For Goodness’ Sake

Some years ago, in Australia, I appeared on a platform with a prominent intellectual, many times more famous than I. We were asked what it took to be good.

The famous intellectual, who had had a brilliant career, answered that in order to be good, you had to be intelligent. When my turn came to answer, I said that the previous answer was not only wrong in fact but appalling in its implications.

It seemed to me, I said, that there was no connection between intelligence and goodness, and since the previous speaker was obviously referring to the 1 percent of the population or so that she thought might be approximately her intellectual equal, she was in effect saying that the vast majority of human beings could not be good. I count myself a misanthrope, but I am not as misanthropic as that.

She tried to deny that she had said any such thing, but the audience corrected her: She had indeed said it, and, without resorting to Freudian analysis, I think it revealed her true belief in the matter.

I know what she meant, however. To be good, you must have the right opinions about important abstract questions affecting humanity, and to have those you must be well-informed and capable of drawing correct conclusions from a large amount of information. In short, to be good you must both be highly intelligent and agree with me.

The intelligent are much given to the sin of pride, a sin that is not shared, in my experience, by the truly brilliant. Charles Dickens, for example, who knew himself to be a man of genius and called himself “the Inimitable” (which he certainly was), once wrote that he held his talent in trust. He meant by this that it was God-given and he had a duty to use it for the benefit of mankind. Few people have worked harder than he, but no amount of effort by itself would have sufficed to produce so many immortal characters and pages. For reasons that will never be elucidated, he was born with a spark that the rest of us do not have.

The idea of goodness as having the right ideas on abstract questions is a godsend to mediocrities. It allows them to learn and repeat a few phrases or formulae and think that they are good and therefore ought to have a special role to play in the direction of society.

I have no disdain for mediocrity and mediocrities as such; they are, indeed, very necessary to the functioning of any society, as is hypocrisy. (Try to imagine a world without hypocrisy—how dull, frightening, and unbearable it would be! There is, of course, hypocrisy and hypocrisy, of the laudable and necessary, and of the abominable and dangerous, kind, with everything in between.)

Mediocrity is very well in its place; among other things, it oils the wheels of administration. Much has to be done routinely, and if everyone were constantly brimming with brilliant ideas demanding that they be put immediately into practice, chaos would result. Besides, many people like to lead their lives as trains run on rails. It is as well that they exist. Moreover, even very talented people are usually mediocre in the largest parts of their lives.

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