Marilynne Robinson on What It Means to Be a Human and Citizen

What does it mean to be a public intellectual now in the U.S., with 2019 right around the corner?

We live in an age when the relevance of a liberal arts education is constantly attacked; when the tale of the tech entrepreneur has replaced the immigrant “rags-to-riches” story to redefine the American Dream; when “thought leadership” is actually marketing; and when a country’s president is a man who’s notoriously averse to reading.  In this chaotic cultural milieu, what purpose does a public intellectual actually serve?

Writer Alice Gregory defined public intellectual for The New York Times in 2015:

A public intellectual is someone whose opinions help to set the moral and aesthetic standards of her time; she draws fault lines, explains the stakes of present-day conflicts, interrogates collective intuitions. But more specifically — and more strangely — a public intellectual is someone who articulates alliances between seemingly disparate cultural and political opinions. It’s not self-evident that one’s stances on, say, abortion and what counts as a good movie should align, but they do, remarkably, again and again. To believe in enough of these correlations, and to convince others that you are right, is the role of the public intellectual. It is to possess Susan Sontag’s definition of intelligence as “a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”

A public intellectual, then, is an influencer of sorts; s/he needs to generate or participate in a discourse that survives beyond the Ivory Tower. People need to care. But unlike Instagram and Youtube stars, the public intellectual isn’t chasing the number of likes or views. Their job is to critique society, and they do so with expertise and rigor. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes to mind.  So does Malcolm Gladwell. Bill Gates. Sheryl Sandberg. All have published work of cultural commentary that have resonated on a national level.



Marilynne Robinson is a public intellectual, though her reputation is much more limited in scope due to the incredibly cerebral and philosophical nature of her work. (Both the lecture and reading that I attended as a college senior at Yale and the New York Writers’ Conference attested to this.) A writer’s writer, she has had a career that any intellectual with serious literary ambition can only dream about. It’s not because of the numerous accolades and awards she’s collected, including the 2012 National Humanities Medal. But because she’s a humanist who asks questions and makes grand claims about human existence — the sort that I was told in college were indefensible opinions and, therefore, not scholarly. Only a star like Robinson could get away with it.

Her essays on abstract topics such as “Grace and Beauty” and “Mind, Conscience, Soul” — both of which are titles in What Are We Doing Here? — are all predicated on the belief that being human means to not just hope for, but strive for societal progress. And for progress to be attains, the nurturing of the human mind and intellect are critical, for they alone are capable of a moral imagination, language, art, spirituality, religion, compassion — achievements and qualities that have separated us from every other species on earth. When making arguments, even on politics, she’s more concerned with ideals, like compassion and dignity (Obama she mentions as having both virtues in spades), than economic arguments or data.

Admittedly, I got lost in her prose because it’s sermonic, which suits her discussions on spirituality, but makes the structure of her argument hard to follow sometimes. I found her incredibly stubborn as well, but her defensiveness is understandable, considering her background as a academic. No matter what her critics say, though, she is a master of language. Her essays are of exacting craftsmanship and at their best, transcend to prayer. The following are a few excerpts that strike me as either true or just plain beautiful. (Highlights my own.)

On the attack of a liberal arts college education from “What Are We Doing Here?”

“… since the new cost of university is weighed against potential earnings, students and families being so burdened, the humanities are under great pressure to justify their existence. … But there is an impulse behind the recent assaults on great institutions that is historically expressed as social engineering. The ideal worker will not have a head full of poetry, say the neo-Benthamites. It is assumed, of course, that he or she will be potentially omnicompetent in service to the ever-changing needs and demands of the new economy — highly trained, that is, to acquire some undescribed skill set that will be proof against obsolescence. We await particulars. But the object is clear — to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves. (29)

From “The American Scholar Now”:

There are no grounds for thinking of high civilizations as less violent than any others — no grounds, that is, except in the histories and anthropologies that are written by them. So long as warfare and other enormities are treated as paradoxical, anomalous, aberrant, we lack a sufficiently complex conception of humankind. History can tell us that neither side of our nature precludes the other. The worst we do does not diminish the goodness of the best we do. That our best is so often artistic more than utilitarian, in the usual senses of both words, is a fact with which we should learn to be at peace.  (92)

From “Grace and Beauty”:

“To me, [grace] means, among many things, a sense of or participation in the fullness of an act or gesture so that the beauty of it is seen whole, the leap and the landing.” (114)

A defense of aestheticism from “The Beautiful Changes”:

“The Parthenon, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Taj Mahal variously and authoritatively epitomize the aesthetics of a singular place and period. … Is existence were designed to engraft us into the world, to charm and engage us, what could be better suited to accomplishing this than beauty, with its inexhaustible openness to variation, with its frangible and circumstantial rules and limits, which enable invention and tantalize perception? (129)

On Barack Obama’s character from “A Proof, A Test, An Instruction”:

“To have been unfailingly dignified, gracious, competent, and humane under such pressures is a very moving achievement, and endurance that is more than heroic.” (124)

On Obama as an embodiment of the best of American democracy , also from the same essay:

“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are.” (125)

On what makes us uniquely human:

“By human I mean, of course, everything singular about us among the species, including our bias toward error and our gift for destruction — traditionally marks of our alienation from God — as well as out reason, imagination, and creativity. We must be shorn of a great many attributes before we can begin to seem more age than angel, even when that angel is Lucifer.” (212)

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone, wherever you may be.

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