“Too Clever By Half”
There is oftentimes some very profound intuitive truth behind some popular sayings. “Too clever by half” is one, and is as much as to say “the mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode”.
Yet, ask someone what they might mean by saying “too clever by half” and they can’t really articulate it. They aren’t fully conscious of the implicate truth of it.
Ask someone what they mean by “too clever by half” and they may answer: “well, it means too smart for your own good”. But that’s just a tautology, because “too smart for your own good” means “two clever by half” and so you stay within the “windmills of your mind” and the mental merry-go-round. Those kinds of tautologies are what we call “pretzel logic”.
But, there is something to be said, just here, for Rosenstock-Huessy’s remark that “God is the power that makes men speak”. Whatever anonymous speaker first shared and donated those words to the linguistic commonwealth was moved by a wisdom that was not his own. It was intuitive wisdom.
For what lies behind “too clever by half” but a statement of the truth about hybris and Nemesis, of the workings of the karmic law and action and reaction, of enantiodromia or “reversal of fortune” at the extremity, of the real meaning of “transgression” and “sin”? All that is precisely summarised in the pithy saying “too clever by half”.
And yet, the ego consciousness remains on the surface, seldom penetrating with insight into its real depths of meaning and significance.
Many, many books have been written about “too clever by half”, and a lot of words expended trying to interpret it. John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West or his The Unconscious Civilisation. Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay “Farewell to Descartes“, or Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin and his diagnosis of “the mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode”. Or, Matthew 6:27 of the New Testament: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” That is to say, there are limits to the utility of reason, and in being “too clever by half” we are now exceeding the limits of that utility. Even scientists now ponder “The Limits of Science“, and whether we haven’t already overstepped those limits with dire consequences for the survival of the species and even the planet. Much of Jacques Ellul’s writings on technology and society, and of how the growth of technology has outstripped our capacity to master it, putting us in danger, is of the same nature — we’ve become “too clever by half”.
Yet, we feel compelled to press on beyond the limit, even though there is the well-grounded suspicion that we have already overstepped the limit and the frontier of the rationally knowable, and that the mind is now “at the end of its tether”, as H.G. Wells once put it. “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t”, quipped the noted physicist Richard Feynman. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem are also symptomatic of the limit of the mental-rational having been reached, if not already breached, and that it now must transcend itself or perish from itself.y
And yet “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” is one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell“. That is to say, Hell. It’s most certainly not the most direct route to get there either. I emphasise that. That’s also implied in the meaning of “too clever by half”. And so is “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome”, “revenge effect”, “ironic reversal”, “reversal of fortune”, or “blowback” the result of being “too clever by half”, to the effect that reason itself, having over-reached the limits of its possibilities and further articulation, reverts upon itself, devours itself, and becomes a form of madness.
For what else could the phase “mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode” mean but de-mented. “Those who the god would destroy they first drive mad” is a statement about hubris and Nemesis and the revenge of the Furies. Look around you. It should be obvious. Our world has gone stark raving mad. So much so, in fact, that people now speak of a “post-Enlightenment” and even of the onset of a new Dark Age.
All that, and far more besides, is summarised in the saying “too clever by half”. What lies behind the Pope’s observation that “duplicity has become the currency of the day” except a general schizophrenia, paranoia, and dichotomisation of consciousness? It is the mad tyranny of Blake’s insane Zoa named “Urizen” which also lies within the saying “too clever by half”.
“Too clever by half” means “the Sacred Hoop is broken” and the cross of reality has become radically unbalanced and lopsided. When the mind is unbalanced, that is reflected in growing social inequality, too.