I don’t know about the public intellectual per se, but for me it was the great literary critics from Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Wilde, and others who opened me to a world beyond my own nose… I think like a lot of people (especially working class like I was – retired now!) when delving beyond the occasional novel or short-story, etc. soon lose their way in a library. I know I did. As a young man I used to wonder: who wrote all these books? Each book seemed like a new world to me… an uncharted territory, and I was without map or compass in such a realm. I’d pick up a book here and there not knowing if it was good or bad (not in the moral sense, but in the sense of – good writing, ideas, history, fiction, science, philosophy, etc.). I just didn’t have a way of telling, of deciding what was worth reading or not. Even my teachers in grade school didn’t really go into it much. Oh we’d read a few books from time to time in class, but no one in grade school, Jr. High, or High School taught much more than the usual fare of safe and narrow books I think we’ve all come to know as the classics of one’s country or nation, etc. What lay outside of that was like a jungle full of unknown beasts.
So one day I happened on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I was amazed at the power of his words to capture for me some of the feelings and thoughts I’d always held and believed to be true (at least for me). His verse was simple, clear, and imaginative; and, it held me, fascinated me, kept me wanting more; wanting to know how he could put words together like that, how the spell he cast over me suddenly awakened laughter or tears. So I asked a librarian about Blake, and if they had any books on his life, etc. I was directed to Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. That was the first critical work I ever read. Suddenly I was thrown into a world that exposed me to critical thought for the first time. I was hooked. He made Blake’s poetry come alive, it made sense. I was now able with the help of Frye’s commentary on work and life of Blake to understand the message of the poetry as well as its music. Blake had many strains from lyric to epic to prophetic, etc. But it was this world of poetry that opened my eyes to language itself. From then own I wanted to know more, so I began reading all the poetry and critical lives and works on poets throughout the ages.
After that came my need to know the actual history and thoughts of people that informed much of this poetry. In school we’d been taught mainly dates and dull facts about the past, and most text books were boring and neutered of excitement. So for me school was dead and deathly for a growing mind. I only remember a handful of teachers that seemed truly excited about teaching and the subjects they taught. My literature, mathematics, and science teachers in several cities we lived in all seemed to care about their subjects and made me interested. And, that above all is what keeps one going, curiosity and interest.
I have to admit that philosophy came late in life. Most of these old books just didn’t make much sense at all. Like many undergraduates I probably got my inkling of philosophy from reading the philosophy of histories by Coplestone. Having been raised a Christian it took a while to overcome many of my doubts and feelings about what I read, but I persisted and much of what I read opened my mind to contrary thoughts and doubts concerning the validity of my upbringing and the Church. Needless to say it took years to work through these doubts and tribulations. Having been raised in Southern Baptist and Methodist ideology since childhood I was bound with the old notion of sin and death, hell and eternal punishment of the wicked, etc. Mentally it took me years to overcome my fear of eternal damnation, and the idea that that God and Devil alike were priestly lies; a way to control the mass mind of their tribes and nations.
Sorry to be so long winded… but for me literature, philosophy, sciences, history – the culture of the West gave me a new perspective and ballast against the ignorance and fear of my childhood world. I remember James Joyce once saying
“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
Maybe in the end that is something we all must do or remain in the prison house of fear and trepidation… never knowing our own thoughts, but rather trapped in the cage of an Other who decides for us what is true and good. I’d rather die alone, and with my own thoughts than be bound to the lock and stamp of some dogmatic world of ritual and repetition that seeks to control my mind. But, that’s me… I don’t suggest others follow me, but to follow their own path.