On Intellectual Perversity…

Ours is an age in which a measure of social status has been attached to intellectual perversity ā€“ that is, the desire or compulsion to oppose what is orthodox in the world of ideas. Enlightenment philosophes challenged the bishops and aristocrats of an older Europe, and their heretical spirit is idealised in the presumption that that which has been established deserves to be undermined.

Such a spirit animated cultural revolutionaries of modern times, who delighted in confronting the established values of moral, social and economic life. Their success, in all but the financial sphere, has been so comprehensive that their beliefs have themselves become orthodox. Denial of their own status has become commonplace, as their egos depend on seeing themselves as dissidents. Others find new extremes of liberalism to advance, like pioneers whose final destination is always beyond them.

Here and there, in marginal communities, the perverse spirit has begun to turn against its former representatives. What once were rebellious notions have become sacred values, and new heretics promote old orthodoxies as dissident insights.

I intend not to judge particular ideas but to comment on the nature of the perverse spirit. It can be of value when lies are established as truths, and when elites operate against the interests of societies, but it is an ally of convenience. Popper observed that revolutions end with conflict among revolutionaries, as amid the ashes of old institutions the combative instincts that inspired them have yet to be exhausted. Similarly, in the rubble of an old idea the perverse spirit will attack the thoughts that one attempts to build.

One must also restrain the perverse spirit in oneself. It seeks what is novel and transgressive, often disregarding whether it is true or false and valuable or corrupt. It can also inspire conceit. In times of aspirational individualism many of us like to think that we, among few others or on our own initiative, are capable of finding and accepting the truth. It can be so! Yet it is more often the case that people of our times or of societies whose wisdom we have inherited have found truths before us. One can question them, of course, but with humility that recognises the limits of one’s own brain against the scale of their collective consciousness.

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