The late Fred Hutchison believed that in every age there live what he called “theory kings” whose main function, intentionally or not, seems to be to disorganize or even destroy society:
The Creator of Men designed the intellect to serve particular functions within assigned jurisdictions of life. Some problems must be solved through the abstract intellect. Other problems must not be solved through the intellect, or through a sole reliance upon the intellect. When the mind dominates one’s whole life, one will become an eccentric. He will try to solve non-intellectual problems intellectually. High school students call such people “nerds,” or “geeks.” The nerd has finesse in a chess game, but is clumsy in a social setting.
An eccentric has overly developed some faculties and underdeveloped other faculties of his nature. His lopsided nature shows through in queer idiosyncracies. It is no accident that many intellectuals are eccentric.
But eccentricity is not necessarily a pathology. A pathology develops when abstract theory trumps reality. A neurotic displacement from reality and a destructive pseudo-wisdom is the result. Pseudo-wisdom combined with power is very dangerous. As a handy shorthand designation, I shall call men of power with pseudo-wisdom “theory kings.”
Sometimes two individuals of greatly differing character and outlook can arrive at the same conclusion even when they come from different directions:
Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Georg Hegel (1770–1831) both warned against the kind of men which I define as theory kings. Interestingly, the two great thinkers were as different as men can be.
Burke, the father of traditionalist conservatism, believed that we should trust the accumulated wisdom embodied in our common cultural inheritance. The wisdom of experience of countless lives which have gone before us is wrapped up the cultural fabric in which we live. Burke felt that we should not trust theory kings, who count themselves progressive reformers and who are guided by abstract ideals, but have no common sense about real life and no appreciation of the cultural heritage. A theory king guiding a society is like a nerd dictating to cool guys how to dance.
Burke believed that abstract theoretical ideas cannot be readily converted into formulas, programs, laws, or pat answers for society, because the ideals are simple and vague and the social fabric is complex and intricate. Bookish theory kings do not understand the exquisitely woven nature of society, and they do not understand the dark and tangled complexity of human nature. The delicate social fabric that is intricately woven over centuries is easily rent by the blunt, crude intrusions of reformist governments. This is especially true of programs, laws, and regulations designed by theory kings.
The rule of theory kings can be worse than the rule of despotic kings. Despots are apt to have common sense about what works. Theory kings can spin out a host of profoundly stupid regulations, support them with learned studies written in technical jargon, and tell the people, “It is for your own good and it is based upon the opinions of experts. Be happy.”
Hegel was an innovative philosopher and one of the founding fathers of progressive modernism. He developed the concept of historicism, an exotic theory that forces of history are continually changing man, human values, and society. Hegel is universally beloved by liberals and universally hated by conservatives.
One would think that Hegel might be a prototypical theory king. One would expect him to be the natural enemy of Burke. Certainly the intellectual heirs of Hegel are in perpetual conflict with the intellectual heirs of Burke. The fact that Hegel was in concord with Burke in the rebuke of theory kings implies that men of original genius who write enduring classics of the mind have risen above intellectual pathology and the fallacies of the theory kings.
Hegel’s warning goes something like this: The full reality of a truth cannot be realized until it is embodied in life. After it is developed and appreciated in living manifestations, it can be abstracted into conceptual principles. But when you start with theoretical abstraction and then try to impose theory upon reality, the results can be disastrous.
Interestingly, history reveals that philosophy invariably comes late in the game to a culture. After architecture, the arts, drama, poetry, literature, and linguistics have had their say, and have been lived in and experienced, then philosophy comes to the podium with its definitions, qualifications, categories, syllogisms, paradoxes, antinomies, theses, antitheses, syntheses, archetypes, prototypes, epitomes, quiddities, accidents, and essences. These are good things if they rest upon a living cultural reality. They are not helpful if they come before life’s realities are digested and cultural forms have been refined.
We must know something about life before we can confidently know truths about life in the abstract. The young should read the literary classics, which are about the drama of our humanity, and feel their hearts moved, before they are introduced to the study of philosophy. Interestingly, the literary classics teach one to be an intelligent observer of life, and this is exactly the frame of mind that enables one to relish philosophy and profit by it. — Ibid.
All of which is another way of saying that experience trumps day-dreaming every time.