The Test of a First-Rate Intelligence Is the Ability To Hold Two Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time

F. Scott Fitzgerald? Lionel Trilling? Katherine A. Powers? H. Maynard Smith? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our experiences in the world are often complex, ambiguous, and ill-defined. We must be able to accommodate conflicting hypotheses. Here is a pertinent adage:

The truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

A notion like this has been credited to the prominent literary figure F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In February 1936 “Esquire” magazine published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-Up” which contained the quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Before I go on with this short history let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible” come true.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1872 a religious text included a passage about integrating two truths which appear inconsistent on a superficial level: 2

They did not mind stating apparently opposed truths; they knew that they could give to men a higher truth, in which the contradictories became two sides of the same truth.

Fitzgerald ‘s essay containing the quotation appeared in a posthumous collection published in 1945. Critic Edmund Wilson was the editor, and he decided to highlight the essay by using “The Crack-Up” as the title for the collection. 3

Historian H. Maynard Smith completed the book “Henry VIII and the Reformation” in 1948. Smith contended that a person who could perceive two conflicting sides of an issue might be overwhelmed by a mentally inflexible person: 4

A broad-minded man, who can see both sides of the question and is ready to hold opposed truths while confessing that he cannot reconcile them, is at a manifest disadvantage with a narrow-minded man who sees but one side, sees it clearly, and is ready to interpret the whole Bible, or, if need be, the whole universe, in accordance with his formula.

In 1950 influential literary critic Lionel Trilling published “The Liberal Imagination” which included an essay about Fitzgerald. Trilling found the quotation memorable and reprinted it in the essay: 5

It is, he feels, his fate—and as much as to anything else in Fitzgerald, we respond to the delicate tension he maintained between his idea of personal free will and his idea of circumstance: we respond to that moral and intellectual energy. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he said, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind, at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

In 1994 Katherine A. Powers published a book review in “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts. She employed an anonymous variant of the saying with the word “contradictory” instead of “opposed”: 6

Intelligence has been described as the ability to entertain two apparently contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time, and on this score as on many others, such as wit and deadly aim, Dwight Macdonald was intelligence incarnate.

In 2008 a columnist in “The Spokesman-Review” of Spokane, Washington published another variant without attribution: 7

It’s said the truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

In conclusion, F. Scott Fitzgerald should receive credit for the statement he wrote in 1936. The phrasing has evolved over time, and sometimes the saying is presented as an anonymous adage.

Image Notes: Illustration of two arrows pointing in opposite directions from geralt at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1936 February, Esquire, The Crack-Up: A desolately frank document from one for whom the salt of life has lost its savor by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Column 1, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Esquire archive at classic.esquire.com)
  2. 1872, Christ in Modern Life: Sermons Preached in St. James’s Chapel by Rev. Stopford A. Brooke, Second Edition, Sermon 5: The Central Truth of Christianity, Quote Page 68, Henry S. King & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1956, Copyright 1945, The Crack-Up by F Scott Fitzgerald; With Other Uncollected Pieces, Note-Books and Unpublished Letters; (Together with Letters to Fitzgerald from Gertrude Stein; Edith Wharton; T. S. Eliot; Thomas Wolfe and John Dos Passos), Edited by Edmund Wilson, “The Crack-Up” by F Scott Fitzgerald, (Essay dated February 1936), Start Page 69, Quote Page 69, First published as New Directions Paperback Number 54 in 1956, New Directions, Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1962 (First published in 1948), Henry VIII and the Reformation by H. Maynard Smith, Quote Page 320, Russell & Russell, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1950, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society by Lionel Trilling, Essay: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Start Page 243, Quote Page 245 and 246, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1994 May 1, The Boston Sunday Globe, Takes by Katherine A. Powers, (Book review of “A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald” by Michael Wreszin), Quote Page B18, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 2008 April 26, The Spokesman-Review, Lexus LS 600h…one of the Best Cars on the Planet by Don Adair (Marketing Department Columnist), Quote Page D1, Column 2, Spokane, Washington. (Newspapers_com)