In his article titled “The Role of the Public Intellectual,” MIT physicist and author Alan Lightman describes different types and responsibilities of intellectuals. There is Emerson’s intellectual, someone who preserves, creates and communicates ideas to the public and acts as the “world’s eye”. One does this out of obligation to themselves in the goal of becoming a whole person.
There is Said’s intellectual, someone who advances human knowledge and freedom while disrupting the status quo. Said’s intellectual is both outside and inside of society, balancing their private and public life. They have to be true to personal principles while ensuring that their work has relevance to the needs of society.
Lightman also describes a three levelled hierarchy of public intellectuals. The first level is that of the specialist who develops and communicates ideas within their specific field. The second is that of the specialist who connects their specialty to the wider issues of society. Finally, the third level is that of becoming a symbol of something that connects with all issues of humanity.
I’m sure you’ve heard this mantra many times, but I will chant it again here: If you want to change the world, one of the most effective ways of doing that is changing how people think about it. Not by any authoritarian top-down approach of course (that tends to lead straight to the gulag and usually fails in the end) but rather by genuinely convincing people that your ideas will actually make their lives better. All this requires a great diversity of both competing and cooperating ideas, much like in the case of natural selection of organic life.
Every totalitarian system, whatever its form, seeks to have maximum control over the minds of its subjects. Every totalitarian system knows full well the political power of a liberated imagination. Methods of control can vary anywhere from banning books depicting non-government approved fictional worlds to murdering apostates, girls seeking education, and now cartoonists. It is therefore the free exchange of ideas that is one of the most foundational pillars of a civil society and democracy, and one of the most powerful shields against tyranny. Wherever tyranny reigns, the pen (or the paint brush, or the camera) is silent.
Keep in mind too Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in all this. It’s very hard to contemplate the nature of distant galaxies when your stomach is empty and you fear for your life every waking second. What I am describing requires first a bottom up process of securing basic material, and the social and psychological needs of human beings. The mind can venture far only when the body is secure.
And so here you are, my blossoming thinker, studying at Trent University in O Canada, an astounding privilege. You’re aspiring to save the world, or at least make it a little less awful for the unfortunate souls stuck in it. Or maybe you’re here hoping to make lots of money one day, or striving for world domination. Or all of the above? Whatever your case, I want to share with you these words that the brilliant Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky gave to his students at their graduation ceremony:
You guys, as of tomorrow around noon, are officially educated. And as part of your education, what has happened is that you’ve learned something about the ways of the world, how things work. You’ve learned the word ‘real-politik,’ you’ve had your eyes opened up, you’ve wised up. And one of the things that happens when you’ve wised up enough is that there is a very clear conclusion that you have to reach after a while, which is that at the end of the day, it is really impossible for one person to make a difference. And thus, the more clearly, absolutely, utterly, irrevocably, unchangeably clear it is that it’s impossible for you to make a difference and make the world better, the more you must. You guys are educated, you are privileged, you are well connected, you are enormously lucky if you’re sitting here at this juncture, and thus what that means is that there is nobody out there who is in a better position to be able to sustain a contradiction like this your entire life and use it as a moral imperative. So do it, and good luck, and have good lives in the process.
As for sticking out at parties like a sore pimple, and all the social awkwardness, introversion, and desire for solitude that often accompanies our tendency to ruminate, heed these words of science historian and three time Pulitzer Prize nominee James Gleick who has studied the lives of many great scientists. Talking about the common character traits of scientific geniuses, he tells us that “when it came time to make the great discoveries of science, he was alone in his head. Now, when I say he, I mean both Feynman and Newton, and this applies, also, I think, to the geniuses that I write about in The Information, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Ada Byron. They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp, a kind of passion for abstraction that doesn’t lend itself to easy communication.”
So if you’re ever feeling that you’re not living up to the image of the super-smooth hyper-extraverted ‘kool’ portrayed in beer commercials, remember that being ‘kool’ is for idiots, basically.
In closing, I want to say that what I really hope to see more of in the future is increasing numbers of female leaders and pioneers of thought. Women have been making remarkable emancipatory breakthroughs in many parts of the world, including leadership in politics, sciences and arts. The battle, however, has just begun. Most women in the world are still oppressed and marginalized, often in the most brutal of ways. I for one believe that the struggle for gender equality is perhaps the single most important struggle of our time, and it is only by attaining this equality that we might be able to begin properly addressing, let alone resolving, the rest of our global crises. But this is a topic for a whole other conversation.
And so my noetic comrades, on this note, be ye thoughtful, and illuminate!