Do you remember when it was considered a compliment to be called clever? I remember hearing comments like, “That Johnny is one clever boy.” I wanted to be like Johnny. I thought my parents wanted me to be clever, a term I equated with smart. But somewhere along the way clever became undesirable. My ears are still ringing from the last time my wife said, “You think you’re sooo clever!”
Clever was once used to describe someone who was brilliant, sharp and possessing quick intelligence, but lately it’s come to imply shallowness and superficiality. It is a mystery how “clever” managed to attain positive status in the first place, considering all Aesop did to disparage the idea. Aesop cleverly puts down cleverness with his fables, and cements into our collective consciousness the idea of the “clever fox.” No fewer than twenty-five of his fables deal with the exploits of foxes. Here’s one you might not know, even though you’ve been quoting the ending for as long as you can remember:
The Fox and the Goat
A fox had fallen into a well and had been casting about for a long time how he should get out again. At length a goat came to the place and, wanting to drink, asked the fox whether the water was good and if there was plenty of it. The fox, avoiding the real danger of his case, replied, “Come down, my friend; the water is so good that I cannot drink enough of it, and so abundant that it cannot be exhausted.”
Upon this the goat without any more ado leaped in. The fox, taking advantage of his friend’s horns, nimbly leaped out and coolly remarked to the poor deluded goat: “If you had half as much brains as you have beard, you would have looked before you leaped.”
Look before you leap.
Clever yes, but admirable no. I didn’t read Aesop when I was a kid, but I was raised on another set of fables called Leave It To Beaver. On that TV icon from the ‘50s and ‘60’s, snarky Eddie Haskell serves in many episodes as a fox. There was no doubt in my mind that Eddie was clever, always talking Wally and the Beav into doing things that landed them in hot water. Eddie was morally corrupt, a fact well known by the adults on the program, and it always surprised me that Ward and June never forbade their kids from hanging out with such a corrupting influence. My folks would have booted Eddie out the door and told him to never return, and then they would have booted me in the ass for being gullible, not clever enough to see through his schemes.
Have you ever listened to someone trying to be funny, only to realize they were merely being clever? Do you laugh at clever puns, or do you groan? In fact, we seldom laugh at cleverness, which is why nobody laughs at Aesop’s fables. We despise the clever fox and want him punished for what he’s done, just as we wanted Eddie Haskell torn a new one at the end of those Leave it to Beaver episodes.
I’ve researched cleverness (five minutes on Google) and I’ve come away with the notion that cleverness is slick and temporary, designed to master the moment. Wisdom must be nurtured slowly, like grapes gradually transformed into fine wine. But unlike fine wine, the benefits of wisdom are lasting.
I decided when I began Chubby Chatterbox that this blog would not dispense advice
(I’m not qualified to give any) but here I contradict myself. I advise you to disregard this post and endeavor to be like Johnny, mentioned at the beginning. It’s okay to be smart and fill your head with wisdom, but be clever about it; don’t broadcast the fact because most of us don’t really like smart people and consider them a pain in the ass. We have little difficulty erasing smart people from our thoughts as quickly as possible, but clever foxes are immortal, as are Eddie Haskells.
Anyone have anything clever to add?
Note: I created this illustration for an insurance company a few years ago.