Isle of Saints, Scholars and Scoundrels: wisdom, intelligence and wickedness in Ireland, past and present

Ireland, the isle of saints and scholars, has a long history of thoughtfulness (despite the stereotyping by her powerful neighbour of her people as ‘thick’, uneducated, unwilling to be educated, doltish or otherwise unintelligent). Dr Tom Duddy explores this in his book, A History of Irish Thought. What’s interesting, though, is that scholarship is associated with intelligence, a kind of analytic, morally neutral quality of intellectual investigation, whereas sainthood is associated with a focus on ‘the good’: what acts will benefit us, as people, to further the common good?

But, as Nick Maxwell points out in his extensive study of wisdom and the campaign to encourage institutions devoted to learning to extend their remit, and focus on helping humanity learn to live more wisely, wisdom and intelligence are not entirely separable. In fact, it is our unhealthy obsession with research as a tool for profit in business, without any questioning of the basis for such a social and economic model, that has led us into our present predicament.

The tradition of linking wisdom with intelligence, or scholarship with a modern-day interpretation of saintliness (defined simply as the desire to benefit humanity, and the wider world, altruistically, or in recognition of our interconnectedness), has deep roots here in Ireland. Jonathan Swift in his ‘Modest Proposal’ was clearly pointing out the brutality of thinking without an accompanying sense of empathy. Beckett explores the agony, but also the necessity for honest acknowledgement, of living without traditional reference points, and how we still seek to reach for some connection, to make a noise within the absurdity and nonsense, that might mean something to someone else.

However, there are also many Irish examples of the collective, or individual, use of intelligence to undercut, or harm, communities or individuals. Eamon de Valera has a mixed reputation, as does Bono, with his (perhaps understandable) unwillingness to contribute to the tax coffers of the country (coffers that have been ransacked to benefit a tiny proportion of bondholders while the majority of contributors still bear the brunt of the national debt – something of an example of collective scoundrel-ism). Michael O’Leary has not necessarily created social cohesion or benefitted the environment, or even created job security for many of his employees, although his business model has certainly helped make flying more affordable. More seriously, there are no doubt many good reasons why those who joined religious orders became abusers, but the harm they perpetrated is an enduring legacy of horror and shame. No doubt you can think of other saints who were scholars, or scholars – or at least relatively intelligent individuals – who were scoundrels.

What of the future? What of current attempts to create a coherent strategy that will benefit all? Mostly, now, we think of this happening at the political sphere. But scholarship has an important role to play in creating  a thinking space for how to live. Scholarship is never neutral. There are always underlying frameworks, how the scholar imagines, consciously or unconsciously, the world to be, or the world as they would like it to be. An enquiry into how we can live not just intelligently, but wisely, is worth pursuing, even if the questions such an endeavour raises are difficult and controversial.

To see more of Maxwell’s work, go to


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