Why do we shy away from terms such as “genius,” and “talent”? Ours is an egalitarian age, to be sure, and we insist that all be treated equally, but the notion that all are the same is not a claim — moral or otherwise — that can be substantiated. People are not all the same. Some are taller than others, some are faster than others, some are simply better than others — as we can plainly see today. And there are persons with genuine talents that others lack. And there are some, a few, who can lay claim to the title of “genius.”

Consider the fact that Mozart died when he was 35 years of age. By that time he has composed 600 musical works, starting at age 5. He performed before royalty at a very early age and was the darling of his times. But we might also note Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, who wrote 90 short stories, novellas, and novels, including the “Human Comedy,” a host of novels focusing on human foibles and, among other things, drawing attention to the dangers of wealth in the lives of ordinary people. And we must not forget Anthony Trollope who worked full-time for the Post Office in England and still managed to write 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few books on travel. But quantity proves nothing without quality: the works of the men noted above were exceptional by any standards. And some, like Cervantes, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, created fewer works but must also be allowed the title of “genius.” Goethe spent his life writing Faust, regarded as one of the most remarkable works of art ever created by man. The same is true of Edward Gibbon who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In any event,  we need not resort to data to show that some are more prolific than others, some have been touched by the Muse again and again, to argue that some people are simply different from others. Just as there are master criminals and politicians who lie at a record pace, there are also extraordinary human beings, of both sexes, who can legitimately be called “genius.” Such people simply stand out and ought to be regarded as the best of us. We revere the exceptional athletes and even call some of them (too many of them?) GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. We do not hesitate to allow that certain human beings are better athletes, but we refuse to acknowledge that some humans are also better piano players, better composers, better novelists, better human beings — in the case of those among us who can legitimately be regarded as saints (such as Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer).

It is one thing to insist that all humans ought to be treated alike, that fairness is defined by our demand that no one be discriminated against. But we must, at the same time, allow that discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. It allows us to separate the truly great works or art, for example, from the pretenders. It allows us to determine that certain works of music are simply better than others, more complex and more rewarding to the attentive listener. And it allows us to identify the few truly outstanding human beings who stand out among the rest of us.

Moral equality is a good thing. But the notion that discrimination is a bad thing and that all humans are alike in all important respects is simply wrong-headed. And, more to the point, it disguises from us the fact that there are men and women out there who can legitimately lay claim to the title “genius,” folks who set the bar very high for the rest of us, but who make us aware that some of us have achieved in their lifetime — sometimes a very short lifetime — more than the rest of us. These are the people we should hold up as examples of what humans can be, not those who are in the news almost daily working hard to make their way into the Guinness Book of Records or score the most points before their ACL is torn and they must retire from sports.

I recently read a rather self-involved editorial by the skier Lindsey Vonn recounting her many victories on the slopes — along with her many injuries and astonishing recoveries. She is a remarkable athlete and worthy of admiration. But she pales when compared with Mozart, Austen, Balzac, or Trollope who can in all fairness be regarded as geniuses. It is a word that applies to only a few. But we need to remind ourselves who they are and what remarkable things they accomplished in their day.

Because we are not all alike. Some are simply more remarkable than others — both for what they have accomplished and for what they have not.


8 thoughts on “Genius

  1. Part of the problem lies in the statement ‘ it is a gift ‘ or worse still ‘ a gift from God’ it simply goes against the modern scientific outlook.
    The old ‘ all men are equal in the sight of God ‘ is also misread to mean we are all the same , not quite the same thing as saying we are of equal value.
    Modern education insists that everyone should have the chance of going to university but what if they are not capable? Nonsense they are just not working hard enough is the immediate answer. So there is little room for gifted persons or geniuses they just apply themselves more.
    To my mind a genius is a person who exhibits very extraordinary capabilities and we do not know why.

    • Just as there are exceptional people (for whatever reason) there are also those who simply can’t function. The mantra “no child left behind” is absurd and hurts those who might be brilliant but never get the support they need to prove it.

      • The problem with the notion of “no child left behind”, no matter how noble it rings to the ear, is that in iorder to actually achieve it the standard must be set so low as to be meaningless. Couple this with the notion that the only thaing that really matters is “self-esteem”, and we have a tidal wave of smug, entitled underachievement.

        Over the years, many of us came to refer to this tidal wave as the first-year class. 😎

  2. Good points all around.

    Moral equality and legal equality are essential concepts.They are crucial to discussion of ethical behavior, human rights, and the qualities of civil society. However, when taken to the extent that we consider them to mean literal, individual sameness, they lose both ethical and civil coherence. They become inhumane.

    Denying real and meaningful individual differences in traits and talents flies in the face of science, common sense.and the reality of our day-to-day experience.

    Though genius without discipline and application does not go far, genius is still extraordinary. I have never had the gift of genius, yet I believe I have witnessed it. And it is staggering.

    As always, an interesting topic.

    Respects and regards,

    Jerry Stark

  3. Hugh, thanks for writing. I had been missing your words. Like superstar, genius is overused. Yet, it should be used. I was thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which defines successful people as smart or talented enough, hardworking, being given opportunity and then seizing it.

    Yet, but even the best of musicians acknowledge there are some who have a talent level beyond their abilities. Using an athletic analogy, it is hard to teach world class speed or to play tennis like Roger Federer or hockey like Wayne Gretzky. We all can be better than we are by doing what Gladwell described. And, we can be quite successful.

    Bill Gates did all the above per Gladwell. By the time he was age 21, he was probably one of the five best programmers in the world. Yet, did he have a little more than others to take him to the next level.

    Tiger Woods also did all of the above, but what he also has is a mental toughness that exceeds that of others. Even when he is not at his best, very few have ever been as good as finding a way to excel on a golf course. He may not be the best putter, but if a par putt was needed, there is none better.

    The person who can see beyond what others see and do is where the genius fits in. Beethoven was deaf and still wrote masterpieces in music. Mozart could see and feel notes from his deathbed.

    Thanks for sharing this, Keith

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