Durant 1926: Genius (Schopenhauer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 6.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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VI. The Wisdom of Life 

(2) Genius

Genius is the highest form of this will-less knowledge. The lowest forms of life are entirely made up of will, without knowledge; man in general is mostly will and little knowledge; genius is mostly knowledge and little will. “Genius consists in this, that the knowing faculty has received a considerably greater development than the service of the will demands.” This involves some passage of force out of reproductive into intellectual activity. “The fundamental condition of genius is an abnormal predominance of sensibility and irritability over reproductive power.” Hence the enmity between genius and woman, who represents reproduction and the subjugation of the intellect to the will to live and make live. “Women may have great talent, but no genius, for they always remain subjective”; with them everything is personal, and is viewed as a means to personal ends. On the other hand, 

genius is simply the completest objectivity,—i. e., the objective tendency of the mind. … Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight, of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to remain pure knowing subject, clear vision of the world. … Therefore the expression of genius in a face consists in this, that in it a decided predominance of knowledge over will is visible. In ordinary countenances there is a predominant expression of will, and we see that knowledge only comes into activity under the impulse of the will, and is directed merely by motives of personal interest and advantage.

“Will” and “genius” are two dimensions of man, like “unconscious” and “conscious” of Freud; and “reactive” and “analytical” of Hubbard. The “will” is focused on the reproductive; and the “genius” is focused on knowledge.

Freed from will, the intellect can see the object as it is; “genius holds up to us the magic glass in which all that is essential and significant appears to us collected and placed in the clearest light, and what is ‘accidental and foreign is left out.” Thought pierces through passion as sunlight pours through a cloud, and reveals the heart of things; it goes behind the individual and particular to the “Platonic Idea” or Universal essence of which it is a form—just as the painter sees, in the person whom he paints, not merely the individual character and feature, but some universal quality and permanent reality for whose unveiling the individual is only a symbol and a means. The secret of genius, then, lies in the clear and impartial perception of the objective, the essential, and the universal. 

Freed from will, the intellect can see the object as it is. The secret of genius, then, lies in the clear and impartial perception of the objective, the essential, and the universal. 

It is this removal of the personal equation which leaves the genius so maladapted in the world of willful, practical, personal activity. By seeing so far he does not see what is near; he is imprudent and “queer”; and while his vision is hitched to a star he falls into a well. Hence, partly, the unsociability of the genius; he is thinking of the fundamental, the universal, the eternal; others are thinking of the temporary, the specific, the immediate; his mind and theirs have no common ground, and never meet. “As a rule; a man is sociable, just in the degree in which he is intellectually poor and generally vulgar.” The man of genius has his compensations, and does not need company so much as people who live in perpetual dependence on what is outside them. “The pleasure which he receives from all beauty, the consolation which art affords, the enthusiasm of the artist, … enable him to forget the cares of life,” and “repay him for the suffering that increases in proportion to the clearness of consciousness, and for his desert loneliness among a different race of men.”

It is this removal of the personal equation which leaves the genius so maladapted in the world of willful, practical, personal activity. The genius is thinking of the fundamental, the universal, the eternal; others are thinking of the temporary, the specific, the immediate.

The result, however, is that the genius is forced into isolation, and sometimes into madness; the extreme, sensitiveness which brings him pain along with imagination and intuition, combines with solitude and maladaptation to break the bonds that hold the mind to reality. Aristotle was right again: “Men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art appear to be all of a melancholy temperament.” The direct connection of madness and genius “is established by the biographies of great men, such as Rousseau, Byron, Alfieri, etc.””By a diligent search in lunatic asylums, I have found individual cases of patients who were unquestionably endowed with great talents, and whose genius distinctly appeared through their madness.” 

The result, however, is that the genius is forced into isolation, and sometimes into madness; the extreme, sensitiveness which brings him pain along with imagination and intuition, combines with solitude and maladaptation to break the bonds that hold the mind to reality.

Yet in these semi-madmen, these geniuses, lies the true aristocracy of mankind. “With regard to the intellect, nature is highly aristocratic. The distinctions which it has established are greater than those which are made in any country by birth, rank, wealth, or caste.” Nature gives genius only to a few because such a temperament would be a hindrance in the normal pursuits of life, which require concentration on the specific and immediate. “Nature really intended even learned men to be tillers of the soil; indeed, professors of philosophy should be estimated according to this standard; and then their achievements will be found to come up to all fair expectations.”*

*The professor of philosophy might avenge himself by pointing out that by nature we seem to be hunters rather than tillers; that agriculture is a human invention, not a natural instinct. 

Yet in these semi-madmen, these geniuses, lies the true aristocracy of mankind. 

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