It was in the dying days of the Roman Empire when the Sybil Herophile came to see the last King of Rome, King Lucius Tarquinius. She brought with her a collection of prophecies and named a steep price. The king, ever the wise, refused to pay and demanded a lower price. She burned part of the prophecies and offered the rest at the same price. He refused to yield again. She burned yet another part and offered the remainder at the same price. The king, burdened by curiosity and a fear of loss of what was left of the collection, offered to pay the full price for part of what he ought to have received. Such has been the fate of our nation and its public intellectuals. For the better part of our post-independence history, we have; sometimes for the lack of interest, other times for the lack of effort, settled for part of the whole—and certainly not the better part. It is the consequence of this insouciance that we, as a nation, are wont to produce and cultivate mediocrity, conformity and, where it may allow, even outright vulgarity.

It may be premature to announce the death of the public intellectuals in Pakistan for they still live and breathe among us. They have only transmogrified into a mindless mass of useless clique. They can be found deliberating on serious issues on the tube from 6 to 12 pm each night. They may present before us an ever changing, albeit an improved, concept of culture and morality on our phone screens. And for someone interested in such fancies, they provide penetrating insights into their own lives; and their day to day evolution towards becoming the true model of humanity, on the latest reincarnation of any number of digital applications. The public intellectual of today is the career politician, the accidental journalist, the barely retired serviceman and the philanthropic celebrity. It is thus that the mantle of truth and wisdom, that treasured acquisition of mystics and philosophers, has been taken up by the conspicuous producers.

What is an intellectual and why do we need one? A public intellectual is the mind and conscience of a society. He is, as if by default, responsible for the instruction, guidance and, if necessary, censure of the public. An intellectual is personified in the likes of Ghazali and Anslem of Aosta, Shah Wali Ullah and David Hume, Syed Ahmed Khan and Von Humboldt. He acts as a liaison from the mundane towards the visionary. But an intellectual; despite his indifference to fame and fortune and his commitment to noetic rigor, is primarily a spiritual pedagogue for the masses. He does not long for the solitary study or the futile experiment. Nor does he pursue perfection or the attainment of an abstract ideal. Rather he exists “for the clarification of important abstractions,” George Scialabba notes, “for rhetorical solace and stimulus and for refinements and enlargements of moral imagination.” Thus, Scialabba concludes, the “specialty (of intellectuals) lies not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with specialty and force.” An intellectual is an “arbiter”, not an “investigator”.

On the steps of Jamia Masjid Delhi , in 1926, a young aspiring journalist of 23 was in attendance of the Friday sermon delivered by Mohammad Ali Johar. Johar lamented on the misappropriation of the concept of Jihad by Hindus and the British and wished that justice be done to the history of Muslims. That young man, home schooled and self-taught, came out with a book three years later. The merits of the book are left to be judged by history, but this event demonstrates the role of an intellectual in our own history. From Tehzeeb-ul-Akhlaq to Comrade, Al-Hilal to Zamindar, Tarjuman-ul-Quran to Nuqoosh, there is a rich history of great minds disseminating awareness and illumination to the masses. After the partition, members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement continued this public duty, often at the cost of their own freedom. These individuals were stigmatized, imprisoned and exiled, but nothing inhibited their aim. They enlivened the public, enriched their minds and stood for what they believed. Never did they falter at the sight of power or punishment. Their fear was not in defiance, but in conformity.

What we witness today in our country is a grave moral travesty. We no longer have Mohammad Ali to inculcate nor any young student to investigate. Neither do we have tasteful readers to constitute a meaningful discourse. What we do have is a daily parade of antics and charlatans. A certain self-proclaimed scholar informs us that we are a nation of fools and beggars and that we must await the Messiah in hiding to alleviate us from all our ills and injustices. And once the Messiah turns up and happens to fail under the weight of his own incapacity, we have no recourse—and thus we must live with our fate. In near proximity, we find yet another specimen, formerly of public service fame, who claims to be an expert on all things ever deliberated by man. His is a blend of the apocryphal with the scientific and the mixture is utter derision and confusion. There are actors presiding over lessons in history and politics; legible orators, with access to self-help books, becoming professors in ethics; third rate drama writers passing for novelists and novelists passing for philosophers; journalists preaching religion and clerics flirting with politics. The remainder of this coterie emerges as the politician; that rare breed of noble birth who Iqbal credited with the death of a nation. These ordained intellectuals harbour no pretensions to ideals. They take pride in their overzealous misplaced sense of responsibility and gratify their want for public attention with tricks and trivia. Their sole accomplishment—an inadvertent occurrence at a certain juncture in history. Their only creed –the death and resurrection of a new Mount Olympus every election cycle. Their exclusive tenet—equating vogue with the truth.

“The life history of nations shows”, announces Muhammad Iqbal, “that when the tide of life in a people begins to ebb, decadence itself becomes a source of inspiration; inspiring their poets, philosophers, saints, statesmen, and turning them into a class of apostles whose sole ministry is to glorify, by the force of a seductive art or logic, all that is ignoble and ugly in the life of their people.” If we are to break free from this purgatory of mediocrity and ambiguity, we ought to aspire after the entire collection of prophecies. In order for that to happen, we must first raise our ideals to those of enlightened nations and peoples. We ought to deny tolerance towards the culture of the absurd and refuse to answer the call of bread and circuses. We must return to the original source of human progress; the introspective mind, and the activist will. For if the mind of a nation is tainted with rabble, and the will corrupted by comfort, it is destined to oblivion. Whilst inspecting the aftermath of an arson in the town, an officer in Dostoevsky’s Demons informs the Governor of fire reaching the roofs of the houses. “The fire is not on the roofs of the houses,” replies the Governor, “it is in the minds of men.” We too must prepare to enflame our minds if only to lend credence to that uncertain adage of Shelley’s—men scarcely know how beautiful fire is.

The writer is

a graduate of CAS at NYU.