On Being Intelligent and Stuff

It’s Great Books Monday here at the Western Tradition. Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. Of Truth” by Francis Bacon (Vol. 10, pp. 346-347)
  2. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain (Vol. 2, pp. 346-386)
  3. The English Bill of Rights (1689) (Vol. 6, pp. 409-411)
  4. My First Play” by Charles Lamb (Vol. 5, pp. 300-303)
  5. The March to the Sea” by Xenophon (Vol. 6, pp. 196-222; Book IV of The Persian Expedition)
  6. The Sacred Beetle” by Jean-Henri Fabre (Vol. 8, pp. 105-119; pp. 1-36 of The Sacred Beetle and Others)

Now for some thoughts on last week’s readings:

  1. “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine: This piece argues more eloquently than I can the point that good intentions should not fully excuse disastrous decisions. I took a cursory stab at this idea in a blog post a while back. Erskine believes the downplaying of the importance of intelligence is a peculiarly Anglo-American thing, and he cites a number of figures from English literature as evidence for his contention. He argues for the moral value of intelligence this way: “It is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.” I have a feeling that Erskine might take this idea further than he ought, ending up with some sort of situational ethics. But in other respects he makes some great observations: for example, the recent (to him) sinking of the Titanic could easily have been prevented had the ship’s crew recognized the dangers of steaming at full speed through an area filled with icebergs (about which they had been warned). This failure of intelligence cost hundreds of lives.
  2. “How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf: Should we take a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach towards our reading? Woolf says that we should start out trying to identify as completely as possible with the author, and then at some point become a harsh critic, comparing the work to the very greatest of the genre it occupies. I think Woolf has a pretty poor notion of heaven, but the lofty idea about God’s comments concerning readers at the end of the essay is kind of nice.
  3. “Of the Study of History” by David Hume: I love this quote: “A man acquainted with history may, in some respects, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.” Also, the essay’s fourth paragraph ought to make you ashamed of yourself if you’ve never recognized the value of history before.
  4. “The Two Drovers” by Sir Walter Scott: I can see how the Scottish dialect might be off-putting to some; I’ve read enough of it by now not to be bogged down by it. If anyone ever criticizes a syllabus of mine for not having enough multicultural content, I’ll put this story in. Here the failure to appreciate cultural background and values leads to a murder. Plus the whole idea of a cowboy story set somewhere other than the American West  would be worldview-shaking to a lot of people.
  5. “The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy: A very humorous illustration of the Orthodox emphasis on simple piety and asceticism. The bishop is portrayed positively, but he ends up performing obeisance to the mentally challenged hermits.
  6. “Mathematics, the Mirror of Civilization” by Lancelot Hogben: Leaving aside the Marxist readings of linguistic and scientific history, I got a lot out of Hogben’s presentation of mathematics as a language of size. It’s not the first time I’ve seen math compared to a foreign language that must be learned, but I’d not seen such a straightforward argument for the essential need for the citizen’s understanding of it.

I realize I’ve only made superficial comments on each of these readings, but I don’t want the post to get excessively long. If I continue to post 5-6 readings each week, I may end up posting some more detailed observations on two or three selections on Fridays to take some length out of the Monday post.

So what was your reaction to these readings? Whether you read just one or all six, I’d like to get your feedback. What did you like? Dislike?

[This post was originally published on this site’s parent blog, The Western Tradition.]


About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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19 Responses to On Being Intelligent and Stuff

  1. Vicki says:

    I enjoyed ‘The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent’ very much. Descending, as I do, from a long line of courageous colonials (Australians), I can testify to the English suspicion of intelligence. As the author states, the English value courage, perseverance and loyalty above reason. “Theirs not to reason why …” I’ve always wondered why English poetry so often extols English defeats: ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is typical. In re the Titanic, what about the tragedy of Gallipoli, in which the “higher ups” were even more guilty? And yet no mention is ever made of this serious defect in judgment, only the valor of the countless soldiers who died there.
    I think the author is also correct in his assessment of the French tendency to value intelligence over virtue. Chesterton neatly juxtaposes these two conflicting tendencies in ‘The Blue Cross’, the first of the Father Brown stories. But are intelligence and the moral virtues really in conflict? The author mentions Newman, and perhaps he has the answer to these disordered tendencies: “The mind is below truth, not above it, and it is bound not to descant on it, but to venerate it. Truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts.”

    • Dr. J says:

      Re: the Gallipoli campaign, I’ve always thought that part of the reluctance to talk about the poor leadership there is because Winston Churchill was largely to blame for it, and no one seems to want to criticize him these days. You might remember that in the follow-up story to “The Blue Cross,” the rationalist police detective Valentin commits the murder out of hostility to the Catholic Church.

      Unfortunately, Newman didn’t make it into Adler’s set, although his works are cited in the Syntopicon.

      • Vicki says:

        I agree that W.C. is in the “too big to fail” class of statesmen.

        In re intelligence: it seems that, like the passions, it needs to be disciplined in order to develop correctly. Left undeveloped we have Dickens; left unchecked, we have Valentin; disciplined, or ordered to the good, we have Newman.

  2. Vicki says:

    It’s interesting that ‘The Three Hermits’ should be on the same list. It portrays the Orthodox, or Eastern, view that mysticism and intuition are more valuable than reason. But I’m sure that Dostoyevsky is on the reading list somewhere, so that’s a discussion for another day!

  3. Andy says:

    1. Moral Obligations to be Intelligent
    I to enjoyed Erskine’s ridiculing of the reverence that Anglo-American culture can give to situations that are deemed “tragic courage”. In reality a majority of these situations occur due to unintelligent decision making. But I believe that you are right Dr. J, when you say that Erskine’s argument can lead to a sort of moral relativism. What may be praised in literature as intelligence to some, may in fact be quite near-sighted. Especially if it is regarding statesmanship. State-ism, to me, has been the main cause in the decoupling of intelligence and virtue, and was strong enough to begin doing so by the time Erskine wrote this piece.

  4. Andy says:

    2. How Should One Read a Book?
    I do like Woolf’s approach to empathizing with the author before criticizing a work. The idea that is especially appropriate for the topic is when she discusses how subjective pleasurable reading really is, but then wishes for us to compare our readings to the ‘greats’. This is a very appropriate topic for this paper, because creates the dilemma of the line of subjective taste. If reading is a subjective process, then do we criticize books that we read to our own “greats”, making comparisons within our own subjective framework, or do we criticize books to the societally held “greats”? If I don’t hold one of society’s great authors with the same reverence, I don’t feel that it is wrong for me to withhold comparisons to any new readings. At the same time, I should also be able to intelligently articulate why I feel the majority have it wrong.

  5. Andy says:

    3. Of the Study of History
    I agree with Hume regarding the 3 reasons that history can be superior to fictional novels. The most interesting arguments in my opinion is that reading history can strengthen virtue, offering it as a balance between the passion of human action and the philosophers sober view of reality. I would tend to agree that this is the spectrum in which virtue lies, so maintaining a thoughtful presence there can only aid an individual.

    • Dr. J says:

      Moral instruction was seen as a primary reason for studying history up until the nineteenth century. The idea is ridiculed by most professional historians today, unfortunately.

      • Andy says:

        Really? That is very interesting because it is certainly not something that I have ever heard in all the ‘advanced’ education that I have received. Wow!

  6. Andy says:

    4. The Two Drovers
    You’re right Dr J, I found the cowboy story to be even more interesting because it took place somewhere besides out west. When you say that the failure to appreciate another culture and values led to the murder, do you mean the Englishman’s failure to understand the magnitude of vengeance that the scorned Scotsman would respond with or the Scotsman’s failure to understand how the Englishman felt betrayed and only wished to settle the score by knocking him out? I guess it’s a little of both. If the aunt doesn’t have his weapon taken away, the Scotsman would probably only have gotten a manslaughter verdict. So by having the weapon taken away, she in some way helped cause him to not return, as she feared would happen.

  7. Andy says:

    5. The Three Hermits
    This story was humorous. It might require a little more knowledge about Orthodox Christianity or maybe Tolstoy’s opinion of it. Was Tolstoy trying to impart that a simple pious life is holier than even an appointed bishop? This story has a little of what Erskine was talking about in it. The simple fools are closer to God than the more intellectually curious Bishop. Or was Tolstoy making fun of that idea?

    • Dr. J says:

      I don’t think Tolstoy’s treatment of the hermits is to be taken ironically. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, asceticism and discipline of the body are considered to be one of the highest spiritual attainments. So even though the bishop is portrayed in a positive light in the story, the hermits surpass him, not because they are simple fools, but because of their rigorous way of life.

  8. Andy says:

    6. Mathematics, Mirror of Civilization
    Marxist it is, but I do appreciate the shout out to applied mathematics versus spiritual mathematics. Was he trying to assert that one common language is superior because the internationally constructed mathematical language serves as an example? It seemed he was in parts. I too find his descriptions of mathematics as the language of size interesting. Just from momentary thinking on the subject, doesn’t mathematics also serve as the language of location? Or maybe mathematics is just a more efficient way to describe certain elements?

  9. Ginger says:

    As I read last weeks works, I copied pages of quotes. Of course I know everyone is interested in my great wisdom and knowledge concerning the readings (haha). However, I decided my thoughts on them were too long to share. Basically, the readings said the same thing from different angles. It is important to understand our cultural heritage and to learn to think critically. While some things are fun, they are not worthy of our time. Gordon B. Hinckley said it much better than I ever could. “I decry the great waste of time that people put into watching inane television…I believe their lives would be enriched if, instead of sitting on the sofa and watching a game that will be forgotten tomorrow, they would read and think and ponder…You need time to meditate and ponder, to think, to wonder at the great plan of happiness that the Lord has outlined for His children. You need time to read. You need to read the scriptures. You need to read good literature. You need to partake of the great culture which is available to all of us.”

    • Dr. J says:

      That’s a great quote, and it’s not that we can’t ever have any fun, but we do seem to be “amusing ourselves to death” these days. Some of that leisure time ought to be devoted to improving our minds and character through high culture: Great Books, masterworks in the arts, etc.

  10. Pingback: Reading Update « Book Wayfarer

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