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Eggheads through History

March 15, 2010

Tags EducationThe EntrepreneurWorld HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

Vincent Price as Egghead

[The Freeman, March 1954]

Something over a year ago, Mr. Louis Bromfield, in the Freeman ("The Triumph of the Egghead," December 1, 1952) defined the word egghead.Download PDF

It was designed to describe a character who pretends to the title of philosopher — a sort of professional intellectual — dedicated to the theory that the eggheads are the appointees of destiny who will bring something known in the trade as "security" to a creature known as the "common man" in return for which all they ask is that he deliver his soul to the management of a government operated by the eggheads.

The society of the eggheads embraces communists, socialists, rudimentary fascists, along with a numerous following of certain publishers and their wives, rich men's sons and daughters, and even some corporate vice presidents.

Several of our convinced left-wing philosophers, in the early 1930s, discovered a magic brand name for their product: the Planned Society.

The central idea in this revolutionary method was that the business of planning and managing the model society belongs not to politicians or businessmen but to the intellectuals — or, if you will, the philosophers — who alone are capable of planning and directing the flow of human energies which compose the economic society.

Designed to provide abundance for the masses rather than luxuries for the few, this new dialectic omits the repulsive jargon of the communist, stimulates the vanity of the intellectual elite, and is calculated to arouse the appetites of the masses. It is socialism or communism under a new brand label, plus the insidious appeal to the vanity of the heavy thinkers on the campus, in the labor unions, in the Colony Club and similar roosting places for deep-thinking ladies, as well as in the lower echelons of bank and corporate directorates.

It is to these tall-browed heavy thinkers that the name of eggheads has been given. I do not pretend to know why, but it seems almost incredibly appropriate. It seems to distill the essences out of several other words such as double-dome, crackpot, do-gooder, and pinko. It describes, as Mr. Bromfield observed, the intellectual lacking in common sense, a doctrinaire contemptuous of experience, a fuzzy-minded, starry-eyed dreamer.

The explosive element in this philosophy is in the two words which describe it — the planned society or economic planning. After all, what healthy mind can object to social planning? And, after all, who are capable of understanding the aspirations of the people better than the thinkers, the scholars, the philosophers?

It Began with Plato

What is little known is that throughout history this notion of the Planned Society has been considered to be a department of philosophy and its practical administration the function of the philosopher. As far as I know the earliest — certainly the most famous — of these planning evangelists was Plato who, in his Republic, sketched his perfect society. There would be no private wealth, but all would be rich, since all would have an equal "allotment" of leisure, merrymaking, visiting, drinking wine, and begetting children — but all in moderation, particularly the last. There would be three groups — the Workers who would produce, the Warriors who would defend the city, and the philosophers — to be called Guardians — who would "bear rule."

Each citizen would be assigned to his proper category by the Guardians. No inhabitant would share in government until he was 35 or 40, and after 50 the more intelligent would be chosen as Guardians.

These, the ruling eggheads, would occupy their time in philosophical studies. The artisans would have no share in government because they could never become philosophers or eggheads. The producer and merchant and warrior are hopeless in the field of statesmanship — "Until philosophers are kings, or kings and princes have the spirit of philosophy, cities will never cease from ill." (Plato: The Republic.)

Perhaps the most famous of these mythical heavens is the happy island community of Sir Thomas More, to which he gave the name of Utopia, which has continued in use to describe these enclosed social heavens. More was a scholar and a dreamer who, after his break with Henry VIII, went to the Tower and then to the headsman with perfect composure. During the imprisonment preceding his beheading he described the perfect society discovered by a mythical navigator called Raphael Hythloday.

The people divided their time between agriculture and industry, the whole product going to a common warehouse. There was no gold, no hoarding, no covetousness. The dirty work was done by slaves convicted of transgressing the law. Every thirty families chose a magistrate; each ten magistrates chose an over-magistrate who served for life and who chose a philosopher-prince who also ruled for life.

Not long after More, another philosopher, Francis Bacon, created another earthly paradise ruled by another philosopher-king. He conjured out of the mystic seas his own island — New Atlantis. Here the center of authority was Solomon's House, a laboratory where 12 chosen students pursued the search for truth and made up the aristocracy.

About the same time Campanella, an Italian monk, brought from the deep his fabled island, the City of the Sun. Here the people were poor because they possessed nothing and rich because they wanted for nothing. The state was supreme and deposited in the hands of "an aristocracy of learning."

In the City of the Sun, incidentally, Campanella discovered progressive education centuries before John Dewey. The city had seven great walls on which were presented pictorially the seven regions of knowledge, from which the children would inhale education painlessly while they played.

Masterpieces of Credulity

The last half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth produced the most extraordinary eruption of authentic eggheads in history. The age of reason and of the machine was dawning. The old order was crumbling, but the philosopher with his enclosed heaven would persist. There was, for instance, Etienne Cabet, who discovered a new Utopia called Icaria.

This was a heavenly democracy divided into a hundred provinces arranged around a capitol situated in the very center. All streets and blocks were arranged on a mathematical pattern. All industry and agriculture was state owned. All the people, regardless of sex, dressed alike. Education was compulsory and all must work to the age of sixty-five.

The people chose their state officers, but only from among the certified technicians; those selected constituted a Dictatorship of the Technicians, who possessed, among other powers, absolute censorship of literature.

Impatient to establish his heaven on earth and balked in France, Cabet took his blueprints to Texas, of all places, from which he was driven by yellow fever to Illinois. There he set up an ideal community of over a thousand members. But his Icarians began to behave like human beings. They argued and quarreled among themselves, and the paradise dissolved.

It taxes belief to witness these masterpieces of credulity launched by men of great intelligence. Take Henri de Saint Simon, for instance, born in 1760. After a bizarre career, which included losing one fortune, amassing another, he settled down as a qualified philosopher and wrote three volumes on the Industrial System and Christianity.

He concluded, of course, that the new order must be designed by the scientists, run by the industrialists. It would guarantee jobs and security for all. This idea immediately attracted a whole rabble of professors, writers, poets, lawyers, some engineers, and a number of politicians. St. Simon finally drifted out of the movement, and the leadership fell to Enfantin, who committed it to free love, thereby disrupting it altogether.

Rule by Philosophers

These erratic intellectual adventurers were not fools. Many were men of large intelligence. But there is a little screw somewhere near the center of the intellect which holds all its functions together in harmony, so that a man may dream, yet dream within reason. When that little screw gets loose, the imagination, the reason, and the sense of order and proportion begin revolving in contrary and eccentric orbits with amazing results.

Associated with St. Simon was a far greater intellect — that strange recluse who might well be installed as the patron saint of the eggheads: Auguste Comte. He is the perfect example of the mental philosopher who presumes to reorder the world of men and work of which he knows nothing. His method was to retire into complete seclusion, avoid newspapers and economic matter, and devote himself to reading religious and political works. Thus withdrawn from the play of economic, political, and human forces, he prepared a blueprint for the reconstruction of society.

"I do not by any means infer that all intellectuals are eggheads. I merely suggest that eggheadism is an occupational disease of the intellectual."

Comte sought a substitute for God, and created Humanity as a vague deity to be worshipped. Then he tried to duplicate the images, sacrifices, and ceremonial devotional forms of religion — even prayers. There would be a hierarchy with its officialdom, priesthood, and an elaborate series of feast days to excite the devotion of the faithful.

Running through it all, however, was the concept that the rule of the people belongs to the philosophers, who would form a sort of priesthood in this new church. Here was eggheadism in its perfected form.

The most dramatic episode in this series of weird adventures occurred in our own country under the name of Fourierism. Charles Fourier was a French traveling salesman who made the comforting discovery that the earth was passing out of its infancy. He had a plan to insure 70,000 glorious years for mankind, when lions would be used as draft animals and whales would draw vessels through the ocean. He proposed to organize society into phalanxes, small agricultural communities each with less than two thousand inhabitants.

Workers would dine in a central hall on meals prepared in a great kitchen by expert cooks. Every inhabitant would produce enough from his eighteenth to his twenty-eighth birthday to support him in leisure for the rest of his life. Each community would be headed by a Unarch, and all the phalanxes would be united under an Omniarch.

Early American Eggheads

Curious as this movement was, even more curious was what happened to it when it crossed the ocean to America. Here it enlisted the passionate support of many of the most famous writers, thinkers, journalists, and teachers of the day.

Its most noted convert was Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, a candidate against U.S. Grant in the 1872 Presidential elections.

Greeley was brought into Fourierism by Albert Brisbane, an able journalist who was engaged by Greeley to expound its philosophy in the Tribune.

Another convert was Paul Godwin, associate of the New York Evening Post. Charles A. Dana, editor of the Sun, also enlisted for this new edition of paradise. But the real center of the movement was the Transcendentalist Club of Boston, the rendezvous then of America's intellectual world.

There Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others breathed their collective souls into the movement. George Ripley, literary critic and encyclopediast, who was also a Unitarian minister, bought a 200-acre tract not far from Boston, where the first phalanx was organized under the auspices of the famous Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education. The central building was nearing completion when it was burned to the ground. With it the great dream perished.

This was the first authentic roost of the first great collection of eggheads in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Carlyle in England: "We are a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform — not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his pocket."

It was the same in England. Social conditions in England indeed cried aloud for reform. And there were serious, practical men busy with that task. But there was the same giddy flock of eggheads, too, flying through the rosy cloudlands of transcendental economics.

The root idea at the bottom of this long history of reckless social blueprinting from Plato to Henry Wallace and the Americans for Democratic Action is that social planning is the peculiar mission of the poet, the essayist, the novelist, the professor, and the technician.

I do not by any means infer that all intellectuals are eggheads. I merely suggest that eggheadism is an occupational disease of the intellectual, to which the shallow or the frustrated or the unsuccessful or the angry or vengeful intellectual, particularly if he has a passion for hatred or notoriety, is exposed.

I would also suggest that members of these crafts, if they are disposed to be sensitive to the problem of social reconstruction, are apt to offer a peculiarly hospitable incubation to these giddy ideas. In these later years eggheadism has run like a scourge through our colleges and our journals of opinion. The younger the thinker, the bolder his philosophy.

This bursting egotism of the young intellectual who feels his diploma confers upon him authority to seize the world by the scruff of the neck and shake it into good behavior may be seen in this chant of the youthful Rexford Tugwell, just emerging from the Columbia campus:

I am strong. I am big and well-made. I am sick of a nation's stenches. I am sick of propertied czars. I have dreamed my great dream of their passing. I have gathered my tools and my charts. My plans are finished and practical. I shall roll up my sleeves [and] make America over.

Here is the egghead literally on fire, true inheritor of the "book and the torch" of Plato and Bacon and Campanella, of St. Simon and Comte, and above all of that molehill of poets and musicians and novelists and philosophers and journalists and teachers who fluttered around the pale but beautiful candlelight of Brook Farm.

The modern eggheads are the natural inheritors of the divine right of revolution and social reconstruction. But with this immense difference.

They no longer talk of Brook Farms and Icarias and small enclosed village communes. Long ago Karl Marx saw the end of that nonsense. Universal suffrage and the machine changed the nature of the struggle.

The philosophers now talk of throwing down the boundaries of nations and subjecting not a village, but a world to their planning. What was once called communism applied to a village republic has become socialism erected over a vast nation. But they do not call it socialism. It is now being peddled under a new brand name — the Planned Economy.

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But the great objective is the same. Beginning with the nation, the population will enjoy the vote but under arrangements such that the power of those who control the state will be so great it cannot be successfully challenged. But our bold and hopeful eggheads make one decisive mistake. They suppose they will control the state.

It may be the peculiar forte of the philosophers to dream, but when the dream has been realized and the state has been invested with these vast and compulsive powers, it will be not only the governor but the employer of all, with a power over men's bodies and minds too great to be resisted.

At this point the management of the state will come into the hands not of the professors and their fellow intellectuals but of the practical politicians who understand the techniques of acquiring and retaining and managing power. Then, I suggest, most of the eggheads will be in jail or in flight to Canada or Mexico.

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This article originally appeared in the Freeman, March 1954. It was reprinted in Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn (1996), pp. 144–150.Download PDF

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