an inquiry into anecdotal evidence
It is an annual goal of mine to attempt, throughout a year, to observe one particular idea in detail throughout the many circumstances a year will provide. This past year of 2011 I observed the ways in which people compliment each other and I must say the inquiry has proved rather revealing. This year I noted that people tend to praise others as "smart." Now I suppose I ought to make an anthropological caveat and explore the possibility that in my presence people might praise others as "smart" because they figure, incorrectly, that I am reasonably smart and thus would value intelligence in others. If this possibility has ever been true the fact would puzzle me. Why would one person possessing one virtue not recognize or value excellence in the others?
This question is, in fact, the essence of my inquiry. More specifically, where is this bias in favor of intelligence and what do people mean by "smart?" Let us attempt to answer the second question first and in doing so turn our attention to Aristotle.
We can observe that Aristotle makes a number of distinctions amongst the Intellectual Virtues, what we gloss over as "intelligence." In brief, Aristotle mentions 1) techne, what we might very loosely consider a particular skill, 2) scientific knowledge about universal principles derived from logical argument, 3) practical judgment, that is, the ability to judge the good for man in a particular situation, 4) knowledge of first principles, and lastly 5) wisdom, a combination of knowledge of first principles and reason.
As useful as these distinctions are, and their usefulness and the keenness of the mind who made them are revealed even upon the most cursory consideration, they do not seem at all akin to what people mean when they say "smart." Craftsmen are seldom referred to as smart and I have never observed "smart" to refer to anything so specific as formal training in logic. In fact in my observation I seldom nonticed "smart" used with any connection to particular knowledge at all. Of Aristotle's subsets of "intellectual virtue," nous, or the ability to observe first principles, seems to be closest to what people mean when they call someone "smart." Yet people tend to be unable to point to first principles that a "smart" person does know. How do you know he is smart then? They usually form this judgment based on a perceived readiness or cleverness in conversation or simply general competence, but not from serious consideration about the nature and degree of the person's intelligence.
This fact brings me to my conclusion about the significance of this last virtue, "smart." It is tempting to suggest that "smartness" survived as a virtue because as a society we value intelligence most and there may be some truth to this but I think "smart" survived simply because it was the easiest to corrupt and indeed it has been corrupted into a meaningless catch-all compliment. Most significantly, though, is that unlike all of Aristotle's virtues, it is not connected to action. It requires no learning, experience, or contemplation, unlike Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues. "Smartness" requires nothing of its possessor therefore it is a "virtue" anyone can have. You need to do practically nothing to get it and there is nothing you can do to lose it. It is an invented virtue to compensate for the loss of classical education (that is, Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues) and the social abandonment of Aristotle's Moral Virtues. Speaking of them, where did they go? When was the last time you heard someone (other than a warrior) described as courageous? Or anyone described as temperate or moderate, or liberal, or good-tempered? Instead people are glossed over with meaningless adjectives.
These vagaries are both, I would wager, accidental and convenient. They allow us to praise and condemn at whim without reason and consideration and worse they give us the illusion of being discriminating. They allow us to create a safe-zone around ourselves and others which cannot be breached. If you're "smart" you're smart and nothing can change that. You might be deficient in every other virtue, but you're still "smart."
Well, "smart" is not a virtue. There are in fact many others, though, all of which are worth perceiving, valuing, and cultivating. Perceiving is of course the first step but the second is perhaps even mor difficult: judging yourself and others based on these virtues. This is not something we like to do and it can be taken too far, but it is a necessary step toward a meaningful life in which people are better, are more, than "nice" and "smart."