In 1889 the French novelist Paul Bourget wrote a novel, The Disciple. He described the “egghead” existence of a noted philosopher and psychologist: seemingly lost in things “merely academic,” living up four flights of stairs, caught up in the humdrum routine of meals and walks, coffee and lectures. Three times a week he had visits from scholars and students from four to six, and then dinner, short walk, a little more work, and bed promptly at ten. It was the existence of an inoffensive, scholarly man who, in the words of his housekeeper, “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Then one day he was summoned to a criminal inquest concerning a brilliant young man who had been his student and had climbed those four flights of stairs to drink in illuminating and liberating discussions. In prison awaiting trial for murder, this young disciple had written an account of what he had done and how those liberating doctrines enthusiastically discussed in the abstract had worked out in actual practice. The results are only infrequently a matter of murder, but world as well as individual events ride upon the waters of an ideational sea. “The killing fields of Cambodia come from philosophical discussions in Paris” (Paul Johnson).
The Divine Conspiracy