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Art. VII. – THE PHILOSOPHY OF STUPIDITY, Vol 6, Oct., 1885. pp.323-333.

AMONG ordinary human failings we doubt if there be one which so sorely taxes the patience and forbearance of all who are forced into constant association with it as stupidity. Most of those defects of character or disposition whereby human beings contrive to render themselves moral blisters to their fellow creatures are intermittent, stupidity is chronic. Whether the victim of this chronic complaint is personally a conscious sufferer therefrom, in any way, it would be difficult to find out. It would be highly interesting to submit him to a severe and searching examination on the point – to say to him, ‘You are a remarkably stupid person; is this indisputable fact a source of any annoyance or discomfort to you?’ but it would not be civil, and it might not be safe. Nature appears sometimes to be smitten with remorse when she has unduly weighted some hapless being with disadvantages, and then atones by thrusting in some strong compensating advantage, and it not unfrequently happens that muscular power is in inverse ratio to brain power. The person thus unpleasantly interviewed might take it into his head to demonstrate that if his intellect was not brilliant, his physical force was considerable. Well developed muscles have great convincing power in argument. But however much we may remain in ignorance on this point, the fact that a thoroughly stupid person is a source of weariness and woe to everyone who has the misfortune to be connected with him is one which no one will be likely to dispute. 

There seem to be, in a thoroughly stupid character, no redeeming points, for the very sufficient reason that there are no points at all. The very essence of complete stupidity is negation all round. In so far as a stupid person has any distinct characteristic, he ceases within that range to be stupid. The only approach to a positively developed characteristic which is common enough in stupid people to warrant it being held as naturally belonging to the character, is a sort of dull obstinacy; and even that is, after all, more frequently manifested in the negative form of a dogged determination not to do something, than in the positive one of a determination to do something. Stupid people will rarely be found manifesting anything approaching steady resolution in a positive form save under the influence of irritation, aroused by some resented opposition. 

There is also an appalling catholicity about stupidity, which increases its aggravating tendency. Most other failings affect only some special point of character. A jealous, a vindictive, an avaricious man, may be a most agreeable companion – though never a valuable friend – so long as nothing happens to rouse into activity his special evil tendency. But this is not the case with stupidity. It is not characteristic, it is a pervading mental atmosphere. It wraps the whole individual, at all times and in all places, in the shrouding mantle of the bore. The one faint ray of commendation with which it is possible to illuminate the terrible oppressiveness of a thoroughly stupid person is the admission that under any abnormally irritating circumstances he is frequently found to be less positively disagreeable than more popular people. Where they are apt to lose their tempers, and become actively obnoxious, his stupidity only seems to grow a little more dense; and it must be allowed that he will often manifest a placid resignation to the inevitable, to which his more lively neighbour cannot manage to school himself. 

It is a significant proof of the sentiments inspired by stupidity that, pure and simple, it has never been, as far as we can remember, a phase of character illustrated by either dramatists or novelists. When stupidity appears on the stage, or in fiction, it is always stupidity assumed for a special purpose, as in the amusing farce of ‘High Life below Stairs;’ or else it is pretty strongly spiced with knavery. We cannot recall a single instance in which any writer has attempted to depict stupidity absolutely unadulterated. This, be it remembered, is a wholly different thing from silliness, although, in our common tendency to looseness of phraseology, we very often confound the two. Silly people are by no means always stupid. They often possess a sort of superficial sharpness and liveliness which renders them not wholly devoid of attractiveness, so long as you have not too much of it and do not lean too hard upon it; while even their absurdities are sometimes amusing. But stupidity never either rises to liveliness, or sinks to absurdity. It pounds steadily on along a dead monotonous level of unredeemed tediousness. 

In every possible relation of domestic or social life, stupidity is a cause of heart-sinking and dismay. How many a sleepless night does the stupid son of the family cost the parents who foresee his absolute incapacity ever to grapple successfully with the hard problem of securing for himself even a place at all in the running of the overcrowded race of nineteenth-century life! He is at the very antipodes of the brilliant genius of the family, who might be anything, could his intellect be persuaded to do something more than explode occasionally in fireworks of startling brilliancy, leaving the intervening darkness only the darker by contrast. The one could be anything would he only try, the other could never be anything however hard he might try. But then, in the former case, there is always the hope that some sharp lesson may startle the meteor-like intellect, ere it is too late, into resignation of its dazzling fireworks in favour of a more persistent, if less brilliant illumination. In the latter case there is nothing to hope for. If the stupid one be a daughter the case is quite as bad. Her hopeless incapacity to manage her own affairs, if left finally to face the world without the guardianship of the husband she is not likely to attract, is a little less dismal a subject for parental contemplation. 

In the family circle, too, these stupid ones are a terrible thorn in the flesh, always dull and prosaic, always mentally several yards in the rear of everyone else; spending, apparently, the time during which a subject is in hand a laborious mediation, and then wanting it explained to them when everyone else has done with it; not infrequently, either, resenting any impatience manifested, by posing as martyrs. 

In social life, stupid people are nightmares to their acquaintances. There is no legitimate excuse to be found for not sending them invitations which they are only too sure to accept. Was ever a very stupid person known to be ill or engaged when reluctantly invited to some gathering, the enjoyment of which his presence is certain to mar to a great extent? Festivities on a very large scale, where numbers would render him comparatively harmless, he may manage to miss; but where his presence is specially detrimental, there he is sure to be. Then luckless hosts or hostesses can but groan inwardly, and prepare as best they may to run the gauntlet of the indignant reproaches of infuriated partners at dinner-tables, or in ball-rooms. 

Worse still is the dread necessity, which will sometimes arise, for asking a stupid acquaintance to pay a visit of some days’ duration. How the leaden hours of those dreary days drag out their interminable length, when the heavy burden was to be carried, if not actually from dawn till dusk, from the breakfast hour until very long after dusk. But worst of all is the reverse of the medal, the need to pay a visit to a stupid family, where dull decorum reigns over a mental and moral world without form and void. Stupid guests are as a fog: stupid entertainers are a darkness that may be felt. 

Were it possible to perceive that these terrible taxes on the patience and forbearance of the community subserved any useful end in the economy of life, it would be easier to bear with them; but, unless it may be that they act in some measure as a drag upon the much-bewailed tendency of things to go too fast, it is difficult to discover any useful function with they fulfil. 

Stupid people, it need hardly be said, can never see a joke. They will grin or giggle in an inane way over some nonsense in which an intelligent child would hardly find amusement, and wonder why people laugh at some perfect witticism. That sort of good-humoured banter commonly known as ‘chaff,’ than which, if judiciously used, there is often no more valuable means for tiding over ugly phrases of circumstances, is as foreign to their nature as the contortions of an acrobat to a plethoric alderman. If they do attempt it, they generally succeed in being offensively rude; and if they are the objects of it, they are pretty sure to resent it with either sulks or tears. 

The attempts of stupid people to repeat good stories which they have heard are really curious psychological studies, as illustrative of human capacity for accurate reception of sound, coupled with absolute imperviousness to sense. They will repeat the story correctly enough, but if the point happens to depend upon any special emphasis, place the emphasis on exactly the wrong word, or make some trifling change which renders the whole story unintelligible as a joke. We chanced once to be present when a very stupid and pompous man undertook to tell the well-known story about ‘the Hannah’ or ‘the Anna.’ He told the story correctly enough, with the saving clause that he substituted the name ‘Emma.’ Some one present was rash enough to correct him, pointing out that the judge could hardly have asked in all seriousness whether the name of the vessel was ‘the Emma’ or ‘the Hemma’; whereas he might naturally ask if it was ‘Hannah’ or ‘Anna’; whereupon, with much pomposity, he replied, ‘Pardon me; but when I tell you that I had the story from —–, who was in the Court at the time, I think you will see that I must be rightly informed. It was “Emma” or “Hemma.” ‘ These are the sort of people who, if you make a jesting remark, will either gravely ask if you really mean it, or begin seriously to expound their reasons for thinking that you must be mistaken. 

Another peculiarity of stupid people is a total incapacity to perceive relative values. It may be remembered by many that Archbishop Whateley held the possession, mentally, of both weights and scales to be a rare gift, and one which lifted the possessor to high intellectual position; but he was considering the difference between a common and an uncommon order of mind. In treating of the subject as it concerns absolutely stupid people, however, the difference is probably one of degree, rather than of kind. To fair intelligence the difficulty only begins when the weighing against each other of strong arguments on opposite sides of a subject in question. Thorough stupidity has little or no perception of relative values in the most glaringly disproportionate cases. The appearance of some friend or acquaintance in complimentary mourning will set a family of stupid people pondering seriously for a whole day. What distance of relationship does the mourning indicate? or does it suggest only friendship? Should a wife wear deeper mourning for her own grandmother’s second husband, than for her husband’s own grandfather? etc. These and a dozen other cognate questions will be ponderously discussed and be perpetually breaking out afresh, after spells of earnest and solemn reflection, and just the same amount of solemn attention will be bestowed on some gravely important family affair, or some tremendous political or social crisis. 

Absolute inability ever to change an opinion or resign a belief once planted in the mind is another peculiarity of stupid people. The only thing harder than to plant an idea firmly in such a mind, is to get it out again. You may prove to demonstration that something believed to be a fact is a mere fiction, or that some opinion is manifestly erroneous, but your labour is lost. The correction may be accepted for the moment, and the error admitted; but in a short space you will find your convert as fully as ever convinced of the fact, and steadfast in the opinion. Stupidity rarely holds on, but it never lets go. This tendency would appear to be the only explanation of the marvellous fact that there still exist people who believe in the Tichborne claimant. They managed to drift into an opinion in the earlier stages of the controversy, and they are absolutely incapable of ever getting rid of that opinion. It is doubtful whether the imposter’s own confession, coupled with the appearance of the true man, would enable them to shake of their conviction. 

Stupidity has, however, much further reaching consequences than the infliction of mere irritation or boredom. Beyond the sphere of domestic or social life its results are often gravely disastrous, sometimes – and who shall venture to say how often – tragical. In bringing about such results the inability of stupidity to perceive relative values plays a very important part. A stupid person will hesitate about sending a telegram because it will be an expensive one, utterly unable to give due weight to the fact that the issues at stake are worth fifty times the value of the message, and with all his faculties fixed upon the expense of the telegram will determine to trust to sending a letter; in consequence of which decision the hapless victim of his misplaced economy perhaps makes an expensive journey to no purpose, or suffers even more serious loss. 

Reflecting further upon the characteristics of stupidity, we feel almost disposed to revoke as rash the assertion that it is purely negative. One positive capacity stupid people do possess in a measure so transcendent that it almost seems to amount to inspiration. Certainly years of patient study would fail to enable the most powerful intellect to attain anything like the same measure of perfection. Ingenuity in blundering, and in always making that particular blunder which is, in the circumstances, the most disastrous possible, is a faculty which the stupid possess in a wholly unsurpassable degree. It is this faculty especially which enables them to assert their importance in the economy of things, by making the most magnificent havoc of all sorts of arrangements. If they are responsible for arrangements, they will very probably carefully settle a number of minute and unimportant details, and then, so to speak, entirely forget the pivot on which the whole thing turns, so that the beautiful fabric of carefully ordered details is left sprawling in helpless incompleteness. If a stupid person has to deliver an important message, his sins may be either of omission or commission. He may leave out the most important part wholly and entirely, or he3 may deliver the whole message, pieced together after a new and ingenious method of his own devising, often enough sufficiently plausible to prevent you from suspecting the transformation which has taken place until you find it out by the total collapse of all the arrangements the message was intended to facilitate. We have heard of a stupid hostess issuing invitations for a large dinner-party for one day, and ordering the dinner her guests were invited to eat for another. Such an episode partakes more of the ludicrous than the serious, but if all the mishaps in this world which are due to some one’s stupidity could be traced to their true cause, we will venture to affirm that an appalling list of serious disasters would be unrolled. The amount of deaths which, in the course of the year, are occasioned simply by utter stupidity would reach a formidable figure. The daily papers teem with proof of the frequency with which epidemics are spread, illnesses rendered fatal, or fatal accidents caused, merely by stupidity. 

But to what does all this tend? may be fairly asked. No one will deny that stupid persons are wearisome, irritating, even dangerous at times; but what is the use of enlarging upon an irremediable nuisance? Is it irremediable, absolutely and altogether? It is not to be supposed that we can, either by a surgical or any other sort of operation, transform stupid into intelligent people; but what if we are constantly at work cultivating the breed for the future woe and bewilderment of ourselves and our descendants? What is the cause of stupidity? If the question be asked regarding any other mental or moral characteristic, it would be hard perhaps to find a satisfactory answer. What is the cause of a tendency to jealousy – to avarice – to sullenness? It would be hard to say. But then these are certainly moral characteristics, while stupidity is merely a mental one. In the case of other mental characteristics, however, it would be hard to trace them to their source. We should be puzzled how to set about it if we wished to produce them. But we should be in no great doubts how to produce stupidity, if we wished to do so; and it is probably no rash assertion that a very large amount of the stupidity with which our souls are vexed is an artificial product, carefully manufactured – a scourge for our backs prepared by our own industrious hands. 

It is a well-known fact that the rapidity of communication between the senses and the brain is by no means uniform. Set two persons, whose range of sight has been carefully tested, to watch for and report the sudden appearance of some distant object, and it will often happen that the report from the one will be perceptibly in advance of that from the other. This is a fact of which all who have ever been members or conductors of an orchestra or a choir, will be painfully aware. The response to the conductor’s baton is not equally prompt throughout, and an amount of energetic action which will keep the slow members up to time, will soon necessitate a warning to their quicker companions not to hurry. In this fact alone there is ample cause for a certain amount of apparent stupidity. Only let the rapidity of communication be very markedly below the average, and the sufferer will be always, and in everything, mentally toiling in the rear of circumstances. Conversation, the routine of every day life, be it in matters domestic, social, or of business, are always ahead of him; and under any circumstances, where it is necessary he should in some way be brought up to time, a special explanatory appendix must always be provided for his individual use. 

We have purposely used the expression apparent stupidity, however, for these sort of people, given that the brain when reached is really worth anything, are sometimes far from really stupid. Only give them time, and they will often arrive at decisions, or enunciate opinions which are very far from any taint of stupidity. their stupidity merely arises from the fact that circumstances will rarely pause long enough to allow them to get any firm hold upon them. It is when the senses transmit their impressions slowly to a dull inactive brain, that we are face to face with genuine stupidity. Impressions transmitted by eye or ear drift slowly into a misty chaos, and are either irretrievably swamped, or only re-appear in disjointed and misleading fragments. In fact, the doggedness with which a very stupid, but thoroughly truthful person, will sometimes maintain that he never received some piece of information which half a dozen independent witnesses are ready to declare they heard given to him, would almost suggest the possibility that sometimes the sense impressions perish out of hand before they even reach the brain at all. 

That dull brains and sluggish senses are in many cases inherent defects, will no more admit of question than that some constitutions are naturally robust, others delicate; but that a vast deal of vexing stupidity is the product of unhealthy conditions of life, is an equally patent fact; as also that those conditions tend greatly to aggravate the inherent tendency where it exists. Given fairly good health to start with, we suspect it would not be very easy to find very stupid people among the ranks of those who have been in childhood fairly well clothed, and nourished, and allowed to lead a free, natural, and healthy life. Seek them among the ranks of those who have been carefully cooper up in hot nurseries and schoolrooms, accorded a minimum of fresh air and exercise, and a maximum of teaching, and you will find them by scores. 

The present education craze is rather a dismal subject of contemplation from this point of view. Although during the recent correspondence in the papers on the subject of over-pressure in schools, the evidence, as far as the specific accusation was concerned, seemed rather to break down, we think the fact remains that more is required of the children than is good for their physical health, or their future intellectual capacity. There is no stupidity like that of the over-educated person – education, of course, conventionally means simply cramming – and among all classes, now, that artificially manufactured stupidity is, we suspect, being largely cultivated for the benefit of posterity. ‘Do not pole so many books on your head that your brains have no room to move,’ said a wise man. If that be the result of piling books on a fully developed brain, what must be the result of piling them on a young growing brain? and we shall have to make a good many changes in our general system of education, so called, before it comes to much more than doing this. A friend of the present writer once lamented to a celebrated German professor over having a bad memory. ‘Do not regret it,’ was the reply; ‘people with very great memories are generally stupid.’ Are they stupid for any other reason than that they have a larger capacity for crushing down their luckless brains under a ponderous load of books? 

This possibility of artificially producing stupidity is the special reason why the defect is worth careful attention. We seem to be able to approach the mental characteristic from the physical side more directly than in any other case. If unhealthy conditions of life, with over-pressure of a growing brain, tend to produce stupidity, it naturally follows that where there is an inherent tendency in this direction, the best chance of lessening it must lie in careful cultivation of the healthiest possible conditions of life, and increasing vigilance with regard to the amount of weight laid upon the brain. When this desirable result is fully achieved, the number of helpless burdens hanging on to more intelligent humanity will be largely decreased, and recruits for the noble army of bores, blunderers, and moral blisters, will be far less numerous than at present.

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