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Genius And Geniuses

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

What is genius? The term is derived—through the Latin word genius, meaning something characterized by the source of its begetting or production, therefore a family, race, or, in this sense, kind—from the word genere, meaning to beget or produce. The word genius seems to combine, therefore, the ideas both of kind and of production. It means the kind that is produced. The termination ius means belonging to. Therefore, genius means something belonging to the kind that is produced. All recognize that by the genius of an age or a race, as when we say "the genius of the American people," is meant the kind of production in thought, word, deed, invention, or composition, that belongs to the age or race. And what is a genius but primarily a man who is the source of this kind of production?—a man whose feelings, aims, opinions, deeds, or words are true representatives of kinds that belong to his age or race?

Was not this true of Homer, Pheidias, Raphael, Milton, Mozart, Goethe, and Beethoven? Could their works have appeared except when and where they were produced? And if we want to find out what was the genius of the age of each, do we not examine what was done by these men and by others who were typical of their age? And is not this one reason why we term these men geniuses? But, of course, there is also another reason, yet it is connected with this. As indicated on pages 223 to 227, a man is considered to be a genius in the degree in which he is able to give unimpeded outward expression to results coming from the hidden sphere of mind. But this sphere is occultly connected with the whole hidden or spiritual sphere of nature. The genius, therefore, is a man whose temperament makes him one of his kind, and therefore makes his products reflect the fact, in the sense of inclining him to be influenced as are other human beings, and as are also all the animate or inanimate developments of life that is not human. The word genius is sometimes used for the word spirit. Why is this except because genius tends like spirit to make the mind work in harmony with what may be termed the Mind in nature, and hence, according to the principle brought out on page 94, with the Spirit, or, if we choose to be polytheistic, the spirits in nature, of which Milton sings when he says?

And as I wake, sweet music breathe Above, about, or underneath, Sent by some Spirit to mortals good, Or th' unseen Genius of the wood.

Il Penseroso.

The genius's interpretations of nature commend them-selves, therefore, both because nature makes the same appeal to him as to others through its visible forms, and also because it causes a unity of action between the sub-conscious processes of his mind and its own invisible processes. This unity of action results in expression which is artistic inasmuch as it is characteristic of the individual artist, and yet is also natural inasmuch as it is characteristic of what is experienced by men in general, the representations of art, notwithstanding the intervention of human skill, appearing to spring up and flow forth to influence as instinctively as fountains issue into streams and buds burst into blossoms. As a result, the art of any age is the blooming and fruitage of the influences of nature and humanity that have been at work on every side throughout long centuries.—The Representative Significance of Form, XIV.

The same conception of the province of genius is involved also in the use that we make of another word,—the adjective genial, meaning that which is kindly stimulating because coming from one of one's kind or kin. We all recognize this meaning as applied in ordinary language to the productive influence of one natural object upon another,—that of the April sun, for instance, on the meadow. A similar influence, natural and life-stimulating, on the part of works of art upon the human mind, is similarly termed. But a writer or composer of any product of art who is really genial or congenial is, so far, a genius. Thus not alone these words, but the ideas expressed in them, appear related.—Idem, XIV.


Let it not be thought, then, that education, experience, and learning unfit one for those pursuits which are usually supposed to necessitate genius. Milton wrote little poetry until he had ended his argumentative and political work. Goethe and Schiller both profited much from the discriminating scientific criticism to which, as appears in their correspondence, they were accustomed to submit their productions; at all events, they achieved their greatest successes subsequent to it. And with criticism playing all about his horizon, like lightnings from every quarter of the heavens, who can calculate how much of the splendor of Shakespeare is attributable to this by-play among the circle of dramatists by whom he was surrounded? With new forms rising still like other Venuses above the miasmas of the old Campagna, who can estimate how much the excellence of the Italian artists has been owing to the opportunities afforded in historic Rome for critical study?—Essentials of Aesthetics, IV.


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