Op-Ed: History’s great mismatch: intellectuals and the powers that be

"We began with immense hopes and we are ending in disappointment," Princeton professor and public intellectual Cornel West has said about President Obama.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, intellectuals everywhere hailed him as one of their own. So closely was he identified with this elite that many Democrats worried, and Republicans hoped, that voters would reject him: As Richard Hofstadter noted long ago, a strong current of anti-intellectualism has long coursed through American history.

But his pointy head in no way proved an insurmountable obstacle in 2008. Maybe because it wasn’t all that inclined toward pointiness to begin with.

Since he was first elected, Obama has distanced himself from progressive intellectuals. You can expect to hear a few of them sadly critiquing his penultimate State of the Union speech this week.


They have already judged his management of the financial crisis as too deferential to the banks and the Affordable Care Act as too fearful of insurance companies. The growth of government spying and drone attacks, along with the president’s hesitant response to events in Ferguson, Mo., are considered equally unsatisfying. As Princeton professor and public intellectual Cornel West declared, “We began with immense hopes and we are ending in disappointment.”

West’s remarks are just the latest expression of dismay, dating to Aristotle’s experience with his student Alexander the Great, from intellectuals who have hoped to influence rulers. Are such hopes simply too audacious? This year marks the 250th anniversary of what was undoubtedly the most remarkable of relationships between a thinker and a ruler, the friendship between the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the Russian empress, Catherine the Great. What unfolded between them can help us grasp why intellectuals often look to new rulers with immense hope, and almost always look away in disappointment.

In early 1765, Diderot was desperate. Thanks to his herculean efforts as editor of the Encyclopédie, the 17th and final volume of this monument to the Enlightenment was then rolling off the press. Yet the celebrated thinker was in serious financial straits. When Catherine learned of the situation, she made Diderot an offer he couldn’t refuse. She would purchase his personal library of 3,000 books and manuscripts for the then-vast sum of 50,000 livres. Not only would Diderot be allowed to keep his books until his death, but he would also be paid a yearly salary as the collection’s librarian.

The magnanimity of Catherine’s deal struck the imagination of intellectuals across Europe, who believed that true and lasting social reform could be made only from above. Since the great mass of people was mired in superstition and ignorance, enlightened decrees, not popular democracy, was called for. With Voltaire in the lead, the great minds of the age invested their hopes in well-intentioned kings and queens and saw themselves as qualified investment advisors.

Few intellectual ventures seemed as promising as Russia. Catherine had ascended to the throne in 1762 — in a coup d’etat and over the body of her husband, Peter III — determined to haul her vast country from its primitive conditions via Enlightenment ideals. She wrote the Nakaz, or Instruction, translating Montesquieu’s case for a rational and humane legal system into Russian. Her early enthusiasm for such progressive ideas, though sincere, would prove unequal to the challenges presented by her empire.

Diderot, allergic to despotism, at first resisted the empress’ charm offensive. After Catherine’s purchase of his library, however, his circumspection gave way, as he wrote to her, to “prostration at your feet.”

For several years Catherine persistently issued invitations to Diderot to visit Russia. Increasingly frail and loath to travel, he no less persistently put her off. But in the fall of 1773 — nearly a decade after their initial exchange of letters — a reluctant Diderot, having run out of excuses and garbed in his philosopher’s black coat, left for St. Petersburg.

That same black frock sparked much derision in Catherine’s court when Diderot, more dead than alive, arrived after a grueling three-month journey. But to the courtiers’ jealousy, Catherine chose to meet with Diderot every afternoon for the next five months — some 60 conversations in all. Diderot, in his black coat, called at the Hermitage with a topic for each meeting. Catherine, in a plain gown and knitting needles in hand, welcomed him.

Diderot had once asked, “With whom should a philosopher converse forthrightly, if not a ruler?” His letters home to Paris reveal he was certainly excited, nearly feverish in his tete-a-tetes with Catherine. Baseless stories of a combustible Diderot flinging his wig at the empress made the rounds. But he did thump her leg and press her arm to punctuate his points. In her correspondence, Catherine half-jokingly reported that she had to place a table between her and this “most extraordinary man to protect myself and my limbs.”

But Diderot was rarely forthright: He never forgot that the hands that clicked the knitting needles also wielded a royal scepter. At the same time, he stuck to the goal he set before leaving Paris: to “be useful” to humankind. He tried, ever so gently, to prevent Catherine from becoming a mere despot. He dropped hints about tyrants ancient and modern, delivered paeans to the empire of reason as opposed to arbitrary power. Although Diderot suggested practical ideas for creating a middle class as well as an efficient and enlightened bureaucracy, his great task was to remind Catherine of her better angels.

By any practical measure, Diderot failed. The serfs remained chained to the land under Catherine. Her armies were unleashed, swallowing much of Eastern Europe, including Crimea. Thrilled by Diderot’s intellect, Catherine was mostly amused by his insistence on being useful.

“You work only on paper which accepts anything, is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles either to your imagination or your pen,” she told him, “while I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more sensitive and touchy.”

In the end, Diderot grasped that his usefulness to Catherine amounted to little more than promoting her public relations campaign aimed at the West.

Like Catherine, President Obama came to power intent on translating high ideals into public policy; like Catherine, he seems to have discovered that ethical and political imperatives do not always mesh. As for the intellectuals the president cultivates, one wonders whether they would echo the remark made by Diderot about Catherine once he returned to France: “What a difference between a tiger painted by an artist and a tiger in the forest.”

Robert Zaretsky teaches world cultures and literatures at the University of Houston. His latest book is “Boswell’s Enlightenment.”Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion