Have the intelligence to know you’re stupid
For a long time, I thought myself intelligent. “Clever”, smarter than the others, who were, therefore, necessarily stupid. And one of the proofs of this superiority; for when one thinks oneself intelligent, is it not always in opposition to most of those around us?
It was this famous phrase from which I deduced that Descartes was really not smart: “Common sense is the best-shared thing in the world.” How could one imagine for a moment that justice has been equitably shared, when every day, a thousand incidents prove to you that your fellows suffer from a dramatic lack of this essential ingredient? Only two explanations were possible: either humanity had changed a lot since the seventeenth century, to the point that stupidity had propagated in a worrying way, or Descartes spent his life locked up and had with ordinary people such limited contacts that he could in all serenity believe them intelligent. Moreover, for the young philatelist I was, poor Descartes was associated with additional proof of human stupidity, since the stamp which the French Post had dedicated to him for the tercentenary of the Discourse on the Method in 1937 had made the object of an error by which the text in question was renamed speech method, sign that decidedly people were unable to do things properly (disturbing detail, nevertheless, this negligence attributable to negligence had made this vignette quickly removed from the sale a rarity and therefore a valuable object sought collectors, as if the stupidity of men could also be valuable …).
So, two things one: people had become very stupid in three centuries, or Descartes was not very intelligent at the time. In fact, there was a third explanation, which partly contradicted my initial postulate. What if I was not so clever? And if I had tried without knowing? The time came when I was made to study the Discourse of the Method in high school, and where I learned that far from being a proof of stupidity on the part of Descartes, this sentence was, in fact, the mark of delicious humor, as was evident from the explanations that follow it.
“Common sense is the most widely shared thing in the world, for everyone thinks they are so well endowed, that even those who are the most difficult to contend with anything else, have no habit of wanting more than they desire. have some” (Descartes, pp. 1–2).
Apparently, Descartes does not have the merit of originality here, since Montaigne had practically written the same thing half a century before:
“It is commonly said that the fairest sharing that nature has made of his graces, it is that of sense: for there is no one who is content with what he has distributed to him “(Essais, II, 17, quoted in Descartes, 83).
If the intelligence is irreproachably distributed, it is not because everyone has received a rigorously equal amount, but because in this area, it would not come to anyone’s mind to complain about his fate. Who, indeed, would proclaim his lack of common sense?
For what seems above all to characterize stupidity is its total certainty of being right. The stupid individual is sure to be intelligent and hold the truth. This is probably why we are often “stupid and mean”: stupidity is indeed intolerant. It is not enough for the beast to be right, it is necessary for him to mark the fact that the others are wrong, drown themselves radically, put their finger in the eye to the elbow. And the stupid being thinks that it is his duty to instruct others by giving them their convictions. Everything happens as if stupidity excludes doubt: to be stupid is not to think for a moment that one can be mistaken, that one can misunderstand the substance of things. To be stupid is to exclude the hypothesis that one can be stupid, but also to be wary of intelligence. The language reflects this suspicion: in English, the word intelligence refers to espionage, and “being intelligence” in French refers to the conspiracy.
More generally, stupidity supposes unanimity because it excludes the Other. It is a speech or an attitude incapable of even considering the existence of difference. At worst, stupidity refuses to admit otherness and seeks to eliminate it. She resolutely opposes diversity and multiplicity. George Sand is given this sentence: “Have you noticed how stupid we are when we are so much?” (Delacour, 131). As we have seen, the stupid individual feels strong in his stupidity; but can one be stupid alone against all? Perhaps, but the phenomenon is likely then to be harmless. On the other hand, when stupidity is like multiplied, it asserts itself with an overwhelming power as soon as it forms a stupid group. As stupidity expresses itself loudly, there is a ripple effect, as if all the barriers fell as soon as the stupid individual is in the company of his fellows. Little inhibited in normal times, since sure of being right and having to make him know about him, the stupid being becomes even less so when it can happen a kind of communion in the absence of intelligence. And those whom a scruple retained until then no longer hesitate to indulge in the pleasure of being stupid, since they have on their side the strength of numbers, and since their individuality is merged into an indistinct mass where no one is more responsible for his thoughts or actions. No need for personal reflection, the unique thought takes its place.
Here we must introduce a distinction that is important. Too often intelligence and knowledge are confused, stupidity and ignorance. If the fact of being stupid came back to know little, everything could be much simpler. Alas, this is not the case, because it seems that one can be at once stupid and cultured, to be a “learned idiot”, if one takes again the humiliating expression formerly used to designate the autists. A full head is not necessarily well done, and it is not excluded that an individual with a strong cultural background is nevertheless showing stupidity. To believe the popular wisdom, “culture is like jam, the less we have ,the more we spread” (this saying always seemed strange because if you want to feel the taste, better to concentrate the little jam that we have, in my opinion): the less we know about things, the more we would therefore want to show them, that is to say, to show in fact that we know very little. There is therefore a stupid use of culture, whether it is abundant or reduced, which consists in displaying it irrelevant. But what is the intelligent use of knowledge?
Curiously, Socrates himself seems to have shone by his modesty about his knowledge, but not his intelligence. “What I know is that I know nothing”: this famous formula is an admission of ignorance, not of stupidity. To doubt his intelligence, Socrates should not have said: “What I understand is that I do not understand anything”? Let’s remember the idea of relativity. How could the intelligent being be sure of his intelligence? By comparing oneself to others, which amounts to simply considering that one is less stupid than others, but also, consequently, less intelligent than others. One always finds more stupid than oneself, but the mistake would be to forget that one will inevitably find less stupid too.
How to define intelligence? If it is what Descartes calls “common sense”, one could then say that stupidity consists in misguiding, in deceiving oneself, in starting in the wrong direction. Intelligence would consist not only of finding the path from a problem to its solution , but perhaps also the best route, one that avoids in the mind unnecessary and painful detours. Moreover, this metaphor of the course is included in the Discourse on Methodology: according to Descartes,
“the diversity of our opinions does not come from the fact that some are more reasonable than the others, but only from the fact that we conduct our thoughts by various means. ways, and do not consider the same things. Because it is not enough to have a good spirit, the main thing is to apply it well. The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices, as well as the greatest virtues; and those who walk only very slowly, can go much further, if they always follow the right path, than those who run, and who go away from it, do so “.
The tale of the hare and turtle can also be used to illustrate the various functions of the human spirit. Although man as a species is endowed with reason, what Descartes calls “accidents” (Descartes, p.3), not of the road but rather individual peculiarities makes that all do not have exactly the same dose or do not make exactly the same use in their journey.
To this spatial image is often added the metaphor of the gaze, stupidity being blind and intelligence lucidity. If stupidity is narrow-minded, intelligence is the faculty of looking at a wider field of possibilities. The intelligent brain has the habit of considering a multiplicity of possibilities, where the stupid mind conceives only one, or only a few. The stupidity, it is to be limited, limited in its field of mental vision, obtuse as a spirit can be it (and not like an angle, since in geometry, the acute and the obtuse do not quite have the same meaning as in intelligence, the first being the narrowest, the second the widest). To be stupid is to see no further than the tip of one’s nose. Knowledge is not necessarily synonymous with intelligence, but the more we know of possible realities, the less we are tempted to foolishly assert that there is only one acceptable.
And as long as one speaks of geometry in space, is not intelligence the sense of measure, of proportion? The stupid individual, if he does not have a compass in his eye, has inside a beam that allows him to see only the straw in that of his neighbor. To be intelligent is to have the recoil, the critical distance that makes it possible not to take a molehill for a mountain, not to use a hammer to break a nut. It is knowing how to dose, to offer what in military terms is called the graduated response, distinguishing the accessory from the essential. Do not take everything in the first degree, but know how to perceive the irony?
The stupidity is violent because it is unequivocal: it tolerates only one truth, supposed to supplant all the others. Stupidity can not stand to love only, it also needs to hate everything it does not like. On the contrary, intelligence consists in tolerating the coexistence of different possible realities, in loving an object without necessarily having to hate all the others. With others, one can live in good intelligence, but rarely “in good stupidity”. In the best case, stupidity is “neutral”: it brings nothing. But in the worst case — the most common? It goes further and persists in destroying. Where the intelligence strives to offer something to the world, stupidity takes a (malignant) pleasure in annihilating everything that displeases it, everything that offends it, and of which it does not support the existence, often because she does not understand it.
Finally, to be intelligent, is it not simply to show humor, that is to say, also know how to make fun of oneself when it is necessary when one is caught in the act of foolishness? Intelligence may not be a state, but rather a quality that is manifested more or less according to the moment. Rather than being intelligent, one has the intelligence to act in one way or another. Foolishness is less a question of substance than of attitude. One can be right and act stupidly: it is a matter of method (and here we are back to Descartes). Intransigence and obstinacy have something stupid in their rigidity in the face of the obstacle, which the intelligence will look for other ways to overcome, even to circumvent. Perhaps stupidity is not a matter of essence: no doubt it is permissible to believe in human nature just as much as it takes to think that no one is intrinsically and absolutely stupid.
The stupidity does not belong to the being, but to have it, or rather to do it. By an amusing singularity of the language, the word “stupidity” designates both an abstract quality and its concrete manifestation. Nothing of the sort with the word “intelligence, but the formula “an intelligence” serves only to pass from the general to the particular, without leaving the domain of the mind. We can not “say intelligences” or “make intelligences” as we can say and do nonsense. Did not I make a monumental mistake myself the day I agreed to write this article? Who am I, after all, to dissemble thus on the intelligence?
Perhaps, for my part, I would do better to speak here only of what I really know: the work of translation. Like any human being, I know stupidity to rub shoulders with it and practice it on a daily basis, but as a translator, I have access to certain particular forms of intelligence and stupidity. Just as there are different forms of intelligence, there are of course different ways of translating a text, especially a literary text. One can also translate stupidly or intelligently, translate as machines and computers do, or translate as a human brain must. The translator’s intelligence consists in going beyond a univocal rendering of the text as if the meaning was self-evident and could be reflected without hesitation in another language. The experienced translator is only too much aware in retrospect of the nonsense, blunders, and blunders that he may have committed in his earlier works: such an ill-chosen word, whereas the good came back to our mind afterward, such an allusion perceived too much later to be integrated with the published version … Any practice; even mastered, should be for the man an incitement to humility. When one is aware of one’s mistakes, one can have the intelligence to know oneself stupid, fallible, human!