Better The Company Of Wise Idiots Than Intelligent Fools.
This little saying of mine combines the interactions between intelligence, stupidity, wisdom, and folly into a handy little quip. But it does bear unpacking just a little, which I’ll attempt to do simply by defining the terms. I’ll start with the idiot.
As a person who likes to pick fights on the internet, I’ve been called an idiot probably more than any other name. But what does that mean? What does it mean to me and what does it mean to the person who has thrown it at me?
I personally see it as an expression of frustration. It allows the person who tagged me with the term to dismiss my position as beneath consideration. It allows him to forego the hard work of examining it, its merits, or for that matter its flaws. To resort to labeling someone an idiot is to suggest that they are wrong because they’re stupid. Or maybe the opposite, I am right because I’m smart. But I don’t see the world in those sorts of shades. Smart people are perfectly capable of being wrong and stupid people are perfectly capable of being right. A position is right because of its alignment with reality, not because of the supposed intelligence of the person who has taken it. We’d all do well to remember that. It is my view that everyone is an idiot, the only variance being the extent to which stupidity has befallen them. When someone calls me an idiot they have no idea just how much I agree with them.
While there are no advantages to being an idiot in and of itself, there are advantages to realizing that you are one. That advantage manifests itself as humility. It asks questions like, is it possible that I’m wrong? How would I know it if I am? What do I not know? What do I “know” that is not true? What avenue of reason have I failed to explore? Humility has also made peace with error. Better to be corrected than to continue in error for pride’s sake. It’s also better to espouse a position and be corrected than to secretly hold a position that is flawed. It’s always better to bear the scorn of the reformed idiot than to glory in the mantel of the proud, stiff-necked fool.
All this said, humility is no weakling. It extends grace to those with whom it disagrees, for it understands the frailty of the mind, both in the one with whom it disagrees and in itself. To challenge the humble is to send him back down to check the foundations, to examine them brick upon brick, precept upon precept, to once again ensure that they are able to bear the weight. But having an examined foundation also means having a sturdy edifice, not very easily swayed.
A smart fool, on the other hand, is an idiot like the rest of us but is unable to see it. He thinks he knows much more than he does and so thinks himself smart, and as such has become a smart fool. He fails to understand that intelligence does not guarantee wisdom. It wasn’t the guys, for example, who mow your lawn, or who repair your car that first dreamed up the folly of two men marrying each other, or that wearing a dress makes a man a woman. George Orwell aptly quipped: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” The Bible says that pride comes before the fall, and that, “Thinking themselves wise they became fools”.
Someone may be capable of learning more than the average person. He then jumps through a bunch of academic hoops and over a bunch of academic hurdles and he is christened by a bunch of fellows who created that obstacle course as smarter and better. The fall is sure to come to that one who buys it, and who thinks that because he has been christened he is beyond reproach. Perhaps if his christeners would have just stopped at smart, the likelihood of things working out well for the average, poor, starved soul who finds himself beneath that cap and gown, would be better.
Be sure also that “smart fools” is not a description of only those who think themselves little gods in academia. Money, prestige, and fame also convince poor souls that they are above foolery. Because a person can sing well, or recite memorized lines with such emotion that it makes us cry, or throw a football, or read a teleprompter, they convince themselves that they have brand-new answers to age-old problems, as if no one was ever smart enough to arrive at their solutions.
Having said this I feel it important to add a disclaimer. By no means am I saying that wisdom and intelligence are mutually exclusive any more than I would say that being a stupid fool is always the plight of the idiot. What I am saying is that wisdom is a virtue regardless of one’s intelligence and that being a fool is never a good thing no matter how smart the fool happens to be. I am saying that it is better to seek wisdom, knowledge and understanding than it is to assume that you possess them already and then to proceed headlong into folly. And most of all it is to say that it is better to seek the company of wise idiots than that of intelligent fools.