Penelope Maclachlan

A cliched image of an intellectual is of one who sits in a library and pores, day and night, over huge tomes.  True intellectuals, though, mix and mingle with the public and proclaim their messages far and wide. We need intellectuals in the world today, where so much is going wrong: wars, the climate catastrophe, inequality, and the Covid pandemic. Intellectuals have wisdom and foresight, which they deploy in their unique ways. Their role is to arouse onlookers and inspire them to find out and understand what needs to be changed and how to effect these changes. 

Intellectuals must have knowledge; ability and willingness  to awaken society; and purpose. They must recognise and accept responsibility for guiding the thoughts and actions of others. Action is essential. As Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”   

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine is an intellectual. We see him on television when he speaks about the war, but he is far from an occupant of a ringside seat. On the contrary, he regularly joins crowds on the ground and in the open, despite the danger to himself. In The Guardian, 5 April 2022, there is a photograph of him surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers at Bucha, where mass graves were discovered.  

He has knowledge. He knows how ruthless President Putin of Russia is, and how he underestimates the courage and military skills of Zelenskiy, the husbands and fathers among his fellow citizens, the Ukrainian army, and the resilience of women parted from their husbands, not knowing when or even if they will see them again, or whether they face rearing fatherless children. 

Zelenskiy has ability. His sharp mind and diplomatic acumen tell him when to negotiate and compromise, as when he stated his willingness to be neutral instead of insisting on joining Nato. As The Guardian reports (15 March 2022):

 Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has acknowledged that Ukraine will not become a Nato member, in a significant concession on a day when Kyiv was pounded by Russian shells and missiles and the invading force tightened its grip on the capital

He knows when to speak out, usually in Ukrainian or Russian, but sometimes in English. . He is a former actor and, like all gifted people, can deploy his gifts in different roles: he was a comedian, and now he is a great leader. Let us hope he saves Ukraine, the west, and perhaps the whole world. 

He has purpose: to free Ukraine from oppression and maintain its independence. He respects neighbouring countries, perhaps especially Poland, whose citizens have worked tirelessly to welcome and accommodate Ukrainian refugees. He inspires citizens of other countries to urge their governments to send weapons to Ukraine. He deploys his gift for oratory, and the BBC reports on 24 March 2022:

“Within a minute or two of his address to MPS in London on 3 March, he was comparing Ukraine’s 13 days of war to the Battle of Britain, the country’s era-defining battle in World War Two.

By way of Shakespeare (“To be or not to be”), he arrived, inevitably, at Winston Churchill. Mr Zelensky did not name Britain’s wartime leader, but subtly adjusted Churchill’s iconic 4 June, 1940 speech to fit Ukraine’s geography.

“We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets, we shall fight in the hills,” he said.

But as Mr Zelensky’s parliamentary tour has progressed, other more strident notes have crept in. He’s not been afraid to chide and scold the West for what he sees as its failure to deliver enough support.

Greta Thunberg, the young  climate activist from Sweden, is an intellectual. She began her campaign when she was 15 years old, and is today only 19. She has shown exceptional maturity and understanding of a disaster which threatens every living human being. She has ability and willingness to awaken society. In 2018 children the world over joined her on Fridays when they left their schools for a few hours to  demonstrate against burning fossil fuels. This developed into a movement called Friday For Future, a global climate strike movement by students.   

In 2019 Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil,  called her a pirralha (brat), perhaps hoping to make her apologise for saying, quite correctly., that he connived at the killing of indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. She briefly changed her Twitter bio to “pirralha”.   

Now adults and statesmen everywhere take her seriously. though she is far from in awe of the great and good, whom she accused in Milan in 2021 of “Bhal, blah, blah” – words, hot air and no action. 

Her influence is alive and well. Climate activists took part in a Friday For Future demonstration as part of the Global Climate Strike, to call for action against climate change on March 25, 2022 in Rome, Italy. 

Her purpose is to save human beings from the effects of pollution and burning fossil fuels, especially from the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and ever since.  She is the author of The Climate Book, which Penguin will publish in the autumn of 2022. She assembles the contributions of more than 100 writers, including Thomas Piketty and the novelist Margaret Atwood. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Great Thunberg are very different people, but both are intellectuals whom the world desperately needs.  

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