Do we have a moral obligation to be intelligent? That is an important question we each must answer in the affirmative. I believe, based on the promises we make to each other, we are, indeed, obligated — not needed or required — to be intelligent because a mass of more intelligent people means smarter solutions beyond the levels of base emotion and political and religious sloganeering. Intelligence knows no attachment.
Intelligence is the ghostly valve through which we bleed to discover the unslakeable need to know more. We become intelligent by reading literature and by exposing ourselves to minds, values, communities and histories that are not our own.
Intelligence finds it own balance by connecting circles of disparate ideas that appear, on the surface, to have no shared meaning with the core goal of making everything fit better together for community social advancement. Intelligence binds those ideas together and creates new connections for understanding. Is intelligence a value? Yes.
A problem today with the continued dumbing-down of the university experience is the acquiescence of values from the personal to the commercial: Why do I have to understand what I read when only the diploma matters? In 1914 the great John Erskine wrote an article called The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent where he argued for an end to the “warfare between character and intellect.”
Then, Erskine’s undergraduate student at Columbia University in the 1920’s, Lionel Trilling, took up Erskine’s cause and continued to examine the idea of morality and intelligence in the modern-day world throughout his superstar 43-year teaching career at Columbia University (where Trilling made his own history by becoming the first Jewish faculty member in the Department of English). In his final unfinished essay on Jane Austen, Trilling wrote in 1968:
…In reading about the conduct of other people as presented by a writer highly endowed with moral imagination and in consenting to see this conduct as relevant to their own, they had undertaken an activity which humanism holds precious, in that it redeems the individual from moral torpor.
In 2000, 25 years after Trilling’s death, Leon Wieseltier edited and introduced selected essays by Lionel Trilling and published them together in a book under the title: The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent. One of Wieseltier’s best quotes is: “Pity the man who can explain everything.”
With that cogent warning, Wieseltier continues combining circles of intelligence and morality at play within the minds of Erskine, Trillling, Wieseltier, and now, us.