The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, APRIL 4, 1937
It's Unwise To Be Too Wise
By W. J. Cash
An essay which I think the boys and girls in these parts who may be thinking of setting up for writers--which in the nature of the case is to say for persons of superior knowledge and understanding--would do well to begin their education with, is old William Hazlitt's "On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority." The thing ought, indeed, and as a matter of course, to be the beginning of wisdom for such boys and girls everywhere on this dizzy planet, but I particularly recommend it to those in these parts, because nowhere else on earth has it greater and more certain application in the premises.
I haven't space, alas, to reproduce it here in all its glorious immodesty, but at least I can set down the more succulent portions. Says William:
"The chief disadvantage of knowing more and seeing farther than others, is not to be generally understood. A man is, in consequence of this, liable to start paradoxes which immediately transport him beyond the reach of the commonplace reader... Petrarch complains that 'Nature has made him different from other people'--singular' d'altra gentl. The great happiness of life is to be neither better nor worse than the general run of those you meet with. If you are beneath them, you are trampled upon; if you are above them, you soon find a mortifying level in their indifference to what you particularly pique yourself upon. What is the use of being moral in a night-cellar or wise in Bedlam? 'To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.' So says Shakespeare and the commentators have not added that, under these circumstances, a man is more likely to become the butt of slander than the mark of admiration, for being so, 'How now thou particular fellow?' is the common answer to all such out-of-the-way pretensions. By not doing as those at Rome do, we cut ourselves off from good-fellowship in society. We speak another language, have notions of our own, and are treated as a different species...
"Ignorance of another's meaning is a sufficient cause of fear and fear produces hatred, hence the suspicion and rancour entertained against all those who set up for greater refinement and wisdom than their neighbors. It is vain to think of softening down this spirit of hostility by simplicity of manners... The more you condescend, the more they will presume upon it; they will fear you less, but hate you more and will be the more determined to take their revenge on you for a superiority as to which they are entirely in the dark, and which you yourself seem to entertain considerable doubts. All the humility in the world will only pass for weakness and folly. They have no notion of such a thing. They always put their best foot forward; and argue that you would do the same if you had any such wonderful talents as people say...
"Intellectual strength is not like bodily strength. You have no hold of the understanding of others but their sympathy. Your knowing in fact so much more about a subject does not give you a superiority, that is, a power over them, but only renders it the more impossible for you to make the least impression on them. It is, then, an advantage to you? It may be, as it relates to your own private satisfaction, but it places a greater gulf between you and society. It throws stumbling blocks in your way at every turn. All that you take most pride and pleasure in is lost upon the vulgar eye. What they are pleased with is a matter of indifference or distaste to you... I would be glad almost to change my acquaintance with pictures, with books, and certainly, what I know of mankind, for any body of ignorance of them!...
"One of the miseries of intellectual pretensions is that nine tenths of those you come in contact with do not know whether you are an imposter or not. I dread that certain anonymous criticisms should get into the hands of servants where I go, or that my hatter or shoemaker should happen to read them, who cannot possibly tell whether they are well or ill founded. The ignorance of the world leaves one at the mercy of its malice. There are people whose good opinion and good will you want, setting aside all literary pretensions: and it is hard to lose by an ill report (which you have no means of rectifying) what you cannot gain by a good one... It is in vain for me to endeavor to explain that the publication in which I am abused is a mere government engine--an organ of a political faction. They know nothing about that. They only know that such and such imputations are thrown out: and the more you try to remove them, the more they think there is some truth in them... If I say, I once wrote a thing called "Prince Maurice's Parrot," and an essay on the Regnant Character, in the former of which allusion is made to a noble marquis, and in the latter to a great personage (so at least, I am told, it has been construed) and that Mr. Croker has premonitory instructions to retaliate: they cannot conceive what connection there can be between me and such distinguished characters, and can get no farther. Such is the misery of pretensions beyond your situation, and which are not backed by any external symbols of wealth or rank, intelligible to all mankind!..."
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