Far Too Clever

Every time I go to Kroger's, I stop by the free book box outside Mr. K's Book Store in the same shopping center.  Sometimes I don't find anything worth picking up, but just as often as not, I find that the book fairy has magically gifted me with precisely the right book at the right time.  


Last night, the book fairy was particularly generous:  she left me several old poetry journals, a volume of modern Russian poetry in translation, and most impressive, a shabby, blood red volume, dated 1928, entitled, The Story of the Inquisition, What It Was And What It Did.


From what I know of my father's family history, the Inquisition must have played a major part in the lives and movements of my ancesters.


The frontispiece of the book boasts, "Over 100 Illustrations."  As I flip through the encyclopedic 527 pages, my eyes light on drawings with captions such as "Old Print Showing Various Modes of Torture, Men Flogged, Flayed, Hanged, Burned, etc., etc."  


As I study the print to determine the specifics of "etc., etc.,"  I am amazed at the inventiveness,  indeed, the very cleverness of the human mind in coming up with unusual and novel acts and instruments of sadism.  


I've felt something of the same sense while watching reality T.V. shows filmed in U.S. prisons.  The cleverness of prisoners in fashioning deadly weapons out of the most innocuous materials is mind blowing.  Who knew that Saran wrap could be tightly wound and tempered into a razor sharp blade?  


And then there is the cleverness of the Wall Street bankers who bundled, sliced and diced mortgages into financial instruments which made a few of them into gazillionaires while nearly collapsing the U.S. financial system.


I remember having the same sinking feeling as I watched on T.V. the slow motion train wreck of BP's Deep Water Horizon well gushing tons of toxic oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  It seemed to me that the Deep Water Horizon  Well was like the Biblical Tower of Babel, in reverse, a monument to outsized pride in immense human cleverness.  

It must have taken a great deal of cleverness to drill that monster deep well, but cleverness in the service of what?  CERTAINLY NOT IN THE SERVICE OF WISDOM!


Consulting the dictionary, I look up the definition of cleverness.  

  1) mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able

  2) superficially skillful, witty or original in character or construction; facile:   Ex. of Usage:  It was an amusing, clever play, but of no lasting value.


Most telling, I think, is the word's origin:  1175-1225 Middle English, cliver, akin to old English clifer, claw.  

Hence, in its original sense, 'clever' meant nothing more than adroit, or literally, handy.  


What is handiness or cleverness worth when not employed in the service of wisdom?   At best, not much.  And at worst, as history has repeatedly shown, the consequences can be truly horrific: wholesale genocide of human populations, slaughter and destruction of entire species and habitats.


Now I consult the dictionary definition of 'wise.'  

  1) having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true and right; possessing discernment, judgement, or discretion.


Cleverness is no great feat.  The devil himself is fiendishly clever, though unwise.  We are rich in cleverness.  Our schools and cultural values over emphasize 'cleverness'  to the detriment of wisdom.  


I think it's critical that we search for and cultivate wisdom in both our personal lives and public policy.  We don't need clever pundits, preachers, teachers, bankers, venture capitalists and politicians.  We need wise men and women to lead us toward discernment of what is right and true.


And what is 'right and true?'  As John Donne observed long ago, 'No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.'  

What is right and true, in my opinion, is that which benefits the whole of mankind and the entire planet Earth, not just a few greedy, opportunistic narcissists at the top.  

Be Well and Good Luck,

Martha Maria 

copyright 2012

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