Ironies of Intelligence

It is the soul, through the intellect, that thinks



The New York Times vacillates in its effect on readers. Often enough it induces nausea. But sometimes it gives us food for thought. A recent obituary, “Joel Kupperman, Scarred by Success as a Precocious ‘Quiz Kid,’ Dies at 83” (May 15, page A24) is surely food for thought. So what’s the story?

The (true) story line, for Chapter 1, is this: The precocious Kupperman, from age 6 to 16, was a star on The Quiz Kids. The show was a smash hit, and during World War II the kids sold war bonds to the tune of $1.7 billion in today’s money.

Chapter 2 finds Kupperman, awkward and “aging out,” turning to academic philosophy. A good choice! Quiz shows specialize in information. They stress questions of who, what, where, and when. Never mind why. And that’s where philosophy comes in.

Kupperman, as Chapter 3 recounts, goes on to teach philosophy for 50 years at the University of Connecticut. He wrote a good deal on ethics. That led him to reflect on the meaning of life. And he wondered, in print, just why people (like us!) find it so hard to be good.

I’ll end the story line with Chapter 4. It’s hard going. Kupperman drifts into dementia. The present darkens and his memories fade. His family—sister, wife, son, and daughter—are left to reminisce and reflect.

The family reflections point to some of the ironies of intelligence. One irony is familiar. Being intelligent is no guarantee of acting well. To suppose otherwise is to overlook the role of will. The irony goes deeper. Good will without God’s (amazing) grace isn’t enough.

Here’s another irony. Kupperman’s wife speaks of his academic “retreat into the life of the mind,” adding that he “lived in his head.” Well, if we only think of ourselves, then, to continue the metaphor, we live in our heads. But the “if” should give us pause. We cannot think of ourselves without first thinking of others and of the world around us. Call this phenomenon “the invasion of the real.”

Nor does real thinking involve a retreat into the mind. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the soul in some sense becomes everything (anima quodammodo omnia). How so? The intellect, a power of the soul, grasps the intelligible structure of the objects of thought. In thinking we transcend ourselves and enrich ourselves. There is no retreat!

Kupperman’s daughter introduces other ironies. She reports, “I remember him telling me that when you die, it’s like unplugging a radio. There’s a glow that remains.” Now if we are after the meaning of life, talk about radios is a non-starter. Radios aren’t alive, but we are. Radios have only an instrumental significance. To think of the human person as only an instrument leads to ethical disaster. But there’s more, of course. A fleeting glow is a poor substitute for a subsistent soul.

A last irony: Kupperman drifted into dementia. (Sadly, so will many of us.) Now the root of “dementia” is the Latin mens, that is, mind. But dementia is a condition of the brain, and the mind is not the brain. St. Thomas teaches that it is the soul, through the intellect, that thinks. The damaged brain of one with dementia blocks the expression of thought, but it does not change the nature of the soul or remove its powers.

Ironies, whether they dismay or delight, provide us with food for thought. Still, it’s my brother who subscribes to the New York Times, not I!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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