And what of intelligence? I believe intelligence is no more laudable than athleticism, morally; it makes one good at some things and not at others. It is not a moral virtue; it is not a mark of goodness; someone cannot be faulted for not possessing it; and Fowler is right: we should regard the display of knowledge as comparably vulgar to material ostentation.
It may indeed be the case that intelligence is not a moral virtue, but it has certainly become an ethical one, and it therefore differs rather drastically from mere athleticism.
We do not live in the city of philosopher kings; we have a humble republic. My political representation, therefore, along with my livelihood and well-being, become dependent on the intellectual faculties of the citizen in the voting booth next to me. His or her athleticism or good looks mean nothing to me in this respect.
There is no a priori judgment that can establish the ethical mandate for individual intelligence, seeing as it is a purely structural byproduct of our preexisting sociopolitical conditions. The same can be said for personal health: one cannot possibly reason one’s way from a set of limited axioms towards the conclusion that it is morally right to lead a healthy, active, long life; one arrives at this conclusion a posteriori, via ethical-political reasoning, because healthcare costs at the aggregate level are affected by the lifestyle choices (and access to preventative care) of each of the sum’s parts. The health and intelligence of the individual transcend mere personal betterment once entering into the social compact.
In this context it is absolutely fitting for us to laud intelligence—or at least the aspiration thereto—when political contests can be reduced to a battle between Glenn Beck viewers and Jim Lehrer viewers.
This conversation reminded me of the title to Lionel Trilling’s book, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” We do need to suspect the spatial or light metaphors with which we laud or belittle beauty or smarts. “Shallow” vs. “deep.” ”Brilliant” vs. “dull.” I’ve come across my fair share of people who, while feeling no qualms about disdaining a person’s perceived lack of intelligence, would be horrified to hear a sorority or frat type deprecate someone’s physical appearance.
Partly, that comes of our tendency to rate or quantify intelligence rather than describe it.
But part of it comes from a knee-jerk hubris in our power to distinguish the “deep” from the “shallow.”
I’d agree with Langer that our republican (in the old-fashioned, non-factional sense) form of government depends up on the intelligence of the public (thus Mencken’s cynical, ‘Democracy is the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people.’)
But it doesn’t really depend upon intelligence, or even education. In the end it depends on curiosity. The moral obligation to be curious.
People like to imagine that curiosity is innate (thus the cliché, “innate curiosity”). But I’ve always felt that curiosity was as much the product of concentration, energy and will as exercise or ethics. Some kinds of curiosity are, as the other cliché goes, “childlike,” and that’s a boon, no doubt; but other kinds are necessarily “adult.” And from this adult form of curiosity we derive our aesthetic and political morality, which is good or bad only insofar as willing makes it so.