The two books are similar, in that they mainly consist of short but extremely rich -- not to mention beautifully written -- biographical essays or book reviews concerning various cultural luminaries and illuminaries. We are particularly interested in the latter, first because they are so influential, second because they are so completely nuts.
In this regard, we will treat it as axiomatic that it is not a good thing for a culture when its Founding Fathers are, yes, brilliant perhaps, but also certifiably cuckoo.
I couldn't help contrasting these fellows -- names will be named below -- with, say, Thomas Aquinas, who was quite literally about as far from nuts as it is possible to be, at least if you believe that sanctity lies at the farther shore of pneuma- and psychopathology. Does this matter, or is truth independent of the flawed medium?
I say, it depends. For example, Gödel was clearly one dot shy of an umlaut, but that doesn't make his theorems any less true. On the other hand, I would hesitate before seeking psychological counsel from him, or more generally, advice on how best to live one's life.
In fact, in Lives of the Mind, Kimball says that he considers his subjects both "in terms of their fidelity to truth and their quotient of what one might call spiritual prudence: their healthy contact with reality" (emphasis mine).
Schiller made an apt observation along these lines (quoted by Kimball), that "extreme stupidity and extreme intelligence have a certain affinity with each other" in that "both seek only the real and are wholly insensible to mere appearance."
Marx, for example, and Schuon, both saw through appearances to an underlying world of permanence and unity. But how different the visions of that permanent reality -- or of reality and unreality, O and Ø.
Recall from past discussions that prudence is indeed the cardinal virtue, because in its absence the other virtues are rendered dubious or nul. For example, it no doubt takes a degree of courage for a Palestinian terrorist to blow himself up in his depraved quest for dead Jews and live virgins. But it also requires a complete absence of prudence.
Even truth handled imprudently can become dangerous and destrutive. To cite a contemporary example, the classified information the Obama administration has leaked to the press appears to be true, but most people presumably don't think it prudent to subordinate national security to Obama's desire for political power.
"It is one of the guiding themes of this book that intelligence, like fire, is a power that is neither good nor bad in itself." Rather, it is "like freedom" or "any human grace," in that it "can be abused as well as used."
Obvious when you think about it, no? So how come few people do? For example, Noam Chomsky, the Last Totalitarian, probably has a higher IQ than, say, Ronald Reagan. Can we conclude from this that the United States is therefore an evil empire?
Although he doesn't aim his deadly pen at the target-rich Chomsky -- where's the sport in that? -- Kimball's essays take down many other giants of academia, and form the highly insultaining "scrapbook of an intellectual pathologist."
Intellectual pathologist. This is -- or should be -- a subtle vocation, because it is all too easy to pretend to undercut an argument via a kind of sublimated or rarified ad hominem. I know this, because I used to engage in it myself. Any psychologist can take a figure whom he doesn't like, and cut him to ribbons with the misguided application of psychological theory, for example, this credentialed bozo.
But the intellect is distinct from the self. We think of it more as a function than a person (although in the healthy person it should be integrated with everything else).
And even then, we must draw a distinction between the function and its content, so to speak. As they say, even a broken cock will crow once a day. I suppose what I'm driving at is how it is possible for a brilliant person to be systematically wrong, in such a way that virtually everything he touches turns to falsehood.
Here is one of the threads that runs through these figures, and really jumped out at me. Kierkegaard, for example, in "an early journal entry" wrote of a party at which "everyone laughed and admired me," but afterwards wanting "to shoot myself." And in what may have been his last journal entry, he described himself as having been "bereft of all lust for life." So at least he was consistent.
Bertrand Russell wrote that during his adolescence he "hated life and was constantly on the verge of suicide," and the latter half of his life was spent in the sheer kookery of various political wackdivisms. Today he would no doubt be right there with the OWS crowd if only their hygiene were a bit better.
Similar to Chomsky, Russell said of JFK and Prime Minister Macmillan that "they not only want to kill all the Jews but all the rest of us too. They're much more wicked than Hitler.... They are the wickedest people that ever lived in the history of man."
So claimed the co-author of one of the most important books on cold logic ever written. Interestingly, his co-author, Whitehead, was a happy family man who forged a philosophy that has much to recommend it to the average Raccoon. I don't agree with all of it, but none of it is offensive, let alone insane.
Likewise, Wittgenstein "was the epitome, almost the caricature, of the angst-ridden genius" who was frequently preoccupied with suicide. He made his fellow eccentrics at Cambridge appear almost normal by comparison: "his emotional life was always edged with anguish" and with "a certain coldness and unbridgeable self-absorption that made him unresponsive to the feelings, one might even say the reality, of others."
This is going to be especially problematic if reality involves an irreducible element of subjectivity, e.g., the dynamic love of the Trinity.
Now that I think about it, the following odd hominems were all unmarried and childless: Sartre, Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Foucault, obviously; Descartes had a child by a servant girl, who didn't live long. Almost none of the men discussed by Kimball had happy or even remotely normal personal lives.
Out of time, and I've hardly begun... to be continued...