I’m by no means the go-to guy if you want to explore “the influence of the altogether neglected Samuel von Pooped on the totally forgotten Herman von Supine”, but from time to time I’m struck by how deeply some not-especially-famous writers impress their ideas, and even their prose, on others. Thanks to a fairly harmless bit of snidery by Scott Sumner, I was reminded of this passage from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction to a 1968 edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:
That those who advocate or approve the contemporary counter-revolution should interest themselves in the Reflections requires no demonstration. But why should those who oppose the contemporary counter-revolution, and the neo-conservatism which is among its more overt intellectual expressions, be invited to read this first modern counter-revolutionary manifesto?
The fact that such a question is certain to be asked is in itself indicative of a peculiar, and apparently deep-rooted, weakness in left-wing thinking. The intelligent rightist does not ask to be given reasons why he should read Marx and the Marxists. He reads them because they are important, and because they are on the other side. He learns from them and sometimes is warned by them....
The intellectual left on the other hand – though with some notable exceptions – has a strong tendency to neglect its adversaries and to dismiss even their most influential writings, unread, with a sneer. This is associated, I believe, with another pronounced tendency on the left: that which runs to misunderstanding and underestimating the forces opposed to it.
It seems that the right-wing enthusiasm for opposition research has flagged a little since O’Brien wrote those words. Ronald W. Dworkin, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute (not to be confused with legal philosopher Ronald M. Dworkin) warns his fellow conservatives against slipping into the idle habits of the left:
I believe in capitalism. Many of this journal’s readers do, too. Then why am I writing as if we can learn something from Marx?
The fact that such a question is certain to be asked is in itself indicative of weakness typically more rooted in left-wing thinking. The intelligent conservative does not ask to be given reasons why he should read Marx and the Marxists. He reads them because they are important, and because they are on the other side. He learns from them and is sometimes warned by them. The intelligent conservative makes use of Marxist insights, but for his own purposes. He learns from his adversaries about the strengths and weakness of his own position — and of theirs.
The leftist, on the other hand — though with some notable exceptions — has a strong tendency to neglect his adversaries and to dismiss even their most influential writings. Although conservatives should and do read Marx and Foucault, leftists often think they have nothing to learn from Tocqueville and Burke. Indeed, they often greet these writers with a sneer, which is why they consistently misunderstand and underestimate the forces opposed to them.
This kind of thing makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t strive for a more active role as a public intellectual. As the name of my blog indicates, I really don’t think I have any startling new insights to offer the world. Still, I have reasonably well-stocked bookshelves, internet access, and a ticket to the UCD Library. I’m confident that I could knock together a few articles on, say, the American Civil War, with style and content closely resembling Shelby Foote. Or I could offer insights into paleontology reminiscent of Stephen Jay Gould, with wonderfully apt metaphors drawn from baseball. The fact that I have never been to a baseball game, and wouldn’t know a cynodont from a triceratops anus, doesn’t seem to present any particular obstacle. The possibilities are endless. I could rework Russell or recycle Ryle. Should I offer my services to the Hudson Institute? My rates are decidedly reasonable.
(The title of this post borrows from the TLS reviewer who described O’Brien’s really excellent book, The Great Melody, as a biography of Conor Cruise O’Burke.)