Society and the Intellect

You see, Monsieur, it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence? It was because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took up so much duller work: tutoring and and private secrataryship. There is a good deal of drudgery, of course; but one preserves one’s moral freedom, what we call in french ones quant à soi. And when one hears good talk one can join in it without compromising any opinions but one’s own; or one can listen, and answer it inwardly. Ah, good conversation—theres nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only thing worth breathing. And so I have never regretted giving up either diplomacy or journalism—two different forms of the same self-abdication…Voyez-vous, Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: thats worth living in a garret for, isn’t it? But, after all, one must earn enough to pay for the garret. -M. Rivière (Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 200).

The French tutor; he gives up a promising career in journalism because it once forced him to compromise his own opinions, his ‘moral freedom’. He finds great value in conversation and people, rather than making money and living a comfortable life in the material sense. Wharton writes, “He had obviously always been desperately poor and anxious…but he had lived in a world in which, as he said, no one who loved ideas need hunger mentally…Archer looked with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious young man who had fared so richly in his poverty” (199). The Tutor’s life-choice to be an intellectual is not intrinsically illustrious. In fact he seems to have given up more to enjoy intellectual pursuit. Yet a wealthy, pleasantly afforded young man such as Archer has reason to be jealous of him. May, Archer’s young bride, considers the tutor to be common and does not give him a second thought.

           In this book, young Archer gives up his own ideas of innovating the way his life is lived. Primarily he intended to make his own way of life, rather than following the path that everyone else in his society adheres to. He wanted so badly to be free, a sentiment expressed by many people today. It is not uncommon to hear an angsty teenager in the throes of rebellion, or even a young college student, unaccustomed to being filled with the intoxicating air of freedom and independence, vociferate their intense longing to be nothing like their parents, and to break free from social norms. It is also not uncommon to see these young people to grow up to be the spitting image of their parents, in both word and deed. Archer does just this, settling down to marry the right girl, and live in the right kind of house, and wear the right kind of clothes to the opera. As he goes through the “rite of marriage,” Wharton describes his sentiment writing that “Everything was equally easy—or equally painful, as one chose to put it—in the path he was committed to tread” (178). He has become woven into the fabric of society and it is easy enough. It takes no effort to be buried among people who are eager to be exactly like the others in their circle. His envy of the so-called “common” French tutor comes from his own abandoned desires to be different.

           “The air of ideas is the only thing worth breathing.” I don’t know exactly how true this statement is, but there seems to be a desire intrinsic in human beings that, despite their desire to be in a commonwealth, and achieve acceptance in society, drives them to maintain their ideas, their Moral freedom. It is natural to want to fight to hold onto your own thoughts, however, society often lays this desire quietly in its grave. This is observable in openly despotic societies which suppress the freedom of men’s thoughts and ability to engage in good conversation, such as the dystopian commonwealths of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s A Brave New World. However, it is no less present in an invisibly captivating society like that in The Age of Innocence, which requires people to behave in a particular way on the grounds of some unwritten code of social values. It is not often that men are allowed to openly maintain their opinions and those that do lie outside of societies graces, obviously not an optimal situation. Must we sacrifice either community or our minds? This is completely unacceptable and many people, you yourself, would refuse to concede to either of these options. What then must we do? How can we live in society as intellectuals? The proper balance between these two essential components to our lives must be reached. It is not good that man should be alone; humans must live in society. However, it is no better to sacrifice ones mind than to live apart from the company of other men.    

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