Too Pretty or Too Smart?

“Would you rather be too pretty or too smart?” the first one asks.

The other one asks, “You mean it’s possible to be too much of either?”

“Of course.”

“How?” the other asks.

The first one explains, “If you’re too pretty, you’re likely to place more value on your beauty than it really deserves. Beauty’s not everything, after all. Intelligence, wit, reliability and kindness and empathy can go a long, long way with most people. And they’re valuable assets for having a fulfilling and rewarding life. It’s true, however, that some are enamored by beauty and little more.”

“Idiots,” the other one says.

“Yes. Mostly. But that’s what you get – a dwindling trail of fawning fools – when beauty’s your sole asset.”

“If I was extraordinarily beautiful, I wouldn’t be that way,” the other one says.

“Most people are that way. How do you know you aren’t?”

“I’m different.”

“Only in your beauty. That would be all. In fact, this belief confirms how much you already don’t understand about yourself. And being beautiful wouldn’t enhance your humility. It would mostly distract you from improving on it. You’re already quite vain and egoistic even without much of the beauty we’re talking about.”

“You don’t think much of me,” the other one says.

“I think as much of you as I do most others,” the first one says. “That’s not an insult unless you already assume you’re extraordinary.”

“Okay, then. If extraordinary beauty would be such a burden for me, then I’d choose to be extraordinarily smart. That way I could think my way out of most of my problems. So tell me, how can a person be too smart?”

The first one replies, “Being too smart, you’ll meet people and you’ll be smarter than most of them, so you won’t listen to them. You’ll assume your ideas and opinions are always superior, since you’re smarter than them. Since there’s no room for their ideas, you’ll become enraptured with your own beliefs and ideas and opinions like Narcissus was enraptured by his reflection. You’ll rarely turn from your own reflection to notice what assets, other than beauty, others possess. And for the brief moments you do turn from your reflection, it’s only directed toward another beauty that rivals your own. You’ll never be distracted by another’s simple kindness or empathy, only a beauty or intelligence that contests yours. You’ll find it hard to listen because you’re bewitched by your own ideas and opinions. As such, you’ll find it impossible to connect with the ideas or feelings of anybody else.”

“I protest,” the other one says. “It’s not like I’d only listen to myself. I’d read the great works of others. I’d read Plato and St. Augustine and Nietzsche. I’d study Freud and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Camus. I’d read the works of the great yogis and lamas and saints.”

The first one scoffs. “You’d read the works of the great masters that appeal to you most. You’d hone in on the works and ideas that confirm and validate how you want the world to be, not how the world really is. And what you want the world to be will mostly be according to how you feel about it. The realm of great ideas will feed you Hobbes or Rousseau – a contrast of sweet and sour, if you will – and you will feast on one or the other, depending on which best satisfies your sweet tooth. And even then you’ll refine your interpretation to best suit your taste. And if it’s not philosophy, it’ll be atheism or the platter of theism and the various fruits – some tart and some sweet – on each religion’s tree that will cater to whatever delicate and refined taste you possess. And it will be based mostly on feeling, not mere reason – though, with your superior intelligence, you’ll be too smug to admit that. And your connection to the men of these great ideas will be an abstract connection – not a personal connection – though your intellect will make the case for their equivalence.”

“Most people aren’t so great,” the other one says. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about them. You’re saying the average person on the street, I should give him more attention than Rousseau?”

“Collectively, at least in equal measure – I’d suggest that.”

“Sounds to me like the argument of somebody who’s not smart enough to understand Hobbes or Rousseau. That’s how you’d dismiss their ideas, by demeaning and devaluing them. That’s what I think.”

The first one continues, “Having intelligence as your primary asset, you’ll want to put it on display just like the beautiful one with her gaudy displays of hair and makeup. You’ll want to prove in your limited company just how smart you are since it’s the only thing that you think makes you shine. You’ll want to express your ideas and opinions as truths, even when they’re barely formed and especially in the company of others who aren’t nearly as intelligent as you. For, if they disagree with how you think or even feel, they must be wrong since they are dumb. And you’ll preen with this asset of intelligence by contesting any opinion that doesn’t align with your own rather than seeking a common understanding or allowing your opinions or beliefs or ideas to be shaped by a person of inferior intellect, even though their ideas and feelings and beliefs have been filtered through experiences vastly different than your own. And such contests of ideas and beliefs will be disagreeable to most people. You will come off as smug and combative and vain and they will become weary of the ongoing battle.”

“You’re describing someone else,” the other one mumbles.

“And finding yourself excluded, you’ll blame some intrinsic, immutable quality such as a lack of beauty, the curse of your extraordinary intelligence or some personality flaw you can’t change as the reason for your exclusion. You’ll blame those things instead of yourself. And you’ll demean the value of other people’s ideas and connections – just as they demean the value of the great ideas – since you can’t acquire what they have rather easily acquired.”

“Really, you think very low of me,” the other one says.

“I think of you as I do everyone else,” the first one says. “Including myself.”

“I think you’re being falsely modest,” the other one says. “Why else would you advise me if you don’t think you know better than me?”

“I’m advising you in the ways of modesty and humility. Perhaps advising is, in and of itself, audacious. If so, I apologize. I’m only reporting on what I think I see. For example, I could not advise that you throw an infant into a lake, although there’s some chance it might safely swim back to shore. Anomalies do happen. That I concede.”

“And you advise that I listen to people who I know are dumb?” the other one asks. “And if they become weary of the battle of ideas, then are they not merely weak?”

“The struggles of life outside the ivory tower of contemplative spirituality or the contemplative intellect have made them weary,” the first one says. “If they are too weary, perhaps they’ll give their attention to some vain trumpeter, not unlike yourself. Perhaps he will give them a satisfying taste of his ego – not unlike those fools fawning over the one of extraordinarily vapid and vain and gaudy beauty. But still, you must listen, because by not listening or caring, you don’t connect. And without connection there can be no real empathy, universally or individually. At best there is only some vague, universal empathy that you think manifests itself within you but rarely, if ever, manifests itself outside – where it really means something. Good intentions are better than bad intentions but mean very little without being put into practice. Constrained good intentions and contemplative empathy – no matter how many hours devoted to the contemplation – without practical application are mostly vain constructs of self-deception and ego. You can think you are good but you are not good without practicing good in a way that requires effort.”

“So.”

“So, a truly intelligent person understands the importance of empathy through connection, specifically personal connection in the world outside the ivory tower of the contemplative intellect. We learn far more from our encounters with others than we do from ourselves. Connection is everything.”

“Grand ideas and universals mean just as much, if not more,” the other one says. “I’m not sold at all on this idea of the necessity of personal connection. People’s everyday lives are mundane and boring. I don’t see the value in them.”

“Of course not. You’re already too smart to see that. And you’re too smart, I suppose, to understand that flipping through page after page of Rousseau isn’t a very captivating story or life either.”

“But Rousseau and his ideas are better than most of the trivial and banal things on most people’s minds.”

“But Rousseau doesn’t make you a better person. You’re still mostly the same as the rest in terms of action and virtue. Actually, maybe a bit worse, if all that extraordinary intelligence is neglected to never amount to anything more than hollow contemplation and vapid platitudes.”

The other one slumps. “But, without extraordinary beauty or intelligence, I’m pretty much like everybody else on the sidewalk,” he says. “I’m just a part of the same rabble.”

“Yes,” the first one says. “But with those extraordinary things you’d probably be even worse.”

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