What Is the Genus of Genius?

What Is the Genus of Genius?

How the religion of genius collapsed under the blows of egalitarianism.


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.

The reverence for genius and attempts to demystify it ran parallel throughout the nineteenth century. One of the most engaging sections of McMahon’s book is puckishly called “geniology.” It chronicles late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century explorations of genius, starting with the successive crazes for physiognomy spurred by the work of J.C. Lavater and phrenology by F.J. Gall, respectively, and mushrooming into the explorations of hereditary genius launched by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, and investigations of genius as a kind of pathology or even a latent criminal predisposition undertaken by the likes of Jacques-Joseph Moreau, Max Nordau and Cesare Lombroso. McMahon recounts the story of Émile Zola, who submitted himself to examination by a battery of psychiatrists. All of them, including Zola, were in the grips of degeneration theory, that great scientific quackery of the late nineteenth century. Zola’s genius, the experts concluded, was a product of mild neurosis, but other geniuses were subjected to harsher psychological diagnoses, or their brilliance was linked to physical pathologies, as in the line commonly drawn between Dostoyevsky’s creativity and his epilepsy.

McMahon tells the history of genius with verve, wit and insight, and his book is a pleasure to read. While its broad outlines will be familiar to some readers, Divine Fury makes innumerable fascinating connections and weaves many threads into a coherent narrative spanning 2,500 years. No theoretical statement could vindicate a revived history of ideas so well as this exemplary work. Still, such an approach is not without its costs. Some readers will question the exclusively European focus, which excludes not only consideration of the ways other literate cultures dealt with exceptional ability but also possible cross-fertilizations—for example, between medieval Christian and Islamic thinkers. Other readers may sense that McMahon sometimes handles causal arguments with too much legerdemain. The key instance here is his explanation for the pivotal position of the eighteenth century in the history of genius. McMahon readily acknowledges the various social, economic and cultural explanations for this development tendered by scholars, but he sees two deeper phenomena at work. First, he argues that in an increasingly secular age, the “withdrawal of God” and the demise of the panoply of intercessors between the divine and the mundane prepared the ground for an ersatz religion of genius, a form of re-enchantment for a disenchanted age. Of course, rumors of God’s withdrawal can be exaggerated. Many of the champions of genius continued to believe in a divine being, as did the philosopher J.G. Herder, whose day job was preaching in the German city of Weimar. In making his argument, McMahon draws on the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet’s magisterial account of secularization in The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, published in France in 1985. Yet reading McMahon, you would not know that Gauchet locates the process and effects of withdrawal much earlier, or that his book scarcely contains references to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. More important, Gauchet argues that the more distant God is, the freer human beings become. His theory of secularization argues for increasing human self-assertion and for a growing sense of autonomy. So the elevation of genius might be understood less as a compensatory reaction to loss, and more as a celebration of human liberation from the gods and of the power of humans to address their own needs.

If compensation is part of the eighteenth-century story, it may be that genius was a kind of prodigal child of the epistemology of sensation, the exuberance of genius offsetting the flattening tendencies of empiricism while remaining within its general bounds. After all, in an age putatively committed to rationality, the main focus of discussions of genius was the power of feeling. “I felt before I thought,” recounts Rousseau in the opening of his Confessions, a memoir that never shies from proclaiming the singularity of its author. Feeling is inextricably linked to genius in d’Alembert, and it forms the heart of Jean-François de Saint-Lambert’s celebrated article on “genius” for the Encyclopédie. To be sure, empiricism yielded to new theories of knowledge toward the end of the eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, where Immanuel Kant assigned the mind unprecedented powers to create its experienced reality. Kant’s philosophical revolution had direct implications for thinking about genius, especially among the Romantics; but if a compensatory structure continued to serve an explanatory function in nineteenth-century culture’s ongoing fixation on genius, it may have had less to do with filling the void left by a withdrawn God than with a desire for enriching supplements to rationalism and, increasingly, to bourgeois utilitarianism.

* * *

McMahon offers a second explanation for the rise of interest in genius in the eighteenth century, namely proclamations of universal human equality. These, he writes, fueled a kind of reaction in which genius emerged as the exception to the rule. Here, the chronology is vexing, because much of the fervent admiration of human genius cited by McMahon predates the period when arguments for equality really began to matter in both intellectual and political life. Undoubtedly, the dynamic tension between equality and the creative exception was active by the Romantic era, and the prerogatives of the genius would become an obstinate conceit in various forms of anti-democratic discourse. This tension did not have to resolve itself as an either-or choice between genius and the common denominator. After all, nineteenth-century liberalism typically addressed the uneasy balance between equality and personal freedom by emphasizing equality of opportunity. Though at the far end of the spectrum of talent, genius could fit into a general ideology of meritocracy.

McMahon’s attempt to tell a tidy story about the history of genius leads him at times to narrow his lens too much, particularly as he approaches our own era. Having presented a rich array of figures and themes in the nineteenth century, he limits his treatment of the twentieth century mainly to an archetypal conflict between the good genius of Albert Einstein and the bad genius of Hitler and Stalin. In bringing politics to the fore, McMahon amplifies a subtheme of the book present not only in his discussion of Napoleon, but also of the Roman emperor Augustus, who managed to fuse two protective spirits, his own personal genius and the genius of Rome. Yet it is not clear that Hitler’s and Stalin’s personality cults were as focused on genius as McMahon thinks they are. Claims for extraordinary powers and charisma undoubtedly played a role in the personae of both dictators, but in truth the cults contained quite heterogeneous elements. Especially in Stalin’s case, insistence upon his genius must be weighed against what may have been the far greater populist appeal of a folksy, fatherly persona. Even in Germany, whose cultural and political background unquestionably readied the ground for a myth of the statesman as a Wagnerian superman shaping political life like a Gesamtkunstwerk, Hitler was just as often seen as exemplary rather than exceptional: his image accentuated qualities such as courage, toughness, ruthlessness and devotion, “German” qualities that were not reducible to the claim of genius.

Other twentieth-century stories are absent from McMahon’s narrative. What of the search for the nature of intelligence spearheaded by cognitive scientists and brain researchers? And what of Sigmund Freud? Arguably, Freud’s studies of figures like Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Dostoyevsky contributed something new to the age-old discourse by stressing libidinal drives, infant experience, family dynamics and sublimation in the formation of the extraordinary individual. Who but Freud habituated us to consider that the mother of invention might be the mother? Further, the twentieth century could have given McMahon an opportunity to extend his discussion of women. A history of extraordinarily gifted people would invariably turn up women in every epoch, but McMahon is right that throughout its long history, the European idea of genius and its cultural representation were almost invariably gendered male. But what of twentieth-century thinkers like Virginia Woolf, who ceased to take for granted the male monopoly on genius and began to investigate the social, political and cultural reasons for the absence of women in the pantheon of remarkable humans? This was the task, in A Room of One’s Own, of Woolf’s famous thought experiment, which traced the fate of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister to an anonymous grave at a roadside crossing.

Divine Fury ends with the suggestion that we may have reached a terminal point in the history of genius. In academia, humanities scholars have become extremely reluctant to utter the word, not only because they are wary of the excesses of our predecessors, but because genius explains everything and nothing. Further, our understanding of innovation and creativity has shifted profoundly in an era of big science. More broadly, McMahon sees a tendency to cheapen the language of genius by spreading it thin in a society that awards students gold stars merely for completing homework and promises exceptional attainment to anyone willing to follow twelve steps or seven habits. “The truth is,” he writes, “that we live at a time when there is genius in all of us, but very few geniuses to be found.” In the logic of McMahon’s narrative, this would seem to be the final revenge of the proclamation of equality, which seems to have devoured its dialectical other. His book ends with a surprising lament for the loss of our capacity to recognize and appreciate true greatness.

But is that really correct? After all, a nimbus still settles on our Nobel laureates and MacArthur “geniuses,” and Stephen Hawking has inherited something of the iconic status of Einstein. Even if few people could recount Hawking’s achievements, awe of his genius is amplified by the tragic circumstances that have severed his soaring mind from his leaden body. Despite modern media hype and our gross overuse of the word, there is an abiding reverence for the exceptional personal powers and charisma of the genius. The long history that McMahon charts so ably seems nowhere near an end, even if its manifestations continue to change. What would it mean for us to be able to “take the measure of true stature” once again? In a superb book that judiciously blends celebrations of genius with cautionary tales, this counsel strikes a discordant note, and at a time when the triumph of equality is belied by persistent and even resurgent inequality, telling readers to respect their betters might be superfluous.

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