Don’t be smart


There is something deeply gratifying about coming up with an insight that no one else has thought of. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you were helping someone work through a problem, and you’ve said or asked something that caused the other person to say “wow, I hadn’t thought about that before!” you know what I mean.

Some of us, myself included, pride ourselves in our cleverness, in our intelligence. We might even build an identity around our cleverness and seek rewards for being clever. I personally think of myself as some sort of contrarian intellectual fighting sloppy and illogical thinking in the world (though I should definitely focus more on my own sloppy thinking). This kind of identity generally leads to frustration with others who do not think or see the world as I do.

Modernity encourages being smart, clever, and educated. One could even go on to say that higher education is America’s secular religion. It is the key to all success and happiness.

But let’s look at a paradoxical chapter of the Tao Te Ching

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,

    And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,

    And men will rediscover filial piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,

    And bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.

It is more important

To see the simplicity,

To realize one’s true nature,

To cast off selfishness

And temper desire.

Chapter 19, Tao Te Ching

The paradoxical point Lao Tzu makes here is that if everyone were to stop striving, were we to stop trying to be smarter, richer, kinder, we would more likely attain those things. Those are “outward” forms, meaning, they don’t describe the Tao, our true nature (much like the Self from Hinduism).

Is seeking to be clever or intelligent or educated just another distraction from the Tao? Would we be more content or enlightened if we didn’t seek those things? I suspect that though the quest for wisdom and truth in the world is a noble pursuit, many of us use it to feed our own egos and gain a sort of superiority over others.

Something to think about….