In praise of smart people — if you can find one

Michael Ignatieff, candidate for the federal Liberal leadership, is an intellectual. Highly educated, multilingual, worldly, creatively cleaver,…

Michael Ignatieff, candidate for the federal Liberal leadership, is an intellectual.

Highly educated, multilingual, worldly, creatively cleaver, Canada’s renaissance man, Ignatieff understands.

He is an orator on solid footing.

One has only to wade into his book The Warrior’s Honour, a compilation of lofty thinking on ethnic conflict in the modern world, to realize he is the consummate public intellectual.

Try wrapping your mind around these:

“If history is nightmare, it is because past is not past.”

And, “…we can only stand so much truth. But if too much truth is divisive, the question becomes, how much is enough?”

What about this pearl?

“The problem of a shared truth is also that it does not lie in between.”

And here is a gem you can revel in.

“There are many forms of denial, ranging from outright refusal to accept facts as facts to complex strategies of relativization.”

I suppose I am not being fair to Ignatieff by pulling snippets from a rather complex and seemingly important work. And I do not want to dissuade you from reading The Warrior’s Honour, it breaks new ground on the whole issue of ethnic conflict.

In fact, after the dust of wordiness settles, Ignatieff is comforting, to say the least.

“The world is not becoming more chaotic or violent, although our failure to understand and act makes it seem so,” he says.

But, is being intellectual and comforting enough?

What about being wise.

There is a difference, you know.

Union Institute professor Joseph Meeker takes on wisdom like no body’s business.

“Wisdom is a state of the human mind characterized by profound understanding and deep insight,” according to him.

“It is often, but not necessarily, accompanied by extensive formal knowledge.

“Unschooled people can acquire wisdom, and wise people can be found among carpenters, fishermen or housewives.”

But if such real wisdom is achievable, why are not more of us wise?

Again according to Meeker, “One reason may be that we spend so much of our lives merely being clever, and cleverness and wisdom do not mix well.”

Formal schooling, particularly at the university level, is divided into highly specialized categories or disciplines designed to make us clever.

According to Meeker, we do this as a way to make knowledge “easier to manage.”

And, by extension, Meeker finds our need to manage knowledge “extends itself readily into the tools we use and the technology we fancy.”

Our lives and, eventually, our minds fill up with clever contraptions of single purpose: the electric toothbrush, telephone headset, battery powered bug swatter and the votive candle, to name but a few.

With a little tongue in cheek, both the electric toothbrush and Ignatieff’s intellectual notion that shared truth lies somewhere other than in between, are of such single purpose neither are likely to make us better off, nor the wiser.

While in Whitehorse last week, Ignatieff unleashed a wave of cleverness, none of it what I (and Meeker I would hope) would call wise.

His goal as party leader is “bringing hope to all Canadians.”

I might have found more consolation in a promise to put an electric toothbrush in every bathroom, a votive candle on every table.

Here is another impressive notion sure to rally voters.

Ignatieff feels “there is something very Canadian about going overseas and doing stuff and then coming back.”


My mind is challenged.

Overseas stuff.

And … and then coming back.

Now that has the Harvard University trademark written all over it, don’t you think?

That scholarly snippet is certainly right up there with the toothbrush and the battery powered bug swatter.

But bug be damned and teeth be whitened, Ignatieff, it appears, will settle for nothing less that becoming, in his words, “the leader of the greatest force for progressive social change in the world.” A leader wanting to “restore our standing in the world.”

This just may be all too clever for me.

I am in search of a leader chock-full of Meeker’s type of unspecialized, non-academic wisdom.

But where are we to find the carpenter, or the fisherman, or the housewife willing to settle into the role of leadership?

Meeker is cautious to remind us “wisdom is not for everybody.”

“The world,” he insists, “makes good use of the few wise people who appear from time to time, so perhaps only a few are needed.”

But then Meeker even can’t leave well enough alone.

Even he is capable of espousing an occasional ‘intellectual Ignatieff.’

“In the end, wilderness is nature’s way of being wise, and wisdom is the mind’s way of being natural,” Meeker suggests.

We can only hope Ignatieff doesn’t latch on to this one.


No chance.

Too many words to fit on a yard sign.