The Intellectual Grandeur of Ignatius Reilly
[This was written for one of my classes]
Ignatius Reilly is a man whose being has “many facets” (254). As a man whose being has many facets, he has attracted people sheerly through the “singularity and magnetism” of his being (124). He is clearly a “profound thinker who has a certain perspective on the world’s cultural development” (252). As a profound thinker, he has a worldview that “[m]ost fools don’t comprehend … at all” (255). In particular, this great being has “a rather extensive knowledge of political organization” (254). I’m already shaken by these pronouncements. How can we even hope to grapple with the sheer intellectual power Ignatius displays? Can we understand “the magnificence and originality of [his] worldview” (125)? How could we even wrestle with such a paragon of all intellectual paragons, peak of all peaks, high of all highs? Is there a summit that can eclipse his “rather invincible being” (226)? Ignatius, the final polymath? I trouble myself simply by pondering about taking up the intellectual task of our times: understanding the “complexity of [a] worldview” held by a being that has a “certain grace with which [it] function[s] in the mire of today’s world” (226). The simple “grandeur of [his] physique,” the power which his body radiates, already presents a problem for even approaching his mind, for how can we get to the mind before we even surmount the body (226)? If not even the greatest “psychiatrist could even attempt to fathom the workings of [his] psyche,” how shall we (306)? I think I might flounder… Having resisted collapse, it is best that we begin.
In John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, there is a “true genius” to which the rest of the characters in the book are all “dunces”: Ignatius Reilly. Being the intellectual powerhouse that he is, Ignatius Reilly must have the most warranted of beliefs… right? On the contrary, I maintain that Ignatius’s beliefs are not only unwarranted but irrational, in that, he irrationally holds them, and intellectually vicious, that is, their formation does not display any intellectual virtue (e.g., open-mindedness, humility, etc.). There are two beliefs of his that I believe best demonstrate this first part of my thesis: (i) his belief in a monarchy and (ii) his shift toward the use of degeneracy. Lastly, I take it that, contra Ignatius’ own words, he does not care for the truth and that this lack of care is the causal explanation for his irrationality and lack of intellectual virtue — this constitutes the second and final part of my thesis.
The first case that heavily undermines the view that Ignatius is a great intellectual is his belief in a monarchy. To clarify, by “belief in a monarchy” I mean the belief that we should have a monarchy. It is clear that Ignatius wants a monarchy: “What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life” (213). Furthermore, it is clear that his motivations for taking up the monarchist position are everything but truth-directed or intellectually virtuous. Instead, his main motivation is contrarianism. Unsurprisingly, like most conceited “intellectuals” (they are everything but intellectuals), Ignatius is a contrarian. We can see him be one in almost every exchange he has with Myrna Minkoff. Within the text, Myrna reveals that contrarianism was one of the main motivations for Ignatius’ committing to his divinely sanctioned monarchism:
I don’t imagine that your sociological political ideas are getting any more progressive either. Have you abandoned your project to form a political party or nominate a candidate for president by divine right? I remember when I finally met you and challenged your political apathy, you came up with this idea. I knew that it was a reactionary project, but it at least showed that you were developing some political consciousness. (181)
It’s clear that Ignatius only took up the view after being challenged by Myrna which is an important fact because Myrna is “progressive.” It seems, then, that Ignatius not only took up a position, as all faux intellectuals do when pressed on any subject, but one contrary to their dialectical challenger. I think it is quite clear that contrarianism is one of the main motivations for his monarchism. Lastly, we can see that some degree of ad hoc rationalization has taken place between the time in which he was challenged by Myrna and the present as he no longer just wants a divinely approved president but a divinely approved king — the extremity of the ad hoc revisions is not an intellectual virtue I might add. Thus, we can clearly see that (i) Ignatius holds a view which he provides no warrant for (the text doesn’t even mention an attempt) and (ii) the view is irrationally held, in that, its genesis was out of a contrarian attitude which is not intellectually virtuous and which then was maintained and developed in an ad hoc and extreme fashion.
The second case that heavily undermines the view that Ignatius is not one of the dunces himself is his shift toward endorsing degeneracy. It is clear that he really does shift toward endorsing degeneracy: “Degeneracy, rather than signaling the downfall of a society, as it once did, will now signal peace for a troubled world” (270). Furthermore, it is very clear that the motivations he has for shifting his view on degeneracy are not truth-directed nor intellectually virtuous. The motivation is simple: it is to “one up” Myrna. Ignatius says, “Does M. Minkoff want sex in politics? I shall give her sex in politics — and plenty of it! No doubt she will be too overcome to respond to the originality of my project. At the very least, she will seethe with envy. (That girl must be attended to. Such effrontery cannot go unchecked.)” (270). It is clear that, again, Ignatius holds this view without warrant and that the motivation for the view is intellectually vicious and irrational.
Now, there is a possible objection to this second claim of mine. On pages 251 and 252, we see Ignatius’ first interaction with this new view of degeneracy. Ignatius finds that having “degenerates” such as Timmy, a character that dresses up as a member of the U.S. Navy, in the military could undermine the ability of the military to do its job, that is, to engage in combat. Ignatius reasons that if the militaries of the world were comprised of only people like Timmy, there would then be “an end to war forever” (251). Thus, he concludes that degeneracy is a means to the end of world peace. His reasoning seems to have some merit to it. Certainly, if every solider was like Timmy “[t]he power-crazed leaders of the world would … find that their military leaders and troops were only masquerading sodomites who were only too eager to meet the masquerading sodomite armies of other nations in order to have dances and balls and learn some foreign dance steps” (252). So, if Ignatius is not being totally irrational here, how does my thesis hold up? Is this not a belief that is rationally held? Is it not intellectually virtuous? I, maintaining my thesis, continue to forward the answer, “No.” How do I rationally maintain my thesis in the face of this seemingly good objection? By demonstrating it is mistaken of course! Let us go on to carry out this demonstration.
First, the text reveals that the real motivation for taking up the view in the first place is not the desire to solve the issue that is war. Instead, that the view could be “a means of assaulting the effrontery of M. Minkoff” was what motivated Ignatius to take up the view (251). Thus, the intellectual vice of contrarianism is a motivation for his assent to the view. This forwards my thesis. Second, Ignatius is not making a rational commitment. Let me explain how he isn’t as it may not be immediately evident. Ignatius has a commitment to “[p]ragmatism,” that is, he has a commitment to the view that we should use means that can achieve desired ends even if the means themselves are immoral (271). That this is what he means by pragmatism is evident due to the fact he sets up an opposition between “Pragmatism and Morality” (271). This opposition is talking about the opposition between the immorality of the means (degeneracy) and the morality of the desired end (world peace, the end of war). With this in mind, we understand that he also has a commitment to “[m]orality” (271). If he really does have a commitment to both of these views then it would be more rational to forward a means to achieve the desired end that is the least immoral. For example, instead of proposing the means of degeneracy, why not demilitarization, something that is not only more practically feasible than having militaries only be comprised of Timmy-like soldiers but also more moral? So, there is some degree of “irrationality” present in Ignatius’ commitment to the view. Furthermore, he is not even trying to maximize the probability of his ends being achieved. He says, “I am too obsessed with Peace,” yet he has not pondered on any alternative solution which could better achieve world peace. This demonstrates another intellectual vice present in Ignatius, myopia, or maybe it just demonstrates stupidity. Thus, while the objection raised above does have some force against my thesis because there is some degree of rationality present in Ingatius’ shift toward degeneracy as well as some warrant to it, I have demonstrated that it is not an objection that holds very much weight at all because there is still a high degree of intellectual viciousness present in Ignatius’ cognitive character as well as some degree of irrationality.
I find that it is Ignatius’ lack of commitment to truth that causally explains his irrationality and intellectual viciousness. First, the view that Ignatius holds that he has a strong commitment to the truth is supported throughout the text. For example, he says, “I must lay down my pencil, my engine of truth” (127). Another example would be when he is speaking of Myrna’s logic as “a combination of half-truths and clichés,” obviously implying that his logic and worldview is comprised only of complete truths (125). That this is what he is implying becomes clear when he explicitly says that he “tried to guide her toward the path of truth,” which he takes to be his path (125). Second, that he does not head toward the truth has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the entirety of this essay. He does not reflect on or develop his views in any significant sense (e.g., his commitment to monarchism), he does not try to consider alternative views (e.g., all but the last of his interactions with Myrna throughout the book and his shift to degeneracy), and he does not take it upon himself to critique his own views because of a total lack of intellectual humility (see the first paragraph of this essay; most all of the quotations were Ignatius’ self-description). These are just three pieces of a great amount of evidence that supports the view that he does not actually care for the truth. Now, onto my explanation of the cause of his intellectual vices and irrationality.
Those that are not concerned with the truth tend to have dispositions that are a stable part of their cognitive character that is directed away from the truth. We will call these dispositions intellectual vices. An example of an intellectual vice would be being a contrarian and thus also close-minded. Both are dispositions that decrease the probability that you will find the truth. As continually demonstrated, Ignatius suffers from both of those intellectual vices. Someone who is concerned with finding the truth will not have these dispositions or will, at least, actively try to rid themselves of them, that is, act to make these dispositions no longer a stable part of their cognitive character. Ignatius clearly does not do this. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated that (i) Ignatius does not care for the truth (ii) his dispositions are directed away from the truth, and (iii) this is because of the fact he does care for truth, for if he did, he would then act to remove those dispositions unless he was an unintelligent actor. Let me explain this last clause. If he is an intelligent actor, that is, an actor who has faculties apt to identify and solve problems, he would then be able to identify and then solve the problem that are his problematic dispositions, i.e., his intellectual vices. This creates a double-bind of sorts that demonstrates the inevitability of my thesis is the case to at least some degree: either (i) he does not care for the truth and it is this lack of care for the truth that explains why he is full of irrational and intellectually vicious dispositions as well as why he does not act in a way to destabilize these dispositions from their position as stable parts of his cognitive character or (iia) he does care for truth but he is just not intelligent enough to recognize that he has these dispositions or (iib) he does care for the truth and recognizes that he has these dispositions but he is just not intelligent enough to figure out a way to destabilize them. Which of these options we take to be the case does not matter. What matters is the fact that we have to take one of them to be the case and thus we have to admit my thesis to some degree: Ignatius is one of the dunces himself, and not just a dunce above the dunces because he has an education, but a dunce with the rest of the dunces.
In this paper, I have forwarded the thesis that Ignatius is not actually a true genius amongst a confederacy of dunces, he is a confederate. To demonstrate my thesis I first turned to a couple of his commitments. The first was his commitment to monarchism and it was found to be ill-motivated, irrational, and predicated on intellectual vices. The second was his shift to a commitment to degeneracy. This shift was found to be ill-intentioned, predicated on intellectual vice, and somewhat irrational. Though, I raised a possible objection to my description of his shift to a commitment to degeneracy that someone disputing my thesis could make. Going over the objection, I demonstrated how it actually has very little force as an objection to my thesis. Then, to further demonstrate my thesis, I looked at his self-purported commitment to truth and showed how it is just that: purported, it is not actually so. I, lastly, provided a double-bind of sorts that forces one to accept my thesis to at least some significant degree. What I have shown in this essay is this: while it is true that Ignatius is better educated than the rest, he is not above them. In fact, it may be the case that his cognitive character is worse than some of the others, e.g., Jones. The importance of this inquiry is found in the fact that it exposes the falsity of a common view of Ignatius: that he is above all the other dunces in some significant way. Thus, having succeeded in proving my thesis, I put to rest my engines of truth, my fingers and my keyboard.
: I want to note that there is another minor case that is almost totally analogous to this case of degeneracy: the Levi Pants revolt. Ignatius was, predictably, just trying to outdo Myrna. He claims, on the contrary, that he really has an “intense devotion to the cause of justice” (127). The obvious issue with this claim of his is that it is inconsistent with his other commitments such as African Americans’ desire to not be oppressed being confused. He says that African Americans’ desire to not be oppressed and excluded led him “to question their value judgments” (122). If this is not sufficient evidence for the view that Ignatius is, and pardon my French, an inconsistent and blabbering idiot, then I don’t know what could be. He is either intentionally disingenuous and intellectually vicious or he really does have deficient faculties. I take it that the former is more plausible than the latter but if one were to maintain the contrary, I wouldn’t count it against them. I do not mention this in the paper proper due to concerns about length and repetition. Nonetheless, it is significant enough to warrant its mention in a footnote.
Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Grove Press. 1980.