Genius

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.

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Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.

The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.