The Two Kinds of Cleverness
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have come to section 4 of Eli Siegel’s wonderful 1949 lecture Poetry and Cleverness. Offhand, cleverness does not seem one of humanity’s biggest concerns. Yet how our very lives go depends on how we see cleverness, on how we’re affected by it, on how we try to be clever.
Cleverness is immensely diverse. And in this lecture Mr. Siegel describes what all cleverness has in common, from the kind that’s ridiculous, to the charming, to the kind much present in politics. Cleverness is always a dealing with the opposites of ease and difficulty. “Somebody who is clever,” he explains,
seems to be doing something that people would think hard, with ease....If anybody in a tight spot can tell such stories that he gets out of the tight spot, he’s clever....The word has come to be most often on the shady side....[But] whenever you can do that which most people would look on as difficult, or as hardly to be done at all, with some ease, you’re clever.
Since cleverness may be that of a cruel deceiver but also that of a brave firefighter who discerns a way to extricate someone from a blazing building, we need to know the difference between bad cleverness and good. Aesthetic Realism is the first body of knowledge to make the distinction clear. The nature of the cleverness depends on the two desires that, Eli Siegel has shown, are fighting in everyone: the desire to respect the world versus the desire to have contempt for it.
From the desire to respect comes all truly useful, beautiful, kind cleverness. From contempt comes the cleverness that’s hurtful, ugly, truly dumb, though it may temporarily seem oh so bright. In fact there’s a feeling in people that contempt as such—the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else”—is cleverness: that it’s the cleverness one needs to protect oneself and prosper in the world. Yet this “clever” thing, contempt, in its various forms, is the reason the person having it feels empty, anxious, dull, painfully unsure, hiddenly self-despising.
Humanity Has Invented
I’ll comment a little on a field through which we can see the fight in people between the two kinds of cleverness. It is the field of inventions. Every invention that has succeeded has done what Mr. Siegel described cleverness as doing: it has brought an ease to what was difficult or even seemed impossible. That is true of inventions from the wheel to electric illumination, to plumbing, the automobile, musical instruments, the vacuum cleaner, glass windows, the internet, life-saving drugs, machines for production. Every successful invention has been deeply clever. And it has come from a respect for reality, an honoring of reality, and from that form of respect which is good will: the desire to strengthen other people, have them be in a better relation to the world.
Then, so often through the years, the new invention has been met with that other cleverness, the cleverness of contempt, in the form of: “Hmm! People want this thing. They feel they need this thing, or what it can give them. I bet there’s a lot of money to be made from people because of this thing. If I can get in on the producing of it, or the selling of it, I’ll squeeze as much money as I can out of people.” This is the profit motive: the seeing of objects and human beings in terms of how much money one can wrest from them, how much one can aggrandize oneself through them. The profit motive has seemed tremendously clever to people. Various phrases, like “He’s a shrewd businessman” or “She’s a cutthroat competitor” or “That was a slick sales pitch,” point to the cleverness of the profit motive and simultaneously make for the queasy feeling that it’s an ugly cleverness, a contemptuous, mean cleverness.
There has been a big effort to link the coming to be of inventions with the profit motive—to say that inventiveness could not be without that motive. This is completely untrue. Further, the two motives—the motive to make the difficult easier for people, enable them to do the seemingly undoable with grace, and the motive to enrich oneself from people’s needs regardless of the pain this may cause them—are entirely different and fundamentally at odds.
For over 200 years, the matter of invention and of the two kinds of cleverness that can accompany it, has involved those things called “labor-saving” machines and technology. On this subject I’ll quote an important English writer: William Morris (1834-96), poet, revered designer, and fighter for justice.
His 1885 collection Signs of Change includes an essay titled “Useful Work versus Useless Toil.” And there Morris says that those very clever “labor-saving” machines are not being used in keeping with their name: to save labor. They should be, he says: they should enable people not to have to spend so much of their time working miserably—and millions of people in England were working under hideous conditions, for long hours and horrible pay. But, he explains, instead of the inventions’ being used to assist those who labor, they’re being used for something else. They’re being used instead to increase profits for bosses, because 1) now, with machines, the employer doesn’t have to pay as many workers, and 2) since so many people are thrown out of work, there’s even more desperation for jobs and persons will labor for even less pay than before. Morris writes, for example:
Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages....They are called “labour-saving” machines....[But] what they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the “reserve army of labour”—that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers...while they pile up the profits of the employers of labour....
In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, which by their means might be so reduced as to be but a very light burden on each individual.
So we have the two clevernesses. There are the inventions themselves, which Morris calls “miracles of ingenuity” and which have respect for the world in them. Then, there is that other cleverness, that shrewd angle on life and humanity: How can I make as much money for myself as possible from that man, that woman—yes, that child? How can I extract as much labor from them as possible while giving them as little as possible? (Morris, earlier in the essay, calls this economic method “grinding profits out of men’s lives.”)
William Morris is more respected worldwide now than he ever was. He wanted there to be beauty in the way people lived—all people. He wanted the objects they used, the fabrics, the furniture, to be not only decent but beautiful. He wanted people not to wear their lives and health away working in wretchedness—but also, Morris differs from many other writers on economics in his belief that economics should enable people to see and feel beauty in the world itself. The following passage from a long sentence of his has both toughness and loveliness, practicality and wonder. An economy will be right, he says,
if the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shine for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth—day and night, summer and winter—can be presented as a thing to understand and love.
In this passage and others, I see Morris both ratifying and looking for Aesthetic Realism, which says that the purpose of every human being is “to like the world through knowing it,” and that all the institutions we have should be for that purpose—from economics, to education, to marriage.
What is real cleverness in economics? is now an urgent matter. The “cleverness” which is the profit motive, Mr. Siegel showed in the 1970s, no longer works. We see evidence of that fact every day, in the struggles of people, the diminishing of the middle class, the feeling in young people that they’ll be worse off financially than their parents and grandparents. The only way of economics that will work, Mr. Siegel explained, is aesthetics, the oneness of opposites: justice to each ever so particular individual and justice to all people, at once. If humanity can come to technology, can come to space travel, can come to inventions of all kinds, it can surely come to a true means of implementing that aesthetic economics when we see it’s what we want.