promising you, dear reader.

4. Up to an including the very order of being itself.  Voegelin notes that it ultimately terminates in the murder of God.

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.