Elie Wiesel

The Proper Role of the Intellectual in Our Lives

VTR Date: May 20, 1994

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: The Proper Role of the Intellectual in Our Lives
VTR: 5/20/94

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women, you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms largest. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today; those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state, from the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its ending, to education for what, for whom? Today our dialogue will focus on the proper role of the intellectual in our lives.

And I would begin, Elie, by asking you if you’ve ever satisfactorily, to your own satisfaction, defined what that role should be?

WIESEL: Well I would first of all say that the role should be an improper role.


WIESEL: The intellectual should be always the one who questions, and therefore who questions himself or herself. The intellectual should not have power.

HEFFNER: Not have power?

WIESEL: It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous, because an intellectual likes to play with ideas. And in the course of his or her experiments, he or she may see in people, ideas. Which means abstractions, and therefore it’s dangerous because no human being is an abstraction. Every human being is more than an idea, more than the sum of all ideas. So the intellectual should be there together with the person in power and remind that person, “Wait, maybe what you are doing is not entirely correct. Maybe there is something else.” Always to say maybe there is another alternative.

HEFFNER: But Elie, that almost makes the intellectual the court jester.

WIESEL: Well, it depends on the text that the intellectual reads, so to speak, from his own mind. It also depends on the response of the person in power. If the person in power sees in the intellectual, the jester, then the intellectual shouldn’t be there, should go away, seek another ruler, another president, another mayor. It’s not so. It’s a very beautiful dialogue; the person who is a person of action and the other one who gives an articulation, an expression of and for that action.

HEFFNER: What about the intellectual in politics, himself or herself? We thought of Woodrow Wilson as the scholar in politics. There have been comparatively few presidents of the United States, but there have been more leaders abroad who could be broadly defined as intellectuals.

WIESEL: Well, the definition of the intellectual is a complex one. Who is an intellectual? Someone who read a thousand books? Someone who teaches? Someone who’s been taught? It is complicated. We would say the intellectual is someone who sees reality in concepts, in a terminology of possible ideas, one weighing against the other, or with the other, confronting one another. Wilson, yes but he… maybe when he left Princeton he already thought in terms of power. Look, today for instance, you want to tell me that the President of the United States, be he Democrat or Republican, sees his function as a person who deals with ideas, or even ideals, or with polls. We are ruled by pollsters. Every day there is a poll being conducted somewhere for the White House, for the governor, for the mayor and so forth. And it’s not what we want really, that we have; it’s what the pollster, in the way they phrase the questions, they are the rulers of the country.

HEFFNER: Do I understand correctly then that you are willing to endorse…. Perhaps that’s the wrong word and maybe you’re really saying let’s just recognize this dichotomy between power and the people, and the President, in this country, and the intellectual who deals with possibilities, and ideas, and ideals. It sounds as though you are separating the two.

WIESEL: No, altogether we are one society. And of course I hope that we all work for the republic, for the city, which is the noblest task of the politician, or of a statesman, or of an intellectual. We all work for the human family. However, within the framework of that family, what is our role? Look, Alexander, who was the greatest king of all – the conqueror of the whole world; he took with him a philosopher, Aristotle. Why? What did Aristotle know about politics, or about military matters? But he needed him. Even Khan Kublai had… They all want to have someone who questions. In the case of dictatorships, of course they all go to jail, or to the guillotine.

But whenever intellectuals get power, it’s dangerous. Take the French Revolution; Danton, Robespierre, they were intellectuals. And because of that, they became dictators. The moment they assumed power, it was dangerous for everybody. They became victims of their own experiments. Danton was beheaded, and Robespierre was beheaded, and Marat, Sade, et al. Take the Catholic Church, the Christian Church, in the beginning it was a church of ideas, of spirituality. It was a laboratory of the soul. The moment the Church acquired power, I think it realized that it was no longer the soul, really, that mattered. Domination was the goal.

HEFFNER: You know, the question that occurs to me is whether you see that we are in less danger, in a better position if the politician, if the public person achieves in some way intellectual’s blessings, and he has with him and with her, the intellectual, rather than the intellectual herself or himself gaining power, again going back to Wilson, again going back to the fact that with Bill Clinton in the White House we have a large number of scholars, Rhodes Scholars, a large number of intellectuals. Where would you put your bet; on the intellectual with political power, or the politician who draws upon the intellectual? I gather it’s the latter.

WIESEL: Yes, but still I would like the intellectual to have access, if not access to power, at least the ear of power. That is the main thing.

HEFFNER: And what does he spend, what does she spend, when the intellectual has that access to power? What goes with it, what obligations are there?

WIESEL: To listen, which is rare, to listen. And then, to be sure that the intellectuals that are at his or her disposal, at the service, should come from opposing sides. The problem is that when the President of the United States goes into the White House he usually brings, of course, the best scholars that he knows. As you said the Rhodes Scholars; Kennedy had Harvard. However, I would like the President to bring in scholars, theoreticians, philosophers, moralists from both sides, so he always hears two ideas, not one. And then, of course, because he is President, chosen by the people, we invest in him all our ambitions, all our dreams, all our hopes, he would know what decision to make.

HEFFNER: But, you see, I meant to ask that question in a very different way. Not what does the political leader give up, but what does the intellectual give up when involved in politics? What degree of independence of mind is surrendered when one becomes a member of the court?

WIESEL: Dick, that really is the danger. I think that the ruler should need the intellectual. But I hope that the intellectual will not yield to that temptation. Because for the intellectual too, it’s dangerous to be too close to power. There is something in power that corrupts, that… worse than that, that disturbs, perturbs, disfigures the thought process. I have seen it too much. A person that is close to the ruler changes, smiles more often, doesn’t say things that the person doesn’t want to hear. And therefore, slowly, the intellectual becomes, really, the expression of the ruler and the instrument of the ruler rather than the other way around.

HEFFNER: You say you’ve seen that happen too often.

WIESEL: I’ve seen it, sure. I don’t like to go to Washington for that reason, really, because I have been, years ago when I became the chairman, the first, of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. I have seen what Washington does to people. In a few months, in a few months, people that I had brought there to work; I have seen one person, in a few months that person was no longer the same because the access to senators, and to congressmen, and to the White House, and to advisers and… it’s not something I would advise, let’s say, my friends to hope for or to aspire.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that we in the academy are that weak-minded?

WIESEL: No, but seduction, the seduction of power, the temptation of power, the possibilities of power, it’s extraordinary. A person that, say, was in the White House; the cars, the secret service, and one telephone call and he gets a marvelous jet taking him or her anywhere. There is something though that, and also to be able to pick up the phone and speak to Yeltsin, or to Mitterrand, or to John Major or to anyone.

HEFFNER: Elie, you were telling me before about the Universal Academy of Cultures. You were telling me about this new organization which you have participated in organizing. Is this a means of channeling intellectual thought, intellectual power into our public lives?

WIESEL: To create a forum, another forum, there’s so many of them, another forum for intellectuals, of course intellectuals, to analyze, to scrutinize, and to specify what the problems of the day are. I like dialogue. That’s my life. I love dialogue. And I would like to see – I said people, the best qualified people by definition, should come and discuss every year a certain subject, and if the people in power will listen to us, good. If not, at least we have tried.

HEFFNER: And you will discuss every subject, here in the center of the universe, and let those with power, because you do separate those with power from those with intellectual, not pretensions…

WIESEL: We don’t take any member who is in power.

HEFFNER: You mean that precludes one? That power really precludes one in your estimation?

WIESEL: Yes, because it’s not the same thing anymore if you have a Prime Minister there, or President. We do have former presidents.

HEFFNER: Former presidents, so qualification is being out of politics, out of political… out of power?

WIESEL: Out of politics. If I could get, let’s say, bankers or private industry leaders who are qualified intellectually, most of them are I hope, then I would take them. Why not? But in power, politically, is dangerous. So I wouldn’t recommend that.

HEFFNER: Now, how will you function, as a grand academy?

WIESEL: They are already there. The idea came from President Mitterrand. And he asked me four or five years ago to create this academy. I established a small committee around myself. And we will have seventy members. We already have fifty or so from all over the world, many Nobel Prize winners and so forth, writers, poets, sociologists, architects. We will work as an academy. Which means we want to give, every year, an annual prize, a huge prize, comparable to the Nobel Prize but covering only the areas the Nobel Prize is not covering; history, communication, journalism, art, philosophy and so forth.

HEFFNER: To what end?

WIESEL: Well, to show I think that the spiritual endeavor, that intellectual process are part of civilization, and that we offer the same privilege of honoring men and women who do their best to move history one step forward.

HEFFNER: Elie, won’t this be further step for us toward the elitism that many people see as standing in the wings; that in our times the intellectually rich are getting richer and the intellectually poor are getting poorer?

WIESEL: Richer, richer in what way? The members of the academy don’t get money.

HEFFNER: I didn’t mean it in that way. I meant it in terms of power; that those who have had the blessings of education, those who have been able to avail themselves of the great thoughts of the present and of the past, that they will becoming fewer and fewer, comparatively speaking, and more and more isolated from the community of mankind.

WIESEL: Well, the idea is just the opposite.

HEFFNER: I know.

WIESEL: We have received things that others don’t have. It’s through the privilege of studying, the privilege of learning, the privilege of sharing. So what should we do then? This is a no win situation then. We say we don’t want to show that we are elitists; that we should stay in our residence, in our room, at our desk and work for ourselves, never to give. But the very fact that we give is humiliating to some. Therefore many do not want to receive. So should we do that? I believe the opposite is true. That because we receive, we must give back. I feel it very strongly, to give back. Even in America. I am a foreigner here. I came here as a refugee and I am grateful to this country. And I always feel I have to give back to this country, to this nation. Therefore, the minorities here, of all shades and classes, I try to the best of my abilities to be of help. Or of the human race, if I feel that I have to go somewhere and it’s not always important but they say it’s important, it’s because I have to give back.

HEFFNER: Elie, seventy years ago Walter Lippmann, in his great seminal book, “Public Opinion”, wrote at one point about organized intelligence. He thought there was hope for us, for survival, only if we could organize the intelligence of the world. Is there some of that in your academy? Is there some of that in your organization, some of the thought that if you organize the knowledge, the understanding, the intellect of the world community, that it will be a means of attaining survival?

WIESEL: Oh, in moments of grandeur, I hope, I think that is what we want to achieve. But I am much more modest. I believe in small things, in touching one person. I don’t want to touch millions. I’ll give you an example. The foundation that we have, you will remember you were in Moscow at least with us in here; we had a conference in Oslo in 1990. And we brought Mandela who had just come out of jail and the minister from South Africa, from the declared government. And, again, the subject was the anatomy of hate. There were many people, Havel, Mitterrand… and so forth. At one point, the minister from South Africa turned to Mandela and said, “Nelson, I grew up in apartheid. Now, my fervent wish is to attend its funeral.” And everybody was moved. So was Nelson Mandela, I sat next to him. As a result of that they began the dialogue that ended actually now with the election of Mandela as President. That was the beginning of the end of apartheid; two men, who wouldn’t have met otherwise or perhaps later on, but they met because we brought them together. And there was something in the air. It worked. Well, it’s a very small thing, as a beginning. I like to be that matchmaker, to bring people together.

HEFFNER: “In the beginning there was the Word,” it, your great interest in dialogue.

WIESEL: Certainly, what else do we have to give each other? Money. Money? To give if we have and we can afford it, of course we do, we should give. But what else can we give if not ourselves? And we give it to words.

HEFFNER: You mentioned Mitterrand’s role in the creation of your new organization. Will this be governmental?

WIESEL: Sponsored by the government, it was his idea, his and Jack Lang’s who was his Minister of Culture, but totally independent, totally autonomous. That means we do what we want. We decide who the next member will be. We decide who the awardee will be. The project, it’s totally free, we are free, sovereign, but paid for and sponsored by the French people.

HEFFNER: I know you will feel that when I ask this question the answer is to be found in what we’ve said up to this point. But I’ll repeat the question. Why?

WIESEL: Why? Because I’m afraid.

HEFFNER: Afraid?

WIESEL: I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the future. There’s so many thing that happen in this world that make me afraid; the violence which is growing daily, the violence among young people. Now we have seen that thirteen year old kids become murderers, the Glock threat. And then on a larger level, look what’s happening in the world, in Eastern Europe. We thought democracy will be the answer. It’s not, apparently. To my regret, to my embarrassment it is not. In the Middle East things are moving, of course thank God, but what about India? What about Kashmir? There are so many spots, hot spots, feverish lands, eruptions of ancestral hatreds. And I’m afraid of next century.

HEFFNER: And yet, Elie, you call the academy the Universal Academy of Cultures – plural.


HEFFNER: And haven’t we seen all around us, at the end of this benighted century, the conflict between cultures and their representatives, even their intellectual representatives? Mustn’t one fear these continuing conflicts?

WIESEL: Yes and no. What we have seen is that one nation, which was then, I said, a German nation – the Nazi regime, tried not to fight another culture but to eradicate it. What did Germany want then? To kill the Jewish people, but not only physically, but intellectually, spiritually, metaphysically, to eradicate the Jewish culture, Jewish memory. Now, we believe in the multifaceted culture. Meaning, why is it cultures? I believe that your culture, I mean your culture, a Native American, or a Hindu is as good as mine. And we must learn from each other. That is the aim of that academy, but that is the aim I think of all of us. What we are trying to do, in television or in writing, is to bring together readers from all over the world so they could see what they can offer to us, to our writing.

HEFFNER: But the use of the concept of diversity seems also to spawn hostility on the part of one culture against another. It’s not just a matter of Nazi Germany attempting to eliminate all other cultures aside from its own.

WIESEL: No, we had it in Russia with Stalin, of course.

HEFFNER: Alright. But without those super-forces, we now live in an age of conflict between the various cultures.

WIESEL: I don’t think so.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

WIESEL: No, I don’t. I think what I think we are trying now – we’re still in the early stages of the experiment in history. We are trying to show that each culture must remain sovereign as it opposes other cultures, but not to swallow them up or to be swallowed by them. But it must remain as they are.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that multiculturalism in this country, and the sometimes arrogance of the intellectual in fostering multiculturalism, hasn’t led to things you and I do not like, to intolerance itself?

WIESEL: Sure. One can be intolerant in being against tolerance. You know, again to the French Revolution when they said, “No tolerance for those who are enemies of tolerance.” We don’t have the absolute answer, you know that. There are flaws in every ideology, and there are flaws in every solution. We don’t have the solution. I would like for us to come out at least to phrase the questions. What are the questions that dominate our attention, dominate our lives?

HEFFNER: Your job then, is for your academy to find questions. Don’t intellectuals so frequently, finding questions, feel they must answer them and then push those answers?

WIESEL: Well they do, and when they do they reach a point when honestly they know they are wrong. Then they go further. If they had found the answer right away, they would stop. Why do intellectuals continue? Because they have not found the answer, but there is something mysterious and beautiful in that; that I found the answer now, and the answer itself becomes a question for tomorrow.

HEFFNER: What do you think, in the moments we have remaining, your academy will accomplish, will achieve? What do you want it to achieve over the next fifty years?

WIESEL: I think, first, to establish a hierarchy of priorities. What is a priority, let’s say, for the human race now at the end of this century? I would like to bring, to introduce morality in science; that the scientists should know there are moral considerations that are as important as the scientific ones. I would like to bring in ethics in medicine. All these are issues of life and death, not only for my generation but for many others as well.

HEFFNER: And do you think your academy will find the means of organizing its intelligence in such a way that you will be able to move these ideas into the public arena?

WIESEL: Of course not, but we will try.

HEFFNER: But we’ll try. Elie, we always try and you do more than most of the people I know. Thank you so much for joining me again today.

WIESEL: Thank you, Dick.