Stupidity And Goodness

It cannot be easy to be a stupid person, reminded of one’s disability at every turn. Fortunately there is a way for such an individual to justify himself in his own eyes and in those of the world: by encouraging the identification of intelligence with wickedness and stupidity with goodness. This works because we naturally think in binary terms and so are tempted by false opposites, such as brains contra virtue. Moreover, the intelligent wicked often do more damage than the stupid wicked, so that the mayhem gets attributed to their intelligence rather than to their wickedness.

A great tool for the identification of stupidity with virtue is the concept of “character”, which appears to mean some inner structure of the soul that is destroyed by thinking. It is true that intelligent people can sometimes think too much and so do the wrong thing; but then stupid people can equally often do the wrong thing through not thinking enough. And while you can appeal to the intellectual pride of a clever person so as to make him think better, you cannot do this with a stupid person who takes pride in not thinking at all. The latter is simply assuming that whatever impulses well up from his soul must be good, precisely because he is not one of them there Clever Dicks. And yet it is difficult to see why the absence of intelligence should make the drives, lusts and motivations of the stupid man automatically superior to the drives, lusts and motivations of the intelligent man.

One of the many reasons why people are so ready to believe in the “holy fool” – and overlook the existence of the unholy fools – may be the ambiguity of the word “innocence”. Etymologically it means “doing no harm”, which is the meaning it still carries in court. Somewhere along the line, however, it became confused with “ignorant” or “lacking experience”, particularly carnal experience, and so insinuated that the less you know, the better person you are. Contrariwise, the word “clever” carries all the freight of our helpless resentment of the people who are highly skilled at verbal persuasion, “making the worse cause appear the better”, as they used to say in Athens. But not knowing a thing or not having done a thing is not necessarily the same thing as doing no harm; in particular, it is quite possible to be a Machiavellian virgin. We should remember that the tag, “O sancta simplicitas!” was actually uttered by a cleric on beholding a man of the people carrying a faggot to the auto de fe with which to burn alive those who disagreed with doctrines that he did not himself understand. Moreover, there are potent techniques of emotional persuasion that do not involve uttering a single word, intelligent or otherwise – such as bursting into tears whenever you want something. For some strange reason, this kind of ruthless manipulation is not considered to be “clever” and thereby morally suspect.

The same goes for emotional dysfunction. There is no particular reason why very intelligent individuals cannot be either very emotionally messed-up, very wicked, or both. This is a great comfort to less intelligent but more emotionally stable or virtuous people. These should beware, however, of the temptation to pat themselves on the back, aided by the leap of illogic from “no reason why not” to “must inevitably be”. The choice is not a two-hander between devious, neurotic intellectuals and healthy, virtuous halfwits: it is by no means difficult to combine emotional chaos and acute wickedness with common-or-garden stupidity. Nor is it clear how being emotionally screwed-up is improved by being stupid into the bargain.

Posted on January 7, 2014 at 12:07 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

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