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Joan of Arc: A Patron Saint for Intellectuals?

[Intellectuals can be brilliant, clever, witty, entertaining, informative and enlightening. It would therefore appear counter-intuitive to suggest that an illiterate peasant girl who, as she told her learned examiners at Poiters, “didn’t know A from B,” would be any sort of model or guide to those whose lives revolve around words and abstractions. But models can be of two kinds, those who possess in a high degree the qualities that we possess or aspire to possess, and those who possess the opposite qualities. In Joan’s case, the qualities that she possessed are the very ones where intellectuals frequently fall short. She was physically courageous, physically capable—observers testified that she wielded sword and lance like a professional soldier—unself-conscious, emotional, practical, industrious, sensible, and, above all, effective. The human race has always found the first two qualities next to irresistible. But the last two in the list should be of particular concern to the intellectual.

So often we find that brilliant minds are deficient in good sense. Take the case of pacifism. Three brilliant men, a great playwright, a great mathematical logician, and a great physicist had all thought their way to the pacifist position, namely, that war is indefensible. But when the Nazis came along, each of them publicly disavowed pacifism and announced the need to fight. Their names were George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein. Joan of Arc, by contrast, was never a pacifist. Marauding armies and a local squire-turned-brigand taught her while still a child all she needed to know about the consequences of helpless non-resistance.

As for effectiveness, the fear of not having it, of failing to influence the people you are trying to reach is something that haunts almost every intellectual, even the most successful. In the eyes of many of her contemporaries it must have seemed that Joan’s life ended in failure, quite apart from her manner of leaving it. She failed to take Paris, failed to break the English power that was to survive for another twenty-two years during which the war swung back and forth. Joan’s story is inspiring on many levels, but it is this sense of failure, which must have weighed heavily on her during the long months leading up to her execution, that is, perhaps, the most encouraging thing about it.

In hindsight, of course, it is all highly ironic. What she accomplished in her brief two year career is breathtaking by any standard: the military gains she made possible were irreversible, and thus she was instrumental in ending the longest war in European history; she forcibly shoved the history of a nation into a new path—writing more than a century ago Mark Twain estimated that 500 million Frenchmen were beholding to her; to a very considerable degree she brought to birth a new national consciousness and gave her country a founding hero; and finally, through the work of such artists as Francois Villon, Shakespeare, Rubens, Voltaire, Schiller, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Leonard Cohen, Elton John and many others, including innumerable historians, she has entertained, fascinated, and inspired millions for over half a millennium.

I suppose that for a hardcore naturalist (or philosophical materialist) any woman might have been Joan of Arc, provided she had been born in the right place, at the right time, with the right genes and the right—or rather, wrong, in the sense of abnormal—brain chemistry. She would have had to have been an extraordinarily quick study in the military arts as well, but perhaps that is included in the genes. But this way of explaining phenomena like Joan drains the life out of them. It is deeply unsatisfying to most people, and ultimately unacceptable. For the majority, the only appropriate response to the way in which Joan of Arc enriched the human experience is admiration and wonder.]

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