On the usefulness of being Smart

Over at Mere-Orthodoxy, Keith Buhler asks why we should want to be intelligent (I'm going to use "intelligence" to mean not inborn talent but a cultivated appreciation of and interaction with the Great Ideas. I think this is more or less what Keith meant by the term). This is a good question, and something I have a lot of reason to wonder about. You see, my to-read list is very long and getting longer. It spans subjects as diverse as computer science, theology, philosophy, history, and math. It's becoming clear that, despite the fact that I am a young guy with (God willing) a lot of years ahead of me, I am going to die long before reading everything I would like to – and that says nothing of the books that deserved to be read several times.

So the questions "why do I read?" and, more to the point, "why do I value the learning and intelligence that can be gained through reading?" have immediate significance. Why is it, exactly,that I spend so much of my time reading? The answer had better be good, or I am wasting my time.

"Intelligence is an end in itself" is not a good answer. There are worse ways to spend your time, of course, than amassing intelligence for its own sake. A life spent reading is surely more fulfilling than a life spent watching TV. Nevertheless, there is a certain futility in intelligence-for-its-own-sake. "Of the writing of books there is no end", says the Teacher, and the same might be said for the reading of books (I'm indebted to a conversation with Andrew Johnston for this observation). Drinking blindly from the firehose of western literature, trying to catch as many drops as possible, is liable to make you mad and leave you empty. Knowledge-just-for-knowledge will never satisfy.

If this is so, then my lust for knowledge must submit itself to something higher – something that is worth pursuing for its own sake. And herein lies a practical approach to my problem of deciding how to sample the entire canon of western literature: do so not with the purpose of simply making myself smarter, but with the purpose of making myself more fit to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. This may not immediately shave my reading list down to manageable size, but it does give me a goal at which to aim.

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