Emile Durkheim: The Intellectual Elite and Democracy

In 1904 Émile Durkheim published a bright and lucid essay in which he explained that scholars have to be vigorously active in public life. But how, when and why? Read his reflections in full:

WRITERS and SCHOLARS are CITIZENS. It is therefore obvious that they have a strict duty to participate in public life. It remains to be seen in what form and to what extent.
Men of thought and imagination, they would not seem to be particularly predestined to a properly political career. For that demands, above all, the qualities of a man of action. Even those whose profession is to contemplate societies, even the historian and the sociologist, do not seem to me more fit for these active functions than the man of letters or the naturalist; for it is possible to have a genius for discovering the general laws which explain social facts of the past without necessarily having the practical sense which allows one to divine the course of action which the condition of a given people at a given moment in its history requires. Just as a great physiologist is generally a mediocre clinician, a sociologist has every chance of making a very incomplete statesman. It is no doubt good that intellectuals be represented in deliberative assemblies. Aside from the fact that their culture permits them to bring to deliberations elements of information which are not negligible, they are more qualified than anyone to defend before the public powers the interests of the arts and sciences. But it is not necessary that they be numerous in the parliament in order to perform this task. Moreover, we may wonder whether—except for a few exceptional cases of eminently gifted geniuses—it is possible to become a deputy or senator without ceasing, to the same degree, to be a writer or a scholar, since these two types of functions imply so different an orientation of mind (esprit) and will!
What I mean is that above all our action must be exerted through books, seminars, and popular education. Above all, we must be advisers, educators. It is our function to help our contemporaries know themselves in their ideas and in their feelings, far more than to govern them. And in the state of mental confusion in which we live, what is a more useful role to play? Moreover, we will perform it that much better for having thus limited our ambition. We will gain the confidence of the people all the more easily if we are attributed fewer selfish, hidden motives. The lecturer of today must not be suspected to be the candidate of tomorrow.
It has, however, been said that the mob was not made to understand the intellectuals, and it is democracy and its so-called dull-witted spirit that have been blamed for the sort of political indifference scholars and artists have evinced during the first twenty years of our Third Republic. But what shows how groundless this explanation is, is that this indifference was ended as soon as a great moral and social problem was posed before the country. The lengthy abstention which previously existed, therefore, came quite simply from the absence of any question likely to impassion. Our political life was languishing miserably in questions of personalities. We were divided over who should have the power. But there was no great impersonal cause to which to consecrate ourselves, no lofty goal to which our wills could cling. We therefore followed, more or less distractedly, the petty incidents of daily politics without experiencing the need to intervene. But as soon as a grave question of principle was raised, the scholars were seen to leave their laboratories, the learned to leave their libraries to draw nearer the masses, to involve themselves in life; and the experience has proved that they know how to make themselves heard.
The moral agitation to which these events gave rise has not been extinguished, and I am among those who think that it must not be extinguished. For it is necessary. It was our former apathy that was abnormal and which constituted a danger. For better or for worse, the critical period begun with the fall of the ancien regime has not ended. It is better to recognize it than to abandon ourselves to a deceptive security. Our hour of repose has not struck. There is too much to do for us not to keep our social energies perpetually mobilized. That is why I believe the course of political events in the last four years preferable to those which preceded them. They have succeeded in maintaining a lasting current of collective activity of considerable intensity. To be sure, I am far from thinking that anticlericalism is enough; indeed, I
hope to see society soon attach itself to more objective ends. But the essential thing is not to let ourselves fall back into the state of moral stagnation in which we so long tarried.”

Durkheim, Émile. 1974. “The Intellectual Elite and Democracy.” Pp. 58-60 in Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society, edited by Robert N. Bellah. The University of Chicago Press.


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