“The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” by John Erskine

  • Ask: “What are modern virtues?”
    • You might answer things we like: meekness, humility, renunciation of world
    • Would you answer, “Intelligence”?
  • Old idea that intelligence is dangerous
    • Anglo-Saxons have derided the idea of intelligence being important
      • As if you have to choose between being good & intelligent
      • As if stupidity is a cousin to morality, and reason & God are not on good terms w/ each other
        • As if you mind is full, your heart is empty
  • Shakespeare often portrays intelligent men as villains or tragic victims
    • Iago, Prospero, Richard, Edmund, Hamlet
      • Best characters are moral but not intelligent
      • English portrayal of humility often accompanied by stupidity
  • Milon’s “Paradise Lost” puts high intelligence to the devil trying to trick God & Job
    • Liberty-loving Satan, always persistent
    • God’s angel cautions Adam not to wander the earth & eat from the Tree of Knowledge
    • Theologians & scientists like Satan
  • Fielding, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens
    • Hero is a well-meaning blunderer saved by the grace of god from his mess of a life
      • Often needs rescue
      • His wife is good but even simpler than he is
  • French authors, especially Balzac, would show us the tragedy of goodness being tied to stupidity
    • would also be incomprehensible to the Greeks
  • Some English writers, Shelley, Byron & Spencer believed in intelligence
    • Spencer may confuse readers because he demands the reader to have a mind & a heart in order to understand
    • English attitude may have come from Germany brought by Saxon invaders
    • No use for craft or strategy
      • just fighting & self-reliance
    • A man was only as good as his word & was ready to back it up with force
    • Germans didn’t enter into public or private business without a sword on them
      • Social emphasis on honor, integrity
        • word more important than deed
      • Words & deeds said something about the man behind them – not good & evil
      • Idea was that without thinking:
        • A good man does good things
        • A bad man does bad things
  • Moral obligation of an intelligent creature to learn if an action leads to a good end or a bad end
    • only a system that excuses him from that is a vicious one
  • Bad acts may be done by bad intentions or our of neglect
    • You must feel responsibility not to neglect learning the consequences of your actions
  • Matthew Arnold said:
    • The purpose of culture is to make reason & will of God prevail
    • Before we can make the will of God prevail, we must find out what it is
  • America has assimilated other cultures apart from English
    • Greek love of knowledge & idea that sin & misery come from ignorance & scientific spirit
  • Need courage & steadfastness
    • But need to recognize when old virtues leave us with something missing
    • Often social & economic problems are about intelligence
      • seems ignoble to admit this
    • Matters of faith
      • seek knowledge not for answers but b/c we think knowledge is life itself
        • not to make God prevail but to know the will of God
        • Love knowledge for its own sake – like virtue
      • If we don’t hand thieves anymore, it’s not because we don’t think any less of thieving
        • it’s because intelligence usually leads to virtue & enterprise
  • Religion
    • Intelligence is the master of virtue
      • decrease fear & increase opportunity
      • outward effect is to rob the altar of its sacrifices & the priest of his mysteries
        • Because we know so much more, the altar is abandoned & the religion becomes revised when it’s clear that sacrifices didn’t work & knowledge is power
        • Then one hypothesis supplants another
    • Religion reacted violently because Darwinism & the like inundated society with knowledge & changed our views so quickly & violently
  • Be patient with those who don’t agree with this idea
    • Dividing – We are rooted by languages, places & customs
    • Uniting – Intelligence unites us after roots of prejudice are pulled up
      • Jesus – he that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me
    • Intelligence begins with a pang & turns into a vision to make a life of opportunity, make goodness articulated & make virtue a fact
      • Liberation of human spirit & uniting force

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