What Is the Genus of Genius?
If you took piano lessons as a child, chances are you spent a lot of time being looked down upon by a miniature bust of one or another great composer. Placed beside the metronome, in plaster or in plastic, was the glowering Beethoven, the dreamy Chopin, the serene Bach, the puckish Mozart or the sovereign Wagner, each a reminder of the mountain your little fingers were scaling and the mastery required to ascend the summit. More or less unwittingly, you were participating in the rites of a cult. The celebration of the supremely gifted, uniquely creative individual is a modern phenomenon, insists Darrin M. McMahon in Divine Fury, an engaging survey of the history of genius in European culture. The cult of genius emerged in the eighteenth century, but if McMahon is correct, your obeisance at the upright piano was a tribute paid to a dying god. The recognition of extraordinary individuals, he argues, has yielded to claims for the genius in us all. The religion of genius has collapsed under the blows of egalitarianism, aspirational self-help and commercial celebrity.
McMahon’s subject is not, in fact, particular geniuses, but rather the idea as well as the cultural representation of genius as they have mutated over nearly three millennia. His is a history of ideas practiced on a scale rarely seen since the founding figure of intellectual history in the United States, Arthur O. Lovejoy, first broke a lance for the study of what he called “unit-ideas,” enduring intellectual motifs and basic philosophical concepts that he believed constantly combine over time to form the substance of human thought. Even intellectual historians have tended to frown upon this kind of history, and not just because it takes a rare capaciousness of spirit to write a history that traces the itinerary of an idea as it journeys through the centuries. Intellectual historians grew worried that this approach threatened to pitch thought into the stratosphere above life’s hurly-burly and revive a Platonic view of ideas as transcendent eternal objects immune to the vagaries of time and change. Above all, historians of all stripes accused Lovejoy and his acolytes of neglecting the historical contexts that shape intellectuals and their arguments, and that govern the processes of transmission and inheritance whereby ideas are passed from one generation to the next.
The criticisms hit their mark. Intellectual historians, even in the pages of the Journal of the History of Ideas, which Lovejoy founded in 1940, have preferred to cultivate smaller patches of land more deeply and intensively. As with many turf wars in academia, ground was won by exaggerating the faults of the opposition. Where many a more pointillist study has faded from memory, Lovejoy’s masterwork, The Great Chain of Being (1936), remains a compelling and widely read book, remarkable for its account of the gradual metamorphosis of the age-old idea of a static, hierarchical order of all beings (extending from stones to trees to beasts to humans to the angels and God) into the modern ideas of organic growth, interconnection and development. Lovejoy’s is a tour de force that takes us from the Greeks to the very threshold of Darwinian evolution. Some valuable things were undoubtedly lost when intellectual historians rejected history on an epic scale, and Darrin McMahon, for one, wants to restore them. He has emerged as a prominent herald and practitioner of a revised history of ideas, or what he prefers to call a “history in ideas.” To an earlier volume on the idea of happiness, he now adds this accomplished and lively survey of the idea of genius. His hope, he writes, “is to correct for excessive specialization, showing connections and continuities, ruptures and breaks, across disciplines, time, and place.”
Continuities abound in McMahon’s story, but so do transformations, the most significant of which is the gradual migration of genius from the exterior to the interior of the individual. Socrates spoke of his intelligence as if it were an other, a daimonion that accompanied and guided him. Socrates shared Greek culture’s broad belief that the greatest minds were chosen and possessed by specific guardian spirits. Early Romans imagined genius as a generalized life force linked to the procreative powers of the paterfamilias; places had their genius loci, their protective spirit, often depicted allegorically as a snake. Eventually, every individual man came to enjoy the protection of a specific genius, his own private divinity to attend and watch over him. As to the vast disparities in talent and fortune observable among men, some had better luck with their genius than others.
The seeds of a different view were already planted in antiquity. Plato suggested that Socrates’ daimonion was not an extrinsic spirit, but the rational part of his own soul. Some Aristotelians went even further by offering something like a corporeal theory of genius, seeing the roots of individual greatness in a volatile imbalance of the humors. McMahon observes a similar process in Rome, where genius—the guardian and companion spirit—gradually became fused with ingenium, understood as the unique personality or nature of the individual. The merger of genius and ingenium persisted into the Christian era, with angels and other divine intercessors taking the role of the former, and saints that of the latter; but Christians were easily troubled by the exceptional person’s potential for sin. A lust for perfection tempted one into rivalry with God, while the daimonion that breathed inspiration into the great soul might in truth be an evil demon. Renaissance thinkers were not untroubled by these concerns, but McMahon argues that beginning roughly in the fifteenth century, works like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists increasingly celebrated those individuals possessing extraordinary human powers. Ancient divisions over the origin of genius did not vanish, but the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino wove what Aristotelians had long described as an excess of melancholic humor together with what Platonists had considered a mania of divine possession. Ficino realized they were one and the same thing, just described differently. The two were united, writes McMahon, in “the soul of the unique individual, the mind of the great man, which was slowly assuming powers that for centuries had been entrusted to the angels and the demons and to those men and women—the sorcerers and the saints—whose bidding they performed.”
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These tendencies culminated in the eighteenth century with the modern conception of genius. This was an idea firmly rooted in the flesh, in the person, with a premium placed on individuality, uniqueness, and titanic powers of imagination and creation. McMahon calls this being sui generis, but in fact he shows that Enlightenment discussions of genius perpetuated the language of possession, transcendence, rapture and special revelation. Such survivals, of course, account for the emergence of what McMahon calls a cult, or even a religion, of genius, with its veneration of great-souled men, genius incarnate. Romanticism is often seen as the moment when the ideal of genius reached its apotheosis, and McMahon devotes considerable attention to the Romantic celebration of the imaginative creative artist as well as the world-historical hero embodied by Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet, as he and many other commentators recognize, the substance of the Romantic idea was more or less in place in the age of Enlightenment.
So, too, were the efforts to demystify genius. Empiricism, the quintessential Enlightenment doctrine that all knowledge derives from the senses, could reset human faculties to an equal starting point on John Locke’s famous blank slate. From there, inequalities of mind could be explained by education, experience and other environmental factors—in short, nurture, not nature. The French philosophe Claude Adrien Helvétius, whom McMahon discusses, offered a textbook example of this reasoning, as did Jean le Rond d’Alembert, whom he does not. Yet d’Alembert illustrates how difficult it is to follow the empiricist argument through to the end. In his famous “Preliminary Discourse” to the Encyclopédie, he insists:
Hence it is perhaps true that there is hardly a science or an art which cannot, with rigor and good logic, be taught to the most limited mind, because there are but few arts or sciences whose propositions or rules cannot be reduced to some simple notions and arranged in such a close order that their chain of connection will nowhere be interrupted. As the mind operates more or less slowly, that chain will be required in greater or less degree, and the only advantage possessed by great geniuses is that they have less need of it than others, or rather they are able to form it rapidly and almost unconsciously.
This “only advantage,” from our perspective, seems no small thing, and it throws open once again the mystery of intelligence.