Idiot Savants: When Knowledge Isn’t Enough

But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind . . . the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong. —Johnson, “Life of Milton”

An idiot savant is an intellectually disabled person who exhibits extraordinary ability in a highly specialized area, such as mathematics or music. But putting aside this clinical definition, one can apply the idea in a broad way to people who exhibit hypertrophied intellectual interests and a converse atrophying of social skills. The proverbial “computer geek” comes to mind.

Aristotle once noted that “the young come to be geometricians, and mathematicians, and scientific in such matters, but it is not thought that a young man can come to be possessed of practical Wisdom: now the reason is, that this Wisdom has for its object particular facts, which come to be known from experience, which a young man has not because it is produced only by length of time” (Nichomachean Ethics, VI.8). In other words, native talent or mere technical skill is not enough to make a well-rounded person. What is needed is training in the humanities and in applied ethics—specifically, the gifts of prudence, patience and civility. Unfortunately, what was tough to come by in ancient Athens seems like a rarity in modern times.

The growing prominence of idiot savants has, not surprisingly, found expression in political creeds. The extreme example of the self-centered, self-proclaimed genius is the “professional revolutionary.” According to Crane Brinton’s classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution, “The characteristic and critical factor in revolutionary mass leadership [is] . . . the balked creative intellectual, the man who has not succeeded in impressing his fellow men with his depth and insight as thinker and artist.” This is reflected in the lives of men like Marat, Robespierre, Lenin and Hitler.

The idiot savant refuses to take his lumps with the common herd. He displays a stunted personality and an intense narrowness in pursuing his ambitions. Taken in the aggregate this behavior goes a long way in explaining the gnostic trend of the past two centuries and the extent to which shapers of political culture, operating as egotistical specialists, remain aloof from that “first requisite [of] moral knowledge of right and wrong.”

In his philosophical novel Rasselas, Johnson warned against the “dangerous prevalence of imagination” as when the untrained and inexperienced mind runs riot in daydreams that seek unhealthy outlets. “No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.” Knowledge is helpful. We cannot live in intellectual vacuity. But without wisdom, knowledge is not “power,” but weakness. We do not want to say, like the failed scholar in Rasselas, “I have purchased knowledge at the expense of common experience.”

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