Thursday, November 01, 2007


After my long break from blogging on both of my blogs, my interest in coming back was sparked by a conversation I had about genius. I'll be the first to admit it. I once considered myself a genius. I'm arrogant. I know it. Still, my thoughts on this subject were sparked by an overview of Aristotle's work. An example that came up in, ummm, I can't remember. I think the final conclusion was in Nichomachian Ethics, but its roots extend back into his discussions on potentiality and actuality.

Basically, Aristotle says, virtues are not a state but an actualization. A man is not virtuous if he does not actualize that virtue into an action. And a man who is more virtuous than another man, but never acts upon those virtues whereas the other man does, is not, in fact, more virtuous. Aristotle uses the example of an Olympian. There may be a man or woman in the audience who is stronger/faster/quicker than the competing Olympians, but it doesn't matter. They do not deserve praise since they are not actualizing their potential.

This idea of actualization of a potential had a big impact on me. He's saying that there is no such thing as a virtuous person, only virtuous actions. And a person is only as virtuous as their actions. I took this and applied it to genius, and then the concept exploded.

I had never given too much thought to genius outside of a simmering disgust for IQ tests. But, I thought, what is genius? Is it something someone is? Kant didn't think so, for in his "Judgments About the Beautiful", he says that "fine arts must necessarily be regarded as arts of genius", Then saying that genius is "a talent" for doing something that can't be explained rationally and methodically. Still, Kant stresses the talent, regardless from whence it came, as the key to genius.

But, I ask, how do we know who is a genius? I don't think that talent is good enough to explain genius since talent cannot be held, touched, analyzed, or even extrapolated. We only ever know that someone is a genius when they actually get up and do something. And many is the time when calling them a genius is pointless, since people who can barely feed themselves can produce paintings or music of wonderful beauty. Most people who have thought about genius have at least separated the person from the genius, saying that people are not "geniuses" per se, instead they have a skill or talent which is genius. I think this still doesn't go far enough in the separation.

As Aristotle said, it doesn't matter if a person is faster than an Olympian, since they aren't competing. The Olympian is great because he/she is actualizing his/her potential. As such, it isn't the person who is great, it's the actualization. Genius is only as good as what it does. Doing well on an IQ test proves exactly diddly since you haven't actually done anything worth praise aside from some pitiful attempt to prove that you could do something worth praise if you cared enough to. (I'm looking at you, you Mensa shit heads.)

A great painting isn't a work of genius, it IS genius. A great composition, building, or machine. All genius. I don't think genius exists in people at all. As countless mentally retarded people have proven, genius can flow from any fountain. No person has any greater access to genius than another. Be it divine afflatus or the result of dedicated analysis, many people that no sane person would call a genius nevertheless produce genius.

I guess what I'm getting at is that genius is not a talent, since that implies something more than a flash of inspiration, which can certainly be genius. I don't think it has anything to do with the person outside of what they produce. Genius is an actualization. A product. IQ tests and any other discussion of genius outside of what it does is abstract nonsense that goes nowhere.

Complete Works of Aristotle (Via Internet Classics Archive)

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