# 298: Intellect
Story behind the Passage
We forget so much, it is incredible. I admire the people who can quote passages and the corresponding authors’ names by heart. I have never been able to do this. I am happy if I remember a central statement by a sole author. It is not that I forget everything I once read. It is more like everything I read just stays separate from whatever is already present in my mind for a very short period of time; the time I spend intensely pondering this particular material. And as I go through this process, there is a certain point at which the new information becomes to attached to all previous thoughts and “knowledge” that I have trouble remembering the bits and pieces.
This happens with Emerson all the time. Especially while studying as a graduate in the U.S. for a year, I literally swallowed his writings. Yes, I kind of had to because I was taking an “Emerson and Douglas” seminar. Still, hardly any other author shaped my intellectual journey in literary studies as much as he did. When I look at the collection of essays nowadays, which I do not do very often, unfortunately, I see all markings and notes next to the essays. I see titles which I completely forgot about already. This also applies to this essay “Intellect.” I just consulted the book today because I am thinking a lot these days and I just had to consult him today for my blog topic. Still, I had no idea I would find an essay and a passage that is so much to the point regarding what moves me these days.
This morning, I finished an essay about the connection between the present-day education system and entrepreneurship (among other things). I caught myself almost apologizing for the fact that I sketch such presumably old-fashioned thoughts about education as a path to wisdom and happiness. I even ended up explaining why what I am writing is explicitly not meant for a highly “intellectual” audience but for those who do not consider themselves intellectuals. The entire point of my “activism” is to show and make people experience that there is no understanding of what intellectual growth actually means and that you can learn about the true meaning of this only if you experience it. This takes me to the key sentences in this passage above.
“We are all wise.” This is more of less what I was saying throughout my entire essay and it is also what I represent and teach people. Yes, we differ in terms of certain biological intelligence prerequisites but overall, we all have the ability to move closer towards wisdom. What differentiates wisdom and knowledge would need its own essay. Basically, wisdom is this mixture of everything you learn in life that amounts to a supreme ability to see things, think about things, and take action in ways that is somehow super to other alternatives. Yes, this mini definition is quite oblique but I do not want to get deeper into it now. What I simply want to draw attention to is the fact that we can all get there; we can all try our best to improve our ability to think and judge based on comprehensive learning activities.
“The difference between persons is not in wisdom but in art.” What Emerson states here, then, is interesting because he calls this thing that makes the difference art. I still have to get deeply into the history of art an the history and cultural transformation of the term itself. As I have stated many times before, I have no real idea of what art means and how this concept relates to me, apart from the experience that people call me an artist whenever they think there is just no order in what I do. Be that as it may, as far as Emerson is concerned, art is the thing that makes all the difference when it comes to utilizing intellect. This is necessary because, obviously, intellect is nothing that one can see or measure from the outside (even with IQ tests this encompassing wisdom cannot be measured accurately). Hence, we need some form of expression to assess it from the outside. This is where “use” and “art” blend.
“Perhaps if we should meet Shakespeare, we should not be conscious of any steep inferiority; no: but of great equality, — only that he possessed a strange skill of using , of classifying, his facts, which we lacked.” Wow! Digest this carefully. Emerson is basically saying that we are all Shakespeares or at least have the human capacity for it with one tiny difference: We are not equally skilled in expressing our intellect; in putting it into art. Here is what the etymology dictionary says about the definition of art:
“In Middle English usually with a sense of “skill in scholarship and learning” (c. 1300), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts. This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning “human workmanship” (as opposed to nature) is from late 14c. Meaning “system of rules and traditions for performing certain actions” is from late 15c. Sense of “skill in cunning and trickery” first attested late 16c. (the sense in artful, artless). Meaning “skill in creative arts” is first recorded 1610s; especially of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1660s.
Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead. [William Butler Yeats, journal, 1909]“ art | Search Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)
So, the focus is on skill here when it comes to art, not the intellect behind it. Still, not everything can be considered art. And not every kind of intelligence is the kind of intellect that Emerson talks about. Rather, intellect is related to this deeper truth which is basically unchangeable because it is human and thus gets passed on from generation to generation. I do believe that this is true and that we see this in art. But I also believe, alongside Emerson, that we all have the capacity for developing the intellect behind this. It is then a question of whether or not we refine our artistic skill to give expression to it in some format that is considered “art” by our audience.
Still, to be clear about this, it does not matter what othe people consider art. Developing your intellect is the key for everything that follows — be it art, science, or anything else. And essays like the ones by Emerson guide you to this place of truly turning your intellect into action.
1) Are you good at remembering quotes and the names of authors?
2) How do you define “intellect”?
3) What do you think about the thesis that people do not necessarily differ in intellect but in the ability of it artistic use?