Intellectual ability is humankind’s opposable thumb – if not more so. Perhaps I’m not being clear. That’s sort of my point.
The ability to use one’s brains directedly and effectively, both as a survival tool and as a means of personal fulfillment, for fun (as it were) as well as for profit, distinguishes successful specimens of our “sapient” species. Sapient, such a handy word. It means “wise.” Well, that’s not excessively informative either. “Wisdom” is a concept that could stand some unpacking, and today I’ma be your unpacker.
It seems to me that wisdom isn’t just one thing, so much as it is a bundle of other other qualities. To be wise, one must be smart, clever, erudite and discerning. These are different capabilities and each of them emphasize a different kind of mental sophistication, a distinct quality of a high-performing intellect. My premise is, that wisdom is the sum of these.
Let’s start with “smart.” It’s a word that enjoys wide common use, the most homonymic of the wisdom constituents, and the most generic. It’s whatever level and kind of mental capacity meets the evaluator’s own criteria for high intelligence. Because all these words, of course, refer only to opinions about intelligence. They are inherently subjective terms, no matter how we strain to measure or compare them quantitatively. Intelligence is as much in the eye of the beholder as are beauty and politics. Nothing proves this point better than “smart.” “Smart” means that, whatever I think is important in a good thinker, you’ve got it. Complimentary – but not very descriptive. Okay, you’re smart, that’s nice – but what kind of smart are you?
Some are clever (or, sometimes, “sharp”). This is a reactive form of intelligence that enables one to respond rapidly and effectively to challenges and obstacles, such as by employing existing resources in creative ways. A clever mind solves practical problems. We owe our extraordinary living conditions to the insights of clever people. They show us the way forward.
Perspicacity, on the other hand, is the quality of clear-sightedness – of actually seeing what one looks at. The perspicacious mind comprehends problems swiftly, anticipates outcomes, penetrates duplicity. All details, small and large, are considered by the perspicacious mind. It is a penetrating intelligence that subsumes the present moment.
Erudition is an entirely different matter, embracing and implementing encyclopedic stores of factual knowledge. Such lofty levels of intellectual achievement presuppose robust mental powers, but true erudition implies something more than mental power alone. Erudition invokes an understanding of parallels and differences, the ability to use knowledge to expand upon and enrich new experiences, and to inform decisionmaking with constructive contextualization. Erudition is discerning and synthetic – it selectively brings culture and experience to bear to enrich present experiences. It is the form of intelligence that is most closely tied to historical perspective.
Some people are bright, or, if taken further, brilliant. It’s hard to describe them more specifically than this. These are synesthetic words that hint at the way this particular form of intelligence seems to work. Brilliant people illuminate that which surrounds them, and dispel opacity. They’re quick on the uptake, and strong tacticians. They’re the reason the iconic representation of having a good idea is a light bulb. But “brilliance” as an intellectual description long predates Edison’s incandescence. We have historically described some people thus because their intellects bring clarity, like rays of sunshine into a darkened room. A bright mind is burnished, and a brilliant one seems to radiate ideas.
Shrewdness is a very different important form of intelligence. It is goal-driven, maximizing the advantage to be obtained from any situation. It is an acquisitive, or at least competitive, form of intelligence. It is a valuable capability, especially when propitiously paired with other forms of intelligence that elevate the operation of this particular facet. Shrewdness makes the most of the circumstances at hand. By the same token, the person who is shrewd but exhibits no other modes of intelligence, should not be expected to be anything but shrewd.
It speaks volumes about me personally that it was not until these last comments had been completed, did I realize that I’d omitted perhaps the most important of all the aspects of intelligence: emotional. To understand things on a human level, and to react and respond in a way that helps resolve problems instead of exacerbating them – this is a subtle but profound intelligence that guides constructive cooperation. In a world of strife and want, the emotionally intelligent can free themselves of extraneous things, and can ensure that the important things are handled with a minimum of fuss and in the best way available. Emotionally intelligent people get into fewer conflicts, resolve them faster, and experience personal growth. This is a form of intelligence that cannot be overvalued.
Genius is different. Other kinds of intelligence function as modes of applying an enhanced mental capacity of one sort or another, but genius is a creative faculty which can exist distinct from conventional intelligence. Geniuses are conduits through which some great creative drive operates. Genius compels creation. It’s more of a power than an intellectual attribute. However, when it’s linked to the forms of intelligence that are more distinguished by intellectual capabilities than creative drive, that’s when history is made.
Finally, I turn to the quintessence of intelligences: wisdom. Wisdom harmonizes the other species of intelligence into their most effective and penetrating alignment. It hones sharpness, deepens perspicacity, channels erudition, intensifies brilliance, harnesses shrewdness, embraces emotion, and informs genius. When we say one is wise, we mean much more than any one of those things – we mean them all at once.
There may be more to this, or maybe this is already way too much. Heaven forbid that I pretend to know everything about anything. It doesn’t take a wise man to realize he’s said too much, it takes one to know not to say it in the first place.