Erudition Is No Protection Against Having Stupid Ideas

“Erudition Is No Protection Against Having Stupid Ideas” is the title of an article Ian Buruma, prolific author and professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, published in the magazine IPG, a German publication on international politics and society, ostensibly about the Norwegian constitution of 1814.

But the article was an excuse for saying something else. The 1814 constitution of the newly independent Norway, Buruma writes, was a model of advanced Enlightenment thinking. It was composed by erudite scholars, jurists and philosophers, many of them disciples of Kant and Voltaire.

Article II guarantees freedom of religion but stipulates that Jews may not become citizens. Having studied the contemporary sources, Buruma explains that this exclusion was not due to any belief that Jews were biologically inferior or dangerous, but that, thanks to their religious beliefs, they could not assimilate. Jewish law was the only law Jews considered binding. They would form a state within the state and their way of thinking – in so many words – was incompatible with Norwegian values.

Buruma calls this truly stupid. How could they know what people actually believed? They could not. There was an infinite variety. Nor could they make a useful connection between the “ways of thinking” of individuals with any collective ideological position.

The stupidity of erudite Norwegians in 1814 was no different, Buruma concludes, from the stupidity of those today, erudite and non-erudite, who tell us that belief in Islam is inherently incompatible with Western values.

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One response to “Erudition Is No Protection Against Having Stupid Ideas

  1. David Schatzky

    In the last paragraph of his 1988 book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson writes:
    …intellectuals…follow certain regular patterns of behaviour….This is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which themselves generate irrational and destructive courses of action. Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.