One of the more ambiguous words I like is cleverness. It can be used as a compliment or as a subtle put-down. It can be a tool or a weapon.
You might think of a new kitchen gadget that efficiently performs several useful functions without being too complicated and it really saves time and effort. There might be another kitchen gadget that does cooking tasks very well, but takes longer to disassemble, clean, and reassemble than it takes a cook to perform the task the conventional way. I would describe the first gadget as clever in the positive sense. Then I would say the advertising pitch for the second object was clever in a negative way.
The modern type of cleverness is the ability to create a solution to a problem that people didn’t realize they had.
I prefer the satisfaction of being able to use the word clever in its older, positive sense. That is cleverness that is brilliant and utilizes quick, sharp intelligence. For instance, a stage magician, through the use of everyday items as props in a simple presentation that astounds the audience, is a positively clever performer.
Another form of positive cleverness is revealed in the ability of a great author to keep the reader entranced through every plot twist of a story and provide us with a stunning, surprise ending. When we have finished reading the story, we are left feeling delighted and satisfied.
What brought the topic of cleverness to mind was an Internet meme printed on a pale blue background. It was a quote from Plato. “Ignorance of all things is an evil neither terrible nor excessive, nor yet the greatest of all; but great cleverness and much learning, if they be accompanied by a bad training, are a much greater misfortune.”
The immediate takeaway that came to mind was cleverness in a social context. Combine the ignorance and naiveté of the “general” public with the cleverness of a leader who was nurtured on bad training and we have the recipe for disaster. This formula has been tried and tested many times throughout history into the present day.
Thus the ability of our social institutions to be powerful is largely based on manipulating the fear of the public by the cleverness of a few. This is the main reason why tyrants oppress the intelligentsia and education in favor of indoctrination and propaganda. The clever simplicity of dogma is what makes it so very palatable to us.
An effective way to survive and thrive, while living under a clever tyrannical regime, is to exercise more cleverness. We can take a page from the history of the French Resistance’s clever fighting against Nazism during the Second World War. To survive, the Resistance had to play a better game than Hitler’s minions did.
In the end, it is not superficial cleverness that wins the day. It is when we employ our hard-earned wisdom that we truly flourish.