Friday, July 08, 2022

Genius Is Dead! Long Live Genius!


We live in an era in which genius is everywhere. It's a label we hang on billionaire businessmen, musical and athletic performers, and scientists as easily as we hang it on street cart tacos, video gamers, and household hacks. There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the term was reserved exclusively for certain individuals in Western societies, usually depending upon what the current culture of the era valued. 

Homer is sometimes cited as the first genius. But since no one really knows if "he" ever existed except as a name attached to mythology in the form of epic poetry, most people who think about these things land on Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, as the prototype for future genius. In his book Devine Fury: A History of Genius, David McMahon, tells the story of genius through history. He points out that the word "genius" has its source in the same root as the word "demon" and in Socrates' case, he frequently spoke of a voice or sign that told what and what not to do. In other words, his genius was something outside of himself and the individual who was Socrates was merely the servant.

As centuries passed, however, genius came to be associated with individuals who were exemplars of things European culture held in high esteem. There were genius philosophers, genius artists, genius generals, genius statesmen, and genius scientists. From Alexander the Great through Einstein, each generation, it seems, threw up a handful of genius individuals each of whom were conveniently white men who embodied the values of Monarchy or Feudalism or Capitalism or Democracy or whatever was the mode of the times. Rebels did not possess genius, nor did women or non-Europeans. 

Indeed, the term genius, up until very recently, was only ever applied to Great Men, culminating in, as McMahon frames it, an epic battle between the genius Hitler and his F├╝hrer cult and the genius Einstein and the atom bomb. Nazi Germany was based upon the belief that, as Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "progress and culture of mankind . . . are not the products of the majority, but they rest exclusively on the genius and energy of the personality." Einstein, on the other hand believed that "the cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified . . . It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few individuals for boundless admiration and to attribute superhuman powers of mind and of character to them."

One might say that these two historic figures represent the end of genius as the exclusive domain of so-called Great Men. Today, this democratization of genius allows us to see it all around us, in nearly every human activity, from humans of all cultures, genders, and ages. Some mourn the loss of the Great Man concept of genius, but the genii is out of the bottle. We are now in the era of the genius of the people and it is in the nature of this genius to emerge not from individuals, but from collective effort. No Superman required.

Today's significant breakthroughs come increasingly from teamwork and cooperation. The things we label as genius are now, more often than not the product of group activities, be they corporate, artistic, or athletic. Even superstars have to acknowledge legions including their fans, for any success they achieve. And those who pretend to be old school geniuses are easily knocked from their pedestals as they are ultimately revealed to be emperors with no clothes. In fact, building these individuals up only to knock them down, is a global phenomenon.

The vestiges of the old way of thinking about genius is still with us, of course. There are still those who are seeking the Great Man to lead them. Many parents wish genius upon their children. A relative who once worked for a large public school district told me that parents would regularly call her for information about "gifted" programs before their child was even born. But the truth is that we are now in the era of the genius of the people. It is everywhere and no where.

I've seen it with my own eyes. I have never met a child who was not a genius at something. And never have I met a child who is a genius at everything. Genius of the people can only emerge from the coming together to all our various geniuses. In fact, I would argue that this is the only way forward for our species. The challenges of our increasingly complex and inter-connected world are beyond the scope of Supermen.

Maybe it's a little frightening to think that we must save ourselves, but few things thrill me more than to watch young children learning together, problem solving together, and collaborating. Every day, their collective genius emerges as they play, bicker, and agree. This is the soil in which genuine genius grows. When I see the future through these children, I understand that it has always been about the genius of the people, a thing both outside of ourselves, as Socrates thought, as well as within each of us. And that is ultimately the beauty and hope of humans.

The cult of genius is dead! Long live genius!

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