Why Do Highly Intelligent People Have Such Strange Lapses in Common Sense?
Because intellectuals often value IDEAS more than PEOPLE.
The concepts and ideologies spinning around in their heads essentially cover their eyes, so that they’re unable to see and hear and feel the emotions of the real human being in front of them. That’s one short answer.
Another short answer is that often, highly intelligent people reach such heights of personal power or influence that they start to believe that they can get away with anything, even things which, in hindsight, they had almost a 100% chance of getting caught doing!
It can — and does — happen to anyone, but of course the question here is whether highly intelligent people should just know better.
One person who’s given this question much serious thought is the award-winning historian Paul Johnson, author of the book Intellectuals. He’s examined the personal lives of people like Hemingway, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Marx, Brecht, Sartre, and a whole host of others in order to determine in their private actions held up to what they’ve espoused publicly and professionally. You can probably see where I’m going with this: all these supposedly brilliant people made ridiculously short-sighted mistakes and experienced lapses in common sense that seriously boggle the mind!
Skipping over Rousseau committing five of his children to orphanages just so he wouldn’t have to take care of them (this, after having written a now-famous book on the proper care and education of children!), I’ll pick on Karl Marx for a bit, even though I don’t necessarily think he was a “bad” person.
Good old Karl never stepped foot on a factory floor once in his life, and often told workers what they should want, rather than actually listening to them tell him what would actually make their condition better.
Contrast this with one of my strongest intellectual influences of all time, Simone Weil, who ruined her health gaining experience working in factories, even though she didn’t have to. She just wanted to understand the real conditions of the working classes, how they felt and saw the world, and how she could help. Marx didn’t give a shit. Not to mention that he lived on 5 TIMES the amount of money that regular people lived on, much of it borrowed from friends whom he never paid back. This from the supposed “champion of the working class!” Like, are you kidding me?
Again, I don’t think Karl Marx was a bad dude. He was right about a LOT of things, and on a personal level, I think he and I would have gotten along fine. But for someone so brilliant, he certainly had a lot of blind spots.
Which brings me to a quote from Johnson’s book that I believe is enlightening:
“Very few of us lead lives which will bear close scrutiny, and there is something mean in subjecting Rousseau’s, laid horribly bare by the activities of thousands of scholars, to moral judgement. But granted his claims, and still more his influence on ethics and behavior, there is no alternative.”
Clearly, none of us are perfectly rational all the time, and I’ve hired enough escorts and broken enough speed limits to know that not everyone would agree with all of my choices either. But speaking for myself, I will ALWAYS value people more than I value ideas.
Ideas like communism or capitalism or really any “ism” at all that you can think of is going to be absolutely meaningless compared to the value of a real human being. None of that nonsense measures up in the slightest to what Human Life represents, and the real worth that it has, over and above every other consideration. Intellectuals and other highly intelligent people sometimes forget this fact at their peril — and ours as well. Especially when they set policy, inspire others to action, or try to influence how other people behave and see the world.
I’ll close with another quote from Johnson’s book, and it’s this:
“One of the principle lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is — beware intellectuals.
Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.
Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements issued from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders and important events.
For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and nonconformist people, follow certain regular patterns of behavior. Taken as a group, they are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. That is what makes them, en-masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which themselves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action.
Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”
So there you have my longer answer! If you’re interested in learning about some of the books that shaped my present worldview, here’s the list. I like to think that these are the books that made me realize that people will ALWAYS be more important than ideas.
All the best,
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