Brain Pickings

Mark Twain on Intelligence vs. Morality


“If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.”

“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait,'” Helen Keller marveled upon meeting Mark Twain. Indeed, while Twain may be America’s most celebrated humorist, underpinning — and fueling — his remarkable wit was unparalleled insight into the human condition, a kind of profound philosophical prism through which his comedic genius was bent. That gift of Twain’s comes to life with astounding eloquence and elegance in this passage from The Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (public library), in which he turns a cautious eye towards the relationship between human morality and the intellect, wincing at our anthropocentric sense of entitlement — something all the more tragically palpable a century later, amidst environmental degradation, overpopulation, and economic collapse. Twain writes:

We have no respectworthy evidence that the human being has morals. He is himself the only witness. Persons who do not know him value his testimony. They think he is not shallow and vain because he so despises the peacock for possessing these qualities. They are deceived into not regarding him as a beast and a brute, because he uses these terms to disapprovingly describe qualities which he possesses, yet which are not possessed by any creature but himself. On his verbal testimony they take him for every creditable thing which he particularly isn’t, and (intentionally?) refrain from examining the testimony of his acts. It is the safest way, but man did not invent it, it was the polecat. From the beginning of time the polecats have quite honestly and naively regarded themselves as representing in the animal kingdom what the rose represents in the vegetable kingdom. This is because they do not examine.


However, moralless man, bloody and atrocious man, is high above the other animals in his one great and shining gift — intellectuality. It took him ages and ages to demonstrate the full magnitude and majesty of his gift, but he has accomplished it at last. For ages it was a mean animal indeed that was not vastly his superior in certain splendid faculties. In the beginning he had nothing but the puny strength of his unweaponed hands to protect his life with, and he was as helpless as a rabbit when the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the mastodon and the other mighty beasts came against him; in endurance he was far inferior to the other creatures; in fleetness on the land there was hardly an animal in the whole list that couldn’t shame him; in fleetness in the water every fish could excel him; his eyesight was a sarcasm: for seeing minute things it was blindness as compared to the eyesight of the insects, and the condor could see a sheep further than he could see a hotel. But by the ingenuities of his intellect he has equipped himself with all these gifts artificially and has made them unapproachably effective. His locomotive can outstrip all birds and beasts in speed and beat them all in endurance; there are no eyes in the animal world that can compete with his microscope and his telescope; the strength of the tiger and the elephant is weakness, compared with the force which he carries in his mile-range terrible gun. In the beginning he was given ‘dominion’ over the animal creation — a very handsome present, but it was mere words and represented a non-existent sovereignty. But he has turned it into an existent sovereignty, himself, and is master, of late. In physical talents he was a pauper when he started; by grace of his intellect he is incomparably the richest of all the animals now. But he is still a pauper in morals — incomparably the poorest of the creatures in that respect. The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the other world, it is in hell, not heaven.

In the century since, philosopher Thomas Nagel has spoken to the importance of intellectual humility in understanding our place in the universe, behavioral economist Dan Ariely has put Twain’s insight to the test in the lab, demonstrating the positive correlation between creative intelligence and immorality, and Albert Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs have all made passionate cases for intuition over the intellect.

But perhaps it was philosopher Bertrand Russell who had it right in balancing the intellectual and the moral with his simple, timelessly wise words: “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”

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