Introduction to The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays

Wieseltier, Leon. Introduction to The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ix-xvi. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008.


Trilling emphatically believed that “the problems of Life” must indeed be brought before the mind, thought not for the purpose of eliciting anything so simple and so heartening as “answers.” The elements of Erskine’s creed to which Trilling must have kindled, and to which he hewed in all his criticism, were its avowal of the intrinsic worth of the mind, and its affiliation of the mental with the oral. The influence of the teacher upon the student is unmistakable, for example, in a withering commentary on Dreiser that Trilling wrote in 1946: “But with us it is always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naïve moralizing.

Trilling never encountered a good reason to postpone thinking, though he lived in an age when such reasons were regularly and popularly advanced, in the forms of totalistic philosophies and totalistic politics. He was one of the most formidable critics of totalism that his dogmatic and pitiless century produced. Trilling was a distinguished enemy of his time. There was never just one thing, in his work: no single lock, no single key. He was mentally indefatigable; there was order in his writing, but there was no repose. This made Trilling an exceedingly unmoralistic moralist. His interest in virtue included also an interest in a doubting regard of the prevailing notions of virtue. He exemplified the intellectual vocation not least by his impiety about it. He bore down on people like himself—on the infamous “we” in his essays—almost to the point of provincialism. But this was the cheerless and thankless virtue of the true intellectual: to disquiet his own side, to “unmask the unmaskers,” to “dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent.”

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