When intelligence is stupid

For a long time, I had a group to discuss politics and theology with close friends. As is often the case, two of us agreed on most matters and formed an alliance against the others. Jokingly, but a little seriously, we referred to ourselves as the “Intelligence Team”. It’s friendly and funny, if a little ridiculous.

Who could be against intelligence? Who would like to be dull or sluggish, or worse still, pass for dull and sluggish?

In his Nicomachean Ethics

, Aristotle describes intelligence or understanding (nous) as the intellectual virtue by which we apprehend first principles. Such principles are known, but, as they are the first, they cannot be demonstrated or supported by other, more fundamental premises. The intellect captures them as true with a flash that is neither an intuition nor a conclusion. Thus, all other theoretical reasoning depends on intelligence, which provides the fundamental principles.

Yet it is obvious to any experienced man that intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, morality, or even basic decency. The intelligent man can turn out to be the worst or the most stupid just for being cunning and scheming. Just as, sooner or later, we conclude that interesting people are nice, but solid and serious men are better friends, perhaps maturity requires that we moderate our admiration for intellectuals, academic clergy and other intelligent types.

Varieties of Stupidity

Known for his modernist classic The Man Without Qualities[…] , Robert Musil (1880–1942) gave a lecture in the anxious Vienna of 1937, “On Stupidity”, which is useful here. The “notion of stupidity,” he suggests, is something like incapacity or inability. But in a time of “middle-class convention,” the conception of stupidity is narrowed, confined to the realm of “mental work” and “rational successes.” Stupidity is thought to describe “one who is ‘a little weak in the head.'” While a difficulty in understanding may be occasion for humour, Musil rightly points out that there is nothing dishonorable about dullness. “Honorable stupidity is a little dullness of understanding, […] is poor in ideas and words”, but also has “a great deal of red-cheeked life” and is “charming”. Sam Gamgee comes to mind, or so Bertie Wooster. need fingers to do math, but there’s nothing dishonorable about that.

It’s obvious the any experienced man that intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, morality, or even basic decency. The intelligent man may turn out to be the worst or the most stupid righteous person. r be cunning and scheming.

If honorable stupidity is a weakness in the understanding, the dishonorable version “is, of course, far, the most dangerous”. It is not so much the absence of intelligence, but a “failure of intelligence”. Intelligence is there, but out of balance, “malformed and erratically active,” sick in some way. “High stupidity” is an “uncultured” that causes not only a dullness of mind, but also a blindness or a refusal to see.

Musil suggests three primary qualities of this type of smart stupidity. First, it claims success and ease in matters beyond its competence. Second: it gives space to emotions at the expense of reason. Third: it is smart enough to invent rationalizations for its own opinions, no matter how bizarre the opinion, nor how silly the excuse.

As a result, intelligence does not guide to true knowledge of first principles and for reality, as in Aristotle’s view, otherwise confuses the mind. It results in an escape from reality, with all the cultural and spiritual pathologies that come with living in a fictional reality. Of course, given the unity of the human being, stupidity of this kind affects sensitivity, discouraging taste and emotions. Such intelligence becomes a dangerous disease of the soul and “endangers life itself”.

Culture of intelligence


Our era certainly privileges mental work, the creative class, the specialist, the intellectual, the man of letters and symbols: in short, our culture is a culture of intelligence. The smart are valued, hired, hired, promoted, and praised, and their products govern and direct us. But what kind of intelligence? The honorable or the dishonorable?

Do our brilliant luminaries claim competence in things that are clearly beyond the capacity of policy and the state? Are our best and most powerful ruled by reason or emotion? Do our elites offer extravagant rationalizations for obvious oddities? Do the most important institutions of our society tame and direct intelligence to serve reality or an incultural revolt?

Right now, we see the West dominated by exaltation. Our good institutions lack conviction, while the worst are exalted by passion and threatening our social order. The irrationality of our experts in their responses to covid has harmed the education and well-being of our children, pushed us into a mental health crisis, fomented nihilistic violence and destroyed wealth with inflation. A tremendously destructive mania for human experimentation continues with the contagion of rapid-onset gender dysphoria. We have no idea what puberty blockers will do in the long run, yet our cultural guardians silence anyone asking relevant questions. It is a plague of social disorder and chaos, and much of it is incited by the extravagant abstractions of the intelligent.

The smart are valued, admitted, hired, promoted and praised, and their products govern and direct us. But what kind of intelligence? The honorable or the dishonorable?

Roger Scruton suggested that many “grand liberal conceptions” concerning rights and freedoms are mere exaltations that leave “death and destruction in the end”. For Scruton, who was a conservative, abstractions always bring the breath of high stupidity, as they are disconnected from reality and invented. Rather than cleverly constructed (and intelligent in their own way) abstractions, Scruton suggested that “we rational beings need customs and institutions that are founded on something other than reason if we are to use our reason to beneficial effect.” This, he thought, is the “main contribution of conservatism” to an understanding of human life, as well as an essential truth.

Search for sanity

Given the confusion, the temptation among some on the right to respond to such misguided abstractions with their own abstract theories and designs, or grand schemes, is understandable. However, this mimics the “high stupidity” responsible for fragmenting the institutions, structures, customs and habits on which reason genuinely depends, as Scruton argued. Instead, we should value sanity far more than we do now. We’ve become so used to praising “mental work” (in Musil’s phrase) that we hunt down the smart ones, recruit and promote the bright boys, while neglecting the solid young ). Certainly a man of good judgment, firm character, and immovable rectitude is as commendable as the inventive and agile man—and in social and political life he is much more important.

The man The sane is invariably a man of morals, of deference to the judgment gathered by long experience, including the experience of the dead. After all, they knew something and continue to exercise judgment over the manners, mores and habits of a people. Healthy youth have a kind of inborn knowledge of what to do, and so they maintain stability, which is a basic condition for rational self-government. Revolution and rupture, so prized by the intelligent with their plans and projects, demand fluidity, liquidity and malleability: skills, all of these, of the very intelligent, as well as generally destructive to a decent and orderly society. Silicon Valley disruptors flourish while San Francisco collapses, for example.

Man is not confident in civilizational achievements. It is no accident that Plato’s vision of education does not begin with philosophy and cleverness, but with the formation of good judgment and taste. In the end the philosopher must rule, he says, but the ruler emerges from those who have already been brought up in good judgment; that is, the ruler must be considered sane, sensitive, so that he does not succumb to the novelty (however senseless) proposal that destroys order and well-being. social. She holds a great appreciation for guarding the civilizational heritage, this prosaic mistress who knows that the ruler must pass on a cultivated tradition to her pupils rather than tear it to pieces.

Theoretical reason, so necessary and wonderful within its limits, is worse than merely erroneous in political and social life. It becomes stupid, a lot.

For most men, having their usual way of life “problematized ” leads to no flash or clarity, but confusion and vertigo. Too many young people have had the rug pulled out from under their feet by their smart teachers. Unsurprisingly, the result is alienation, nihilism, anger and despair. The “failure to take off” that haunts so many young people, including the fear of “growing up” and the rejection of the idea of ​​growing up, marrying and having children, is compounded by the smartest among us. We often erroneously refer to this as the failure of elites, but they destroyed more than they failed.

We privilege

too much

the intelligence. Or rather, we favor an intelligence that is very suitable for the world of science — with its doubts, experiments and theories — but that cannot understand human things. Our attempts to forcefully use a tool that is great in another sphere have done serious damage. Theoretical reason, so necessary and wonderful within its limits, is worse than merely erroneous in political and social life. It becomes stupid, and a lot. Think of the vicious abstractions that harm so many of the most vulnerable and dependent—in gender ideology and political utopianism, to name just two.

Aristotle was wiser. Different orders of reality require different orders of the intellect to suit them, and what he calls a well-educated man—the sane man—knows the difference. The practical wisdom of healthy man is intelligence of the right kind, an intelligence relative to action. The man educated in this way “knows first principles” and, in fact, lives according to “intelligence and correct order”, in his expression.

Sanity is the intelligence that apprehends the governing principles of action. Such principles are universal; govern all human actions. But they are not theoretical, and it is not the smart, but the good, who learn them more easily.

We have a great need for healthy men and healthy women. As long as we don’t value and praise them as much as we value the smart, and as long as the sane don’t rule and legislate above the smart, our problems will have no end.

RJ Snell is editor-in-chief of Public Discourse and director of academic programs at the Witherspoon Institute. Previously, he was for many years Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University and Templeton Honors College, where he founded and directed the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.

©2022 The Public Discourse. Published with permission. Original in English.2022
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