Essay Intellectual Quickness
What has hitherto been said about knowledge in a man of conversation has left out of all account the way of producing it, and merely considered the mental store from which conversation may be supplied. But almost as important as these materials, is the faculty of producing them without effort. This quality may be called intellectual quickness, as distinguished from solidity; and of all the conditions we have yet discussed, this seems most due to nature, and unattainable by education. It is indeed sometimes a characteristic of nations. The Irishman or the Frenchman will show this quality with an average excellence far above that attained in England or Germany. It may of course be allied with, or even due to, some such moral quality as sympathy, of which we shall 33speak presently. But quite apart from it, a selfish man, who has no sympathy for his company, may, by the quickness of his intellect, show brilliantly in conversation, while his more solid and worthy fellow is considered a bore. As I have just said, this is generally a gift of nature. Some men and some nations are born with quick wits. But even so it is a great mistake to think that it may not be vastly improved by intercourse with people who have the faculty already well developed. Moreover it is a very dangerous advantage, and if not deepened by solid acquirements, or chastened by moral restraints, may make a man rather the scourge than the delight of his company.
For this is the mental quality which is the foundation of wit, and a joker who merely consults his own amusement, or the amusement of some of his hearers at the expense of others, is not a good converser. The tendency of a very quick intellect is 34also to impatience, and so it will interfere with and cow more modest minds, which might have contributed well to the feast of talk had they been allowed to work without hurry or pressure. So strong do we often find this contrast that it is unadvisable, in choosing a set of people for conversation, to bring together very slow and very quick intellects. While the former are more dazzled and confused than pleased, the latter feel the delay of listening to long and deliberate sentences intolerable; and so a company in which all the members are socially excellent may fail to be pleasant on account of the mental contrasts of its members.
Let me illustrate it by an extreme case. Who would think of introducing a young brilliant flashing sceptic into a society of grave and sober orthodoxy? If the conversation did not soon degenerate into acrid controversy—the very lees of social intercourse—it would result in contemptuous 35silence on one side or other, probably with the contempt so transparent as to challenge harsh over-statement from the talker by way of challenge or reply to unspoken censure. Could anything be more ruinous to the object we have in view? It may be urged on the other hand that if too many quick intellects are brought together—not a very easy thing, by the way, to accomplish—the pressure will become too great and the conversation move so fast that the strain may become a weariness. I think that any danger in this direction is rather due to the moral defects of the talkers than their intellectual brightness, and so I shall discuss this point under another head.
But if the quality under consideration is valuable at all times, it is so peculiarly when a number of strangers meet together, or when it is the lot of men and women to be obliged to talk together in dialogue, upon a stray or sudden occasion. 36Then it is, when for example you go down to dinner with a strange man or woman whose name you have not caught, that quickness of intellect becomes the prime agent in starting a pleasant conversation. There are, indeed, even here many easy rules which may help to get over the initial difficulty, without those initial chords about the weather whereby so many people, otherwise really intelligent, hide themselves at the outset under the prelude of commonplace. But here as elsewhere art can only imitate better nature.
It is further to be added that as general knowledge, and special also, are principally to be expected from men, so quickness of mind, which is often impaired by deeper study, is the proper attribute of women, and ought to be the distinctive quality of their conversation. This is supposed to be so in French society; I cannot say that it has come under my 37observation as a general law, the many instances which I have met being always noted and quoted as brilliant and as exceptional, so implying that it was not the rule.