Friday 1 February 2013

Tolkien or Lewis - who was the most intelligent?


There is not much in it - and we must remember that 'general intelligence' ('g', measured as IQ) is only one dimension of cognitive ability - and creativity (in particular) is a separate dimension. In terms of creativity, Tolkien excelled Lewis -

(General intelligence is that concept - constructed statistically as IQ - which was hypothesized to explain why all cognitive abilities co-correlate in population samples - to a greater or lesser extent. In groups, being good at one cognitive task - memory, general knowledge, mathematics, verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, vocabulary, reading age etc... any one and all such tasks - correlates with being good at any and all others.)


In terms of approximations, general intelligence can roughly be measured in terms of speed of learning and capacity for abstract reasoning.

And in traditional educational systems, where ability is measured in supervised and time limited exams that require on the spot thinking as well as memory, there is a high correlation between exam results and intelligence.

(This correlation is much lower now due to the non-validity of examinations and endemic cheating - a.k.a. 'coursework'.)


So, we can compare Tolkien and Lewis head to head on examinations.

1. Oxford scholarship examinations. Lewis got a Scholarship (the largest financial award) at the first attempt; but Tolkien only got an Exhibition (a lower level of award) at the second attempt.

2. Both Tolkien and Lewis began by studying the same course (Classics, or Literae Humaniores) at much the same time (Tolkien 'went up' to Oxford in 1911, Lewis in 1917) - in the first set of exams in that course Tolkien (only just) got a second class while Lewis got a First.

3. Tolkien switched his degree to English in which he got a First class degree; Lewis stayed in Classics where he also got a First. But Lewis's L.H. degree was Oxford's oldest and highest-status degree (a four year course) while English was a lower ranked 'upstart' (and a three year course).

(Just one year after completing his classics degree, Lewis did the English degree (a three year degree completed in one year) - and got yet another First... A Triple First!)


After this point there is a wide divergence, because Tolkien had a precocious academic career in which - with the assistance of good fortune - a few items of high quality early scholarship led to a very early Oxford Professorship - after which his published productivity declined substantially.

Lewis, on the other hand, published almost nothing except poetry until his mid-thirties and it was not until his late thirties when The Allegory of Love made his academic reputation, after which was unleashed a veritable tidal wave of published scholarship - plus of course the other work in fiction and apologetics for which he became famous among the general public -  and it was not until Lewis's fifties that he became a Professor (in Cambridge).


But on head-to-head comparisons, Lewis beat Tolkien clearly on the entrance exam and the interim Classical Moderations exam - and Lewis's performance in general is better.

I conclude that Lewis was more intelligent than Tolkien in the sense of having a higher IQ. 

(Although both were clearly very intelligent, in the top less-than-one-percent of the population!)


The idea that Lewis has higher IQ than Tolkien fits with Lewis being famous for his memory, ability to quote, and swiftness of assertion and response in conceptual argument.

Having said that, Lewis did recognize other people as superior in intelligence to himself - for example he certainly regarded the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe as more intelligent than himself.


So, Tolkien and Lewis were both exceptionally intelligent and creative: but Tolkien was more creative and Lewis was more intelligent.



ajb said...

It would be interesting to see what evidence there is of motivation in their respective studies, relative to academic achievement.

Bruce Charlton said...

There is lots of evidence about this in the various biographies, which I summarize in the linked posting. In a nutshell, Lewis could make himself work hard and steadily at things that did not much interest him - but Tolkien could not.

George Goerlich said...

That is an interesting idea - that Tolkien's intelligence was largely linked to his creativity. Perhaps he only felt able to fully exercise his intelligent when he was being creative, and he could only be fully creative when he loved or found the topic interesting.

stephen c said...

According to Basil Mitchell (subsequent president of Socratic club after the Anscombe debate) and according to John Lucas , "Miss Anscombe used a variety of tricks to win the debate {the famous debate between Lewis and Anscombe on a philosophical topic} as theater." After "Mitchell succeeded Lewis as President of the Socratic club", the debate was restaged with Lucas representing Lewis' argument and Anscomber reprising her role.This time around, Lucas won."
(quotation from "C.S. Lewis Remembered", page 250 note to chapter 7 (Alastair Fowler, "C.S. Lewis: Supervisor").

Bruce Charlton said...

Indeed, but nonetheless Lewis did say Anscombe was more intelligent than him - and she was indeed extremely intelligent, which nobody disputes - and she did also have the advantage in younger age (raw intelligence probably declines throughout adulthood, due to accumulated degenerative damage - at least that is my excuse...).