It is by virtue of our rational or intellectual powers that we are made in God’s image and have a dignity nothing else in the material world possesses. As Aquinas writes:
Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. vi, 12): “Man's excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field.” Therefore things without intellect are not made to God's image… It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God's image. (Summa Theologiae )
And again, a couple of articles later: “Man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature” (Summa Theologiae ).
You might at first think, then, that intellectuals in the modern sense of the term would be the most Godlike of human beings, and the most likely to achieve salvation. Not so. Indeed, if anything, scripture (with which, naturally, Aquinas agrees) implies the opposite. We read, for example:
For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart” … God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:19, 27)
I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes. (Matthew 11:25)
Moreover, angels, being pure intellects entirely independent of matter, are in that respect even more like God than we are, and certainly more intelligent. And yet the greatest of these angelic intellects, Lucifer, fell from grace and took many other angels with him. Obviously, then, those of very great intellect can be and often are lost, whereas those of weak intellects can be and often are saved. To quote I, Claudius: “Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity.”
But what exactly makes for quality of wits in this context? Recall first the Thomistic thesis that will follows upon intellect, so that anything with an intellect also has a will. Recall too that, like everything else in nature, the intellect and will have final causes that determine what makes for a good or bad specimen of the kind. The intellect is naturally directed toward knowledge of truth, and the will is naturally directed toward pursuit of what is good. But truths and goods are hierarchical, with some more important than others. A good intellect is one focused on the highest of truths and a good will is one set on the highest of goods. Naturally, then, an intellect is deficient to the extent that it is in error or its attention is distracted by lesser truths, and a will is deficient to the extent that it fails to pursue what is good or aims at what is in fact evil.
With that in mind, let’s look at what Aquinas immediately goes on to say in the passage from Summa Theologiae quoted above:
Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature. Now the intellectual nature imitates God chiefly in this, that God understands and loves Himself. Wherefore we see that the image of God is in man in three ways.
First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men.
Secondly, inasmuch as man actually and habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace.
Thirdly, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. Wherefore on the words, “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us” (Psalm 4:7), the gloss distinguishes a threefold image of “creation,” of “re-creation,” and of “likeness.” The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed.
End quote. Our intellectual nature is fulfilled, then, in knowing and loving God above all things. For since God is the First Cause and thus ultimate explanation of all things, only knowledge of God can fulfill the intellect, and since he is the Last End or highest good, only he can satisfy the will. Hence, to the extent that an intellect or will is directed away from the true or the good, and especially to the extent that they are directed away from God, they are corrupt and directed away from salvation.
But how could that happen in an intellect that is powerful? How could it fall into such grave error? The fundamental way it can happen is if the will is misdirected. For when that occurs, an intellect is less likely to arrive at truth, and likely instead to seek out rationalizations for the evil it has fallen in love with. This is one reason why intellectuals may actually be more likely to be damned than less intelligent people. Having more powerful intellects, they are better able to spin clever sophistries by which they can blind themselves to the truth.
Demonstrating things like God’s existence or the natural law foundations of traditional morality is not, after all, that hard. What is difficult is the enormous tangle of sophistries by which modern thinkers have obscured our view of what was clear enough to intellects like those of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and the like. You have to deny vast swaths of common sense (concerning matters like causality and teleology, for example) in order to get skepticism about these things off the ground. Less intelligent and well-educated people find it harder to do that, which is why they are less likely to reject traditional morality and religion. It takes a high degree of intelligence to develop narratives and theories that not only defy common sense, but make it seem reasonable to do so.
Powerful intellects are much less likely to become corrupted to the extent that their view of things falls within what is sometimes called the And they are very likely to become corrupted to the extent that they depart from this family – say, by being drawn to materialism, or mechanism, or nominalism, or relativism, or skepticism. Or worse, to several or all of these. Now, a great many modern intellects have fallen into precisely these errors. Moreover, these errors have in turn led them into grave sexual immorality, and , disordered sexuality has of all vices the greatest tendency to darken the intellect. Sophistry and rationalization lead to the indulgence of disordered desire, which leads to further and ever more bizarre rationalizations, which leads in turn to further and even deeper disorders of desire, and so on, in a kind of death spiral of the soul. Lost in sensuality, a powerful intellect can then become lost in theory, unable to see beyond it to reality and no longer wanting to. This is why St. Paul, in the of the Epistle to the Romans, links the intellectual errors of the pagans to their sexual depravity. And we are seeing the same sort of thing all around us at the present time, with unparalleled depravity rationalized by sophistries so transparent and laughable that few would have been fooled by them for a moment as recently as a decade or two ago. .
An old proverb has it that “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Hence Plato regarded the monarchy of the Platonic Philosopher-King as the best form of government, but tyranny, which is the corruption of monarchy, as the worst form. Now, the intellect is, as it were, the monarch of the soul. When the intellect is guided by sound principles, the soul is governed in a way analogous to rule by a Philosopher-King. But when the intellect is in thrall to sophistries and rationalizations of disordered desire, it governs the soul like a tyrant, and destroys it as surely as a tyrant destroys a polity.
But though intellectuals can be tempted by sins of the flesh like anyone else, that isn’t really their Achilles’ heel qua intellectuals. You need to look elsewhere among the Seven Deadly Sins for that. And once again, the example of the angels is instructive. Of their fall, Aquinas writes:
But there can be no sin when anyone is incited to good of the spiritual order; unless in such affection the rule of the superior be not kept. Such is precisely the sin of pride – not to be subject to a superior when subjection is due. Consequently the first sin of the angel can be none other than pride.
Yet, as a consequence, it was possible for envy also to be in them, since for the appetite to tend to the desire of something involves on its part resistance to anything contrary. Now the envious man repines over the good possessed by another, inasmuch as he deems his neighbor's good to be a hindrance to his own. But another's good could not be deemed a hindrance to the good coveted by the wicked angel, except inasmuch as he coveted a singular excellence, which would cease to be singular because of the excellence of some other. So, after the sin of pride, there followed the evil of envy in the sinning angel, whereby he grieved over man's good, and also over the Divine excellence, according as against the devil's will God makes use of man for the Divine glory. (Summa Theologiae )
The intellect is the highest part of our nature. It is not surprising, then, that those with especially powerful intellects would see themselves as the highest human beings, and be strongly tempted to the sin of pride. This is part of what makes the sophistries of modern philosophy, modern politics, and modern culture in general so extremely attractive to intellectuals. For these ideas are often both difficult to understand and contrary to common sense – and, for these reasons, contrary to what the average person believes. To accept these sophistries is, accordingly, a way to reinforce one’s sense of superiority over the mass of mankind. The prideful intellect is tempted by the thought that if hoi polloi believe it, then it must be wrong.
To accept instead views that uphold common sense and the opinions of the average person (as, in their different ways, Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and conservative political philosophy tend to do) would be to credit the opinions of unsophisticated people in a way that makes it harder for the intellectual to feel superior to them. And this, I would suggest, is the deep reason why modern intellectuals tend to have the political biases they do.
Now, the sin of envy, as Aquinas indicates, is the sequel to this sin of pride. Why are so many intellectuals seemingly hell-bent on trying to shatter ordinary people’s belief in God, free will, morality, and the like? Here’s one possible reason. People who believe in these things than those who do not. If you are someone who sees yourself as superior to such people, you are bound to be tempted to resent their happiness and to be pleased at the thought of destroying what you take to be the illusions that generate it. And being pained at the good of another so that one desires to see it destroyed is envy.
Hence, it is difficult for an intellectual to enter the kingdom of heaven for the same reason it is difficult for a rich man to enter. It has nothing to do with intellect or riches being bad in themselves. On the contrary, they are good. Rather, it has to do with the strong temptations to which these good things give rise – prideful self-sufficiency and contempt for those who do not have the same gifts (whether smarts or money).
Those who fail to repent of such sins are doomed forever to be schooled in the error of their ways. But in this school there are no final exams, no graduation, and no degrees. Though there is most certainly tenure.