Quote of the Day: Intellectuals Should Make It Harder for Politicians to Sleep

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In doing so, Julian Benda thought they could slightly reduce the amount of evil done in the world.

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"Ideally, politicians and soldiers do what they have to do here and now, and intellectuals from their distant perspective denounce them when what they do is wrong. Intellectuals can't prevent politicians and soldiers 'from filling all history with the noise of their hatred and their slaughters,' but they can prevent them 'from thinking themselves great men as they carry out these activities.' This is what the survival of civilization requires: not that evil is forbidden or forgone but that it is known to be evil, so that even when morality is violated, 'moral notions remain intact.'

"False intellectuals... locate themselves within the real world; they share in its passions; and they invest those passions with the authority of mind and spirit. They moralize politics, not in the sense of making it moral but rather in the sense in which we speak of someone rationalizing his actions or his interests, that is, justifying them with a show of reason. So false intellectuals lend to politics the aura of morality and teach politicians not so much to do evil (for the necessity of that they understand well enough) as to think it good. And then the evil they do is so much worse, for it is entered into with enthusiasm and pursued systematically-pursued with a clear conscience, without the doubts, hesitations, and sleepless nights that are the only useful contributions that intellectuals make to the men and women who inhabit the realm of the real." 


-- Michael Walzer, describing the views of Julian Benda in The Company of Critics

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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