Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent
Lionel Trilling (edited
and with an introduction by Leon Wieseltier)
Farrar Straus Giroux,
by George Scialabba
In 1975, Lionel Trilling died, at the height of his reputation
and influence as Americas foremost literary and cultural critic.
Twenty years later, nearly all his books were out of print. Fortunately,
Trilling was survived by his remarkable wife, Diana, who wrote an extraordinarily
affecting memoir of their marriage, The Beginning of the Journey,
and who encouraged Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic,
to assemble a new collection of her husbands essays. The Moral
Obligation to Be Intelligent is the result. It contains thirty of
Trillings finest essays, his two famous prefaces to The Liberal
Imagination and Beyond Culture, and a well-judged introduction
by Wieseltier. It is exactly what anyone who has no Trilling on his
or her bookshelves urgently needs.
Trilling was one of the "New York intellectuals,"
the brilliant writers and critics connected with Partisan Review
who played a large part in American culture from the 1930s through the
1960s. In some ways he was central to this group, perhaps the one most
respected internally and most visible externally. But in other ways
he was untypical of them, notably in passing his career as a professor
(of English, at Columbia) rather than as an institutionally unaffiliated
man of letters (like Edmund Wilson or Philip Rahv). This made a difference
to his writing, both in substance and in style. For one thing, his writing
was less topical than that of most other New York intellectuals. Though
nearly everything Trilling wrote had an ultimate political relevance,
almost nothing he wrote had an immediate political reference. And then,
though he was not a scholar, he was surrounded by scholars. This made
him a little more circumspect, more respectful of expertise, and more
inclined to deal in depth with individual works of literature and to
reckon with their traditional interpretations than his almost defiantly
unprofessional fellow New Yorkers were.
It also made him more inward. Academics work and socialize
at closer quarters than freelancers; and since an intellectual hatred
is the worst, or at least the most uncomfortable kind, academics place
a highsometimes excessivevalue on courtesy. To reconcile
this necessary academic civility with the boldness, even aggressiveness,
prized by his more freewheeling Partisan Review colleagues required
what Trilling achieveda style of incomparable tact and gracefulness.
Some comments by Irving Howe on the "characteristic style"
of the New York intellectuals suggest to what extent Trilling was and
wasnt a typical specimen: "The kind of essay they wrote was
likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature
and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or
literary group but usually taut with a pressure to go beyond
its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation."
So far, pure Trilling. But Howe went on: "It is a kind of writing
highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura.
Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions
and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a
form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in
dispute, dialectic, dazzle.
" Trillings style was not
nervous, knotty, flashy, impatient, or ostentatious; it was grave, smooth,
deliberate, and restrained. But it had force as well as grace. As Wieseltier
observes: "Trilling was not noisy in the New York manner. For that
reason, he wrote the most lasting prose of any of the New Yorkers."
Every piece in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent
is rewarding, but someone making a first acquaintance with Trillings
work might best begin with these acknowledged classics: "Keats
in His Letters," "Mansfield Park," "Huckleberry
Finn," "The Princess Casamassima," "George Orwell
and the Politics of Truth." These essays, like his others, are
full of illuminating juxtapositions, discriminations, and asides, as
well as subtle, shapely exposition. But the subjects of these essays
evoke Trillings keenest sympathies, and his affection kindles
his usual intelligence into some unusually stirring formulations:
[The Princess Casamassima] is a novel which has
at its very center the assumption that Europe has reached the full
of its ripeness and is passing over into rottenness, that the peculiarly
beautiful light it gives forth is in part the reflection of a glorious
past and in part the phosphorescence of a present decay, that it may
meet its end by violence and that this is not wholly unjust, although
never before has the old sinful continent made so proud and pathetic
an assault upon our affections
[Keats] stands as the last image of health at the very
moment when the sickness of Europe began to be apparenthe with
his intense naturalism that took so passionate an account of the mystery
of mans nature, reckoning as boldly with pleasure as with pain,
giving so generous a credence to growth, development, and possibility;
he with his pride that so modestly, so warmly and delightedly, responded
to the idea of community
If we ask what it is [Orwell] stands for, what he is
the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of
confronting the world with nothing more than ones simple, direct,
undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have
and the work one undertakes to do. We admire geniuses, we love them,
but they discourage us.
He is not a geniuswhat a relief!
What an encouragement
enthusiasms were immensely attractive. But, some asked, were they specifically
literary enthusiasms? In a generally admiring review1
of The Opposing Self, Denis Donoghue also entered a few shrewd
reservations. Speaking for the New Criticism, he wondered whether Trillings
"central interest is not in literature at all but in ideas; which
are not, need it be said, the same thing"; and whether "in
the last instance [Trilling] is not really interested in the fact that
the words of an individual poem are these words and not some
others, in this order and not another"; whether "he
is happiest when roaming about the large triangle whose sides are Sociology,
Politics, and Literature (in that order)." Wieseltiers introduction
touches on this question, a bit defensively, conceding that Trilling
was "a very un-literary literary critic," but countering immediately
that "his conception of his critical duty was less professional
and less playfuland bigger." Finally, Wieseltier concludes,
"he was a historian of morality working with literary materials."
Wieseltiers "and bigger" strikes me as
mere assertion. But I would also query Donoghues "need it
be said." It does, actuallyand patiently explained, at least
to the likes of me. The relation of form and content in literature may
be a pseudo-question, as many claim, but like other such questions it
Its true, though, that Trilling was best known for
his exploration of (to use his celebrated phrase) "the dark and
bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet." In the decades
when he began to write, the 1930s and 40s, liberalism was, as
he noted, Americas "sole intellectual tradition." Like
any one-party state, the state of American political culture had become,
in certain ways, lazy and intolerant. It had become intolerant of complexity,
of limits, of doubtin short, of mind. Trilling thought he detected
a "chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between
reality and mind, and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality."
Which usually meant the revolutionary or, as we now more soberly say,
the progressive party.
Trilling was quite willing to enlist in the progressive
party, but only on one condition. Progressives must acknowledge that
"to act against social injustice is right and noble but that to
choose to act so does not settle all moral problems but on the contrary
generates new ones of an especially difficult sort." There is,
for example, the problem of elitism versus mediocrity. "Civilization
has a price, and a high one
all civilizations are alike in that
they renounce something for something else.
To achieve the ideal
of widespread security, popular revolutionary theory condemns the ideal
of adventurous experience. All the instincts of radical democracy are
against the superbness and arbitrariness which often mark great spirits."
There is, for another example, the problem of individual liberty, of
limiting collective power once we have "learned something of what
may lie behind abstract ideals, the envy, the impulse to revenge and
to dominance." These are not insoluble problems. But there are
no final or perfect solutions, only imperfect, temporary, revisable
Trilling called this attitude "moral realism"
and defined it as "the free play of the moral imagination."
The phrase recalls Matthew Arnold, and is meant to. Trilling began his
career with a book on Arnold, and the resemblances between the two menphilosophical,
political, and temperamentalgo deep. They both wrote marvelously
flexible, musical, allusive prose. They both suffered foolsi.e.,
intellectual antagonistsif not gladly then at least kindly and
courteously. They both considered literature primarily in its moral
aspect, as a criticism of social and political life. And they both saw
their special contribution as helping to keep their fellow progressives
(liberals, radicals, reformers, social democrats, or what you will)
up to the mark, helping them to fail a little less often in detachment,
discrimination, receptiveness, patience, magnanimity. Literature could
teach this, perhaps because it has no political designs on us, or because
stories get around psychological defenses that defeat arguments, or
because rhythm, harmony, symmetry, and the other aesthetic qualities
induce a deeper attentiveness. Whatever the reason, literature can
teach us the moral virtuesat least the second-order, intellectual
onesas Trilling showed repeatedly in his discussions of Hawthorne,
Twain, Howells, James, Kipling, Eliot, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Hemingway,
Orwell, and others.
Yes, yes, impatient progressives will (and did) reply,
the second-order virtues are fine, but what about the first-order ones:
solidarity, compassion, a hunger and thirst for justice? Arent
these still in short supply? Characteristically, Trilling put this objection
to his position better than anyone else has:
However important it may be for moral realism to raise
questions in our minds about our motives, is it not at best a matter
of secondary importance? Is it not of the first importance that we
be given a direct and immediate report on the reality that is daily
being brought to dreadful birth?
To speak of moral realism
is all very well. But it is an elaborate, even fancy, phrase and it
is to be suspected of having the intention of sophisticating the simple
reality that is easily to be conceived. Life presses us so hard, time
is so short, the suffering of the world is so huge, simple, unendurableanything
that complicates our moral fervor in dealing with reality as we immediately
see it and wish to dive headlong upon it must be regarded with some
Trillings answer is that the first-order moral virtues
are dangerous without the second-order ones. "The moral passions
are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking
passions. All history is at one in telling us that their tendency is
to be not only liberating but also restrictive." Certainly the
history of the Russian Revolution, which was present in the minds of
all Trillings readers, should have taught that. So should the
histories of the Puritan Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese
Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.
But Trilling was not, as leftists have charged, a "quietist,"
any more than Arnold was. His position, like Arnolds, was in essence,
" Yes to greater equality, inclusiveness,
cooperation, tolerance, social experimentation, individual freedom
but only after listening to everything that can be said against ones
cherished projects, assuming equal intelligence and good faith on the
part of ones opponents, and tempering ones zeal with the
recognition that every new policy has unintended consequences, sometimes
very bad ones. But after all that
yes. "It is not enough
to want [change]," Trilling wrote, "not even enough to work
for itwe must want it and work for it with intelligence."
Although neither the left nor the right appeared to notice, that "we"
In fact, both the
left and the right simply heard "Yes, but
" as "No,"
which must have discouraged Trilling horribly. Both sides have assumed
he was a proto-neoconservative, the left blaming him for it and the
right blaming him for not owning up to it. But Trilling was not a neoconservative.
He was, like Arnold, a friend of equality, of progress, of reform, of
democratic collective actiona wistful, anxious, intelligent friend.
He was, that is, a goodactually, the very best kind ofliberal.
is a book critic in Cambridge, Mass. He reviewed Hilton
Kramer for the October/November 1999 issue of the Review.
1 Reprinted in Lionel Trilling and the Critics,
ed. John Rodden (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), pp. 215-222.
Originally published in the December
2000/January 2001 issue of Boston Review