I still like Christopher Hitchens. No, really, I do, and I say that despite disagreeing with almost all of his opinions: the one-size-fits-all liberal internationalism; the reckless interventionism; the dogmatic atheism and the socialist nostalgia. I say that despite disliking his rhetorical style: the sweeping divisions of the world into good and evil; the reduction of events to intellectual disputes; the aggressive urge to discredit his opponents and the moralising of what should be pragmatic concerns. Dullards of the left think that he became a conservative but while his revolutionary instincts changed allegiances from the proletariat to the Pentagon they were always bent on dragging the world into a progressive age by sheer force of will. In all its manifestations this is a destructive impulse.
Despite all that I remember him with fondness. Opening the websites of what pass as newspapers, and reading the shrill, insipid, derivative sloganeering one expects from unlettered ideologues with Twitter followings, one cannot help but miss the cheerful wit; the glowing style; the inspirational energy; the love of literature and the disdain for cultural fashions. Would he have let slap-faced marketing graduates reduce him to mere Facebook fodder? Would he have dirtied his suits in identity politicking? Would he have obeyed the linguistic purity police?
He appealed on the same grounds as an iconoclastic opinion commentator of the past: not his beloved Orwell, no, but H.L. Mencken. Hitchens was an idealist and Mencken a cynic but they had much in common: stylistic flair; rhetorical bombast; assertive atheism; literary passions; hatred for puritans and pedants and the air of being the last sane man on Earth. To their readers, these men were intellectual outlaws; standing up for truth and freedom against ochlocratic obscurantists and corrupt authorities.
Yet their intellectual and outlaw status can be challenged. Both men were polemicists rather than scholars: unleashing a rhetorical blitzkrieg of jokes, insults and assertions that could overwhelm the mind without being supported by factual rigour and logical coherence. (David Bentley Hart on Hitchens’ secularism, for example, was as damning as Ronald Knox had been on Mencken’s many years before.)
Both men were less outre in their opinions than one might have thought. It is easy to observe that Hitchens took a radical stance in favour of the world’s largest military power against a few stale old leftists but nor was his antitheism the bold stance that it appeared. Religion had been unfashionable in the dining rooms of the elite when Mencken held his pen and was downright eccentric when Hitchens wielded his. Railing against believers, moralists and quacks, they rode progressive trends across the bodies of tradition. Hitchens was unusually blunt in his assessment of Islam but then attached his diagnoses to the fashionably optimistic and fantastically ill-founded prescription of imperial reform. Mencken’s social Darwinism appears radical today but was much less so when everyone and their mothers entertained the idea of eugenics. Both men – at least, in Mencken’s case, until he attacked the New Deal and opposed war with Germany – were fabulously popular and fairly influential.
I compare two such men across such a space of time to illustrate the point that intellectual outlawism has long been a pose rather than a principle. It must be clear that standing out from crowds is not essentially virtuous. Often crowds know what is good and true and the ubiquity of their standards reflects their merits. Yet sometimes perversions of facts, logic and morals are unduly elevated to the status of cultural norms and intelligent, honest and good people are excluded to the fringes of their societies. How should they conduct themselves?
An intellectual outlaw, or a person who imagines themselves to be one, should have a keen-eyed awareness of the differences between themselves and their societies. If in fact one’s opinions are uncontroversial one should drop self-mythologisation as an indulgent excess. If one is radically distinct from prevailing norms one should be clear of which they are lest one’s confrontations victimise blameless bystanders.
Scorned and marginalised, a true intellectual outlaw would have to be a tough recluse or a real masochist to enjoy their position. Finding their values unpopular and their truths rejected they should also mourn the conditions of their societies. One should not wish to be intellectual outlaw. It should be forced upon oneself.
Even if they are entirely alone in their beliefs, intellectual outlaws shout be situated within traditions. All valid philosophy and valuable art can now be built around and up from that which our ancestors established and if one’s ideas cannot rest in the foundations of the past they will be too unstable to endure. (Besides, few men are more slavish to their influences than those men who fail to acknowledge them.) One might as well add that such influences should be actual influences and not historical ballast around one’s ideas. One should not claim to speak, write or act in the traditions of Jesus Christ, the Buddha or George Orwell, for example, if one can think of no point and which one’s thoughts and attitudes align with their ideas beyond scattered sentences.
An intellectual outlaw should be loyal to something greater than themselves. Contemptuous as they might be towards the ruling customs of a time and place they should respect something beyond their own self-interest. If one is not even a servant of the truth one is no more than a cultural bandit and should not complain about being hunted by a posse.
Scepticism is the most important duty of the intellectual outlaw – a practice that depends on the virtue of being humble. One should temper romantic illusions of independence and rebellion with awareness that an outlaw can turn into or turn out to be a miserable loner or a common crook.