My Favorite [Stolen] Insight: Chastity of Intellect Must Be Preserved in Public Affairs

Friday, September 18, 2015

When the spirit of George Will, that great god of conservatism, is upon me, I cannot resist the urge to begin a post with a quotation from some intellectual giant, past or present.  The urge is accompanied by the hope I’ll be thought a scholar if I am able to call forth so effortlessly the words of this or that Great Mind.   

In that spirit, I entreat you: ponder the words of George Santayana (1863-1952), the once celebrated Boston Latin- and Harvard-educated philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, who said (or maybe wrote; I’m not sure):
“Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon.”

They don’t make men of letters like George Santayana any more.  Or maybe they do.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never read a book by him and probably never will.  Philosophy, essays, poems and novels -- they’re so much work, you know.
I glommed onto the “skepticism” quote the other day when reading an article in a New Yorker magazine I borrowed from a doctor’s office because I was headed to the subway and needed something to distract me from the pain and misery of riding the MBTA.

The article explored the troubled history and eventual sale of a failed and foreclosed-upon casino in Atlantic City.  One of the parties involved was a university president, described as “a leading scholar of Santayana,” who had dreams of converting the hollowed-out casino to academic uses.  The author cleverly worked in this quote because it underlined the president’s ironic lack of skepticism when he got involved in the deal.  (Not long afterwards, the president had to resign.)

Anyway, it’s a good quote.  I especially like how Santayana connects skepticism to virginity.  A pronouncement with a sex angle always has more impact. 
As chance would have it, right after I read that New Yorker piece, I happened upon two quotations from notable figures in Massachusetts politics touching upon the subject of skepticism.

One, by Charlie Baker, was in a State House News Service article, dated September 11, concerning the governor’s thoughts on a meeting he’d just had with two of his predecessors, Bill Weld and Mike Dukakis.  The former governors were educating their successor on the virtues of spending at least a couple of billion public dollars on an underground rail link between Boston’s South Station and North Station.
“This is a lot of money, taxpayer money,” said Baker, “and a lot of people call me skeptical when I get into these conversations.  I’m not being skeptical.  I’m being cautious.  There’s a difference.”

(Question: If you are the Bill Weld who served as political godfather to Charlie Baker, is it better to be greeted by your protégé cautiously or skeptically?)

The other quote was by that machine of memorable quotations, Barney Frank, who retired not long ago from the U.S. House and recently published a book: Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage.
Frank was being interviewed in the online version of the best publication on Massachusetts public affairs, CommonWealth magazine. 

Reporter Gabrielle Gurley asked, “Now that you’re working in the news media, how does that affect your view of journalists?”
Frank said, “I don’t like journalists.  I like them personally.  They frustrate me though.  They are among the most intelligent people I deal with.  But there’s been a negativism that has suffused the profession for so long that I resent that.”

Gurley asked, “What do you mean by negativism?”
Frank said, “It was best summarized for me by a very good (retired) journalist named Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post.  An editor friend of his once said a few years ago, ‘I wish young journalists today were as skeptical of bad news as they are of good news.  If you tell them something good, they can’t wait to debunk it; if you tell them something bad, they can’t wait to push it into print.’ “

Charlie and Barney, and all those who aspire to follow in their footsteps, May they be forever chaste.





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