Someone who excels in creating new ideas, formulations or art, to such an
extent that his individual excellence is quite evident to the vast majority of
those capable to judge.
There are geniuses of many kinds -
linguistic, like Shakespeare; in drawing, like Leonardo; in sculpting, like
Michelangelo; in mathematics, like Newton, Euler and Gauss; in music, like
Mozart and Beethoven - but there are very few (Leonardo, Michelangelo) who
excel in several fields, and no one who excels in many or all.
"Particular talent or genius does not imply
general capacity. Those who are most versatile are seldom great in any one
department: and the stupidest people can generally do something. The highest
pre-eminence in any one study commonly arises from the concentration of the
attention and faculties on that one study. He who expects from a great name
in politics, in philosophy, in art, equal greatness in other things, is
little versed in human nature." (Hazlitt, Characteristics)
Apparently, at least three things are required to be a true genius:
- great general
one cannot profitably use a great talent without good general gifts
- some specially great talent for
something, since great intelligence by itself is neither original nor
- an inclination for personal originality,
since real genius requires creating from one's own depths, spontaneous and
As I use the term, "genius" applies to exceptional talents of an
intellectual or artistic kind, that involve a combination of native ability
and personal development, and does not apply to less pronouncedly human gifts
that are mostly natural and non-intellectual, like excellent sportsmanship or
an amazingly beautiful face or body. These may be enviable or widely pleasing
and rare gifts, but they do not contribute to the development of human
civilization, since they do not produce new ideas or values that anybody else
who is intelligent enough can use.
Persons of a pronounced "democratic" - really: egalitarian - bend of mind
tend to deny there are geniuses, apparently because they believe that the
existence of genius is offensive to their own sense of personal worth, or
because they believe it is unfair that there is a very small minority - in the
order of 1 or less in a million - who truly excel in some valuable native
talent over others.
As I indicated, the reason for this belief tends to be mostly envy, that
also is not justified, in as much as real genius in something that is not
popular like art or chess, but is in mathematics or philosophy, for example,
does not usually seem to lead to a happy life, and may involve a lot of
discrimination, misunderstanding or persecution.
In any case, a very good case can be made for the proposition that
humankind rules the earth and developed itself beyond all other animals
because, next to its unique capacity for language, it is a species that
produces rare individuals that are capable of generating completely new ideas,
values and forms, and that has sufficiently many other individuals to
understand the meaning and use of these.
It is hard to grasp what human civilization would be like without the
occasional Buddha, Socrates, Archimedes, Shakespeare or Newton, but safe to
guess that it would be far less different from what, say, chimps can produce
under their own steam, than what human civilization is as a result of
the existence of such rare human individuals.
Finally, there is one partial
exception to the recognizability of genius: Especially those who are
philosophically exceptional run a great risk of being discriminated or
persecuted rather than praised or admired, since what they have to say will
normally be quite impopular. (Indeed, a popular philosopher, at least when
alive, seems a contradictio in adjecto. To speak the truth about human beings
to human beings is always a dangerous thing to do.)
It is likely that the
communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union and China has cost the lives of
several geniuses, at least, before they ever got a chance of making themselves
heard and understood where this was not mortally dangerous. (See e.g.