25 November 2015

The influence of intellectuals: hubris and humility

Intellectuals (and I take the term in its widest acceptance) have often believed that their ideas could change the world. Some of them, from Plato to Heidegger, tried to influence directly those in power; others hoped for a posthumous effect (or at least for cultural immortality). Criticism of this belief is as old as the belief itself and has two aspects: a pragmatic one (attempts to influence the course of history through ideas usually fail miserably) and a moral one (knowledge engenders obligations and must be used responsibly).

Elias Canetti, in his short essay The Poet’s Profession1, looks at this attitude from a very different angle: the responsibility of a writer not to humanity, but to words themselves, as tools of his trade. The true poet both understands the tremendous power of words and accepts his inability to change the world using this power.

1. In Das Gewissen der Worte [The Conscience of Words], Hanser (1975).

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