Opinion: from the Enlightenment and Nietzsche to Éamon de Valera and Donald Trump, the evolution of what we mean when we talk about genius

The image of the genius figure as an individual with rare artistic creativity is an inheritance of Romantic aesthetics and European Enlightenment philosophy that emphasised individual freedom, spontaneity and creative self-expression. The term is commonly understood as a byword for the self-assertion of the artist as an individual with a special gift of inspired vision. As such, the famous quote of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that "talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see" neatly captures our understanding of the term.

However, this account of genius has been attacked for its sexism, individualism and being a regressive cop-out. The significant shift in the use of the term away from the spirit of a place ("genius loci") to the "dominant meaning of extraordinary ability" of the creative individual occurred in the work of 18th century writer Edward Young. Advocating originality over subservient imitation, Young was a guiding influence on romantic art movements such as Sturm und Drang. Hereafter, genius came to be elevated beyond a kind of aesthetic acumen, intelligence, ingeniousness or ingenuity into something more substantial.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Diarmaid Ferriter on the genius that was Seán Ó Riada

For the key thinker of the Enlightenment period, Immanuel Kant, genius was the exemplary expression of human freedom. Specifically, it was the ability to create works of art according to new and original rules laid down by the artists. It is from Kant that Schopenhauer’s position, quoted above, is built. Schopenhauer would go further in his account of "momentary" genius as a psychological type, connecting it to childhood and madness. It is from this philosophy that the Romantics such as Baudelaire, Emerson and Arnold outlined a concept of the male artist as the passionate and independent generator of original images.

One obvious line of critique of this "magnificent myth" of genius is how the concept both excludes women and appropriates feminine characteristics to male artists. Christine Battersby and Carolyn Korsmeyer have shown how the apparent feminine qualities of emotionality, sensitivity, intuition and imaginative self-expression are reworked as transcendent metaphors of conception, birth and midwifery exclusive to the male genius.

Philosophers have been equally sceptical of the possibility of isolated artistic virtuoso. Any championing of the achievements of individual artists serves only to maintain the continued neglect of art as joint-enterprise. While the collaborative, interactive and relational realities of art have increasingly been embraced in so called "socially engaged" artworks, it has been observed by philosophers that such work often serves to maintain a gap between artist and beholder. Such "embodied allegories of inequality" can themselves perpetuate a hierarchal cult of genius. Equally, examples such as Marie Curie reveal that the title may on occasion be deployed in a tokenistic way that serves to reinforce silence when it insists that the subaltern genius can only be an eccentric exception to the rule.

The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual and intellectual rather than material values would help save western civilisation

Famously when asked "why are Irish good at so many things?", Seamus Heaney responded that "it’s the manifestation of sheer bloody genius." A more serious account of national character was articulated by Éamon de Valera: "the Irish genius has always stressed spiritual and intellectual rather than material values" would help "save western civilisation." De Valera went so far as to include the special quality of Irish genius in Article 1 of Bunreacht na hEireann as the justification for independence.

While this approach may seem to run contrary to the individualism we have seen earlier, it is better regarded as an extension of the narrative of innate essentialism of inherited genius that asserts independence. An extreme case of this discriminatory approach is Francis Galton’s notion of "Hereditary Genius" which, like the work of other 19th century anthropologists, argued that genius was heritable. This argument was a fundamental basis for the dark history of eugenics over the following century.

In contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche regarded the thought of an elite gifted minority capable of greatness and a majority doomed for mediocrity a psychological cop-out that we find comforting in our failures. Instead, genius is attained through "diligent seriousness" over time with a confident attitude and focused practice. Following Nietzsche, there has been no end to the demystification of the genius figure. Genius sceptics see creativity as incremental from ordinary thinking and question the image of sudden genius, that anecdotal eureka moment, arguing that genius is "the work of human grit, not the product of superhuman grace."

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, an interview with author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell

Others go so far as to put a number on the amount of grit involved; 10 years for John Hayes (Malcom Gladwell famously reworked this as 10,000 hours) These approaches not only appear to eliminate the possibility of prodigies, given the labour and time involved, but also serve to justify genius as worthy. As such they and others like them do not overcome genius, but explain and even valorise it by retaining it as a term that describes isolated and exceptional individuals. This isolation is central to the characterisation of the genius as someone who romantically suffers both mentally and physically. 

The romanticising of mental illness in the arts, however, does not mean that artists deserve a tortured reputation. Robert Hughes memorably argued that "it was van Gogh’s madness that prevented him from working; the paintings themselves are ineffably sane." Against the rational genius seen in Kant’s account, the romantic equation of madness and genius serves to place genius as a solitary unhuman, even superhuman, condition.

Responding to allegations of mental instability Donald Trump recently tweeted that he was a "genius....and a very stable genius at that!" Within the week, the US Congress had even proposed the Stable Genius Act requiring presidential candidates to be medically examined before elections. Ingeniously the name of the act is a backronym for the Standardizing Testing and Accountability Before Large Elections Giving Electors Necessary Information for Unobstructed Selection Act. Whether Trump is a genius or not is a moot point. Perhaps he is like his UK counterpart whose genius has been described as his ability to "become his own satirist."

Donald Trump's account of genius in emphasising rational stability is in keeping with Enlightenment ideals

What is clear is that Trump’s account of genius in emphasising rational stability is in keeping with Enlightenment ideals. He is closer to Kant than Schopenhauer and the Romantics. If we were in any doubt his tweet from April 9th 2014 of Schopenhauer’s famous line is testament to the longevity of this approach. 

This is an abridged version of a talk delivered at Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery to mark World Philosophy Day 2019.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ