(This article was submitted as an opinion piece to The New York Times on May 01, 2009.)
No matter what the age, classical or modern, one word characterizes genius: imagination. The capacity to see a problem in a manner that it has not been seen before. The ability to break out of conceptual barriers that exist in doing so. This could happen once in the life time of a person, at any age, or several times consistently.
Genius is also characterized by an oxymoron: a healthy irreverence, not mere skepticism but disrespect, for the existing state of not natural, but epistemological order, usually not out of arrogance but out of a deep humility and passion for truth and perfection, extending the scope for genius across the entire spectrum of human activities, imbuing the human condition itself with the possibility for genius.
It is a fascination for the divine, making it inherently metaphysical. A romance with the unknown rooted in a belief of the incompleteness of the known. With the ambition to know it all but with the realization that it cannot be possible. The beauty is in the trying. That the process of knowing is a beautiful thing.
Consistency is not a necessary condition for genius. It is for talent. Talent is the innate aptitude, a predisposition, a form of healthy autism so to speak, to want to do one thing more than all the others. This leads to self-motivated practice. The practice, in turn improves the skill, whether it be mathematics, writing, music, poetry and so on.
In antiquity, Socrates and Christ were geniuses. So were later the Renaissance masters, Shakespeare, Galileo, the Enlightenment thinkers and the entire gamut of modern philosophers, including Marx whose influence in Obama’s America still reverberates even after the fall of the Soviet Empire.
Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were geniuses. So are today, either Bin Laden or Zawahiri or both, albeit crooked (though some among the Islamic fundamentalists may not be thinking that way).
Newton and Einstein got lucky, being born later, for being ‘out of bounds.’ Einstein was not good at math, yet he conceived the universe radically differently. Mozart was a talented piano player. He took to the piano so to speak, very early on, earlier than most normal children, but his genius was in musical composition. Perhaps he may not be able to play his own music as well as he wrote it.
Yes, it is not who you are but what you do that matters, provided you are allowed to do it. Sometimes, as with Plato, both who you are and what you do matters. Because social class can either be a liability or an asset. Socrates did not have it and was killed, Plato had it and created the Academy. Meaning, the Athens of his age was more likely to accept the same Socratic genius from Plato than it was ready to accept it from Socrates.
It was social pathology, just as is the case today with a Harvard grad not taking others seriously or the society accepting adventurism from the Ivy League readily without as much batting an eye lid and not from Timbuktu. This gives intellectuals in the upper classes an edge because they need not be afraid to think differently. They know they are allowed. In fact, they are educated and equipped to do so, even though a majority of them choose to defend the existing order. I call it the Ekalavya syndrome from the Indo-Aryan epic Mahabharata, about the kid who was asked to sacrifice his right thumb to prevent him from practicing archery because he belonged to the wrong social class.
The popular books about extraordinary performers need not try to somehow figure out ways to manufacture genius. Genius and talent can flourish if the education system is not a one size fits all, plagued by preconceived notions about shaping social order through education, an Aryan and Platonic legacy. Why not give all the kids the same environment, try to treat them as individuals and we may get about 20 geniuses and talented grown-ups out of every 100, Mayflower or Arkansas.
How can an extremely talented person or a genius explain their output? It almost seems metaphysical. There is no modernity to it to fit it into some mechanical explanation of studying the brain. In fact, it is up in the air as to when precisely modernity began. I would argue that it began biologically with language, behavioral modernity in humans as a species, and socially with the invention of agriculture that ended nomadic existence by river valleys and brought about , what we call today, civilization. Well before the well recorded Egypt and Sumeria and on. Subsequently, all else have been epochs, in my view, in the history of modernity.
European modernity is the beginning of the epoch of empirical and technical modernity, not the advent of modernity itself. Not being facetious, I think climate had a lot to do with it. It came to Europe after the climate improved toward the northern latitudes, standing on the shoulders of all the modernity that came before it. This is the age in which live today and hence the corresponding social phenomenon: the domination of the Northern European ethnic peoples in world affairs, a political and social construct, even though it is what they do but not who they are that really matters, much as the Egyptians did millennia ago.
Innovations of genius have social benefits at large by lifting up the societies in which they were born to prominence, power and wealth just as it was with Italy, Germany and Britain since the Renaissance and forward. As though Egypt had shifted latitudes gradually from the Nile to the Thames and the Rhine, along with the melting snows and the receding glaciers, literally vertically up the longitude from Africa, with a standard deviation of a few longitudes on both sides, forming the bell curve of civilization.
The focus after Newton shifted from metaphysics to mechanics and measurement, both celestial and earthly, though neither were new to the ancients. The ancients saw science, as a matter of culture, as a form of worship and holy. Something metaphysical. Newton forever changed the lens through which we see the world: as a measurable, material entity that can be predicted and manipulated.
Today, we think we can measure, manipulate and change the very climate that changed us. I beg to disagree that genius cannot, at least as yet, be manufactured mechanically by measuring cognitive capacities and manipulating them.