When Is Stupidity A Sin?

In his autobiography, G. K. Chesterton writes, “A large section of the Intelligentsia seems wholly devoid of Intelligence.” At first, this surprising indictment might be interpreted as merely humorous; after all, are not “intellectuals” those to whom we turn for enlightenment and guidance, those who are the luminaries of universities — castles of knowledge and wisdom? But upon thinking about it, one is bound to come to an inevitable conclusion: The places of “higher learning” have also been the nurseries of the most ponderous errors and the most devastating heresies that have plagued our world.

Chesterton is not the only one chastising intellectuals. Roy Campbell writes:

Now it is the intellectuals of this world, and Britain in particular, who have by far the least faith: and once faith is removed, credibility is its inevitable substitute. Man is a believing animal. If he is not allowed to believe sense — he believes any rubbish . . . (Bloomsbury and Beyond).

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Carpenters, shoemakers, peasants, manual workers are guided by common sense. They have no pretension to have the key to wisdom. They do not raise questions the answer of which is above their capacities (Ps 130). The blue-collar worker is very unlikely to have any illusions about the quality of his work: If a carpenter makes a set of drawers that does not close, he knows he has done a bad job. If the food prepared by a cook is unpalatable, the culprit knows that he should go back to cooking school. If a tailor makes a suit that is much too tight for the person who has ordered it, he knows that he is a bad tailor. If a car does not work after a mechanic made repairs, the customer cannot be mistaken in telling him that he is a bad mechanic. Blunt, tangible results are more eloquent than words. The punishment is on the tailcoat of the fault.

Things are very different in the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and artistic spheres. These are domains in which we find both the greatest accomplishments and the greatest aberrations. Recall St. Augustine writing in his Confessions that when he joined the Manichean sect, he “swallowed” the greatest nonsense one can imagine. He writes: “I was led on to such follies as to believe that a fig tree wept when it was plucked . . . . If some ‘saint’ ate this fig — proving, forsooth, that it was picked not by his but by another’s sinful hand — then he would digest it in his stomach, and from it he would breathe forth angels!” (III, 10). Only a very humble man can share with us the stupidity he swallowed when young; most of us would choose not to mention it. Here was one of the greatest minds of all times, and nevertheless he too could fall into the hands of religious charlatans.

Through history, man has “adored” animals of all sorts, the sun — even humanity, as Auguste Comte noted. Today, modern man, inebriated by his mind-boggling technological feats, is tempted to adore himself: There is nothing greater than man. Finally he has become aware that he is god. This is uttered during a period in which the most abominable crimes ever committed against human beings have taken place.

One needs only a superficial knowledge of the history of philosophy to realize that “intellectuals” have given birth to innumerable errors and stupidities. Dogmatic skepticism, subjectivism, “dictatorial relativism,” idealism, and so on are the chaff produced by intellectual leaders. Plato remarked that philosophy suffers from a bad reputation because it has fallen into the hands of thinkers unworthy to be called “lovers of wisdom” — intellectual “quacks” who “prefer themselves to truth,” those who see man (that is, themselves) as “the measure of all things.” The tragedy is that those making these catastrophic mistakes are blessed (or cursed) with a great amount of what Plato calls “cleverness.” They readily find arguments to buttress their position, however indefensible, because they are “glib,” well-trained in rhetoric, and know how to hypnotize a gullible public by brilliance and pseudo-depth.

As a result, some of the most disastrous philosophical errors are not always easy to diagnose. One of the most successful means of spreading error is to couch it in such complicated language that many will swallow it because they assume that “complexity is depth.” Many are they who assume that if they do not understand a text, it must be because “it is way above their heads” and therefore remarkable. Granted that Kant had an impressive mind, his Critique of Pure Reason is no easy reading. I knew an Austrian Jesuit who read him in French (the language of “clear and distinct ideas”) because it was easier to understand. Because many of us cannot make heads or tails of his argument (and perhaps for good reason), we will give credit to the man who is giving us a piece of precious wisdom so deep that only intellectual giants can understand it.

Some great thinkers would never acknowledge that a text is difficult to grasp. The Arab philosopher Avicenna was an exception. He read Aristotle’s Metaphysics 40 times without understanding it. Light finally came, thanks to a commentary by Alfarabi, and so he wrote his own long commentaries on “the Philosopher,” as St. Aquinas calls him. Once in my course on metaphysics, I asked my students whether any of them had read this famous work. One of them raised her hand. “Have you understood it”? I asked. The answer: “Of course.” I could not help but mention the difficulties that one of the greatest Islamic thinkers had in interpreting it. Had my student had a rightful claim to her assertion, one would truly believe in progress!

Kant’s influence has been enormous, and is still poisoning many thinkers. He has been refuted again and again, but this does not necessarily eliminate the poison. Downright errors (materialism, skepticism, relativism, subjectivism, idealism) are blind alleys that are always tempting to the human mind. Heresies and errors keep repeating themselves periodically in the history of human thought while donning more fashionable clothes, but they remain basically the same.{mospagebreak}

Why are errors so appealing to the human mind? The answer is original sin: Man’s mind has been darkened, and moreover, every error is tempting because it gives its perpetrator a feeling of intellectual fecundity. Creativity is flattering. One feels good about oneself — “This has never been seen before me.” In fact, it is true that anyone inventing a new error fully deserves to be given a patent: It is truly his own. On the other hand, any thinker who is granted to highlight a truth must acknowledge that it is not his own. It was always there, but had remained unveiled. If something is true, it is not “ours”; hence, as Plato saw, we have the duty to share it with others.

This has two consequences: First, no one can claim “truth” to be his own. Moreover, the perception of any truth — and we are here concerned about religious, philosophical, and ethical truths, for they shed light on the meaning of human existence — fills one with gratitude and humility. It is much more accurate to say that “truth possesses them” than to say that “they have truth.”

When a Catholic gratefully proclaims that the Church has the fullness of revealed truth, this assertion should be wrapped both in humility and gratitude. This is a key to a successful apostolate: “To be possessed by truth” is a clarion call to live it, reflect it, and thereby draw other hungry souls to its beauty.

This leads us to our topic: Whether stupidity can ever be dubbed a sin. The usual meaning of stupidity is a lack of intelligence, a heaviness of mind preventing some people from grasping what is self evident, obvious, or easy to grasp; an opacity of mind for which, we may assume, those afflicted by it have no responsibility. Just as some people are born unhealthy, or with a physical deformity, or with a face that nobody would choose, some of us are intellectually so nearsighted that the ABCs of knowledge do not seem to be accessible to them. This calls for charity on the part of those who are “sharp.” To ridicule them, to humble them, is an un-Christian act that should be condemned.

But Chesterton’s words quoted above seem to point to a very different problem. When we hear the word “intelligentsia,” we assume that these are people who have a superior education, who are the luminaries of the day — intellectual leaders whose views we should respect. When one thinks of names such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, John Henry Cardinal Newman, one is filled with awe, gratitude, and admiration. These are the giants on whose shoulders we dwarfs are sitting, hopefully keeping in mind that if we see more than they did, our thanks should go to them, as acknowledged by John of Salisbury.

Who are the intellectuals that Chesterton has in mind? A quotation from The Man Who Was Thursday will give us the key: “The dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them.”

Whether one reads Chesterton’s autobiography, Heretics, Orthodoxy, or the Everlasting Man, one is struck by the fact that he is constantly dueling with intellectuals whose minds have derailed. He tells us that he found his way to faith thanks to the inanity of their arguments against it. He who endorsed atheism as a young man acknowledges his debt to atheists: Once he had acquired some maturity, their arguments struck him as so shallow, so transparently silly that they forced his mind on the path of truth.

A quote is called for: “A sort of Theosophist said to me, ‘Good and evil, truth and falsehood, folly and wisdom are only aspects of the same upward movement of the universe’”; to which Chesterton responded: “What is the difference between up and down?” The best way to refute nonsense is often humor.

One comfortable error is the claim that moral evil is just an absence of good. Commenting on this, Chesterton writes in his autobiography: “‘Evil is only relative. Sin is only negative. There is no positive badness; it is only the absence of positive goodness’ — then I know that they are talking shallow balderdash only because they are much better men than I; more innocent and more normal and more near to God.” He refutes them through his humility; this is bound to silence his opponents.

Robert Blatchford was to Chesterton an endless source of inspiration. Blatchford’s ardent determinism led him to “undiluted compassion”: “He was so anxious to forgive that he denied the need of forgiveness.”

More examples are called for: When Dietrich Keller wrote that even if God’s existence were mathematically proven, Keller would still reject it because it would “limit his self glory,” one is taken by a fit of contagious laughter. We could spend our lives denying the existence of the innumerable human beings who “limit our self glory.” After having eliminated God, Keller would still have to reject the existence of Plato (which one of us would dare compare his intelligence to Plato’s genius?). He would have to deny the existence of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Michelangelo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, because only a raving madman could claim to be superior to them. Keller must have spent his much-too-short life denying the existence of all those who dared be shockingly superior to him. {mospagebreak}

To deny the existence of someone does not blot him out of existence. If this were possible, I wonder how many people in our society would remain alive: The endemic sickness of many men is hatred of other men, and hatred wants to eradicate others’ existence.

When Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra that if God existed, he couldn’t stand not to be god himself — ergo, God does not exist — we are facing the same abysmal intellectual aberration: the intellect is discarded to the dump pile. It is the will that decides what exists and does not.

Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex(not surprisingly on the bestseller list): “The law forbidding abortion is unmoral, since it is necessarily bound to be violated every day, every hour.” Her claim could make some sense if applied to purely positive human laws: “Dogs not allowed in the park.” What about murder, theft, or rape? What about the abuses against women that she condemns, and rightly so? Should not the law prohibiting these abominable deeds be abolished, because every newspaper daily informs us that they are constantly taking place?

One cannot help but wish to borrow Chesterton’s wit to comment on the absurdity of this remark coming from the pen of a “brilliant” woman.

The intellectual and artistic domains are those most open to fantastic illusions. Our society has produced many unrecognized geniuses who wallow in the shocking “injustice” of their lack of recognition. Their eventual bitterness makes them the ideal ground for revolutions.

Conversely, some are acknowledged to be “giants” in their lifetime, and then disappear mysteriously after a long obituary in the New York Times. Dostoyevsky writes in A Raw Youth: “There was a town council and a most important person, I can’t remember his name, one of the greatest personages of the time . . . .” This is boiling irony.

It also happens that a truly great mind crushed by the mediocrity of his contemporaries gets no recognition whatever in his lifetime. This can be a grace in disguise, for vanity always lurks at the door of success. But sooner or later, the value of his message will be discovered, and humanity will benefit from it. Vittorio Alfieri must have had this in mind when he wrote, “Sei vil o grande . . . mori, lo saprai” (Are you great or mediocre? Die; you will find out).

There are topics that always have — and always will have — a powerful appeal: atheism and the intimate sphere. Any savvy publisher knows that if these words are on the title page of a book, the chance is good that it will appear on the bestseller list. Publishers want, above all, to make money.

A case in point is Christopher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great. The problem is that in choosing the title of his work, the author seems to forget for a moment that he is an atheist –s omeone whose dogma is that “God” does not exist. Obviously, if this is the case, to attribute any “size” to him is utter nonsense. A non-existing being cannot be either great or small.

Moreover, the author unwittingly places himself in a very uncomfortable situation: He has to condemn the horrors taking place in atheistic states — Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, North Korea. But being an intellectual charlatan, he finds an escape; by sleight of hand, he tries to explain the abominations that took place in the world during the 20th century by trying to convince us that, in some way, they are the remnants of religion. Whether Hitler, Stalin, or the monstrous Kim Il Sung, they were not so much concerned about negating religion “as seeking to replace it.” This is a sleight of hand that borders on genius.

Hitchens writes: “Totalitarian systems, whatever external form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, ‘faith based.’”

One need look no further for the sin of stupidity.



  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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