IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.
The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.
Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.
Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.
We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .” Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.