2 Brains

Aristotle defined intelligence as the sum of moral virtues. By contrast, mere cleverness does not even rank as a virtue, since it contributes neither to goodness nor wisdom, and may be employed toward opposite ends.[1]   Jewish values take this further. We believe that there is no such thing as a holy book written by an unholy person. Not only must the book itself teach moral virtues, the personal example of the author must do so as well. Judged by that standard, we have a real intelligence-gap in the history of Western thought.

In 1954, William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies. In it, a group of English schoolboys are plane-crashed on an uninhabited island. They become cruel and irrational savages, even to each other.  In 1976, I had my own Lord of the Flies experience. As a South African under the Apartheid regime, military service was compulsory for white males. And so, I became an engineer in the South African army and I learned some things about life. I had what one might call a “Heart of Darkness” revelation, that the thin overlay of culture – as Joseph Conrad called it – which holds us together as civilized human beings, quickly unravels when given a chance. It was sobering to see the rapid descent of human beings into their selfish and brutal sides.  And it was shocking to see how quickly they re-acquired their good manners and kind mannerisms the moment they stepped out of camp back into civi-street.

I remember that we had to chain our laundry to the line with a lock; otherwise it would simply not be there by nightfall. I remember when the first 20 soldiers in line took all of the breakfast, leaving the others hungry. And I remember when some of “our boys” returned from the frontlines (then the Caprivi Strip of Namibia with Angola) disappointed that they had not gotten to kill a terrorist.

But that is not what was shocking. The shocker was that they “took” their moral justifications with them. They never realized that they were descending – that they were now doing wrong. They subconsciously changed their moral code to fit their declining ethical behavior.  I realized then, that if mankind was ever to be worth something, there had to be, somewhere, a moral code that was absolute through all ages and situations.

I used to rejoice every day that I continued to get upset at some of the behaviors I witnessed, because it meant that I had still maintained my sensitivity. I wanted to be as angry at the end of the year as I was at the beginning.

One of the things that kept me going was that the next year I was headed to college. As a boy from a country town in the middle of nowhere, I had idealized college and its students. I was off to the refinements of university education, where the finest minds would be accompanied by sterling character and moral fortitude.  Little did I know.

What I saw certainly represented more culture than the military barracks. But there were not more ethical people. Now, instead of stealing from clotheslines, there were students who stole telephone calls and free laundry rounds by tying a wire to what in Israel we called the Asimon, the telephone or laundry token. Sure, you didn’t get woken by some inconsiderate oaf coming off guard duty at 2 am in the morning. Now it was done with stereo speakers and good music! I knew that any of the students doing these things would plunge into moral hell, just as my fellow soldiers had. The only difference was their circumstances, not the moral fiber of their beings.

It was about this time that I started a double-thrusted research project. I was interested firstly in knowing how Jewish prisoners reacted in the Holocaust. Wasn’t that an army in-extremis? And I was interested to know how great philosophers led their personal lives. Wouldn’t that be the test of whether great minds made great souls?

I came up with so many inspiring examples of magnificent moral heroism in the Holocaust that I became convinced that Judaism really is capable of entering very deep into the soul and character of man. That is quite a story, but not one I shall expand on today.

I also came up with so many examples of shocking behavior on the part of some of the great philosophers who had shaped our Western World that I became convinced that, at best, having a great mind provided no added advantage in becoming a great person.

Today, perhaps we have already lost our sensitivity to  the statement of Socrates made at a banquet concerning a beautiful boy named Charmides[2]: ‘Ah, my noble friend, I saw inside his cloak and caught fire, and could possess myself no longer; and I thought none so wise in love matters as Cydias, who in speaking of a beautiful boy recommends someone “to beware of coming as a fawn before a lion, and being seized as his portion of flesh”; for I too felt that I has fallen a prey to some such creature.'[3]  But let us not deal with the ancients. Jean Jacques Rousseau, famous for his The Social Contract which championed the people as sovereign, engaged in petty theft at a young age.[4]  Rousseau had five children, each consigned, nameless, to a foundling hospital, which had a two-thirds death rate within one year of a child going there.   He never inquired after them again. Rousseau, whose Emile is a classic on education, explained later that they would have interfered with his work.

Human brain function grunge with gears

But it gets worse. Martin Heidegger was arguably the greatest philosopher of the existentialist movement.  But he also actively collaborated with the Nazis. In 1929, he wrote, “Either we will replenish our German spiritual life with genuine native forces and educators or we will once and for all surrender it to the growing Judaisation in a broader and narrower sense.” In 1933, Heidegger became Rector of the University of Freiburg, specifically in order to carry out the Gleichschaltung, or “bringing into line,” of the school with Hitler’s new party-state. In a speech, he told the student body that “the Führer and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law.” He purged Jewish colleagues, presided over a book-burning and began to employ his key terms — being, existence, decision — as euphemisms for nationalism and Führer-worship.[5]

After the war, Heidegger sought to minimize his own role, to imply that there was still something good at the core of Nazism, and to suggest that the Nazi atrocities were not anything very special. He described the Holocaust as just another manifestation of modern technology, like mechanized agriculture. He called the shortcomings of his rectorship utterly miniscule.[6]

Heidegger was preceded by Gottlieb Frege, (1848-1925) who, through his The Foundations of Arithmetic, created a revolution in the philosophy of mathematics. He started the philosophy of language and laid the basis of modern formal logic. Michael Dummett credits Frege, together with Wittgenstein, with ending the Cartesian period in philosophy. In his diary, Frege looked back nostalgically to his boyhood days when a law banned Jews from staying in the town overnight. He bemoaned that there were so many Jews in Germany and hoped that they would disappear. In his view, Jews should have been banned from many jobs and their civil rights curtailed.

One of the greatest of our 20th century philosophers, Bertrand Russell, led a life that was the opposite of inspiring. He was married five times. As a social commentator, Russell was capable of writing 2,000 words a day. Most of it was plain nonsense, often contradicted, with passion, the next day.[7]   Paul Johnson writes that Bertrand Russell “was perhaps the leading evangelist of anti-G-d rationalism in this century… The truth is, Russell could not devise a [humanist] alternative to G-d which convinced even himself for more than a few years.”[8]

What Russell did convince himself of was that it was his interventions that prevented the Cuban crisis from becoming a nuclear war, that he prevented war between India and China, and that it was his manifestos and urgent telegrams that were the key element in international relations.[9] The world just laughed. But they continued to worship this man who did not lift a finger, or write a word, to save the Jews from the Holocaust.[10]

Russell pinned his highest hopes on his son John, who would become his heir and disseminate his teachings. For the sake of John’s education, Russell and his wife, Dora, established a special school that would turn out a new kind of person. But when Russell separated from his wife, he was quick to use his son and daughter as pawns in a ruthless battle against Dora, who just a few years earlier had been upheld as the perfect liberated woman and life partner.  John did not emerge from this manipulation unscathed, and at the first signs of mental instability, Russell was quick to dissociate himself from the son who had failed him. He had John’s daughters removed from his custody, and one of the girls committed suicide.[11]

Frederick Nietzsche felt that “man must become better and more evil”. “Greed envy, even hatred, are indispensable items in the process of struggle selection and survival… If evil were not good, it would have disappeared. Nietzsche is consoled to find so much evil and cruelty in the world…. and he believes that our pleasure in the tragic drama, or in anything sublime, is a refined and vicarious cruelty.”[12]  Towards the end, Nietzsche, who never married, began to attack persons as well as ideas and he filled his last book, Ecce Home, with exaggerated and embarrassing self-praise.[13] Finally, he went insane from tertiary syphilis in 1899.[14]

Nietzsche argued with Schopenhauer, who claimed that the real basis of morality is compassion. Schopenhauer never showed any compassion himself when he quarreled so viciously with his own mother that she cut off all contact with him, and was charged with pushing his landlady down a flight of stairs. He delighted in skewering his opponents in print. So much for compassion.

Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find a really inspiring philosopher. Kant never got married, Jeremy Bentham was a recluse.  And Thomas Hobbes was known to be grouchy and with a temper.

What about other intellectuals, history’s greatest composers, poets and artists?

As a contributor to human accomplishment in the arts, Beethoven is unsurpassed. But he was also rude, obstinate and self-absorbed, and railed against the slightest interference. He was an arrogant man with bad character.

Richard Wagner wrote music that was “bold and boundless,” with “a hope in freedom and humanity.”[15]  But Wagner did more than anyone in the 19th century to make anti-Semitism respectable.  Eighty-three years before the Nazis came to power, Wagner published Jewishness in Music, in which he stated that there should be a cleansing of Jews from the arts.  An egotist of monstrous proportions, Wagner betrayed many of his friends and lovers, repaying kindness with outrageous abuse.[16]

What about authors?  George Eliot (1819–1880), was one of the greatest writers ever in the English language.  Lord Acton compared her to Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels alone from the ban on fiction he wished to impose on the London Library.  The assumption was that as much as any moral philosopher, the author ofMiddlemarch and Adam Bede could provide guidance on the great questions of living.[17] But Eliot’s private life was another matter. She had many affairs with married men, often in the houses where they were living with their wives.  Any criticism of her novels could render her prostrate for weeks.  Increasingly, she surrounded herself with adoring acolytes – young women whose relationships with her consisted of one act of homage after another (one of them saved a handkerchief that bore the imprint of her tears).

Saul Bellow (1915-2005), perhaps the greatest American author in modern times, divorced five times. According to his son Greg Bellow, his father engaged in “epic philandering.” His father “adopted a belief that fidelity was a bourgeois ideology,” something the young Saul Bellow, as a Trotskyite, was totally against.[18] He was known to be highly distrustful of others, and was often unkind and selfish to a significant degree.


The great British poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) would often fill vast halls for his lectures and not show up, too drunk or high on opium. For thirty years, he did not live with his wife or children, but with friends who took him in. His equal, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote a book to show how poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind” and “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.”[19] He proceeded to describe “the good man” and many of his poems call for social action. Shelley found time to denounce his entire family while at the same time writing violent and threatening letters to them trying to extract money.  The family seems to have feared his violence as well as his attempts to induce one or more of his sisters to join his bohemian life. Shelly had seven children from three women, all of whom he abandoned. He tried to get custody of the first two, but when the court turned him down, he attempted no further contact with them (or the others) in person or by letter. His treatment of the children’s mothers and other lovers brought about the suicide or the death of at least three of them.[20]

If we define the intellectual as one who is “excited by ideas” (A. Alvarez), we might begin to understand how simpler people were capable of more sturdy judgment while intellectuals got grabbed by how unusual, sophisticated, or sweeping a new idea might be.  The Nazis won the German students before they won the German state. No European country, nor even the USA, was without a form of fascist party. [21]  Italy and Spain came to be ruled by fascists as were many South American countries at one stage or another. In the 1930s, there were also quasi-fascist regimes in Portugal, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, Greece, Romania, and Japan.[22]  There were numerous pro-fascist intellectuals, including W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot (both with qualifications), Ezra Pound and Oswald Spengler, amongst others.[23] Communism did even better, and there was a real possibility that Communism would come to rule in Italy, France, and elsewhere. Before World War II, Jean Paul Sartre believed that the Soviet Union would redress the worst evils of modern industrial society. Sartre also flirted with violence. “When youth confronts the police, our job is to show that it is not only the police who are violent, but to join the youth in counter-violence.”[24] No wonder that he treated his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir, (an intellectual as great as Sartre), as a mere procuress to find him young girls. It was increasingly her own female students she provided for Sartre, some of them minors. When this got out in 1943, her license to teach anywhere in France was revoked for the rest of her life.[25]

Paul Johnson writes that “the political writings of Sartre were immensely pernicious among the French-educated leaders of the Third World in South-East Asia and North Africa. The genocidal leaders of the Pol Pot regime were in a sense Sartre’s children.”[26]

As for Communism, Georg Lukács in Hungary, and Gabriele D’Annunzio in Italy were also taken in.  In Koba the Dread, Martin Amis wonders why ”The overwhelming majority of intellectuals everywhere’’ accepted Stalin’s picture of reality. George Bernard stated that “We cannot afford to give ourselves moral airs when our most enterprising neighbor… humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful of exploiters and speculators to make the world safe for honest men.” Andre Malraux argued that “Just as the Inquisition did not affect the fundamental dignity of Christianity, so the Moscow trials have not diminished the fundamental dignity of Commons.” Brecht wrote that “the trials have clearly demonstrated the existence of active conspiracies… [committed by] all the scum… all the rabble.” The NKVD made frequent use of pro-Stalin tracts by Western intellectuals to break down the resistance of their prisoners. Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent to Moscow, stated, “I put my money on Stalin.”[27] During the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism also benefited from the corruption and public relation of Western intellectuals.[28] This list goes on and on.  Harold Laski praised Soviet prisons for enabling convicts to lead “a full and self-respecting life”.  Anna Louise Strong wrote that prisoners occasionally apply to be admitted.  And George Bernard Shaw stated that the prisoners don’t want to leave the camps after their sentence is over. At the height of the famine of 1932, Russia’s worst in history, Julian Huxley found “a level of physique and general health rather above that to be seen in England.”[29]

“There was no reasonable excuse for believing the Stalinist story. The excuses which can be advanced are irrational,”[30] writes Conquest in The Great Terror. As late as 1975, the intellectual celebrity Noam Chomsky was denying that one and a half million Cambodians had been killed by the communist takeover there, attributing the stories to Western propaganda.

Freud was outstandingly ungenerous: he denied credit to others, was intolerant of rivals, hated many people, and surrounded himself with unquestioningly loyal admirers.

The growing trend was for intellectuals to reject just those universal principles that I saw, so clearly, would have saved my army friends. Herbert Marcuse, the leading far left-wing intellectual of the 1960s, was an extreme example of this. He called for “intolerance against movements from the right, and toleration of movements from the left.”  To restore the balance between oppressors and oppressed, he argued, indoctrination of students and “deeply pervasive” censorship of oppressors would be necessary, starting in college.[31]

All of this doesn’t tell us the whole story. It leaves out the dozens of intellectuals who were ethical and kind and exemplary. But there are also many tens whose infamy we chose not to include here. There seems to be no correlation between having a brilliant mind and being a good person.

What is wrong here? Even if we were to presume that once in a blue moon a philosopher with the mind of a Plato or a Kant were to figure out a whole life system, they would hardly know how to turn this into a system of real character and personality growth.  On the other hand, the Stephen Covey-like life-coaches are light or non-existent on providing a really vigorous system of thought that we need to draw on to survive morally intact from a South African army situation, a college dorm, or even the normal vicissitudes of life. To produce a whole civilization of people who were spiritual and kind and living a meaningful existence, seems beyond the capability of the human race. A few billion people have tried figuring this out on their own, and failed.

At best, we stumble along, until every now and then, we come across an inspiring figure, like Nelson Mandela. But, there is no continuity. Mandela’s children and grandchildren are a pretty disappointing lot.  At worst, the savage within us lurks, ready to unleash itself with enormous fury.  Stalin managed to produce a population where parents denounced children and children their parents. To this day, Marxism is one of the deepest, most profound intellectual systems. It was also a disaster for mankind. To imagine that great evil takes place because, somehow, its perpetrators are unschooled and primitive, is a huge mistake. Nazism could not have taken place in a country that didn’t have the intellectual and cultural backing of a Germany.

The Jewish nation would find it intolerable to have a great sage who wasn’t also righteous in an exemplary fashion. It would simply be a contradiction we could not live with. But, make no mistake; there is no mysterious Jewish gene for righteousness. Take the Torah out of the Jew, and he will outdo his fellow intellectuals in moral debauchery. The Jewish intellectual community in NY, alienated not only from America but from Judaism, Jewishness, and the Jews, paid almost no attention to the Holocaust in the early 1940s.  Irving Howe concluded that this was “a serious instance of moral failure on our part.”[32] Saul Bellow admitted: “It’s perfectly true that ‘Jewish Writers in America’ … missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry. I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed.”[33]

By 1970, Howe himself found the treachery of the younger generation of Jewish intellectuals (Judt, Kushner, Butler, Chomsky and others) literally unspeakable: “Jewish boys and girls, children of the generation that saw Auschwitz, hate democratic Israel and celebrate as ‘revolutionary’ the Egyptian dictatorship; … a few go so far as to collect money for Al Fatah, which pledges to take Tel Aviv. About this, I cannot say more; it is simply too painful.”[34]

Paul Johnson states that “a dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.” And it gets worse: “Taken as a group they are often ultra-conformist to their own circles…. This is what makes them en-masse so dangerous, for it enables them to create a climate of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies which themselves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action.”[35] Maybe God didn’t have such a bad idea when He decided at Sinai not to wait for man to come up with the answers.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

[2] Which is also the name Plato gives to this dialogue.

[3] Plato’s Charmides, 155, Loeb Classical Library Edition (1927), trs.

[4] Stacy Schiff, Jean Jacques Rousseau, The New York Times Book Review

[5] Thus we find him, in the winter of 1933-34, declaring that “the question of the awareness of the will of the community is a problem that is posed in all democracies, but one that of course can become fruitful only when the will of the Führer and the will of the people are identified in their essence.”

[6] Adam Kirsch, NY Times Review of Books, April 29, 2010

[7] The great prophet of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation was not the least perturbed when nuclear weapons were liable to fall into the hands of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

[8] Paul Johnson, The Quest for G-d, pgs. 20-21

[9] “Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, The Ghost of Madness” by Ray Monk, Jonathan Cape, 574 pages

[10] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, pg 230.

[11] Ibid

[12] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, 317

[13] Ibid, 334

[14] His friend Overbeck found him in his humble, furnished room in Turin, plowing the piano keyboard with his elbow, singing and shrieking in demented self-glorification.

[15] Berlin Philharmonic violist Wilfried Strehle

[16] Norman Lebrecht, JC, September 13, 2013

[17] Evelyn Toynton, By George The NY Times

[18] Greg Bellow, Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir

[19] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry.

[20] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, 42-44

[21] In Great Britain there was the “British Union of Fascists”; in the United States there was a Long Island-based group calling themselves the “Silver Shirts.”  In South Africa, a group of “Black Shirts,” directly modeled on the Nazis, added to the growing racist condition of that state.

[22] Paul Johns, Modern Times, 306

[23] Ibid.

[24] Quoted in Paul Johnson, Intellectuals.

[25] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, 235 – 239.

[26] Paul Johnson, The Quest for G-d,

[27] Paul Johnson, Modern Times 306-7

[28] ibid, 336

[29] Ibid 275-6

[30] Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

[31] John Leo, When Rules Don’t Count,   U.S. News & World Report, August 7, 2000

[32] Irving Howe, The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,”   October 1968 COMMENTARY.

[33] Edward Alexander, J Post, 15/09/2011

[34] Ibid

[35] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, 342.

The second and third pictures that appear in the post are via OpenSourceway here and here.





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