Category Archive 'Andre Maurois'

20 Dec 2008

Anti-Intellectualism and Conservatism

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I was arguing with my classmates the other day about the contentions of certain members of the urban punditocracy that Sarah Palin’s nomination signaled a reprehensible Republican descent into anti-intellectual populism.

I don’t myself think that the American Conservative Movement or the Republican Party has changed in any fundamental way. We are just currently in temporary disarray and short of leadership of national stature, but our quarrel with the liberal elite and the leftwing establishment intellectual clerisy is not any different today than it was when Barry Goldwater was running for the presidency.

Suspicion of the theories and enthusiasms of the radical intelligentsia combined with a preference for the common sense viewpoint has a long tradition in Anglo-Saxon culture.

The French writer Andre Maurois, who served as a liaison officer to the British Expeditionary Force in WWI, published in 1918 his first novel, translated as The Silence of Colonel Bramble, as a literary homage to the British gentlemen he had served alongside.

Here are some excerpts, featuring British tongue-in-cheek expressions of the very keenest anti-intellectualism.

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“Don’t you find yourself, Aurelle,” went on Major Parker that intelligence is over-estimated with you? It is certainly more useful to know how to box than how to write. You would like Eton to go in for nothing but learning? It is just like asking a trainer of racehorses to be interested in circus horses. We don’t go to school to learn, but to be soaked in the prejudices of our class, without which we should be useless and unhappy. We are like the young Persians Herodotus talks about, who up to the age of twenty only learnt three sciences: to ride, to shoot and to tell the truth.”

“That may be,” said Aurelle, “but just see, Major, how inconsistent you are. You despise learning and you quote Herodotus. Better still, I caught you the other day in the act of reading a translation of Xenophon in your dug-out. Very few Frenchmen, I assure you—”

“That’s quite different,” said the Major. “The Greeks and Romans interest us, not as objects of study, but as ancestors and sportsmen. We are the direct heirs of the mode of life of the Greeks and of the Roman Empire. Xenophon amuses me because he is a perfect type of the English gentleman, with his hunting and fishing stories, and descriptions of battles. When I read in Cicero: ‘Scandal in the Colonial Office. Grave accusations against Sir Marcus Varro, Governor-General of Sicily,’ you can understand that sounds to me like old family history. And who was your Alcibiades, pray, but a Winston Churchill, without the hats?”…

The colonel pointed with his cane to a new mine crater; but Major Parker, sticking to his point, went on with his favorite subject:

“The greatest service which sport has rendered us is that it saved us from intellectual culture. … We are stupid—”

“Nonsense, Major!” said Aurelle.

“We are stupid,” emphatically repeated Major Parker, who hated being contradicted, “and it is a great asset. When we are in danger we don’t notice it, because we don’t reflect; so we keep cool and come out of it nearly always with honour.”

“Always,” amended Colonel Bramble with his Scotch curtness.

And Aurelle, hopping agilely over the enormous ruts by the side of these two Goliaths, realized more clearly than ever that this war would end well.

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Later Maurois’s alter ego Aurelle reflects:

These wonderful men have remained children in many ways; they have the fresh outlook, and the inordinate love of games, and our rustic shelter often seems to me like a nursery of heroes.

But I have profound faith in them; their profession of empire-builders has inspired them with high ideals of the duty of the white man. The colonel and Parker are “Sahibs” whom nothing on earth would turn from the path they have chosen. To despise danger, to stand firm under fire, is not an act of courage in their eyes—it is simply part of their education. If a small dog stands up to a big one they say gravely, “He is a gentleman.”

A true gentleman, you see, is very nearly the most sympathetic type which evolution has produced among the pitiful group of creatures who are at this moment making such a noise in the world. Amid the horrible wickedness of the species, the English have established an oasis of courtesy and phlegm. I love them.

I must add that it is a very foolish error to imagine that they are less intelligent than ourselves, in spite of the delight my friend Major Parker pretends to take in affirming the contrary. The truth is that their intelligence follows a different method from ours. Far removed from our standard of rationalism and the pedantic sentiment of the Germans, they delight in common sense and all absence of system. Hence a natural and simple manner which makes their sense of humor still more delightful.


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