Monday 4 January 2016

Why are so many clever and creative people so fundamentally wrong? Unask the question: the proper question is to ask why they are motivated to expend such effort on propagating their wrongness

So many of the cleverest and most creative people nowadays are wrong about the most fundamental things that it is tempting (and I have in the past responded to that temptation) to try and explain why the intellectual elites are so very wrong about almost everything.

But I now see that this question falsely assumes that we should expect clever and creative people - I mean people such as writers, artists, musicians, performers, directors and actors, scientists, philosophers, academics, lawyers, theologians... - to be correct about fundamental things, or at least more likely to be correct than the average person.

Yet there is no reason to assume that clever and creative people are correct about fundamental things - since there is zero evidence to suggest or support that idea.

Clever and creative people have no greater insight into fundamental truths than anybody else; probably because fundamental truths are precisely what a person does not need to be clever in order to understand.

Therefore, the proper assumption should be that the intellectual elites are simply part of the modern cultural mainstream, just like (almost) everyone else.


When it comes to culture, clever and creative people are passive absorbers; just like almost everybody else.

This means that in a Good or insightful culture, the intellectual elite's work will be Good and insightful; but in an evil and deluded culture, such as the modern secular West - then the clever and creative people will (almost all of them) peddle evil and delusions.

(Why not? In the modern West, most of the dumb and unimaginative people also peddle evil and delusions, just like the intellectual elite - it is just that dumb people aren't very good at it.)


But the interesting aspect is that when the mainstream culture is as shallow, insufficient and incoherent as ours is; then the intellectual elite are galvanised to greater energies.

The elites lack any special insight, therefore they absorb as axiomatic whatever culture feeds to them; but they are clever enough to perceive that it does not make sense.


However, this shallow, insufficient incoherence of what they passively regard as axiomatically true; does not lead elites to reject the mainstream culture but instead to redouble their efforts to make sense of it.

Hence the vast outpourings of silly-cleverness and evil-propagating creativity which characterise the modern mainstream mass media culture: this is the sound of an intellectual elite doubling-down on wicked nonsense.


Note: This is, of course, almost the opposite of how the intellectual elite would like to see themselves.

When Shelly described 'poets' (implicitly the intellectual elite) as the 'unacknowledged legislators' of the world; he was fuelling this elite fantasy that culture is created and shaped by clever and creative people such as themselves - who are the only 'real' agents who lead change, while the masses merely follow where the 'poets' lead.

But if clever creative people are merely parroting, but not devising, their fundamental assumptions; then such 'poets' are redefined as merely diligent administrators: bureaucrats who operationalise and implement principles derived from elsewhere.

This seems obviously correct, once described. The Goodness and wisdom we find expressed so perfectly in Shakespeare is really just mainstream Tudor wisdom - as revealed by the fact that it is mixed with gross Tudor errors and evils. The mainstream culture Shakespeare's era had many deep  insights into reality - although it was somewhat contradictory, as evidenced by the vicious religious wars; our modern culture is mostly composed of wicked inversions and lies, shallow distractions, superficial sensations and temporary intoxications - with only relatively few fundamental truths remaining and made explicit. 

And this is exactly the mixture (mostly wrong and silly, yet with flashes of depth and wisdom) purveyed by modern masters of their arts, and by the bulk of clever contemporary commentators.  



Leo said...

This reminds me of the lyric from Fiddler on the Roof:

And it won't make one bit of difference if i answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!

William Wildblood said...

Clever and creative people, as we understand that term nowadays, are merely intellectually so. They are no more likely than anyone else to have intuitive insight into the nature of reality. Indeed, they are rather less likely to have this as they are often blinded by their own cleverness and ego, and consequently reluctant to embrace the humble simplicity that alone brings a proper sense of the spiritual nature of things.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - I mentioned creative, because many of the people who create the best among modern mass entertainments (TV, Movies, Novels etc) are among the wrongest and most evil-promoting. This has been going on for more than a century - the 'evil genius' category would include the likes of Rousseau, Nietzsche (evil in effect, at least), Oscar Wilde, Picasso, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter (the list goes on and on - most of the highest rated creatives).

William Wildblood said...

It's quite hard to find 20th century creative people who don't fall into that category! Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, and probably many others not so well known. But there are few who have really influenced the cultural zeitgeist for the good and many who have done the precise opposite.

Imnobody said...

You can learn from reality (as in uneducated people) or you can learn from school (as in creative people).

A) In a healthy age, school is only the systematized knowledge of reality, so both methods (and both collectives) achieved truth. School --> Reality --> Truth. This was the majority of human history.

B) In a semi-healthy age, school knowledge is detached from reality and attached to false ideologies, so uneducated people were more likely to achieve truth. School --> Ideology and Reality --> Truth. For example, it takes a lot of education in sophistry to deny the obvious fact that men and women are innately different. This was the situation from the so-called Enlightenment to the mid-20th century.

C) In an unhealthy age, the senses and minds of uneducated people are distorted by mass media, separated from reality and attached to ideological slogans. So School --> Ideology and (Virtual) Reality --> Ideology. This is today's situation.

B) and C) explain why the creative people of the last centuries have mostly been wrong, wicked and destroyers of truth and beauty (Picasso's work and life are an example). But in B), society remained stable because the majority of people were rooted in truth. This disappeared when C) happened. Through mass school attendance and mass media, the elites achieved what they had failed to do for centuries: the secularization of the masses and the brain washing of these masses in a false ideology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imn - Much in this scheme (although it needs a tweak to account for the fact that school is relatively recent - I guess that most elite people had personal tutors for most of history).

ajb said...


I recently discovered that a large number of Mennonites left Canada from the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, around 1917. The reason? The federal government had brought in compulsory education legislation, and the Mennonites judged it to be incompatible with their way of life. They moved en masse to Paraguay, where there is now a large Mennonite community.

I think history strongly suggests the Mennonites were correct - compulsory education leads to far ranging changes in a society, and has proven hostile to traditional forms of thought (such as the Mennonite form of Christianity practised by those people). It is also a reminder that compulsory schooling is *recent* in the West, and that the changes in legislation to remove or lessen compulsory schooling in a country like Canada are *also* (even more) recent. A change to pre-1917 standards, with the (re-)rise of homeschooling, is a major change in society, one of which we are starting to see effects, especially in the U.S.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - The Amish also resisted compulsory education, and quite a few were imprisoned over the issue.

But I have not found this to be a subject which people can discuss reasoably - the goodness of compulsory universal and ever-extending education is not regarded as a means to some end, but as an axiomatic moral principle.

Laeeth said...

"An opportunistic infection is an infection caused by bacterial, viral, fungal, or protozoan pathogens that take advantage of a host with a weakened immune system or an altered microbiota (such as a disrupted gut flora). Many of these pathogens do not cause disease in a healthy host that has a normal immune system. A compromised immune system, however, presents an "opportunity" for the pathogen to infect."

Suppose that the unfolding of societal development exhibits natural long-term processes of growth and decay. Nobody knows what causes these on a shorter-term basis, but they seem to be somewhat intrinsic to how people behave in a group (one may observe the same patterns in a small social organisation like a local Rotary Club, as much as in a nation), and to have certain natural kinds of resonances with other things.

It's linked to what has been said by historians of science - frameworks don't change based on evidence, but because people say how about we stop talking about this, and start talking about that instead. The shift in sentiments was also something mentioned by older writers on mass psychology such as Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde.

If that's the case, then in a period of degeneration the artists and intellectuals will be rotten. The fish rots from the head. In this case they certainly haven't been doing much good. But perhaps one might consider the possibility that for the cultural situation to improve there doesn't need to be an identifiable catalyst for a change. As far as logic goes when it applies to societal change, I think it's anyway much more often not one thing, but many things coming together.

Solzhenitsyn observed that the line between good and evil passes through every human heart. And it's true, and all that we need for a renaissance is a change in the hearts of men. Perhaps this isn't so far away, or might even have begun.

If one is interested to understand this kind of change, it won't do any good to look at the reigning elites. The wisdom of Ibn Khaludn, Toynbee, and Pareto should remind us that change never comes from the centre, but from the periphery - one should look for something currently of low status and still quite unimpressive on the outside but that is beginning to get things together.

Similarly, when studying social change, one shouldn't pay attention mostly to the terrible things that may be just as one expected; one should look for small surprises favourable to the direction of the new trend. Norman Lamont was widely mocked for speaking of 'little green shoots', but that's how beginnings are (and the mocking is part of that).

Bruce is reverse-Whig, so I don't suppose he will agree with me at all. When a market makes a major top like the NASDAQ in 1999/2000, it becomes impossible to imagine the idea that things could ever be different from how they presently are, since we don't have much imagination in our age. But it couldn't have been a major top if that isn't what people believed (cf 1929).

And it's part of the nature of a major bottom (if we're at or approaching one) in civilisational flux that the masses have no idea what you are talking about (because that's part of cultural decline - not to see it as decline) and the best part will be utterly pessimistic. Yet how we feel about something today may not be the best guide to what actually happens.

Laeeth said...

"Through mass school attendance and mass media, the elites achieved what they had failed to do for centuries: the secularization of the masses and the brain washing of these masses in a false ideology."

I agree.

But I disagree with Bruce on one point, which is to think that social media (blogs, twitter, facebook, and so on) is nothing more than another division of the mass media.

It's not.

Although there are very many problems and noxious aspects of such, they do create a new channel by which the truth may make itself felt. There are threshold effects to social change and the formation of new groups, and the internet makes it very easy for unusual people, or people with unusual ideas and sentiments to find each other. Perhaps most people are happy with media-created reality, but it's not most people that matters here. Someone who observes something in their life or around them that doesn't make any sense can follow their inkling to figure out exactly what might be going on. And they may get to an only slightly less-distorted picture initially, but if they persist they will get quite far, in a way that would have been barely possible previously.

So Bruce may disagree, but I think he ought to consider the influence of social media more carefully. Most books are rubbish, but books are not rubbish.