Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the Decline of Wisdom

The Dissenting Sociologist began a post recently with a quite striking sentence:
The principle that “the wise shall govern the strong” is a law of Nature so basic that human society is inoperable and indeed altogether inconceivable without it. Democracy as such is an illogical Utopian fiction that doesn’t exist anywhere and cannot. In human society anywhere we find it, men in the physical flower of their youth allow themselves to be bossed around by senior men they could easily overwhelm, and legitimate authority assumes the form of a pyramid such that positions of authority, by definition, are fewer to the extent that the scope of authority attached to them is greater."
And my immediate thought was to wonder: this is a fascinating idea. Is it actually true?

The second sentence is definitely true. Society would definitely be better ordered if the first sentence were also true. But the universe isn’t usually ordered the way we would like it.

So what would be the similar, purely positive version of the same idea that might be closer to being true? I’d say that the elite will always rule over the masses. Like most, if not all, seemingly universal truths in the social sciences, it has a somewhat tautological aspect – the elites are defined as the ruling class, because ruling itself confers status. Sometimes the rulers are priests, or warriors, or kings, or judges, or bureaucrats. But everywhere there are the leaders, and the led.

Power is always jealously sought, even if not actively contested at every point in time. And so any elite must be savvy enough to at least maintain their own supremacy against other contenders for power. If you are incompetent enough, you probably won’t stay in power that long. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to be competent at any task other than maintaining your own power. You can run your country into ruin and beggary, as many long-lived dictators have done, as long as you maintain your own power. So you can definitely have an evil, psychopathic elite. But a sufficiently incompetent elite is a fragile equilibrium, at risk of collapsing. This also is the strongest evidence against frequent claims that some or other presidential candidate is a moron – Trump, Bush, Kerry, whoever. There are simply too many other people viciously vying for the presidential job for any true moron to get that close to succeeding.

Of course, the number of true psychopaths is rather small. So most leaders will have at least some regard for their people. And so if there is a general quality of intelligence and good judgment needed to maintain power, that will hopefully flow over into competent administration of the rest of the country (perhaps one of the biggest mercies the world provides, actually). The main hitch here, of course, is that psychopaths (though numerically few) are disproportionately attracted to power, and ruthless in the methods they are willing to use to obtain it. Hence the horror of the many dictators of the 20th century, from Mao to Mugabe.

A lot of elites will have a need to occasionally augment their ranks with competent administrators who can help them secure their rule. And this is where the starting quote is quite interesting, particularly with regard to exactly what qualities are being sought. What is needed is competence. But this can come from a number of different base qualities.

Reactionaries are generally drawn to old ideas, and wisdom is one such concept. Wisdom connotes judgment, nuance, experience, and a sense of doing what is right. It is related to its less lofty and less mystical relative, good judgment (of which wisdom is in some sense the pinnacle). It is not surprising that these are also associated with age – if someone is wise beyond their years, it is because wisdom is generally thought to be more likely to reside in the elders of a society.

Wisdom, dear reader, is a quality whose heyday has largely passed. The thoroughly brilliant Google NGram viewer charts the decline for us.

It should not therefore come as a surprise to find that modern society, which places relatively less emphasis on wisdom, should also come to have less respect for the elderly relative to the young.

So if the elites aren’t selecting on wisdom, but have to select on competence (broadly defined), what else are they selecting on?

Here’s one answer:

First ‘clever’, then ‘smart’.

‘Wise’ has been more or less declining as an idea since 1820 or so. Its decline was also marked by the rise of ‘clever’ – more intellectual, but in a way that seemed to prioritise shrewdness and savvy behavior, as opposed to good judgment.

But the big rise of late has been ‘smart’. This goes mostly to intelligence, raw cognitive firepower. This is a trait that (at least at an individual level) is generally considered to be inherited at birth, and which displays itself more in youth than old age.

The modern ideal of innovative success is the young tech CEO. Mark Zuckerberg is assuredly smart, and often described as such. I have yet to hear anyone praise him as wise.

The other striking aspect of this perception is that if good decisions are thought to come mostly from being smart, then they are something that one is either just born with, or can acquire merely by turning one’s gigantic brain to the subject at hand. And since every man flatters himself that he is smart, he is thereby largely relieved of the obligation of humble study at the feet of those that have come before him. Hence the modern progressive wet dream of the show ‘The West Wing’ – brilliant young minds elevated straight from their Harvard Political Science undergrad education to being White House advisors, solving the world’s problems as understudies to a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics (or at least Hollywood writers’ limited conception of one).

Intellect alone is presumed to be able to solve the world’s problems, from Syria to Washington.

Good judgment, by comparison is considered far too prosaic a quality to be encouraged, and wisdom seems almost archaic.

I am far from convinced that this shift in emphasis has been for the good.


  1. Couldn't help but think of FDR's "Brain Trust" as being a key to this shift. A well-marked boundary when the most powerful people in the world suddenly started thinking about statecraft as a purely "scientific" question. Probably similar movements in Germany at the time.

    1. That's a great point. If you zoom in on 'smart' on its own, there's a definite uptick around the 1930s, which fits your thesis quite well. But part of what was striking to me was how far back the decline on 'wise' seemed to go. Like lots of ostensibly 20th century phenomena, it seems to have its roots quite a bit earlier.

  2. I think that the cult of raw intelligence, like the phenomenon of feminism to which it is inextricably related (both represent attempts to wage war on patriarchal authority on different fronts), will either run into problems with human nature at a fundamental level and so find a brickwall limit there, or prove absolutely destructive of society. As of right now, youth is, in the main, still willing to receive instruction from those older and deemed more qualified, and generally accept that the young have to start at the bottom of the heap in order to acquire what's still called "experience". The exaltation of smart corresponds to a social reality in which young people nonetheless feel obliged to pay fortunes to get University degrees, covet unpaid internships that strongly resemble outright servitude, and so on. I think there's a parallel to be drawn here with this genre of modern women who exalt the virtues of a type of ideal feminist man they don't actually date or want to. In both cases, natural human relations are nominally rejected with vehemence but more or less conserved in point of practice, and willingly so, at least for now.

    1. Huh, that’s a very interesting take. There's definitely a lot of scope for labels to disguise a quite contrary reality, especially in this case. The point about how exalting the older, wiser establishment is a) necessary to maintain society and b) evident in the desire to get university degrees made me think that violations of both these conditions tend to look like the Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot. And this did indeed look like the path to social collapse, which fits your thesis. But this is only a fundamental problem if the basis for maintaining power is by increasing prosperity to keep people happy with your governance. There’s another equilibrium though, which I associate with North Korea or Zimbabwe. In this version, you keep the populace just at subsistence or even slightly below, so the army is loyal because they’re worried about losing their small perks. In this case, running a society in a horribly unwise manner, at least in terms of general welfare, can still be a stable way to maintain power.