Can Smart People Be Good?

John Erskine says it is not only possible for smart people to be good — it is wrong to be stupid. He made his case in his 1915 work The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent.

Is Intelligence Wrong?

Erskine starts by showing that many Great Thinkers have ascribed evil to intelligence.

“In Shakspeare the prizes of life go to such men as Bassanio, or Duke Orsino, or Florizel–men of good conduct and sound character, but of no particular intelligence.” His smartest characters were not good; not equipped to live a proper human life.

“In Paradise Lost Milton attributes intelligence of the highest order to the devil.” In the Book of Job, it was the devil who may have seemed to be most probing character, perhaps even an honest seeker. Erskine writes, “It is disconcerting to intelligence that it should be God’s angel who cautions Adam not to wander in the earth, nor inquire concerning heaven’s causes and ends, and that it should be Satan meanwhile who questions and explores.”

He blames the English novel for celebrating the hero-idiotic. “In Fielding or Scott, Thackeray or Dickens, the hero of the English novel is a well-meaning blunderer who in the last chapter is temporarily rescued by the grace of God from the mess he has made of his life. Unless he also dies in the last chapter, he will probably need rescue again.”

Why You Must Be Smart

“We really seek intelligence not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of life, but because we believe it is life,–not for aid in making the will of God prevail, but because we believe it is the will of God. We love it, as we love virtue, for its own sake, and we believe it is only virtue’s other and more precise name.”

Character is important, this is a given. And intelligence is necessary to direct our paths: “Before we can make the will of God prevail we must find out what is the will of God.”

Intelligence is really a practical matter: “If we no longer hang the thief or flog the school-boy, it is not that we think less harshly of theft or laziness, but that intelligence has found a better persuasion to honesty and enterprise.” Although flogging might well be the best persuasion to enterprise.

Social harmony is not natural to man. It is an achievement of intelligence. “It is a mistake to think that men are united by elemental affections. Our affections divide us. We strike roots in immediate time and space, and fall in love with our locality, the customs and the language in which we were brought up. Intelligence unites us with mankind.”

In short, intelligence allows us to overcome our prejudices of time and place; it allows us to love our neighbor.

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