Thursday, September 5, 2013

On the Nature of Genius and Joseph Epstein

The above article by Joseph Epstein is an interesting description of things said, thought and written about “Genius” and intelligence.  We feel comfortable with the concept “intelligence,” having more or less ourselves and on occasions when we aren’t in competition with anyone probably know how much we have – unless we habitually lie to ourselves.  But if we do we can no longer turn to Sigmund Freud to find out why because, Epstein tells us, Freud is a failed genius – someone who was thought to be a genius for many years but now that his ideas have been discredited deemed a failure – along with Karl Marx.

Are the recipients of the Nobel Prize geniuses?  Epstein knew several of them and thought not.  He concludes that “it is always sensible to remember that in 1949 the Nobel Prize in medicine was given to Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese surgeon, for developing the procedure known as the lobotomy.”

“Schopenhauer wrote: ‘A man of learning is a man who has learned a great deal; a man of genius, one from whom we learn something which the genius has learned from nobody.’”

“Who is and who is not an authentic genius is a question always up for dispute,” Epstein writes.  “Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy are on most lists. So, too, among the ancients, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are the indisputable musical geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Raphael make the cut in the visual arts. So in science do Euclid, Galen, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Darwin. In politics, Pericles, Alexander the Great, Julius and Augustus Caesar, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi would seem to qualify, with Lenin and Hitler and Stalin and Mao Zedong falling into the category of evil geniuses.

I spent several months recently studying the American Civil War and tend to see things with its perspective.  By the end of this war several generals were considered geniuses, especially Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.  In terms of what they individually accomplished they deserve this classification more than any other generals, although nothing said about the Civil War nowadays goes unchallenged.  But if we look at these generals we see how large a role chance played in their being given the opportunity to displace their abilities.  Also, their abilities were not initially evident.  They needed to make a few mistakes before they were able to display “genius.”  And early in the war no general was permitted that latitude. 

At the beginning of the war George B. McClellan was called “the Young Napoleon.”  He was thought to be the most talented general in the Union Army, but he didn’t move his inexperienced army quickly enough or win spectacular enough battles, so Lincoln replaced him.  By the time Lincoln appointed Grant to lead the Union army he had learned that he needed to allow his general the chance to make a few mistakes.  Would McClellan have won the war a couple of years earlier if Lincoln had allowed him that same latitude he allowed Grant?   Ethan Rafuse, in McClellan’s War, published in 2005 and some others argue persuasively that McClellan is today underrated. 

The Generals in the Civil War were all under orders.  Lincoln for the Union and Davis for the Confederacy looked at his pool of officers and with a few advisors decided whom to promote or demote.  Lincoln we say in retrospect did well when he promoted Grant.  Davis in the same sense did well when he promoted Robert E. Lee.  Were these the only generals who could have done well at that level?  We don’t know because many generals were never given the chance.  At the end of the war, for example, it was thought by many that Nathan Bedford Forrest could have functioned at the very highest level.  Others dispute this with great vehemence I hasten to add, but the pool of talent was much larger than the numbers given the chance to perform at that level.

I would same the same thing about many of the geniuses on Epstein’s list. Most wouldn’t have had a chance to rise to the level called “genius” if they had been born to poorer parents.  Many wouldn’t have done well if they had not “sold themselves” to those who had the decision-making power to enhance their advancement. 

Also, the conception of who the geniuses are seems to change with every age.  In the Romantic age for example, “The Romantics preferred their geniuses daring like Lord Byron; mystical like William Blake; and tragic like poor John Keats. For them, geniuses, simultaneously heroes and martyrs, were blessed with gifts for revelation, and cursed by being at odds with the culture of their time. The ideal type of genius for the romantic was the poet. Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; they were also prophets, who showed and revealed the sacred. Romantic critics—Henry Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson—made the genius out to be above the law, a law unto himself, and in his own way a god.”

I tend to think that in a healthy society there is a pool of people who with the right education and encouragement, and the right occasion or emergency can rise to a level subsequent generations may term genius.  This pool is made up of potentially highly intelligent and highly talented people. 

In this age many of the highly intelligent may look up from the pool at the odds, look at who “succeeds” and who doesn’t and decide striving after “success” or “genius” isn’t worth the candle.  Nevertheless they are still out there in each generation available to be called upon if needed, and if the calling is phrased properly.

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