What is genius?

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What is genius?

Post by Admin on Sat Feb 20, 2016 8:36 pm

"Needless to say, people come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone has their own particular traits and abilities. But if there is one enduring trait that human beings share the world over, it is this: they have an overwhelming instinct to avoid becoming conscious of reality.

No matter what the culture, no matter what the era, no matter what the race, the same processes invariably take place. Mental blocks are erected, horizons are lowered, childish fantasies are clung to, blatant irrationalities are praised, emotional fears are exaggerated, the comforts of the crowd are revelled in, mind-numbing distractions are seized upon – all of it designed to keep human consciousness to a bare minimum.

People only want to be a little bit conscious, that is the sad truth of it. They want to be conscious enough to be able to acquire the things they need to enjoy life – and that is all. Being too conscious simply gets in the way.

One only has to look at the world-wide prevalence of religion, in all of its various guises, to see this at play. As soon as people lift their attention above the humdrum activities of their daily lives and take in the bigger picture, their minds suddenly seem to go insane. No theology is too bizarre for them, no priest too ridiculously dressed, no minister too absurdly titled, no ritual too banal. The more ludicrous the religion, the more bizarre the belief-system, the more readily it is accepted. It is as though the human mind is utterly incapable of approaching reality in a rational manner.

But religion is not the only culprit here. There are thousands of ways to avoid reality. You can see it in the way academics harmlessly confine their reasoning powers to what is technical and abstract, thereby keeping their logical attention well away from what is personal and real. Or in the way certain kinds of people wholly give themselves over to the scientific world-view, thereby keeping their minds locked within the one-dimensional surface of science. Or in the way many people thrust their whole lives into the animal realms by focusing exclusively on the work ethic and the acquirement of money, status, property and sex. Or in the way some people prefer to live like vegetables and constantly dull their minds with drugs, TV, porn, video games, and so on. Really, the list of ways to avoid reality is endless.

I will be addressing these matters in greater detail in upcoming blogs, but since this site is called Genius Realms and this is my first blog here, it is only appropriate that I should open my account with a focus on the subject of genius – and in particular, the way in which people’s conceptions of genius limit their own consciousness.

The word “genius” has gone through many different meanings throughout the course of history and none of them, I have to say, are particularly inspiring. It apparently originated in Roman times in reference to a “guardian spirit”. A genius was a kind of spirit being, an intermediary betweeen this world and the next, who looked after your affairs, protected you from misfortune and provided you with wise advice.

On the surface, this sounds like just another comical religious belief and no doubt the Romans, who were as irrational and superstitious as the rest of the human race, did everything they could to make the whole endeavour as insane as possible – and indeed they happily incorporated into the charade the use of omens, ritual sacrifices, oracles, soothsayers and the like. However, it seems there was at least a pretence of trying to associate the idea of genius with wisdom, which is not something we can say about our modern conceptions of genius. In other words, it appears that behind all the superstitiousness the Roman conception of genius made reference, not to extraordinary talent, but to something much larger and more important – namely, to enlightenment, knowledge of human psychology and the art of living. It had a connection to the absolute, at least in principle.

Maybe I am grasping at straws here. After all, the Romans lived in brutal and uncertain times and they were probably desperate for advice and reassurance from wherever they could find it, even from imaginary sources. But at least they were seeking wisdom from their geniuses. They weren’t seeking dazzling music or complex theorizing. They were looking for insight into life and death matters. And one can imagine that they occasionally sought it from a genuine source of wisdom – that is to say, from a Socrates-type figure. From an enlightened sage.

In any case, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, things began to change. The connection to the absolute was broken and the meaning of genius went into decline. It became synonymous with extraordinary talent in a particular field. As Andrew Robinson writes in an article in Psychology Today:

The word genius has its roots in Roman antiquity; in Latin, genius described the tutelary (guardian) spirit of a person, place, institution, and so on, which linked these to the forces of fate and the rhythms of time. Among the Romans, the idea of genius had no necessary relationship with ability or exceptional creativity.

Not until the Enlightenment did genius acquire its distinctly different, chief modern meaning: an individual who demonstrates exceptional intellectual or creative powers, whether inborn or acquired (or both). Homer, despite two millennia of veneration as a divinely inspired poet, did not become a ‘genius’ until the 18th century. This later usage derives from the Latin ingenium (not from genius), meaning ‘natural disposition’, ‘innate ability’, or ‘talent’.

As we can see, what genius meant in Roman times is very different from how we conceive of it today. Nowadays, the term is reserved for people with freakish skills, regardless of whether or not they possess any wisdom. The most celebrated examples are men like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. These men are considered geniuses, not because they had any awareness or understanding of the absolute, but because their talents caused them to stand out from the mediocrity of the human race.

Once you uncouple genius from the absolute, all sorts of absurdities and anomalies arise. For example, if we were to pluck Einstein from the confines of the 20th century human race and place him in a community of beings whose intelligence and scientific abilities were far greater than his own, then what would become of his “genius”? It would miraculously disappear. Instead of being feted as a great thinker, he would be dismissed as a dunce. This alone shows that genius (in the sense we mean today, uncoupled from the absolute) is a relative quality, which effectively turns it into a mirage.

Another amusing anomaly involves the stark contrast between the exceptional skill displayed by the genius within his chosen field and his sheer ineptitude outside of it. Einstein was undeniably talented within the realm of physics, but as soon as he stepped outside the lab or office, his skill and insight into life seemed to vanish. His philosophical musings, for example, were nearly always uninspired and mediocre. The following quote more or less sums up his philosophic outlook on life:

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.

– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)

In essence, what Einstein expresses with his philosophic views is a sense of awe at the size and structural complexity of the universe, an awe that is almost girl-like in its naivity. There is no specific knowledge on display, no depth of insight, no awareness of the logical pathways that extend beyond science, no understanding of the fundamental nature of things, not even an inkling that such an understanding is possible. Just a vague sense of astonishment that any happy-go-lucky teenager might experience when puffing on a joint. To put it bluntly, Einstein was a philosophical simpleton. If his expertise in physics went far beyond the greatest of PhD graduates, then his expertise in philosophy and spirituality went no further than the kindergarten.

This leads to another interesting point – namely, that the nature of genius, as exhibited by the likes of Einstein, Darwin, Mozart, Bach, etc, bears an uncanny resemblance to autism. The image of the idiot savant is brought to mind, a mishappen creature who can perform complex mathematical operations inside his head, but can barely cope with saying hello and buying a loaf of bread. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were traveling freak shows which featured bizarre people with long necks or no legs, or who were hairy all over, or who could pull trains along with their teeth. People used to flock to these shows and marvel at the strange amusements they housed. In a similar way, the pantheon of celebrated geniuses – the Mozarts and Bachs, the Rembrandts and da Vincis, the Darwins and Einsteins – constitute a sort of freak show for people to oggle at and express their amazement.

And yes, people do express their amazement. One of the more interesting aspects of the modern conception of genius is the way in which it is generally regarded to be a mysterious quality, one that is almost divine or supernatural in origin. When someone exults in the talents of a musician they admire, or a writer, or a scientist, and exclaims, “He really is a genius!”, it is invariably done with a sort of religious zeal. Even atheists are prone to this way of behaving. An atheist might loudly boast that he is beyond all religious belief, but as soon as a celebrated genius like an Einstein or a Feynman walks into the room, watch how he swoons as though in the presence of a god. The desire to bow down and worship is as strong as ever, it would seem, even in our so-called cynical age. “God may be dead, but his shadow lives on”, as Nietzsche once observed.

Yet there is nothing essentially mysterious about genius. It is basically the result of incremental steps deviating away from the norm at an early age. An unhappy childhood, perhaps. Unresolved family issues generating a life-long passion for something better. A genetic predisposition towards logic and introspection. A lack of emotional connection with childhood companions. A thirst for clarity and understanding. A desire to make a mark. A perfectionist streak. These are the building blocks of genius.

And so little by little, as he grows older, the budding genius deviates from the rest of his peers, so much so that by the time he reaches adulthood he is more or less in another world, making conceptual connections and leaps that no one else has made before. Often these connections and leaps are of little consequence and the budding genius remains no more than a peripheral figure. But when the circumstances are ripe, when the budding genius is in the right time and the right place, these connections and leaps can lead to major conceptual breakthroughs.

The mysterious nature of genius is thus an illusion. It is not unlike the way a stage magician is able to dazzle us with his tricks. From our perspective in the audience, the magician’s performances seem mysterious because we are not privy to the incremental steps involved. But once the trick is explained the magic suddenly vanishes, making it seem humdrum, which of course it is.

We like to laugh at the religious fundamentalists who, in their crude misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, often make absurd comments such as, “How can something as complex as the wing of a bird or the human eye be thrown together by chance!” Trapped within the fog of their own wishful thinking, they do not want to see that evolution is all about incremental steps occuring over prodigious amounts of time, and that when changes do occur they are built upon the legacy of past changes. Fundamentalists deserve to be laughed at because they are willfully blind. Yet the moment we regard genius to be a mysterious quality, we immediately fall into the same trap.

This applies to all areas of life, not just to genius. In reality, there is nothing mysterious about anything at all in the Universe. Everything comes into existence through incremental steps, through causes and conditions. We might be ignorant of many of the specific steps and causes behind many of the things that happen in life, but that does not make them mysterious.

Given that the label of “genius” is nowadays applied to freakish, mishappen creatures with little or no wisdom, the question needs to be asked: How much control does a genius actually have over his life? Does a genius really desire to be an ignorant freak? Or is he compelled by forces beyond his control to diminish and humiliate himself in this manner?

Or to put the question more succinctly, are we looking at evil or incompetence?

I always used to wonder at the choices people made in their lives. Given the sheer richness of existence, with its infinite complexities and the endless array of possibilities open to us all, and given that the primary question of why we are alive in the first place is constantly staring us in the face, how is it that an otherwise intelligent person can decide to devote his entire life to, say, studying the mating cycles of dung-beetles? Or the behaviour of amino acids? Or the Latvian underground art movement of the 1920‘s? Isn’t this just the strangest thing? How do people bring themselves to make such a decision? Are they really that blind to the madness of it?

This is bizarre enough for ordinary people, but it is even more strange and puzzling when it comes to geniuses. Mozart, for example, was obviously a very sensitive soul with a brilliant memory and an intuitive, well-structured mind. He had the potential to do anything, at least in theory. He could have opened his mind to the Infinite, grasped the fundamental nature of everything, solved all the great problems of philosophy, spiritually soared to every corner of existence, learned to live joyously and freely, helping everyone to become liberated with great skill and spontaneity – but no. He instead chose to confine himself to stringing pleasing noises together to entertain shallow people with dull minds. How is this possible? Are these really the actions of a genius?

It is commonly said that there is a fine line between genius and madness. And yes, to be sure, if we reduce the meaning of genius so that it applies to autistic-type people who are not really in control of their lives, then there is indeed a fine line between genius and madness. In fact, we can go a step further and say that genius, in this sense, is inseparable from madness. It just happens to be a more productive form of madness. But true genius – and by this I mean genius conceived in the greatest possible manner – is a very different matter. True genius is infinitely removed from madness. If madness represents a deviation away from the normality of human consciousness, then true genius represents a deviation in the opposite direction. For true genius is nothing other than the full expression of sanity.

Ideally, the Mozarts and Einsteins of this world should be measured, not against the mediocrity of the average human being, but against the highest possible conception of genius. By doing this, it allows us the opportunity to dissolve our mental barriers and become more conscious of what the human mind is capable of. With this in mind, it should be obvious that it is not my intention to belittle the achievements of Mozart and Einstein and their like. That isn’t the purpose of this blog. From the point of view of human mediocrity, there is no question their achievements are dazzling. The truth, however, needs to be said. Stacked up against the highest conception of genius, what Mozart and Einstein did with their lives barely registers on the lower end of the scale.

At root, genius is essentially a question of character, not intelligence or ability. It is the determination and will to become truly sane. Genius knows how to open up to the most tremendous thing in life – namely, the reality of the Infinite – and to blossom within it. Genius knows how go to the very foundation of all experiences, of all perceptions, of all subjective realities, and use this foundation to understand everything that can ever be known. Genius sees into the heart of Nature, it sees into the heart of other people, and, through the workings of cause and effect, it sees into the heart of the past and the heart of the future. Genius is the deepest and clearest form of consciousness possible." - david quinn

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