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Self-Knowledge: Fulfilment


Am I Too Clever?

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It is hard to imagine that there could be any such thing as excessive intelligence. After all, most of the problems of the world and of individual lives clearly come down to a shortfall in cleverness – and a surfeit of impulsiveness, self-righteousness and cruelty.

Yet it seems that there could still be a way of using our intelligence that cuts us off from necessary encounters with simple truths about us:

  • — With humdrum facts
  • — With down-to-earth ideas and appetites
  • — With unglamorous impulses and naive yet profound speculations 

If we can put it another way, there might be ways of being intelligent that could – at points – render us distinctively stupid.

There is a kind of person we can dub over-intellectual whose very cleverness can encourage them to miss key points. 

It may make them blind to evident ideas that are nevertheless significant. 

It may give them a permanent taste for what is abstruse and infinitely subtle – at the expense of anything that doesn’t pass an exaggerated threshold of convolution. 

They may neglect the chance of an interesting conversation with a six year old because their associations of intelligence are rigidly affixed to scholarliness – or they might disdain the offer of a walk with their aunt because she left school at sixteen and has never taken an interest in politics. 

Their intricate minds may end up misunderstanding reality, which comprises both Ludwig Wittgenstein and hot baths, Immanuel Kant and Dancing Queen, Aristotle and orange and polenta cake.

The over-intellectual may spend hours parsing the distinction between freewill and determinism, they may devote themselves to interpreting Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism – and yet still be a novice when it comes to explaining their heart or avoiding a sulk.

True cleverness means resorting to complexity when, but only when, it is called for – and otherwise keeping room open for ways of speaking and thinking that are appropriately basic and visceral. 

It may be highly fitting to use riddles and jargon when one is dealing with the operations of a nuclear reactor or the nature time at the edges of the universe. 

But it becomes a particular form of obtuseness to remain in such a register when unpicking issues in relationships or family dynamics. 

Those who are properly intelligent can accept that there are central truths about every life that can and should be expressed in the language of a child.

It is an achievement enough to sound very clever. It may be an even greater one to know where and when to remain heart-stirringly simple. 

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