From Enlightenment To Ignorance: Society's Dangerous Embrace Of Stupidity

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by Tyler Durden
Sunday, Mar 31, 2024 - 01:00 PM

Authored by Anthony Esolen via American Greatness,

What would be the state of a society in which a will to stupidity were united with a will to power?

When I first decided to study and teach literature as my life’s vocation, I foresaw the work ahead of me—to learn as much as I could about English letters. Was I still unread in the Victorian novel? That would have to change. Had I a blank area in early American? It would have to be filled. The idea, though, was not simply to cover this and check off that. It was to gain a broad view of the whole, to see the relations of one area to another, to hear Melville in conversation with Milton, to set Jay Gatsby off against Tom Jones, to hear the American strains of confidence and rule-breaking in Walt Whitman, and the no less American strains of reserve and fence-setting in Robert Frost.

But to study English literature is to open yourself to the literature of other nations, because English authors were never reading only English. You cannot have Chaucer without the three great Florentines: Dante, Petrarch, and, especially, Boccaccio. You cannot have the English romantics without the German romantics. If you want to best appreciate what is characteristic of Tudor and Stuart drama, with its boisterous violation of the “unities” of space and time as it whisks you from Rome to Alexandria and back, or lets pass sixteen years as Time himself comes on stage to tell you of it, you should become acquainted with the near contemporary drama of Racine and Corneille just across the water, with its classical concentration of action within a single day.

This, of course, is the work of a lifetime. I continue to learn languages and read literature I have never encountered before. But to call most of it “work” is to mistake its nature. It would be as if a self-described lover of art should drag himself from bed and mutter to his valet, “Dear me, I suppose I must go to the Sistine today. Paintings and paintings, nothing but paintings. Michelangelo, you know. Creation of man all the way to the what’s-it, with devils and bankers going one way and angels and decent sorts going the other. Molesworth, where is your mind wandering? Kindly hold the mirror so I can see myself.”

Yet that, as I see now, is the aim of our schools: to produce spoiled, self-satisfied graduates with the stolidity but not the innocence (and usually not the income) of an upper-class twit—a Bertie Wooster, if Bertie were sullen, debauched, and always in a state of political water-boiling. That is not the same as ignorance. I do not read Sanskrit, so I am largely ignorant of Sanskrit poetry. Had I more years ahead of me than I do, I might learn Sanskrit. I know something of the language, and I am piqued by the theology of Shankara, the greatest of commentators on the Rig-Vega. But I don’t have the years. Meanwhile, I have a Russian Bible that will provide my next re-introduction to the word of God, because when you know a language as poorly as I know Russian, you have to take things very slowly, and when you do that, you often see things that ease and fluency often miss, and these things can be small objects of wonder. It is like having to cross the woods afoot rather than driving along a road that cuts it in half. You might hear the ovenbird that way.

No, ignorance is one thing; we’re all going to be ignorant of most of the things there are to know. It used to be that a titan in mathematics, a Leonhard Euler, could be expert in all the areas of that subject; those days are gone. The topologist may be ignorant of Milton; that depends on his reading. But he is certainly going to be ignorant of most of the other branches of mathematics, simply because he has not got the time for them. Ignorance is one thing. Stupidity is another.

By stupidity, I do not mean mere dullness or sluggishness in the organ of understanding. I mean what the etymology suggests. You are stupid when you gape. The emperor Frederick II was called “Stupor Mundi,” “The Wonder of the World,” and to be stupefied still, in English, might suggest that you are overcome with astonishment. But stupidity has come to denote a gaping that is as far removed from wonder as possible. You are stupid when you gape indifferently at something excellent that you have the power to understand but without understanding it and without caring to, when you are unmoved by a beauty that you have the power to apprehend but you make sure you will not apprehend, when you shut the eyes of your soul against the goodness they might otherwise see.

Suppose you are trying to introduce a savage to a system of writing. He is ignorant of what the scratches and squiggles are supposed to say. Once you show him that they do speak, he should be interested, and if he has a lively mind, he will be like Sequoyah, who brought writing to the Cherokees. But if he has decided beforehand that nothing you have to show him is worth his time, he will be resolutely stupid: gaping on the thing and thinking that it is mere chicanery or foolishness or whatnot.

That sort of stupidity is what our schools are about. They do not teach young people about the glory of Melville, if they teach Melville at all, but about how Melville does or does not fit into some gridwork of identity politics, so that the work of art and intelligence itself, Moby-Dick, is left on the shore like a beached whale, dead and stinking, while onlookers in their stupidity hold their noses and pass by.

Nor is Melville an exceptional case. Consider what Milton thought the most beautiful thing in all of creation: the human form, male or female, as expressed most powerfully in the human face. Now consider how far we have gone to deny that such beauty, male or female in its characteristic manifestations, even exists. Suppose I say that ballet dancing or certain kinds of gymnastics most beautifully conform to the willowy beauty of the female body, while such things as weightlifting and football do not. I do not know which will cause me to be reviled more: my sense that the latter is awkward or my sense that the former is graceful and lovely. In this matter, I am required to be stupid and to gape in indifference at the one and the other.

It is the same with marriage and family life. Suppose I see a large family at a reunion. There are three or four generations, about fifty or sixty people in all. That’s by no means a lot, or at least it wasn’t when I was a boy, not when I had twenty-eight aunts and uncles and thirty-nine first cousins, and neighbor children had the like. I should be struck by the sheer human vitality. But if my first thought is that there are too many, that the women must have been pregnant too often, and that birth control would have solved the problem, I am stupid. I am like a savage who would rather dig under bark for grubs than learn how to plant seeds.

Now suppose that this will to stupidity is both the engine and the object of political power. When Sequoyah completed his syllabary of the Cherokee language, it took his people only a couple of years to see what a great gift he had given them. But if I were to say that Americans should learn to honor the religion without which their nation would never have been born and to be grateful for the gifts it conferred, even if they do not themselves believe in its teachings, I might as well hang a sign around my neck, inviting everyone, especially teachers, politicians, professional entertainers, and journalists, to spit on me and to make my name a byword from coast to coast. You must be stupid to be safe.

Readers may think of similar cases. Stupidity, apparently, is no obstacle to success in Google’s AI department; it is the royal road. Stupidity sells; stupidity is all the rage. Only someone stupid before the beauty of man and woman could suppose that a lopping-off here and a pin-the-tail there could turn one into the other, but dare to call out the stupidity, even in private, and you risk your career. I am not to honor my country; I am to be stupid before the contributions it has made to the world. I am not to be enthralled by the wonder of the cell and its intricate design: stupidity must reduce it to random jelly, as stupidity reduces the miraculous human being in the womb, with all its latent powers unfolding, to a wart, a tumor, or a parasite.

Hear, O America, the powers that be, the powers that be are united, and you must be stupid with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, or else.