The Thing About Intelligence

Intelligence is a peculiar thing.  Some people obviously have it, but it is still a difficult thing to define precisely.  While intelligence tests can quantify intelligence, to some degree, there are people with various different kinds of intelligence who are sometimes overlooked by these metrics.  Intelligence comes in many forms.

Some artists are highly intelligent, but it’s definitely not a pre-requisite for being a great artist, or for making great art.  In fact, intelligence, as it is traditionally understood, can sometimes be a hindrance.  Over intellectualising, while failing to directly observe, can cause artists to paint what they think they see, instead of what they really see, for example.  Many a drafting error has been due to following an idea of what something supposedly looks like, instead of observing the shadows and lines as they actually appear.

While many artists might lack traditional literacy or numeracy, they may have highly developed spatial awareness or be able to see lucidly and differently.  Is that intelligence?  I submit that it is.  Any intellectual gift that derives from cognitive capacities, which manifests as an outstanding characteristic is, I would argue, a flavour of intelligence.  People who believe themselves to be stupid are often highly intelligent, if you broaden the definition in this way.

Other forms of intelligence, beyond pure academic or intellectual ability and related accomplishments, include very useful human traits such as emotional intelligence, empathy, having insight and intuition, being imaginative or having sensitivity toward others.  Even social skills, such as being able to interact with all sorts of diverse people, harmoniously, are a form of intelligence that is both valuable and sadly lacking, in people traditionally thought to be intelligent.

While people that possess intelligence often times think of themselves as superior to other people, the truth is that intelligence doesn’t entitle you to anything.  It’s a nice, one-dimensional advantage, in certain scenarios, but it does not separate you from the rest of humanity in any significant way, in much the same way as being pretty or athletic are nice traits to have, but don’t make you a better human being, simply because of your good genetic fortune.

Many of the people that would cleanse the world of the less intelligent, on the grounds of “improving the species” are talking from a point of view of a sense of self-superiority, entitlement and sheer, bloody-minded prejudice.  The root cause of their fervour is an extreme unwillingness to share.  Their ideas on intelligence are worthless.  What they demonstrate is their lack of identification with the common human condition and their merciless, calloused indifference to the lives of others.  Propagating these traits does not improve the species.

If you spend any time with extremely smart people, you soon come to realise that the very smartest people are nowhere near smart enough.  They still make horrible, human mistakes, just like everybody else.  Artistically, they also make some serendipitous mistakes, too.  Intelligence does not give you the ability to live a life without error, nor should it.  Mistakes are how we learn.  Believing oneself to be too intelligent to make mistakes is sheer arrogance and self-delusional.  It is the ego speaking.  Not only do the most intelligent people make the most catastrophic mistakes, they should make them, provided they have the intellectual honesty to put their mistakes right, where possible and to learn from them.

A manager I worked for used to characterise some people as “clever stupid”, meaning they were intellectually adept, but demonstrably capable of doing the most imbecilic things.  In some cases, they were deliberately going against their own intelligence, out of some form of misplaced spite.  I think there is some validity to the observation.  Not everyone that is intelligent makes good choices.

Intelligence, you see, does not guarantee integrity or intellectual honesty.  Intelligent people often lack the ability or inclination to own their own choices.  Intelligence and intellectual honesty are two very different things.

It has to be said that intelligence often invites persecution.  Intelligent kids are frequently shunned by their peers and preyed upon for being “geeky”.  It’s never easy being different and even more so in cultures that promote uniformity and which struggle with accommodating diversity (or deliberately decide not to, as a matter of doctrine or policy).  When politicians invite people to target minorities, through their vote-winning hate speech, some of the unwitting recipients of the hostility are the intelligentsia.  Intelligent people are deeply misunderstood, particularly by sections of the community who don’t share that experience of being able to grasp things rapidly.

Under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, the intelligentsia are always rounded up and imprisoned or tortured, by the tyrants.  They are not persecuted for the views they hold, which are often sympathetic to the regime in power.  Instead, they are punished because of the potential power of their dissent, should they exercise it.  Tyrants know that the intelligent are able to construct rational arguments against tyranny and can be very persuasive with their words.  They are a danger to tyrants because they have the intellectual abilities to expose the truth and shine light on a lot of deceptions and lies, which tyrants rely upon to maintain their grip on power.  Intelligent dissidents can swing public opinion rapidly and decisively.

As great as the personal peril might be, the intelligentsia should always be prepared to speak out, despite the risk of persecution, because if they cower away and hide from tyranny, the tyrants run rampant.  Silence is the same as support.  As a consequence of their inaction, in the face of tyranny, the next generation, their children, inherit a more intractable mess, just as my generation did, because people of my parents’ generation were not prepared to openly question deeply embedded belief systems, doctrine and dogma.  It is important to survive (a dead dissident can’t change society very much), but if you can accomplish that, then speaking out helps to undermine the power of those who maintain it through violence and intimidation alone.  Cowardice is not a virtue, though having the cunning to choose one’s battles wisely and to survive to fight another day may be.

When intelligence is used for evil and other intelligent people do not speak out against it, there is a generational downward spiral, where evil begets still more evil, since tyranny becomes the accepted norm.  Ever greater levels of tyrannical excess are inevitable, if left unchecked by the intelligentsia.  The balance between surviving the vicissitudes of an evil regime and working to undermine it is a very delicate one, but also the most important work of the intelligentsia.  You have to make intelligent choices.

In my opinion, the bad behaviour of some intelligent people invites the general populace to regard all intelligent people unfavourably and with suspicion.  Intelligence can be used as a tool of deception and manipulation.  People are rightfully wary of anybody that can exert that sort of influence over them.  Because of this, intelligent people should be prepared for a life where one encounters prejudice and misjudgements regularly.

Indeed, it takes some intelligent people quite some time to adapt to the fact that most people aren’t quite as quick on the uptake as they are.  It is all too easy to become frustrated and impatient, or else to become self-important and arrogant.  Neither are attractive behaviours.  If having intelligence teaches a person anything, it is how to have patience and tolerance.  You should always be prepared to explain yourself again, slowly and lucidly and to allow the time it takes for less mentally agile people to catch the thread of your argument.  There is no guarantee that they ever will, either.

Although related, intelligence is not the same thing as cleverness.  The latter implies dexterity or facile skill, rather than sheer brain power.  Many people are very clever, though not particularly intellectually gifted.  By the same token, many intelligent people are useless with tools, a danger to themselves and others in the workshop and incapable of grasping how to perform simple, practical, manual tasks.  One can apply one’s intelligence to learning how to be clever, but a strange majority seemingly do not.

Because of the power of repetitive training and diligent application to the task, it is possible to become clever, in the sense of being skilled and adept, without necessarily being highly intelligent.  Intelligent people who do not think they need to apply themselves and that their intelligence will see them through, often fail to gain key skills.  It’s a sad fact that intelligent people often overlook these truths.

Intelligence does not grant the intelligent a monopoly on morality, ethics, insight and understanding.  Those intellectual elites and technocrats that feel they should be running things, ignoring the wishes and will of the majority, are unable to lay claim to legitimacy, because intelligence does not equate to having a sound moral compass, to being ethical and humane or to possessing unique insight and rectitude.  Technocrats that assert their power on the grounds of their superior intelligence are little more than violent bullies.  If a power structure has no legitimacy, it should be openly challenged and dismantled.

My view is that, on the whole, it is better to be intelligent than not.  In fact, it could be better (though not necessarily so) if more of the population were more intelligent, provided they understood the very real limits of being intelligent.  It feels good to be able to grasp and learn things quickly and to be able to understand and analyse situations with alacrity and lucidity.  Being able to express one’s deepest thoughts succinctly and eloquently is also a benefit of intelligence.  It also feels nice to live inside an intelligent mind, in your quiet, more private moments.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could experience that feeling?

That said, I wouldn’t suggest, for one moment, that the eugenicists are right.  In fact, I think they are blatantly wrong.  Selectively culling and breeding, to raise the general level of intelligence in the population, is abhorrent and ought to be to everybody that considers himself to be intelligent.  It is, I imagine, equally nice to live a simple life, without intellectual cares and untroubled by thinking too much.  I’m fairly sure that everybody experiences moments of lucid insight, at some time in their lives, regardless of their nominal intelligence.  Such epiphanies can be life changing.

If you are intelligent and have the ability to see things more clearly, through having your intelligence, I believe you have a responsibility to make efforts to raise the ambient level of everybody’s understanding.  They might not believe or trust you, but you should be prepared to put what you know in front of them.  At least then they can make a more informed choice.  Keeping what you perceive to yourself denies others the benefit of your insight.

Bear in mind, though, when explaining your insights to others, that people who don’t fully understand things you understand in depth will insist that you don’t understand at all.  This is just one of those inevitable obstacles associated with seeing things that others overlook.  They’re pretty sure that their perceptions are acute and accurate, when they may not be.  Nobody is immune from self-delusion.

If you have intelligence, I think it should be worn lightly.  After all, there is so much to learn and to know and nobody can learn and know it all.  Having a little advantage, in one’s intellectual capacities, says nothing about how much knowledge and experience you can amass.  All of that takes time and application.  There will always be something you know next to nothing about.

Being intelligent doesn’t guarantee that you will also have physical beauty and dexterity.  There are a lot of ordinary looking, clumsy people that are highly intelligent.  Having physical beauty and dexterity can sometimes matter a lot, to the making of some forms of art.  They can also matter to certain people, who may be potential consumers of your art.  If you are intelligent, but not particularly beautiful, as determined and dictated by society’s current normalised ideas of what is beautiful, it can feel unjust and unfair.  For all your intellectual prowess, you are still overlooked and rejected.  That’s just the way it is.  Evolution works to preserve many diverse human traits.  Mother Nature does not have to agree with your assertion that intellectual ability is the only one worth preserving, or even the most important one.

What you can have, if you have intelligence, is a beautiful mind.  A beautiful mind is not exactly the same thing as an intelligent one, but you can develop an intelligent mind into a beautiful one, if you are prepared to work hard at it.  Anyone can develop a beautiful mind, regardless of their intelligence.  Physical beauty, in the absence of a beautiful mind, is not actually very beautiful.

Thinking deeply about things is still a choice, even if you are intelligent.  It doesn’t follow that, just because you are intelligent, you will necessarily ruminate on the big questions.  It is perfectly possible to be intelligent, but intellectually indolent and wilfully ignorant.  Some of the smartest people, that there are, offer valueless opinions and extremely limited insights.  They use their intelligence in other ways.  Sometimes those ways benefit humanity, but sometimes not.

Having intelligence is also not the same thing as having wisdom and experience.  Both of those take time to accumulate.  Intelligence can help with noticing what it is you must learn and add to your stock of wisdom, but you don’t get wisdom and experience just for having intelligence.  It’s not that easy.  People who have intelligence often mistake their intelligence for wisdom, but wisdom takes time to mature.  Young, intelligent people are rarely wise.

If you possess intelligence, it can tempt you into a life of unbridled control freakery, but no amount of intelligence gives you the ability to control and respond to every situation you will encounter in life.  If you think about it, why should intellectual abilities give you any leverage over external events that happen without anybody’s control?  Even if somebody else is controlling and causing events that impinge upon you, why should intelligence be the tool that can resist or reverse those events?  It might be, but equally well might not be.  In any case, why would you seek to control the lives of others, just because you possess intelligence?  How is that in any way legitimate?  Your intelligence does not trump anybody else’s right to self determination.

Some people don’t value intelligence at all; in themselves or in others.  They aren’t interested in it and don’t appreciate it.  If your identity is strongly associated with your intelligence, it can lead to painful rejections.  Some people will see your intelligence as nothing.  When your identity is bound up with your intelligence, seeing your intelligence as nothing is tantamount to seeing you as nothing.  It can be nullifying, very hurtful and can damage your self-confidence, but there is little you can do about it.  Some people just don’t respect intelligence.  Even if they value it, they may value other traits more highly.  If you don’t happen to have those other traits, it can lead to the same conclusion.

It is my fervent belief that you owe it to the rest of humanity to use your intelligence to help humanity and to better its condition, not to manipulate, deceive and humiliate your fellow Earth inhabitants.  Not everybody agrees and many use their intelligence to bamboozle, defraud and degrade their fellow man, but I think that is an irresponsible and inhumane application of one’s intellectual abilities.  When you are capable of doing so much that is beneficial, it seems particularly lazy and reprehensible to instead add to the burden of woes that humanity struggles beneath.  You might obtain some sort of twisted, perverted satisfaction from being able to exert your power, thanks to your intelligence, but it’s a very poor sort of victory that signifies very little.

Edifying humanity, through the application of your intelligence, is far more satisfying to far more people.  Those that don’t want to share, of course, choose self-satisfaction over maximising general satisfaction, but they sacrifice human connection in the process.  While they think this is not important, actually connectedness is at the heart of what it means to be human.  In shunning that, they become less human.

You can use your intelligence for good or for evil.  It is my heartfelt plea to you that you choose to do good over evil.  We don’t need any more megalomaniacal schemes or schemers.  The planet reached saturation point some time ago and there are more than enough already.  Do something worthwhile with your intellect.  Benefit as many people as you can, not just yourself.  Sharing your gifts generously and widely feels much better than keeping your gifts to yourself.

Everybody can learn, improve and be the best person they can be.  You don’t need a great deal of intelligence to do it, just some, though extra intelligence can help.  What it mainly takes is will.

Use your intelligence to make good art.




About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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