Thursday, September 26, 2013

`Intelligence and the Grace of Blessed Temperament'

A reader writes: 

“One shouldn’t make imperious statements, speak with unbridled certitude, but as I get older I think the biggest difference between men…is intelligence. My theory, which I pretty much keep to myself, is that what saved Johnson, Lamb, and Dickinson, even enabled them to succeed almost without parallel, was their superior intelligence. Had Johnson or Dickinson had an IQ score ten points lower (it’s just convenient to word it this way), both, I am convinced would have ended up mad, locked away, Johnson in Bedlam, Dickinson a mad woman locked away in the attic. Lamb, without his intelligence and the grace of blessed temperament, might have ended up a mere drunk.” 

I’ve come to suspect that intelligence, sheer intellectual capacity, unless tempered with the proper qualities, is overrated. That Johnson (especially Johnson), Lamb and Dickinson were phenomenally gifted is inarguable, especially because intelligence among writers, as among pipefitters and psychiatrists, is always chronically scarce. How smart was Shakespeare? That he was a genius is incontestable, but his retroactively calculated IQ is up for grabs, and probably irrelevant. To his credit, my reader adds: “When all is said and done, however, what remains of these three geniuses is their work. Their lives would not interest us so much was their work mediocre.” 

Precisely. I replied, in part, to my reader: “To your mention of intelligence I would add just the right mingling of pride and humility. Pure self-centeredness is crippling and, obviously, obnoxious. Too much humility turns men into noodles. Johnson is exhibit A when it comes to the optimal balance.” In The Rambler #103, Johnson identifies a critical ingredient in intelligence: “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” Mental inertness, regardless of IQ, is a sure symptom of what we might call functional dumbness (see: functional illiteracy). Joseph Epstein writes of IQ: 

“IQ was derived by dividing mental age by actual age and then multiplying by 100. What IQ chiefly showed was a propensity, or want thereof, for solving abstract problems. (The Scholastic Aptitude Test similarly predicts nothing more than one’s chances of doing well in college.) Chess players, mathematics wizards, memory freaks tended to score highest on IQ tests.” 

Perhaps intelligence is many things, and never complete unto itself. Lamb says, “Books think for me,” and no one would suspect him of mental dimness. And Dickinson, that subtle comedian, knew when and how to use a microscope.

1 comment:

George said...

"Robertson said, one man had more judgment, another more imagination.
JOHNSON. 'No, sir; it is only, one man has more mind than another. He may direct it differently; he may, by accident, see the success of one kind of study, and take a desire to excel in it. I am persuaded that, had Sir Isaac Newton applied to poetry, he would have made a very fine epick poem. I could as easily apply to law as to tragick poetry.'
BOSWELL. 'Yet, sir, you did apply to tragick poetry, not to law.'
JOHNSON. 'Because, sir, I had not money to study law. Sir, the man who has vigour, may walk to the east, just as well as to the west, if he happens to tune his head that way.'
BOSWELL. 'But, sir, 'tis like walking up and down a hill; one man will naturally do the one better than the other. A hare will run up a hill best, from her fore-legs being short; a dog down.'
JOHNSON. 'Nay, sir; that is from mechanical powers. If you make mind mechanical, you may argue in that manner. One mind is a vice, and holds fast; there's a good memory. Another is a file; and he is a disputant, a ontroversialist. Another is a razor; and he is sarcastical.'

Reported in Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides.