Intelligence, Words, & Our Largest Hope
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the lecture Intelligence Is You and More, which Eli Siegel gave fifty years ago and which is new and definitive now. In it, with depth and kindness, great intellect and humor, he is explaining what intelligence truly is. There have been so much pain, cruelty, and confusion around this subject. There have been noxious feelings of superiority, and also of inferiority, and often the same person has both.
This lecture is a rich illustration of the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Intelligence, Mr. Siegel is showing, always has to be fair to two opposed things. For instance, it has to be practical, deal efficiently with a problem before one—and also care for the largeness, the majesty, even the mystery of the world. Real intelligence, too, is both logical and daring. And it is care for self at one with generosity.
The Friendliness of Words
A very affecting matter recently in the press has to do with the meaning of intelligence. A headline in the New York Times (June 24) describes it this way: “Pediatrics Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children from Birth.” The article notes: “Reading...is viewed as important in increasing the number of words that children hear in the earliest years of their lives.”
Words and reading, of course, are immensely related to intelligence. But the question is: how and why? According to the Times, the reason the American Academy of Pediatrics gives for its recommendation is that “reading to children enhances vocabulary and other important communication skills” and will “help children succeed once they get to school.” That may be true. But there is a much bigger, more beautiful, also more urgent reason why a person, young or older, should feel what words are, care for them, see reading and books as friends.
What intelligence is depends on what the largest purpose of a human being is. And that largest purpose, the purpose of our lives, is, Aesthetic Realism explains, “to like the world through knowing it.” There is no bigger, fuller way that the world can come into a person than through words.
Every word (whether a simple word like tree or a complex word like coruscation) is an arrangement of sounds: an arrangement standing for something in the world. And through these arrangements of sounds—and, later, of shapes as letters—the world in its multitudinousness and specificity can get within us, and also be used by us to think intimately and to express our thoughts. These words, which will become as much our own selves as our blood, are things we share with millions of other people. And they were come to by people we don’t know, hundreds and even thousands of years ago. For these reasons, every time a child or anyone learns a word, that person is liking and knowing the world.
This is why a child’s uttering her first word—whether it’s Mama or cookie—is not just cute. It’s a tremendous triumph, because it is a oneness of the biggest opposites in her life: self and world. It is a most magnificent reciprocity. It is the having of something outside her become the child with the child able to tell about that thing at any time.
The big failure of children is the same as the failure of adults. That failure, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to dislike the world, have contempt for it—see it as something to get away from, look down on, fool. To have contempt for a world we were born to value is not only ugly but stupid. Meanwhile, every person somewhere feels that to look down on things is smart.
A child’s being read to will not, of itself, stop her contempt, because the desire to have it is huge in everyone. But as a parent reads to the child we’ll call Ada, the girl feels, at least, that the parent isn’t just focused on her and making her the biggest cutesy-wootsie princess in creation, superior to everything. In other words, as the parent, Paul, reads to Ada, he is not making the awful yet ordinary parental mistake of having a child feel the world isn’t good enough for her. Nor is Paul making the other parental mistake of dismissing Ada, putting her aside. As he reads to her, Ada, even at a month old, feels in some fashion that Papa is caring for the world and her at the same time, and that Papa and she are both giving attention to reality, seeing it as important.
The Hope That Is Met
The finest essay that I know on reading is “Books,” from Eli Siegel’s Children’s Guide to Parents & Other Matters. It is, among other things, an essay about intelligence—and not the narrow “intelligence” of being able to get good grades. I’ll quote several sentences. When someone reads to a child, even a very small one, what the child is, in some way, mightily hoping will be met in her, encouraged in her, is what these sentences describe:
Every time you read a book, someone else’s feelings meet yours, and mix with yours.... Some people can’t read books. It’s likely that people who can’t read books can’t have their feelings affected much by other persons, either, and, for that matter, by things generally. These people think that they have “themselves,” so why do they have to read books very deeply? They are wrong, because if they know how to read books, their “selves” are a lot more....Life in its widest form and its deepest comes to a person when he is able to feel life through words.
So the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that a child even a few hours old can be affected by being read to. This is evidence that the desire to like the world through knowing it is an instinct as primal as the desire to breathe. The honoring of that instinct, that purpose, is the biggest intelligence. And there is nothing that encourages a person’s intelligence more than that great, kind education Aesthetic Realism.