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.


The Ad Hominem

I recently got involved in an exchange with a fellow blogger on the topic of violence and its possible causes. In the course of the discussion we got off-topic a bit as he took me to task for appealing to Freud’s notion of the “reality principle,” which I regard as one of Freud’s most important contributions to human psychology. The discussion became a bit testy, if not downright acrimonious (clearly my fault) because I accused him of committing the ad hominem fallacy. He was prepared to reject all of Freud’s contributions because he has read that Freud’s “discoveries” [his quotation marks] were stolen from other thinkers.

I do apologize for being testy and realize that I must tone down my comments when I get my shackles up — as they are when I hear Freud wrongly accused. There is no question but that many of Freud’s insights (and for heaven’s sake let’s stop calling them “discoveries” in scare quotes!) came from the poets. In fact, on his death-bed he acknowledged his debt to the poets. It inspired me to write a post on “Freud and the Poets” which included the following paragraph:

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

Please note my use of the quotation marks around the notion of Freud’s “discoveries,” but there is no scare involved! There is simply the fact that he borrowed, as do we all, some of the essential insights that went into the making of his system. And that word “system” is key, because it was Freud, and Freud alone, who systematized those insights into a coherent model for explaining human neurosis and psychosis. The insights of the poets are the necessary conditions for Freud’s contributions to psychology, but they are not sufficient. It took the mind of a genius to put the pieces together to form a whole.

But as far as the charge that my fellow blogger committed the ad hominem fallacy goes the charge strands, despite his denial, because even if we insist that Freud stole all of his ideas that is no reason whatever for rejecting his system outright. This is clearly an attack on the man — not his ideas. The fact that his insights were borrowed, or stolen, has nothing whatever to do with the fact that they help, as part of the systematic whole, to explain human behavior. Freud clearly borrowed from Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer as well as the two named in my above quote, but his system stands on its own feet: it requires that it be tested in the arena of human intercourse to see if it helps relieve pain and suffering, to help human beings recover form various sicknesses. And it does work as there are still a large number of psychologists who employ Freud’s methods despite the fact that it is popular these days to reject most, if not all of whet he says, Feminists, for example, don’t like his notion of “penis envy,” and his Victorian attitude toward women; behaviorists think his system too cumbersome. The fact remains that it explains a great deal and can help us better understand what is going in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our fellow humans.

The key to the ad hominem fallacy is the irrelevance of the critique. It is a non sequitur. The attack on the man (or the woman) who puts forward an argument is beside the point when it comes to the argument itself. A complete nut job could come up with a brilliant argument to establish the most implausible conclusion. If the argument holds up to critical scrutiny then it stands despite its source. If Freud’s system is inaccurate or somehow wrong, then it needs to be shown not that he borrowed ideas from others, but that those ideas as he worked them into his system simply do not work.

The best attack on Freud’s system I have ever come across is by thinkers like Carl Popper who reject it because it is not scientific: it cannot be proved wrong. And scientific systems must be provable and/or capable of being shown to be wrong, i.e., disproved. Freud’s cannot. Scientific or not, the Freudian scheme is seminal and extremely helpful in better understanding the human predicament.


Faust’s Bargain

While many who even think about the character Faust and the bargain he made with the devil confuse Christopher Marlowe’s Faust with Goethe’s — as I noted in an earlier post — the Faust of Goethe resembles in remarkable ways many of us and is thus more worthy of serious consideration. Marlowe’s Faust simply sells his soul for pleasure and wealth (and that does describe many of us, I confess). But Goethe’s Faust agrees to give up his soul only if the devil can provide him with an activity that is so engrossing that he will no longer experience the ennui, the boredom, that is deeply affecting him as the play opens. He is a thoroughly cynical and jaded person, bordering on the suicidal. As he makes his bargain with the devil, Faust says:

“If I be quieted with a bed of ease,

Then let that moment be the end of me!

If ever flattering lies of yours can please

And soothe my soul to self-sufficiency,

And make me one of pleasure’s devotees,

Then take my soul, for I desire to die:

And that is the wager!

To which Mephistopheles says “Done!”

According to Arthur Schopenhauer (who had read his Faust carefully) this is a profound and meaningful bargain that so many contemporary men and women have made with the devil. According to Schopenhauer, most of us are lead primarily by a will that seeks pleasure and satisfaction., We confuse pleasure with happiness and after willing satisfaction in a certain pleasure — say a good meal — afterwards we are bored and must find another motive to direct the will elsewhere. And so on. Life for most of us, as Schopenhauer sees it, is a relentless attempt to avoid becoming bored, seeking one pleasure after another, one diversion after another to keep us from being alone with our thoughts, much like Goethe’s Faust. The only escape, for Schopenhauer, is to find release in poetry, philosophy, and music, the world of Ideas:

“the beauty of nature, i.e., pure knowing free from will, which certainly as a matter of fact is the only pure happiness, which is neither preceded by suffering or want nor necessarily followed by repentance, sorrow, emptiness, or satiety.”

Of course as a philosopher Schopenhauer would say that! Many a philosopher has said the same thing before and many a critic has noted that this is self-serving. But it is worth considering, since it is possible that he is correct and that the rest of us are missing something. One thing is certain, and that is that until we have experienced what he is talking about we cannot possibly be in a position to judge him to be incorrect.

In any event, Goethe’s Faust finds happiness, not in “the beauty of nature,” but in immersing himself in the problems of others and working toward a solution; he finds happiness in “the Deed.” Toward the end of his life he becomes engrossed in helping the citizens of Holland keep the ocean from swallowing up their land. As he lies dying he says :

“And so, ringed all about by perils, here

Youth, manhood, age will spend their strenuous year.

Such teeming would I see upon this land,

On acres free among free people stand.

I might entreat the fleeting moment:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

Mephistopheles is delighted because he thinks he was won the bargain! He has gained Faust’s soul. But, wait! God intervenes and takes Faust up to Heaven because he has not actually said he wishes the moment to tarry, he only has said that if certain things take place he might then want the moment to tarry. It’s a verbal trick and it infuriates the devil as it has puzzled commentators over the years. Did the devil win Faust’s soul or did he not?

Whatever the answer to this question, and I have my own theory, it is clear that in Goethe’s mind the man who loses himself in helping others is worth saving. Such a man can find true happiness not by seeking pleasure or endless diversions (as Schopenhauer correctly pointed out), but by directing the will toward the happiness of other people. True happiness consists in forgetting about our own happiness and committing oneself to the well-being of others.

An interesting notion and something worth pondering as the year comes to a close.

Faust And Us

Western humans have been fascinated since at least the latter portion of the thirteenth century by the notion of a man who makes a pact with the devil. The two most famous stories of this pact deal with the marginally fictional character of Faust. I say “marginally fictional” because there were stories going about during the medieval period concerning an actual magician by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal advantage.

In Christopher Marlowe’s version of Faust, the main character agrees to sell his soul to the devil for pleasure, money and power. In its way, it is a story of a man who succumbs to the temptations offered to Christ in the New Testament. Marlowe’s Faust is very human and, unlike Christ, is unable to resist the temptations, though his struggle generates a tragic story that is extremely well told. Some would say this portends the story of modern man who has succumbed to the same temptations and is therefore doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But most of us are far too sophisticated to listen to such gloomy predictions. Besides, it’s just fiction.

But more interesting, and in its way much more profound, is the story of Goethe’s Faust, a story that Goethe spent 50 years writing and which tells of a pact between the brilliant scholar Faust and Mephistopheles (the devil). Not only is Mephistopheles an intriguing character as Goethe presents him to us, with his humorless, cold, uncaring demeanor, but the character of Faust is fascinating as well. Like Marlowe’s Faust, Goethe’s character is driven and every bit an egoist. Unlike Marlowe’s Faust, however, Goethe’s main character is saved in the end. He is saved because while he initially succumbs to the temptations the devil offers him, seducing a young woman and abandoning her after she has killed their illegitimate child, in the end, after spending years wasting his time in pointless pleasures, he turns his attention outward and finds meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence: he is saved through his works. More to the point, he is saved because he finds satisfaction in doing something he loves that benefits others. He finds himself by losing himself in good works. It’s a thoroughly Christian message, as found in the epistles of St. Paul, but it is one we could all learn from, since we seem to resemble Marlowe’s Faust so much more than we do Goethe’s.

Marlowe’s Faust wants pleasure, money, and power. Goethe’s Faust is simply bored. He wants to discover an activity that is totally absorbing, so much so that his boredom disappears and his delight in the moment is such that he wants it to last forever. He finds that moment in helping the Dutch (presumably) recover their land from the encroaching Oceans — another prescient message for us moderns, should we choose to listen! Goethe’s is the more profound story because, while initially succumbing to the temptations of Mephistopheles, he is able in the end to turn his back on them and find salvation by devoting his life to good works. Marlowe’s Faust simply makes a deal and then wallows in pleasure and debauchery. He struggles in the end, because he realizes what his pact entails; but he is lost.

It is fascinating to think that stories written so long ago can have application today. But human beings don’t really change, and great minds sense the problems that we all face now and in the future. Their stories are timeless. Both Marlowe and Goethe sensed that the modern era would bring with it temptations on an order never before witnessed. Marlowe was convinced humans would succumb; Goethe held out the hope that by imitating Christ humans could save themselves in the end, by working to help other humans who are worse off than they. Christ rejected the temptations of the devil. Goethe’s Faust initially succumbed to them, but realized that these were fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying — that way did NOT lie happiness — and then turned his mind toward the needs of others. The devil was confounded: he thought they had a deal! But Faust escaped from his clutches, not because he was a good Christian (in so many ways he was not), but because in the end he was a good man.

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.