What Makes a Genius?
By Robert L. Heilbroner
WHAT IS IT that a Beethoven, a Shakespeare, a Leonardo da Vinci has that ordinary mortals do not? What is the mysterious quality which lifts a certain individual skyscraper-high above the rest of us? As long as ordinary people have looked at extraordinary ones, the question, “what is genius?” has fascinated and perplexed mankind. One reason the question is so perplexing is that we tend to lump together all sorts of people who have remarkable abilities, as if sheer virtuosity were the sign of genius. It is not, as witness the kind of ability displayed by so-called “idiot savants”-persons without formal education who can perform dizzying mental stunts.
Zerah Colburn, the son of a 19th-century Vermont farmer, possessed nearly unbelievable powers of mental calculation. On one occasion when he was being examined by a body of scholars he was asked to raise the number eight to its sixteenth power. When he calculated the answer in his head (281,474,976,710,656), the audience wept. Zerah Colburn was then just eight years old. Similarly Truman Henry Safford at age ten in 1846 was asked to multiply 365,365, – minute.
Clearly idiot savants offer startling testimony to the potential “trick” abilities of the human brain. Yet they are not creative-the yardstick of a genius. They are astounding calculators, but not the originators of astounding concepts.
A second class of virtuosos whom we wrongly tend to call geniuses are child prodigies. Some prodigies may develop into geniuses. John Stuart Mill, who read Greek classics at six, went on to become a world-renowned political economist and philosopher. Mozart, who played the piano at four and composed music at five, became one of the great musical creators of all time. But if a few child prodigies flower this way, more simply fizzle out. Who now hears of Andrew Nastell, a musician at two, or of June Masters, who conducted an orchestra at five? And who has not heard of the precocious graduates of universities who end up washing dishes?
What is perhaps even more to the point is that prodigious ability in childhood does not seem to be essential to adult genius. Childhood “genius” tends to be technical rather than creative. Child prodigies are good at chess, but not at writing plays. They may perform superbly, but they do not have the life experiences necessary for the creation of superb ideas. And later on these technical abilities may not matter so much. Albert Einstein always had trouble with higher mathematics, and eventually got more gifted mathematicians to work out his problems for him. Darwin complained all his life of his poor memory.
If neither sheer talent nor precocity is the mark of the genius, then what is? Let’s look at two quite different geniuses.
One of them is a man whose name would appear on few popular lists of genius. He was a short, stout, ill-kempt Indian named Srinivasa Ramanujan, the son of a poor family of Madras. At school he excelled in arithmetic, and at 15 he attempted to get into college. He flunked his English entrance examination-and that ended his formal education.
However, someone had given him a textbook which summarized the main areas of mathematical knowledge up to about 1860. Ramanujan soon mastered the text, then set about exploring mathematics on his own. He produced some queer-looking results which interested mathematicians enough to get him invited to Cambridge University in 1914. Now here is the extraordinary thing: when Ramanujan got to England, he still lacked some of the ABC’s of higher mathematics; nevertheless, he was not only abreast of contemporary European thinking in the field, but in some areas far ahead of it. All by himself he had caught up with and surpassed a brilliant half century of mathematical progress! “One may doubt,” commented James Newman, “That so prodigious a feat had ever before been accomplished in the history of thought.”
A world apart from Ramanujan is that handsome, urbane man-of-the-16th-century-world, Leonardo da Vinci. He was a city planner, an architect, an ordanance expert. He designed the parachute before there were airplanes, and the airplane, perhaps to justify the parachute. He invented, among a hundred other things, the modern chimney and the self-closing door. As a theoretician he discussed the law of motion of falling bodies two centuries before Newton. Comparing the tongues of the woodpecker, the crocodile and the human being, he recognized a common prototype and thus pioneered in comparative anatomy. And in between these and a dozen other pursuits he painted a few pictures, including The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.
This is the stature of genius beside which mere talent shrinks to its proper size.
But how do you “explain” the genius of people such as Ramanujan and Leonardo? Many serious attempts attribute it to a fabulous intelligence. According to the standard Intelligence Quotient rating, anyone who gets a score above 140 is “very superior,” and indeed only one percent of us get into this bracket. But one percent of the people in the United States is 1,7000,000, and it is doubtful if that many persons even think they’re geniuses.
The truth, curiously enough, is that I.Q. seems to have relatively little to do with genius. According to a study made at Stanford University by Dr. Catherine Morris Cox, many geniuses haven’t had particularly remarkable I.Q.’s Dr. Cox and her associates carefully researched the works and careers of their subjects to estimate what I.Q. would most reasonably account for the recorded facts. While there were no low scores in their estimates, there were only a few extraordinary scores. (Leibnitz the philosopher, Goethe the poet and Grotius the great Dutch jurist all topped 190.) But some of the greatest geniuses, it appeared, had only averagely good intelligence: Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, scored an estimated 110; Copernicus the astronomer only 130; Rembrandt 135; Bach, Darwin and Lincoln 140. Leonardo himself was rated at only 150.
Following “brains” as an explanation of genius comes be-redity. It is true that bright parents tend to have bright children, and some kinds of special abilities follow family lines. Mozart and Mendelssohn came of musical backgrounds. The Bach family was practically a living orchestra. Huxley and Darwin both had scientifically gifted ancestors. But many, if not most, geniuses have come from undistinguished stock. Shakespeare’s parents were small-town burghers. Stendhal’s were provincial nobodies. Leonardo was the bastard so of a Florentine lawyer and a peasant girl.
“Why are not germs of genius transmitted in a race?” trelawny once wrote to Shelley, to which the poet replied, “It would be a more intolerable wrong of nature than any which man has devised. The sons of foolish parents would have no hope.”
Yet another theory of genius is that great creativity is a more or less benign form of insanity. The “mad genius” of the movies is a popular stereotype. But are geniuses mad? Melville, Van Gogh, Dostoievski, Nietzsche were all undeniably victims of severe emotional afflictions. Such extreme cases can be counterbalanced, however, by such as Socrates, whose life was a model of saneness. At best, it might be said that geniuses are “possessed” by their creative urges and that they manifest a strong and sometimes unusual personality as a result. This is a far cry from madness.
What, then, shall we take to be the origin of genius?It may help if we focus on two key characteristics.
The first is the terrific concentration of genius. Geniuses, without exception, are absorbed, drowned almost, in their work. Edison-and others-pooh-poohed the inspiration theory of genius and emphasized the perspiration theory. But what enables a genius to carry a project in his mind for years without tiring of it? What enables him to focus his whole personality on it?
Certainly this betokens a deep inner psychological unity, an ability to marshal all of one’s conscious and unconscious energies for a single purpose. How this is done, and why certain people can do it so superlatively well, remains a mystery-and yet a mystery into which we all penetrate on those occasions when we feel that everything inside of us is in place, that we are “clicking,” and when-curious phrase-we lose ourselves in our work.
The second quality evident in the work of genius is the ability to see a pattern in things. The philosopher Schopenhauer said, “Always to see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.” Thus Leonardo, wandering over the Maritime Alps, came across some fossilized mussels and used this unexpected observation to speculate on what we would call paleontology- the life of past geologic periods.
All geniuses, in one form or another, have this capacity to penetrate the dull façade of reality and to represent it in new and startling fashion. Thus Shakespeare wrings new meanings from old language, Debussy expresses new moods from old notes, Newton finds a new uniformity of nature from old observations.
What is it that endows the genius with this insight? Dr. Ernest Jones, the famous English psychiatrist, once suggested that it is credulousness. Most geniuses, Jones pointed out, go beyond a merely questioning and skeptical cast of mind to outright gullibility. He meant that they look at the world with the fresh and wondering vision of the child rather than with the tired eyes of the adult.
Jones was not the first to make this observation. Long ago the German poet Schiller remarked that if we all lived up to the promises of our infancies we should all be geniuses. For the child is indeed a kind of genius. “One may be amazed at his extraordinary capacity for original activity, invention and discovery,” wrote Dr. Arnold Gesell-practically spelling out the dictionary definition of genius.
What happens to the genius in the child? In some individuals, perhaps, it is not accomplished by enough talent, enough “brains,” enough giftedness to lift them beyond the levels of ordinary achievement. In others the inner psychic balance to produce the concentration of genius may be lacking. With still others the vision and creativity of childhood get worn away by the friction of experience, dulled by the necessary formalities of “education.” How few of us retain the sense of challenge and newness! As we grow old we grow “wise”; the world becomes boringly familiar; we settle into comfortable mental and emotional routines.
For some mysterious reason a few do not. And this gives us one final insight into genius. Far too many of us think of geniuses as something totally apart, as if they spoke a language far above the heads of everyone. In fact, geniuses are marvelously human; they speak not only to us but for us. A contemporary genius will baffle us with his ideas at first. But wait a generation or two. Our children will feel as much at home with his ideas as we do when we read Walt Whitman or look at the canvases of Cezanne or study Darwin-all “baffling” geniuses of their day. The lens which a genius grinds becomes the glass through which we all learn to look at things. Indeed, it is no longer his lens, but ours. It is “our” poetry, music, painting or thoughts which genius seems to express.
And thus if the innermost nature of genius is still a mystery, its fascination is not. Genius is us, magnified. If it were not, we could not grasp its works, enjoy its creations. In genius we see something of our own selves-a thousand percent brighter, wiser, more creative than we are, but ourselves nonetheless.
What Makes a Genius?