The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent
Lionel Trilling, edited and with an introduction by Leon Wieseltier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35 (cloth)

In 1975 Lionel Trilling died, at the height of his reputation and influence as America’s foremost literary and cultural critic. Twenty years later, nearly all his books were out of print. Fortunately, Trilling was survived by his remarkable wife, Diana, who wrote an extraordinarily affecting memoir of their marriage, The Beginning of the Journey, and who encouraged Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, to assemble a new collection of her husband’s essays. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent is the result. It contains thirty of Trilling’s finest essays, his two famous prefaces to The Liberal Imagination and Beyond Culture, and a well-judged introduction by Wieseltier. It is exactly what anyone who has no Trilling on his or her bookshelves urgently needs.

Trilling was one of the “New York intellectuals,” the brilliant writers and critics connected with Partisan Review who played a large part in American culture from the 1930s through the 1960s. In some ways he was central to this group, perhaps the one most respected internally and most visible externally. But in other ways he was untypical of them, notably in passing his career as a professor (of English, at Columbia) rather than as an institutionally unaffiliated man of letters (like Edmund Wilson or Philip Rahv). This made a difference to his writing, both in substance and in style. For one thing, his writing was less topical than that of most other New York intellectuals. Though nearly everything Trilling wrote had an ultimate political relevance, almost nothing he wrote had an immediate political reference. And then, though he was not a scholar, he was surrounded by scholars. This made him a little more circumspect, more respectful of expertise, and more inclined to deal in depth with individual works of literature and to reckon with their traditional interpretations than his almost defiantly unprofessional fellow New Yorkers were.

It also made him more inward. Academics work and socialize at closer quarters than freelancers; and since an intellectual hatred is the worst, or at least the most uncomfortable kind, academics place a high—sometimes excessive—value on courtesy. To reconcile this necessary academic civility with the boldness, even aggressiveness, prized by his more freewheeling Partisan Review colleagues required what Trilling achieved—a style of incomparable tact and gracefulness. Some comments by Irving Howe on the “characteristic style” of the New York intellectuals suggest to what extent Trilling was and wasn’t a typical specimen: “The kind of essay they wrote was likely to be wide-ranging in reference, melding notions about literature and politics, sometimes announcing itself as a study of a writer or literary group but usually taut with a pressure to ‘go beyond’ its subject, toward some encompassing moral or social observation.” So far, pure Trilling. But Howe went on: “It is a kind of writing highly self-conscious in mode, with an unashamed vibration of bravura. Nervous, strewn with knotty or flashy phrases, impatient with transitions and other concessions to dullness, calling attention to itself as a form or at least an outcry, fond of rapid twists, taking pleasure in dispute, dialectic, dazzle.…” Trilling’s style was not nervous, knotty, flashy, impatient, or ostentatious; it was grave, smooth, deliberate, and restrained. But it had force as well as grace. As Wieseltier observes: “Trilling was not noisy in the New York manner. For that reason, he wrote the most lasting prose of any of the New Yorkers.”

Every piece in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent is rewarding, but someone making a first acquaintance with Trilling’s work might best begin with these acknowledged classics: “Keats in His Letters,” “Mansfield Park,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Princess Casamassima,” “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth.” These essays, like his others, are full of illuminating juxtapositions, discriminations, and asides, as well as subtle, shapely exposition. But the subjects of these essays evoke Trilling’s keenest sympathies, and his affection kindles his usual intelligence into some unusually stirring formulations:

[The Princess Casamassima] is a novel which has at its very center the assumption that Europe has reached the full of its ripeness and is passing over into rottenness, that the peculiarly beautiful light it gives forth is in part the reflection of a glorious past and in part the phosphorescence of a present decay, that it may meet its end by violence and that this is not wholly unjust, although never before has the old sinful continent made so proud and pathetic an assault upon our affections….

[Keats] stands as the last image of health at the very moment when the sickness of Europe began to be apparent–he with his intense naturalism that took so passionate an account of the mystery of man’s nature, reckoning as boldly with pleasure as with pain, giving so generous a credence to growth, development, and possibility; he with his pride that so modestly, so warmly and delightedly, responded to the idea of community….

If we ask what it is [Orwell] stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of confronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have and the work one undertakes to do. We admire geniuses, we love them, but they discourage us.… He is not a genius–what a relief! What an encouragement….

Trilling’s enthusiasms were immensely attractive. But, some asked, were they specifically literary enthusiasms? In a generally admiring review1 of The Opposing Self, Denis Donoghue also entered a few shrewd reservations. Speaking for the New Criticism, he wondered whether Trilling’s “central interest is not in literature at all but in ideas; which are not, need it be said, the same thing”; and whether “in the last instance [Trilling] is not really interested in the fact that the words of an individual poem are these words and not some others, in thisorder and not another”; whether “he is happiest when roaming about the large triangle whose sides are Sociology, Politics, and Literature (in that order).” Wieseltier’s introduction touches on this question, a bit defensively, conceding that Trilling was “a very un-literary literary critic,” but countering immediately that “his conception of his critical duty was less professional and less playful—and bigger.” Finally, Wieseltier concludes, “he was a historian of morality working with literary materials.”

Wieseltier’s “and bigger” strikes me as mere assertion. But I would also query Donoghue’s “need it be said.” It does, actually—and patiently explained, at least to the likes of me. The relation of form and content in literature may be a pseudo-question, as many claim, but like other such questions it recurs continually.

It’s true, though, that Trilling was best known for his exploration of (to use his celebrated phrase) “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” In the decades when he began to write, the 1930s and ’40s, liberalism was, as he noted, America’s “sole intellectual tradition.” Like any one-party state, the state of American political culture had become, in certain ways, lazy and intolerant. It had become intolerant of complexity, of limits, of doubt—in short, of mind. Trilling thought he detected a “chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between reality and mind, and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality.” Which usually meant the revolutionary or, as we now more soberly say, the progressive party.

Trilling was quite willing to enlist in the progressive party, but only on one condition. Progressives must acknowledge that “to act against social injustice is right and noble but that to choose to act so does not settle all moral problems but on the contrary generates new ones of an especially difficult sort.” There is, for example, the problem of elitism versus mediocrity. “Civilization has a price, and a high one … all civilizations are alike in that they renounce something for something else.… To achieve the ideal of widespread security, popular revolutionary theory condemns the ideal of adventurous experience. All the instincts of radical democracy are against the superbness and arbitrariness which often mark great spirits.” There is, for another example, the problem of individual liberty, of limiting collective power once we have “learned something of what may lie behind abstract ideals, the envy, the impulse to revenge and to dominance.” These are not insoluble problems. But there are no final or perfect solutions, only imperfect, temporary, revisable ones.

Trilling called this attitude “moral realism” and defined it as “the free play of the moral imagination.” The phrase recalls Matthew Arnold, and is meant to. Trilling began his career with a book on Arnold, and the resemblances between the two men—philosophical, political, and temperamental—go deep. They both wrote marvelously flexible, musical, allusive prose. They both suffered fools—i.e., intellectual antagonists—if not gladly then at least kindly and courteously. They both considered literature primarily in its moral aspect, as a criticism of social and political life. And they both saw their special contribution as helping to keep their fellow progressives (liberals, radicals, reformers, social democrats, or what you will) up to the mark, helping them to fail a little less often in detachment, discrimination, receptiveness, patience, magnanimity. Literature could teach this, perhaps because it has no political designs on us, or because stories get around psychological defenses that defeat arguments, or because rhythm, harmony, symmetry, and the other aesthetic qualities induce a deeper attentiveness. Whatever the reason, literature can teach us the moral virtues—at least the second-order, intellectual ones—as Trilling showed repeatedly in his discussions of Hawthorne, Twain, Howells, James, Kipling, Eliot, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Hemingway, Orwell, and others.

Yes, yes, impatient progressives will (and did) reply, the second-order virtues are fine, but what about the first-order ones: solidarity, compassion, a hunger and thirst for justice? Aren’t these still in short supply? Characteristically, Trilling put this objection to his position better than anyone else has:

However important it may be for moral realism to raise questions in our minds about our motives, is it not at best a matter of secondary importance? Is it not of the first importance that we be given a direct and immediate report on the reality that is daily being brought to dreadful birth? … To speak of moral realism is all very well. But it is an elaborate, even fancy, phrase and it is to be suspected of having the intention of sophisticating the simple reality that is easily to be conceived. Life presses us so hard, time is so short, the suffering of the world is so huge, simple, unendurable–anything that complicates our moral fervor in dealing with reality as we immediately see it and wish to dive headlong upon it must be regarded with some impatience.

Trilling’s answer is that the first-order moral virtues are dangerous without the second-order ones. “The moral passions are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passions. All history is at one in telling us that their tendency is to be not only liberating but also restrictive.” Certainly the history of the Russian Revolution, which was present in the minds of all Trilling’s readers, should have taught that. So should the histories of the Puritan Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution.

But Trilling was not, as leftists have charged, a “quietist,” any more than Arnold was. His position, like Arnold’s, was in essence, “Yes, but.…” Yes to greater equality, inclusiveness, cooperation, tolerance, social experimentation, individual freedom … but only after listening to everything that can be said against one’s cherished projects, assuming equal intelligence and good faith on the part of one’s opponents, and tempering one’s zeal with the recognition that every new policy has unintended consequences, sometimes very bad ones. But after all that … yes. “It is not enough to want [change],” Trilling wrote, “not even enough to work for it—we must want it and work for it with intelligence.” Although neither the left nor the right appeared to notice, that “we” included Trilling.

In fact, both the left and the right simply heard “Yes, but …” as “No,” which must have discouraged Trilling horribly. Both sides have assumed he was a proto-neoconservative, the left blaming him for it and the right blaming him for not owning up to it. But Trilling was not a neoconservative. He was, like Arnold, a friend of equality, of progress, of reform, of democratic collective action—a wistful, anxious, intelligent friend. He was, that is, a good—actually, the very best kind of—liberal.


1 Reprinted in Lionel Trilling and the Critics, ed. John Rodden (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), pp. 215-222.