Reflections on Intelligence.


One time a friend said to me, “I know Hitler was a monster, but he was a genius also!”

I remember how that thought grated on me. Really? Hitler … genius? Didn’t feel or sound right to me.

Over time, as I noodled it around in my noggin, I was able to put words to my discomfort: Hitler had a bunch of really stupid ideas that he was able to implement really well, if ultimately unsuccessfully (thank God!).

So, yes, Hitler had a “gift,” a gift which, if one is speaking loosely, could be categorized as at a “genius level.”(1) All you have to do in order to recognize it is to find a Hitler speech on YouTube and watch for a bit. Try to find one without distracting subtitles. It’s mesmerizing. Now, imagine that you find out that you have the same talent to electrify people with nothing more than how you present your ideas. Precisely, what ideas would you present?

That’s when I came to the conclusion that “intelligence” is one thing. It’s intellectual capacity, it’s the ability to accumulate stuff in your brain, to order it, organize it, and then to retrieve it again. And that’s just fine. However, it’s not enough.

Intelligence without wisdom — the ability intelligently to identify exactly what ideas to present with your great oratorical talents — is worthless.

Look at our current President. He has an extraordinary ability to present really pretty, intelligent-sounding words, expressing really stupid things. Remember “the seas receding?” Remember how we were told that “we were the ones we were waiting for all this time?” Beautiful! Really stupid, but beautiful. Is President Obama a genius?

I remember once when someone referred to Muhammad Ali as “a genius.” Just like with Hitler, that sat poorly with me. It struck me that Ali did something really stupid — beating the stuffing out of other men — really well. Could that possibly be a genius? Or someone really good at being really stupid, or — the mirror image of “genius.”

Einstein said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” He seems to be indicating that intelligence has something to do with the ability to use external knowledge as well to add to one’s intelligence. That would seem to indicate that Einstein attributed a great deal of importance, as far as intelligence is concerned, to the ability to organize and retrieve on demand, known, unknown and forgotten information, either in the brain or elsewhere in the world.

Someone, not sure who, said, “Genius is never destructive,” or something of the sort. Hmmmm… sounds good to me. That would seem to foreclose Hitler, Obama and Muhammad Ali from being qualified to join the ranks of the geniuses, as opposed to the merely finitely clever. In fact, this subjects each to the assessment that they really belong in the ranks of those who do something really stupid really well.

Absent wisdom, what makes these last historically important people any different from circus performers?

If they had been forced to be honest with the public, each of them — Hitler, Obama and Ali — would have had to confess: “I have a really wel-developed single talent — mesmerizing oratory, great public speaking, and beating the daylights out of other men — but other than that, I have nothing that would indicate that I’m any more intelligent than any of you. I certainly have given you no indication whatsoever that I’m any wiser than you.”

How many of our prominent politicians, or other leaders, have actually demonstrated that they have extraordinary levels of intelligence, and wisdom, as opposed to merely a well-developed skill at, say, public speaking?

I can think of several: George Washington. His act of declining king-like power is a jaw-dropping example of astonishing character, humility and wisdom — all learned characteristics requiring considerable levels of intellectual work and exercise, the prime components of … intelligence. Most of his adult life is suffused with such astonishing acts of serious intelligence and wisdom.

There was also Ronald Reagan, who once said, “You can get a lot done if you’re not worried about who gets the credit.” Again, amazing humility from someone who, you might think, would have reason to be quite proud of himself and of his own accomplishments.

Mitt Romney, who has improved the lives of tens of thousands through charitable giving, overt acts of generosity, and being an astonishingly good businessman. All but the last were completely out of the limelight and known only to those who bothered to dig deeply into his life story. Again, humility that comes only from lots and lots of intellectual work.

It wasn’t by accident that the Obama campaign of 2012 tried to find a company that Romney’s company, Bain Capital, had purchased and subsequently closed. If Romney’s real story were known, the yawning gulf between his vast personal generosity, and the Democrats’ now legendary greed and self-absorption could very well have propelled Romney to the White House.

<digression>

The so-called “rough-and-tumble” of American politics is really just vacuous nitwittery. You can expect Democrat politicians and candidates to distort, lie, defraud, bludgeon and bully their way through their election campaigns in order to win. You can expect them to say the stupidest things really well, looking you right in the eye and calling you a complete idiot because they’re sure you’l fall for it.

You can likewise expect Republican and Conservative candidates to fold like cheap, recycled paper after being accused of all manner of fraudulent nonsense, thereby tacitly admitting that the Democrat buffoonery is a legitimate electoral tactic.

Either way, you can expect that you will not hear an intelligent airing of competing views on important issues.

Why would anyone intelligent and wise choose to participate in the infantile, ludicrously moronic, idiotic slop that the American left has made of electoral politics?

In fairness, it was just as much the above-mentioned Republican and Conservative caving and folding that allowed the left free reign to trash America and her elections.

</digression>

Yet, we seem in our minds to try to glue all sorts of additional positive characteristics to people who have only one, single, sometimes very well-developed skill, often calling them “genius.”

These other positive characteristics are absolutely unearned, and our seemingly unstoppable desire to ascribe them to the completely undeserving seems mysterious, but it probably isn’t.

It probably stems from something as simple as the following line of reasoning: (1) That guy is really good at that one thing, and that probably means that (2) he’s disciplined, and (3) he tries to be really good at all these other things too, and (4) because he’s really good at that one thing, then (5) he probably has the ability to be really good at all those other things — like learning and knowing and being wise, so (6) he probably is.

Sadly, though, sometimes the exact opposite is the case. The person is of only average gifts, but works really hard at developing the one skill, to the exclusion of all those other great things. It’s really quite easy to be “intelligent,” ie to learn and to know and to assimilate and to recall lots of things.

It’s an entirely different animal to be wise. That takes … work. Real work. And it’s dangerous work, filled with traps, pitfalls, wrong paths that look right — that you must reject — and right paths that look wrong — that you must embrace.

It’s finding out — often — that you are simply … wrong. It’s having the courage to admit where you’ve been wrong — to others, yes, but most importantly to yourself. Then, it’s having the courage and wisdom to start all over again.

Many of us are born “intelligent,” meaning with plenty of capacity to learn new stuff; none of us is born wise, meaning endowed with the ability to use our accumulated knowledge intelligently.

Knowing stuff is great. Who doesn’t like to know stuff? Nobody. Deployed judiciously, a vast reservoir of knowledge can make you the life of the party, a sought-after commentator on national television, an “expert” whose assessment is sought out my many.

But, the truly intelligent man knows one exceedingly important thing: the limits of his intelligence, and is comfortable with divulging those limits.

<another digression>

I’m bringing to mind, again, much of today’s political debate. If you were to remove from such exchanges, all the profoundly stupid questions that the media ask, whose answers are perfectly unknowable, most of the questions they pose would simply disappear. Things like, “How do you think voters will react to…?” and “What do you think so-and so’s base will think about …?” and “What are the motivations behind …?”

You know one thing I’ve never, ever heard on television, stated by anyone? A simple truth: a vast quantity of questions posed to so-called experts are really stupid, and worthless.

I fantasize the following:

Media Personality: “What do you think will be the reaction of voters to Joe Smith’s proposal?”

Expert/Candidate: ” I have no idea. What a stupid question! If there are 100 million voters paying attention to the proposal, there’d be 100 million different reactions. If you could summarize, say, the top ten into several pithy phrases, then I wouldn’t know where to begin to tell you which ones would be held by most people. You’re asking me to read minds, for crying out loud! I have no magical powers, no one does! Why don’t you ask me an intelligent question?”

Newt Gingrich, I think, came close to that, properly castigating the thoroughly corrupt George Stephanopoulos(2) for asking Mitt Romney a brainless, transparently gotcha question about contraception. Gingrich’s sneering reaction about media incompetence and corruption was priceless. I couldn’t find that particular exchange on YouTube, but here’s another one.

We need to do that again and again and again and again and again. Let’s face it: the American left gets away with its corruption because the media allow them to. I’m not saying that the media treat Republicans or Conservatives inappropriately, but rather that they give completely corrupt scoundrels, crooks and blackguards get away with murder.

If the media were simply to treat the Democrats the same way they treat Republicans, then the Dems would be forced to come up with actual rationales for their ideas, and they just might get rid of the stupid ones.

</another digression>

I make an assumption: there is a moral component to intelligence. I’m happy to be talked out of it, if you think you can, but I don’t think you can.

In other words: it’s my belief that it’s a really stupid decision to be a bad person. Because it’s easy to be a bad person. Oh, the results of your badness may make your life miserable, but it’s easy to be bad. It requires only one thing: that you avoid thinking about it. You and I both know that thoughtless, unconsidered, unexamined actions and states of mind are generally ignorant, stupid, wrong-headed, sometimes evil, almost always … bad. Anyone can be bad. You need only act and react without thinking about it.

It’s not, however, easy to be good. Why? Simple: to be good, you have to have a strong, well-developed idea of what it is to be good; of what good is.

That’s not easy, and requires a lifetime of intellectual exercise.

It’s work, to, and it implies that you’re going to be wrong — a lot — and that you’re willing to be humble enough to admit you’re wrong.

Humility is serious intellectual strength. It’s a learned characteristic, because our default state of mind is: pride. No one likes, or wants, to be wrong, and no one especially likes to have his error(s) pointed out in public. But that’s just pride, and after the humbling incident, in which he’s corrected, is over, the intelligent man understands that he’s grown, gained deeper understanding, become even more, and more deeply, intelligent. He rejoices in that understanding.

Some incidental observations about intelligence:

The world is constantly changing. So one’s intelligence needs always to change. After all, since the world is very different today from how it was yesterday, is what you understand still accurate, still correct? Have you even made an assessment of either how the world has changed, or how your intelligence needs to change in reaction to it? The intelligent man has. How does your intelligence stand up to the changed reality?

An intelligent man’s intelligence is always growing. Why? Simple: an intelligent man likes the “work” of becoming more intelligent — it’s fun! — and seeks always to increase his intelligence. Since there are virtually no times at which one can not exercise intellectually, then the truly intelligent are constantly bending their brain’s efforts to becoming ever more intelligent, wiser, humbler.

So, here’s how I think of intelligence:

  • It’s much more than just the presence of one or two really well-developed skills.
  • It includes wisdom.
  • It seems to involve an ability to interact with and assimilate external information.
  • It has a moral component; it’s good.
  • It involves work.
  • It has characteristics that require long work to obtain, like humility, and wisdom.
  • It’s more than just capacity.
  • It’s not “a gift;” capacity is a gift — intelligence is built using the gift of capacity.
  • Therefore, no one is born with it.
  • Real intelligence is always growing.
  • Finally, it’s always changing, always subject to adjustment, to honing and fine-tuning.

— xPraetorius

Notes


(1) – For instance, I’m a really good juggler — easily in the top 99% — but this guy is “genius level.” Is he, himself, a “genius?” I don’t know, but his ability to juggle does not represent enough data to make a valid assessment on that.

(2) – Funny note: I’m a really good speller — genius level, in fact 🙂 — but I had to think through the spelling of Stephanopoulos’s last name. I got it right, but the spell checker indicated that it was misspelled, and suggested instead: “Postmenopausal.” Hmmm… maybe that’s his problem.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Intelligence.

  1. Ah, well said. I have come to learn that intelligence is totally unrelated to morality and both have nothing what so ever to do with charisma. Some of the dumbest and most immoral people can be very charismatic and pull in great crowds. Some very intelligent and morally upright people have no charisma at all and in fact will read as socially inept, even appearing a bit autistic.

    Personally I do not think President Obama is a great orator. Without a teleprompter he is reduced to nothing but a series of “uh’s and oh’s.” I don’t find him to be very intelligent either. His morality is also very immature and under-developed. He does however, have great charisma, all the fainting revelers at his rallies demonstrated that. It’s a bit scary to me, in recent times, we tend to elect our leaders based on charisma. Both Reagan and Clinton were just marinating in it. It frightens me because charisma is something that bypasses our thinking and reasoning skills, which doesn’t bode well in elections.

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