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.