John Erskine – "The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent"

The disposition to consider intelligence in peril is an old Anglo-Saxon inheritance…  [There exists an] assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief  that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the heart and the mind are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

“To be as intelligent as Richard or Iago or Edmund seems to involve some break with goodness; to be as wise as Prospero seems to imply some Faust-like traffic with the forbidden world; to be as thoughtful as Hamlet seems to be too thoughtful to live.  In Shakespeare the prizes of life go to such men as Bassanio, or Duke Orsino, or Florizel–men of good conduct and sound character, but of no particular intelligence…

“In Paradise Lost Milton attributes intelligence of the highest order ot the devil….Milton makes his Satan so thoughtful, so persistent and liberty-loving, so magnanimous, and God so illogical, so heartless and repressive, that many perfectly moral readers fear lest Milton, like the modern novelists, may have known good and evil, but could not tell them apart.

“Honor lay in a man’s integrity, in his willingness and ability to keep his word; therefore the man became more important than his word or deed.  Words and deeds were then easily interpreted, not in terms of absolute good and evil, but in terms of the man behind them.  The deeds of a bad man were bad; the deeds of a good man were good….But as a race we seem as far as possible from realising that an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; that it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.”

“We curse the obstacles of life as though they were devils.  But they are not devils. They are obstacles.”

“The faith that needs the fewest altars, the hypothesis that leaves least unexplained, survives; and the intelligence that changes most fears into opportunity is most divine.”

“But the lover of intelligence must be patient with those who cannot readily share his passion…It is a mistake to think that men are united by elemental affections. Our affections divide us. We strike roots in immediate time and space, and fall in love with our locality, the customs and the language in which we were brought up.  Intelligence unites us with mankind, by leading us in sympathy to other times, other places, other customs; but first the prejudiced roots of affection must be pulled up.  These are the old pangs of intelligence…Yet, if intelligence begins in a pang, it proceeds to a vision. Through the measureless time its office has been to make of life an opportunity, to make goodness articulate, to make virtue a fact.  In history at least, if not yet in the individual, Plato’s faith has come true, that sin is but ignorance, and knowledge and virtue are one…  Beholding this long liberation of the human spirit, we forsee, in every new light of the mind, one unifying mind, wherein the human race shall know its destiny and proceed to it with satisfaction, as an idea moves to its proper conclusion; we conceive of intelligence at last as the infinite order, wherein man, when he enters it, hsall find himself.

Let us not forget that this man went on to teach Lionel Trilling, (who taught Luke Menand), and write The Private Life of Helen of Troy:


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