The uniqueness of genius

I’ve been thinking about genius. It is often said that genius is unique. But what does this mean?

On the origins of genius: Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s School of Athens.

The uniqueness of a genius lies precisely, I argue, in their ability to see past their own uniqueness. While everyone else looks at the genius and sees their strangeness, making panicked claims that the genius is somehow evil or degenerate, or else seeing the genius as an angel who can do no wrong, the genius thinks almost nothing of their own genius. The genius is preoccupied by the world — through their multicoloured lenses. The genius has a unique worldview insofar as the genius does not see anything or anyone as truly unique or individual. For the genius, everything is interconnected. Otherwise, the genius would be trapped in dogma, like most of us, most of the time.

The genius does not respect divides between areas of thought. For the genius, everything is connected — but crucially, not everything is identical. The landscape of thought may be interconnected but also broken by ignorance. The genius’ relation to lack of genius is paradoxical. In their life, the genius will ignore ignorance, pretending everyone else is a genius. But in their thought and their important decisions, the genius will realise they are, on some level, different — that others see difference where they see sameness. So in confronting this tragic thought, that the genius is truly alone, the genius will try to elaborate a mind palace of connected points and ideas. The genius will imagine that they are not alone by, if not referring to others as genius, considering others’ views as ingenious or their work as on a level with the genius. Of course, this is possible. Perhaps every human being is a genius.

But this is a strange thought indeed. To be a genius means to be distinctly unusual. When we consider what evolution favours, genius is the last thing on the menu. Every possible difference and distinctiveness imaginable surpasses genius in clear utility. See, genius is dangerous. Genius is not helpful. Genius denies the division of labour and the principle of specialisation. Genius affirms the ability of the individual to overcome their individuality, jeopardising the integrity of the collective. Genius is both intensely narcissistic and ultra-empathetic. The genius undergoes a change in youth where the empathy they learned as a child becomes impossible as their developing abilities raise the suspicions of others. To manage this, the genius will implement the madman strategy: seem like a madman, but maintain overall control of the situation — even if in any particular instance the genius will seem like the most out-of-control, dangerous person in the room.

Consider Ludwig Wittgenstein. As a child Wittgenstein was pleasant and pleasing to a fault. As a young man, depression awoke in him the spark of genius. But while retaining his loving qualities, Wittgenstein became notorious in Cambridge for his disagreeable nature and closure to alternative points of view — even though he was equally notorious for changing his own view, albeit at rare intervals. The division between Wittgenstein the child and Wittgenstein the adult is as marked as the division between Wittgenstein’s ‘early’ logical philosophy and his ‘later’ linguistic turn. Seeing the unity of the world and the words we utter, Wittgenstein struggled to find the correct paradigm to articulate his primordial apprehension of the unity of all things. At least, that’s my best guess.

I think genius is rare. I don’t think there are many geniuses in history. I think most ‘geniuses’ are copycats, or, more favourably, assistants to the genius from which they have derived their ‘innovations’. See, history doesn’t need much novelty to keep going. The wheel turns with momentum created by continuation of prior movement down a sloped line. But who pushed the wheel? Who ignited the flame that sparked the fire? Who is the prime mover? The genius — a god on Earth.

Ultimately, if every human being is not a genius, every human being should be a genius. But sadly, not in this world. Think about it: geniuses struggle enough to fit into society as it is. If there were more than one genius at any given time, think of the chaos the world would be in. Social norms and rules — however arbitrary — would fall apart.

This, after all, is why the people of Athens killed Socrates. They saw, as the philosopher Nietzsche did much later, how the questioning of all rules and regulations led to the undermining of the legitimacy of the social order — which is, by in large, arbitrary. The only non-arbitrary element of any social order is provided by philosophy, and the needs of security. But security requires fairly minimal protections to be implemented. Much of the law goes beyond bare security. The role of morality is prominent in conditioning how we behave. Security merely requires we have some role for constraining our actions. What role that is, beyond bare prevention of violence, is up to philosophy — or, at least, it should be.

For Plato, philosophers must rule. This is equivalent to Nietzsche’s much harsher idea that genius should rule. But unlike Nietzsche, Plato condemned not only the illusory morality of slavery but also slavery itself. In Plato’s state, all might have a chance to become philosopher-king if the education system finds them possessing of philosophic qualities. But realistically, most of us will do things other than philosophy. But as Aristotle noted, these other skills are often applied philosophy. Good living, or virtuous behaviour, is the subjection of passion to reason. Thus, the enslaving norms of Athenian society returned in the enslaving diktats of Aristotelian science, according to which everything had a ‘final cause’ towards which it aimed.

This worldview was broken by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Arbitrariness was returned to human history, and Plato’s observation of the horrific nature of most societies was returned with a vengeance. According to sociological versions of Darwin’s theory, such as Marx’s political economy, history follows a Darwinian logic of ruthless competition and selection for those institutions that can survive the deluge. Each state and class is like Noah’s ark, resiliently sailing through the storm, but constantly at risk of succumbing to the torrents of time. The modern state, in Hobbes’ conception, is a little like a genius: the state must protect its subjects as a genius must protect their fellow people, all while telling a story that created legitimacy for the exercise and management of power.

The fear of this modern story is that it makes power arbitrary, robbing philosophy of its rightful place at the helm of history. This has led to the privatisation of philosophy and the birth of genius. The genius nowadays faces a constant wave of questioning in the manner of the Spanish Inquisition. Unlike Socrates, the modern genius must live in constant knowledge that they might suffer from Socrates’ fate. No wonder it is fashionable among the modern philosophers to embrace a doctrine of individualism.

But such a doctrine is still false. Everything is still connected to everything else. The ancient world is not gone; it is, more properly, forgotten. Many of its hierarchies endure in mutated form, but its philosophy of unity is repressed in our collective consciousness. The role of the genius has never been more important: to overcome tyranny and repression, and to return humanity to its proper unity with the cosmos — as it was, in the beginning …

The genius, it turns out, is not so unique, after all. And that is the uniqueness of genius.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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