I must admit that I am rather uncomfortable about using the word “stupidity”. Nonetheless, its presence surrounds me and I cannot deny that I am more than occasionally afflicted by it.
Saint Thomas Aquinas used the word at least once and Albert Einstein employed it several times. “Two things are infinite,” he once said, “the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”. Trying to outdo Einstein, Frank Zappa complained that “there is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” On another occasion, Einstein stated that “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits”. To his credit, however, he was not averse to applying the condition to himself: “Don’t be too hard on me. Everyone has to sacrifice at the altar of stupidity from time to time”. After all, he added, “Stupidity is a personal achievement which transcends national boundaries”.
Among the writings of Annie Kraus is a treatise entitled On Stupidity. She regards it as a vice not of the intellect but of the will, not part of man’s natural endowment but a consequence of the Fall. To be stupid, according to her view, is to be deaf and dumb toward being, to refuse to do justice to reality. It is a withdrawing into the self and failing to acknowledge the wide world that stubbornly exists beyond the ego.
Reason is the universal faculty through which we make contact with reality. We are free, as Mortimer Adler has reminded us, in How to Read a Book, not when we are from reason, but when we are free through reason. Some people refuse to suppress reason and are willing to look at reality the way it is rather than the way they would prefer it to be. Such individuals, we may say, possess a philosophical temperament. The Catholic Church has always been insistent on the use of reason in order to better appreciate God’s creation. This fact is nowhere better illustrated than in the Church’s founding of the university. Therefore, the Church has always been attractive to those who want to engage reason in order to improve their understanding of reality.
It should not be surprising, then, that the Church has attracted a significant number of philosophers who have made important contributions to their new home. The conversion list is quite impressive: Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alasdair MacIntyre, Max Scheler, Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Elizabeth Anscombe and so on. Added to this list are converts who made philosophical contributions though from fields other than philosophy. Let us mention Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Marshall McLuhan, Karl Stern, and F. F. Schumacher.
Divine grace, it must be emphasized, is essential for any conversion to the Church. Nevertheless, a proper disposition must be in place for God’s grace to take root. This disposition is an awareness and reverence for God’s creation and an eagerness to explore it to greater lengths. This attitude is the very antithesis of being stupid. Einstein may have had his brief moments of stupidity, but for the most part, he was deeply involved with the universe about him. Aquinas was consistently open to the truth of things. G. K. Chesterton put it nicely when he said, “All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect; strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood; it is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
We need not look very far in today’s world to find evidence of stupidity. There are politicians among us who seem to thrive on it. Napoleon had advised us that “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap”. One current presidential hopeful promises, if elected, to promote abortion “fiercely” and do what he can to suppress religion. Here we may cite Catholic convert Christopher Dawson who, as an astute historian, has pointed out in his book, Progress and Religion, that “A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”
Meditating on the reality that God has created may be the surest way of cutting down on stupidity. It is an impairment, we should remember, that is more easily spotted in others than in one’s self. In the final analysis, the harmony between faith and reason is of invaluable assistance in helping us to remain sane and productive.