Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Notes & Comments

The Impotence of Being Clever

When did cleverness become such a nuisance?

Alexander Stern

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“I am sick to death of cleverness,” wrote the very clever Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. “Everybody is so clever nowadays.... The thing has become an absolute public nuisance.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was tormented by the thought that he was “merely clever” and criticized himself and others for valuing cleverness over genuine wisdom. Søren Kierkegaard, who placed a genuinely religious life before a merely aesthetic one, wrote that “the law for the religious is to act in opposition to cleverness.”

Is there really something wrong with being clever? Even if it can get on our nerves sometimes, its associations remain overwhelmingly positive: Cleverness is seen as a source of not just amusement but insight. Nonetheless, many will identify with Wilde’s complaint; The cleverness that proliferates in public life today is a nuisance. Our popular media are drenched in contrived knowingness and irony. And cleverness has become something like a currency online, where hordes of commenters and commentators compete for likes and subscribers with world-weary analyses and smug jokes. What should we make of this apparent degradation?

Let me start by trying to define cleverness a little more narrowly. We tend to use it in two related ways. The first is to mean brilliant, sharp, and insightful in a way that others might miss. A “clever” solution is not just effective but demonstrates imagination and a kind of a command of the situation. It arises out of and reveals a different, more imaginative way of understanding a problem. When Albert Einstein resolved fundamental problems in physics, his solution was clever insofar as it upended assumptions about space and time that people didn’t even realize they were making. We also use clever to mean something like witty. Like a clever solution, a clever remark reveals command and control. There is a detached, isolated composure with which the clever individual can survey the whole scene and make connections others can’t. In both instances, cleverness implies dexterity—an ability to get a grip on the world from the outside. Indeed, the word derives from an East Anglian word, cliver, meaning “expert at seizing.”

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