Mean People Aren't Smart


At the close of his introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, explaining that the work is a private meditation and not Magisterial, Benedict XVI famously declares:

Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.
That’s the line that got the press, but the one that impressed me was immediately following:
I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.

I’ve written previously about the connection between charity (understood as a virtue or habitus—a fixed inclination of the will) and reason, but the topic keeps coming up and it struck me again when I was re-reading The Idea of A University and came across Newman’s description of a gentleman:

He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best.
That's enough to make my point, but it's so good I'll continue a bit:

He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice.

There's a lot more. What interests me is that the gentleman doesn’t have these qualities simply because they're beautiful. They are useful:

If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust. ….

Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes.

The point being, as the pope indicates in that one line, it is not possible to arrive at truth or understanding on the path of readiness to believe the worst of everyone or, on the other hand, of being easily slighted. At least thusfar, charity is an intellectual virtue:

Such are some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will from, apart from religious principle. They are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate.