Some advice for young scholars and aspiring public intellectuals

| Topics: Philosophy, Religion


As I’m preparing to embark on my thirty-ninth year as a scholar and university teacher, I’d like to share with a broader audience some advice I give to my students–especially those of my students who aspire to academic careers. I hope it’s helpful. Here goes: 

Although it is natural and, in itself, good to desire and even seek affirmation, do not fall in love with applause. It is a drug. When you get some of it, you crave more. It can easily deflect you from your mission and vocation. In the end, what matters is not winning approval or gaining celebrity. Your mission and vocation is to seek the truth and to speak the truth as God gives you to grasp the truth.

There is a particular danger for those who dissent, as I do, and as many of my graduate students and top undergaduate students do, from the reigning orthodoxies of the prevailing intellectual culture. You may be tempted to suppose that your willingness to defy the career-making (and potential career-breaking) mandarins of elite opinion immunizes you from addiction to affirmation and applause and guarantees your personal authenticity and intellectual integrity.

It doesn’t.

We are all vulnerable to the drug. The vulnerability never completely disappears. And the drug is toxic to the activity of thinking (and thus to the cause of truth-seeking).

To me, the reality of this temptation, no less than any other temptation, should keep one mindful of the need constantly to tend the garden of one’s interior life. If anything can immunize us against the temptation to love applause above truth, it is prayer. We all need that immune system strengthener. Even those of us who think we are strong, who flatter ourselves with the thought that we are invulnerable to the lure of approval, are weak. In fact, in our self-flattery we are, perhaps, among the most vulnerable.

It is so easy to think of oneself as Socrates … until the hemlock is served.

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