Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Genius and Talent
By GRANT ALLEN.
LET it be granted that a vast deal of nonsense has been talked everywhere in this oblate spheroid of ours about almost every conceivable subject. Yet about none has a vaster amount of nonsense been talked before the tribunal of literature than about the famous old forensic case of Genius versus Talent. The born Genius, its sycophants and adulators continually assure us with nauseating persistence, arrives intuitively, by pure force of natural insight, at such and such a magnificent result—a "Paradise Lost," let us say, or a Blenheim Madonna, or a theory of evolution; while mere Talent, poor plodding, purblind, miserable Talent (you should always be extremely hard on Talent, with a few contemptuous crushing epithets, if you yourself wish to be thought a man of genius), toils after it in vain, with painful steps and slow, groping its uncertain way to minor truths or pettier works by the feeble rays of its own insignificant farthing rushlight. So long as Genius till lives, to be sure, and treads the solid earth, known as Genius only to an appreciative few, it does not generally receive this grateful incense of slavish adulation in its divine nostrils to any intoxicating or dangerous extent. Worship is rarely vouchsafed to contemporaries. But when once the Genius is fairly dead and buried (in Westminster Abbey or the Panthéon, as the case may be), it undergoes forthwith its due apotheosis, and a thousand lips cry out to it straightway in deafening chorus, "O Genius, how you were; how supreme; how grand; how noble; how consummate! O Genius, how masterly was your touch; how intense your feeling; how cosmical your grasp; how profound and searching and absolute your science! Alas, how infinitely did you differ in your ineffable attributes from that unequal substitute which alone we have now left among us—poor plodding, purblind, miserable Talent!" For it is commonly understood among the mesoteric worshipers of the exalted Genius that their patron is indeed a very jealous god; that he bears, like the Turk, no rival next his throne; and that he harbors in his breast a special grudge against that inferior and groveling, but somewhat similar, deity, mere commonplace Talent. He is known to regard himself, with Hebrew exclusiveness, as the original and only genuine divine entity, all others being spurious imitations.
Now, it is the misfortune of the world in this matter that the lions have chiefly painted themselves; and as the lion in the fable justly anticipated, they have invariably represented themselves as having very much the best of it. Genius, especially self-conscious Genius, has brought copious ghee to its own image; it has erected an altar to itself, like the Divus Cæsar, and has insisted strongly upon the need for public recognition of its own glorious and divine attributes. "Fall down and worship!" says Genius, in the imperative mood; and forthwith a slavish world falls down and worships. Byron, Victor Hugo, Lytton, Disraeli, have all told us, with extreme frankness, what we ought to say and think about them. We have been politely requested, in exquisite verse, to vex not the poet's mind with our shallow wit, on the concise if not very flattering ground that we can not fathom it. Genius, secure of its own Olympic supremacy, has looked down from its airy throne upon the blind and battling multitude below—meaning us, of course, who are not geniuses—with a sardonic smile of mingled contempt, beneficence, and pity. And the world, which is very apt to accept men in the long run at their own valuation (so much the worse for the modest), bows down in the end to self-assertive Genius, and sees in its face all those splendid qualities which Genius itself bids it look and find there. For indeed the world is by nature prone, after all, to the attitude of worship. It kneels readily. Though it chooses the objects of its adoration in strange places, yet it bends willing knees to the golden calf; and to the golden calf of success and public approbation none the less than to those other assorted golden calves which we know as wealth, rank, title, and position. It may cast mud at its deities when they are young and unrecognized, to be sure—for who can see divinity in a tweed suit?—but as soon as the voice of the people, which is the voice of God, has decreed them the laurel wreath of common praise and a guinea a line, it will immediately start a Browning Society or a Shelley Society, or, for ought I know, a Ouida Society, too, to give the new cult its appropriate hierarchy. And, above all, where the object of their worship is quite safely dead and buried (for live gods at times inconveniently disclaim their noisiest votaries), the admirers will swarm around with contagious enthusiasm in their wrath against the prophets of all newer cults, and cry aloud for the space of two hours together, "Great is Diana of the Epliesians!" till the town-clerk comes to disperse them.
On the other hand, if any bold iconoclast, sick of this perpetual adulatory hero-worship, this fulsome laudation of the divine afflatus, ventures to hint that genius, after all, does not really differ so much from mere talent—poor but honest and industrious talent—that the distinction is mainly one of degree, not of kind, and that what in its youth was simply called talent grows with time and repute into genuine genius—the orthodox worshipers have always their thunderbolt ready forged to crush and annihilate him. "This fellow," they say, with a toss of the head, "being in very truth a born frog, ventures to maintain that frogs, by dint of inflation, can puff themselves out to the dignity of oxen, or that at best there is but little difference of size and build between the two species. That is just because he is a mere frog, and jealous of the vast superiority of bovine greatness." To be sure, when the oxen themselves were yet but young bullocks, sporting in the fields, these same orthodox critics would have eagerly contended for their essential frogginess; but now that they are full grown and fat, and florally wreathed with sacrificial garlands, as becomes an Apis, the orthodox have forgotten their former recalcitrancy. As of old, the fathers stone the prophets, and the children occupy themselves with building their sepulchres. But let that pass. The point is, that if one tries to put the question as to the nature of genius in its true aspect, one is at once regarded in the invidious light of a modern Zoilus.
Nevertheless, this question of genius and talent is a truly scientific one, a psychological problem, one might almost say, in the wider sense, a matter of anthropometry. It is well that it should be discussed on scientific grounds, without any of the hysterical and inflated verbiage with which geniuses and their biographers have too frequently befogged it. Wherein does genius really consist, and how does it differ from mere talent? That, simply put, is the net question which we have here categorically to answer; and to anticipate at once the answer forced upon me as a humble observer by consideration of the facts, I find at bottom that the two are in ultimate analysis almost identical. Genius is talent either pushed to an exceptionally high degree, or exerted in a very unusual direction, or linked with a rare amount of striking industry, or dashed with a certain peculiar vein of bizarre originality. In short, it is such talent as makes itself specially remarked—talent which has in it something of the unique; while other talent, often equally great or even greater, but lacking in the special element of individuality, remains to the last "mere talent," and never attains to any higher level of public recognition.
The first form of these four is the one so aptly and bravely described by Buffon, who defined genius in his own inimitable style as "an infinite capacity for taking pains." To the general public, this admirable definition seems simply incomprehensible. "What!" they cry with one voice, "genius a capacity for taking pains! We wist it was something quite opposite—an inspiration, spontaneous and unconscious. The mere plodder, we always understood or imagined, worked away at his canvas with infinite trouble, touching and retouching till he was sick and tired of it; but the divine genius! oh no, impossible! Perish the thought! 'tis an absolute profanation. The plodder devotes himself with painstaking care to anatomy and perspective and light-and-shade and all the rest of it; but the divine genius, he, great man, comes up with a stroke of his brush intuitively, so—and behold, hi, presto! an Aphrodite or a Beatrice smiles as if by miracle before you. The plodder may potter long over his rhymes and his epithets, but the divine genius, with Byronic. carelessness, dashes you off an ode or a ballad, stans pede in uno. His lofty Pegasus needs no goading or driving; it moves as it will of its own accord, and leads him at last without conscious guidance to some splendid, glorious, or dazzling conclusion. We know it is true, for have not our Lyttons and our Hugos told us so?"
But humble critics perceive at once that in real life things are ordered quite otherwise. Your Michael Angelos and your Leonardos think no detail of anatomy or of physics beneath their lofty notice; they study the human frame as if they meant to be doctors, the laws of matter as if they meant to be engineers, the nature of light as if they meant to be physicists, the principles of optics as if they meant to be astronomers. They toil early and late over local color and perspective and the chemistry of pigments; they perfect themselves ceaselessly upon models and drapery, upon architecture and landscape. Of course, unusual endowments of eye and hand are there to begin with; but those unusual endowments even will profit them nothing without arduous training and continuous industry. Every line of the greatest and most perfect poets bears obvious traces of utmost care and finish in workmanship; every line of the noblest and most exquisite prose bears evident marks of curious study in adjective and verb, in rhythm and cadence. The art is, to conceal one's art; the seeming felicity, the apparent ease, result, not from spontaneous inspiration, but from long and conscious practice in the adaptation of means to end, and of sound to sentiment.
Indeed, one might almost reverse the ordinary estimate and say that genius, in its most frequent form, is really talent backed up by application. To this special class of genius belong such men (to take a typical example) as Charles Darwin. It was not the mere aperçu of natural selection or survival of the fittest that set the seal upon Darwin's undoubted apostolate. Other men had had that same aperçu in greater or less degree before him: some of them smaller men, no doubt, and some of them at least his peers in grasp and ability. "Wells had had it years earlier; Patrick Matthew had had it as a passing glimpse; Wallace lighted upon it almost simultaneously; Herbert Spencer trembled more than once with strange nearness upon the very verge of discovery. But what Darwin did was to raise this aperçu into the guiding star and mainspring of his active life; to work away at it early and late; to heap together instances pro and con; to bring out at last after endless toil that banner of a fresh epoch, the Origin of Species, with all its wonderful ancillary treatises. Darwin's mind, though broad and open, a mind of singular candor and acuteness and penetration, was not, in respect of mere general ability, very far above the average constructive mind of the better class of English scientific men. He had twenty contemporaries in the Royal Society who were probably his equals in native intellect and generalizing power. But he had no equals in industry and systematic observation; it was the combination of so much faculty for hard work with so much high organizing intelligence that enabled Darwin to produce so vast a result upon the thought of the world and the future of science, of philosophy, and of politics.
When John Gibson was studying under Canova at Rome, a young English sculptor of the divine genius order—the order represented in our own days by Mr. Richard Belt of funest memory—came to cast a lordly glance in passing around the Roman studios. Gibson himself had been born an artist—not perhaps an artist of the particular type at present exclusively admired by a cultivated clique as supreme and intense, but still in his own way a true and admirable academic artist. Apprenticed first to a wood-carver and then to a stone-cutter, the Welsh working lad determined to make himself a real sculptor. Your boy of talent placed in such circumstances would have considered himself a divinely gifted sculptor already, and would have begun turning out marble nymphs and Ganymedes and Psyches as fast as his active hands could carve them. But Gibson knew better than that. He knew he was a genius, and he determined to behave as such. He went to an anatomy class in Liverpool, where he lived, and he worked with scalpel and saw among the budding surgeons on the bones and muscles of the human frame. When he had studied drawing, modeling, and the use of the chisel, as far as England could then instruct him, he made up his mind to go to Rome; and to Rome he would go, he said, if he had to tramp it on foot. To him thus employed at molding clay in Canova's studio enter the self-taught divine genius, who has come Rome-ward to glance casually right and left at Michael Angelos and antique torsos, by way of a hint, but who disdains the vulgar academic aid of masters and instructors. "I thought meanly of him," says Gibson with charming frankness, "for he wouldn't watch other men at work for fear of spoiling his own originality," The divine genius went home to England, carved out his Narcissus and his Aphrodite by the light of nature, ate and drank and died at last, nameless now and utterly forgotten. Gibson stayed in Rome and studied; wasted hours on the turns and folds of a piece of drapery; threw his whole mind into the work of the day; and became at last, whatever the fashion of the moment may say, a true sculptor of immense refinement and delicacy of feeling.
This is the kind of genius that consists of high talent, backed up and re-enforced by exceptional powers of application. It is the kind we get, again, in such a thinker as John Stuart Mill, who really possessed only the average intellect of your picked university honor-man, combined with an unusual faculty for hard work, and a trained habit of keeping his mind open judicially to every breeze of varying opinion. It is the kind we get, again, in Macaulay, who added, however, to his strictly average endowments of intellect the special endowments of a marvelous memory, great command of mere language, a certain ready amount of specious brilliancy, and a singular ability for calling up and adorning concrete images. On the other hand, Macaulay's intellect, viewed as intellect pure and simple, was thoroughly commonplace, banal, and Philistine; he had less real thinking power, less native faculty for grasping abstract or subtle ideas, than nine out of ten ordinary educated people. It is the kind, once more, we get in most geniuses of practical life, political or social. Directed to statemanship, this high general level of ability, backed up by industry, gives us our Gladstones, our Guizots, and our Lincolns; directed to war, it gives us our Cæsars, our Napoleons, and our Wellingtons. If any man imagines that the great general wins battles by mere force of innate genius, he has only to remember the constant recurrence in the "Commentaries" of the res frumentaria, and the famous saying that an army "fights upon its belly." A good breakfast for his men is the chief aid to a commander's military reputation. Did not somebody once call the mighty dictator, indeed, a "monster of diligence"?
Very different is the sort of genius of which Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens form excellent typical examples. This is the particular species of the class on which, perhaps, the popular ideas of the characteristics of genius are mainly founded. In such cases, the genius really consists in large part of eccentricity—eccentricity pushed to an extreme in certain directions, but combined with more or less of real ability. Now, it is important to note that genius of this sort does not necessarily imply a high order of intelligence. Dickens's intelligence, for example, was by no means high; I suppose everybody would admit at once that you may search his works in vain for a single sentence worth quoting as a specimen of profundity, or insight, or wisdom. Not that I wish for a moment to run down Dickens; on the contrary I admire him immensely; I never take up "David Copperfield" or "Nicholas Nickleby" without standing amazed and aghast afresh at the quaintness, the fertility, the oddity, the fun of his inimitable creations. No other man, we feel, could do the like; and that is just why we appreciate Dickens. Originality, in fact, is the special note of this particular type of genius; and originality is therefore often spoken of by hasty thinkers as if it were the essence of genius itself. This, however, is not strictly true, unless we mean unduly to restrict the limits of genius. There have been many great men—undoubtedly great—who were far from remarkable for their originality. The solidest intellect is often utterly wanting in brilliancy or originality. Rather is it the truth that a marked degree of original quaintness entitles even a second-rate man (and Dickens was, in the matter of pure intellect, essentially second-rate) to ungrudged admission upon the final roll-call of the immortals.
Many men have had grotesque and morbid imaginings. Dickens had them grotesque and morbid to the point of uniqueness; therefore we rightly call him a genius. His gift was not a very high or noble one; on the contrary, it was one which, in its lesser developments, belongs rather to the buffoon and the caricaturist. But in Dickens it grew so large, and so far monopolized the whole field of his invention, that it became in itself a title to immortality. Nobody else could do anything equal to it, though many people could do something in a somewhat similar but less profoundly absurd and original vein. Such men as Mill, and Bain, and Lewes, and Lyell, overtop Dickens intellectually by more than half their stature. But you might get a hundred philosophers and psychologists and men of science out of a given country before you got another "Martin Chuzzlewit." It is precisely the idiosyncrasy of the man, the mixture of faculty, that is so rare and unusual. Compound ten million human beings on the ordinary principle of mixing together ancestral strains, and among them all you will produce on an average half a dozen apiece of geologists and historians, but never again a single Dickens.
Genius of this sort, then, is not necessarily at all great; it is only unique, and in virtue of its uniqueness for the most part interesting. Not that all eccentricity and originality partake of the nature of genius either; they must have combined with them some considerable element of distinct cleverness, or they result merely in an eccentric or an original, not in a genius, properly so called. We have all known many eccentrics whose eccentricity was far indeed from being either amusing or curious; it succeeded merely in making itself supremely annoying or absurd. But the gulf that separates the mere original from the true genius is often as narrow as the gulf that intervenes between the sublime and the ridiculous. Everybody has met odd people, who lived by themselves in odd rooms, who said and did odd things, and whose veriest commonplaces had always about them some lingering flavor of misplaced wit and half-mad imagination. Such queer people, with their dash of insanity, have not infrequently a dash of genius as well, only in their case the divine spark has either never been supplied with sufficient fuel, or never blown up by the breath of appreciation into even a struggling and tentative blaze. Yet who shall say what tiny extra twist in a special direction turns any one of these undiscovered cranky souls into a Dickens, a Heine, a Rabelais, or a Cervantes? The little additional twist makes to us, the percipients, all the difference; but in the brain and mind of the man himself, how infinitesimally small must be the peculiarity of fiber or energy that ultimately determines it!
Look, again, at such a case as Carlyle's. Hundreds of caustic, saturnine Scotch laboring-folk have something the same quaint power of expression, something the same dour, grim humor, something the same vehement, self-assertive egotism. In all fundamentals, philosophical and psychological, they are absolutely identical with the grumbler of Chelsea; their hard Scotch Calvinistic creed is just his gloomy pessimism in the rough; their firm belief in a lawgiver of the cosmos, who loves neither fools nor knaves overwell, is just the crude, unelaborated form of the Carlylese political and ethical system. Add a certain native vigor and directness of language, derived by blood from that canny, clever, uneducated sage, the Ecclefechan stone-mason, the "body wha had sic names for things"; supplement it with an Edinburgh University training, backed up by a strong dose of congenial dreamy German metaphysics; turn it loose upon the world of London, or divert it by circumstances into the hard, underpaid literary channel—and a Carlyle at once emerges upon you, bursting forth in the full tide of his "picturesque bad style," in "Sartor Resartus" and the "French Revolution." Once worked, the trick can never be worked again; but, while it lasts, its effect is marvelous. The rush and go of that full tide carries us all unresistingly before it: we never pause to ask for a moment, as we whirl along helter-skelter down-stream, by what slight variations on a familiar theme the astonishing sense of hurrying, scurrying, clashing music, as of pent-up waters bursting their dams, has been laboriously designed and produced in the far recesses of that wild composer's peculiar idiosyncrasy.
If we look, however, at the families of recognized geniuses, we sometimes see, as by a flash of electric light, on what slight accidents of composition these strange results ultimately depend. "Is her sister like her?" asked an enamored poet of a friend of the family. "Very like her," the common-sense friend responded cautiously; "but I wouldn't advise you to see her just yet, or you'd find out too soon how the trick is done." For very often, the slightest exaggeration of the features in a beautiful face will make it at once either commonplace or grotesque. The family likeness in the plain sister suggests forthwith how readily with a turn more of the brush or the knife that chiseled profile might become too painfully Roman, those rich lips too obtrusively negroid, those full eyes too prominent or too lachrymose. You see with undue clearness in such cases the narrow line that separates strength from coarseness, delicacy from feebleness, the pretty from the doll-like, the stately from the hard-featured. Even so, in the families of acknowledged geniuses you see how slight indeed are the special points which distinguish the distinguished: how little the poet differs in fiber from his brother the parson; how near the dry argumentative cobbler comes to his son the materialist philosopher. Bandsman Herschel had a taste for clock-work, for mathematics, for times and seasons: his boy William, who played the oboe in the same Hanoverian regiment, and deserted in due course to be organist at Bath, carried the like tastes just a step further by making a telescope and discovering Uranus. But all his brothers and sisters were also musical, and most of them were mechanical and astronomical as well. The divine genius of William Herschel is just the general family twist, developed perhaps a trifle higher, accompanied perhaps by a somewhat profounder grasp of intellect, or merely (it may be) encouraged and made the most of by a fortunate concurrence of casual conditions. For who shall say what proportion the discovered and acknowledged geniuses of the world's scroll bear to the undiscovered and unacknowledged geniuses who swarm like tadpoles in the board-schools and workshops everywhere around us?
But what makes me above all things skeptical as to the special and exceptional inspiration of the divine genius is a consideration of the historical position of divine geniuses as we actually find them in their own environment. Posterity, divorcing the man from his age, knowing him for the most part as an isolated fact alone, sees him always larger than life, like the heroic statues it erects in his honor. It forgets too often that, in order to judge of him as a unit of humanity, we must look at him in connection with his own surroundings. We are all too apt to personify, or rather to embody and individualize, all great movements: to see in the Reformation nobody but Luther; in the Revolution nobody but Rousseau and Robespierre and Danton; in the national struggle for American independence nobody but Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin; in the vast movements for the unity of Italy and Germany nobody but Garibaldi, Mazzini, Bismarck, and Von Moltke. But in reality, as the present age now knows well, it is largely the movement that makes the men, not the men that make the movement; and this is true of ordinary epochs as well as of great upheavals, of the thinker and the writer as well as of the soldier, the statesman, and the enthusiast. Take as a very striking example in minor matters Mark Twain. To the English reader Mark Twain is a being more or less unique, or at best he is known as the chief among two or three popular competitors in the field of so-called American humor—Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, and Orpheus C. Kerr being practically his only considerable rivals in the European market. But whoever knows the daily talk and the daily newspaper of Western America knows that embryo Mark Twains grow in Illinois on every bush, and that the raw material of the "Innocents Abroad" resounds nightly, like the voice of the Derringer, through every saloon in Iowa and Montana. A large style of cheap and effective homicidal humor, based mainly on exaggeration and grotesque incongruities, flourishes everywhere on the border-lands of American civilization. The very infants lisp in quaint Western quips, the blushing maidens whisper a dialect which "pans out" rich in the peculiar wit of Poker Flat and the Silverado Squatters. Mark Twain represents but the exceptional embodiment of this extravagant ranching and mining spirit, sedulously cultivated and still further developed by the literary habits of a professional humorist.
In literature and in political life our modern principle of the supreme influence of the environment is now, indeed, universally admitted; it is only in science and in philosophy (where more than elsewhere it is emphatically true) that anybody of authority still doubts it. We all allow that in most matters it is the wave that makes the crest, and not the crest that makes the wave. The old school of critics saw in Shakespeare a dramatic phoenix, solitary of his kind, unequaled and unapproached around or about him. The new school sees in him the final flower and highest outcome of that marvelous outburst which gave us "Faustus" and "Tamburlaine," "Jane Shore" and "Yolpone," the "Duke of Milan" and the "Duchess of Malfi." Primus inter pares he was, no doubt, but inter pares only, not above "a vast dead level of mediocrity." Ford and Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Jonson and Massinger stood close beside the throne; Greene and Marlowe had prepared the way beforehand for Hamlet and Shylock and Richard III. The expansion of England in the Elizabethan age necessarily produced the new drama, which showed forth as in a mirror "the very age and body of the time, his form and feature," exactly as the romance of our own day shows forth the stir and ferment and turmoil of the present far greater period of national development. A great deal of what most of us take for Shakespeare is really the necessary spirit and background of the Elizabethan stage, as much the common product of the nation at large and of the dramatic tradition as the modern novel or the modern burlesque is the common product of our own civilization.
In science and philosophy, however, this general principle of necessary development is even more demonstrably true than elsewhere. There comes a crisis every now and then in the evolution of thought, when new discoveries and new inventions are, as we all say nowadays, "in the air"; when numberless workers, led up to a certain point by previous thinkers and previous discoveries, tremble all together on the very verge of the next great generalization or the next important extension of thought or knowledge. "He who says A must say B also," the wise French proverb pithily puts it. Now it sometimes happens in such cases that a number of workers co-operate so much in the new discovery, or the new invention, or the new development, that no one man carries off for himself the honors of the situation. That was the case with the vast physical concept of the conservation of energy, by far the vastest and most fundamental concept ever yet introduced into our view of the material cosmos and its mode of working. Yet that profound law was so slowly evolved by the separate labors of many acute and suggestive thinkers, beginning with Count Rumford and ending with Joule, Meyer, Helmholtz, Grove, Clerk Maxwell, Balfour Stewart, and Tait, that no single name will ever probably be associated with its promulgation, as the name of Newton is associated with the law of gravitation, or as the name of Darwin is associated with the principle of organic evolution. More frequently, however, it happens that a particular worker does either anticipate the others by a decided interval, or succeeds at any rate in attracting to himself the attention of the crowd, and in becoming, so to speak, the eponymous hero of the new conquest. In such cases I do not say that the hero is not really as a rule greater than the men he casts into the shade; but I do say that he is not as a rule as much greater as the world at large, in its love for the sweet simplicity of hero-worship, supposes him to be. It is so hard to distribute your praise equitably between a dozen or more of contributory geniuses; it is so easy to fix upon a single man and declare authoritatively in a very loud voice, "Ipse fecit!"
Mechanical inventions show us the working of this popular tendency in a very clear and instructive manner. Who, for example, invented the steam-engine? James Watt, says everybody, with glib readiness. But those who have looked at the history of the steam-engine know, of course, that there were steam-engines in abundance long before Watt's, and that Watt himself worked deliberately on the basis of Newcomen's model, Newcomen, in turn, had improved on Papin's invention, and Papin perhaps on De Caux's, and finally on Hero's. Now, nobody denies that Watt was a very great engineer; if he had never invented the double-acting engine at all, indeed, he would have been remembered among the mechanical geniuses of the world by his numerous other improvements and discoveries; but he was not so absolutely supreme and unique as the popular fancy has made him out to be. Indeed, taking into consideration the date of its construction, Newcomen's engine was a much more remarkable triumph of human ingenuity that James Watt's. But Watt introduced the final details which rendered steam a power in the world, and with him accordingly rest the popular suffrages as "the inventor of the steam-engine." Similarly, who invented the locomotive? George Stephenson, says everybody, as before. But those who have looked at the history of the locomotive know, of course, that both locomotives and railways existed in plenty before Stephenson's, and that the Rocket was merely the most successful competitor among many contemporary competitors for public favor. Nobody denies George Stephenson's marvelous native engineering abilities; on the whole, taking into consideration his humble beginnings, he seems to me more of a heaven-born genius in his own way than almost anybody else with whose history I am acquainted. But the work he did upon the locomotive was adaptive and developmental, not original and novel. The great invention did not spring in full panoply—like Athene from the head of Zeus—out of any one engineer's profound brain; it grew slowly, piece by piece, like everything else, from a hundred men's co-operating intelligences.
Like everything else, I say deliberately, for it is the same with every great invention. Look at the telegraph, so hotly debated between Morse and Wheatstone; look at the telephone, equally divided between Edison and Bell; look at photography, whose several stages owed so much successively to Wedgwood and Davy, to Niepce and Daguerre, to Talbot and to Archer. "Great discoveries," says Prof. Fiske, with evident wisdom, "must always be concerned with some problem of the time which many of the world's foremost minds are just then cudgeling their active brains about." It was so with the discovery of the differential calculus and of the planet Neptune; with the interpretation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics and of the cuneiform inscriptions; with the undulatory theory of light and the mechanical equivalent of heat; with the nebular hypothesis and with spectrum analysis. In some cases one man has borne off all the praise, while many men bore the brunt of the labor; in other cases the work done has been so evenly distributed among several laborers that even that unjust judge, the general public, could set none as greater or less than another, none as before or after another.
Observe, once more, a case where, at first sight, the part played by the individual genius seems exceptionally great—I mean Newton's discovery of universal gravitation. Here, surely, if ever anywhere, the genius was fully entitled to say, "Alone I did it." Yet even here it was quite as much the crisis that made Newton as Newton that made the crisis. Galileo's observations on the pendulum, Torricelli's invention of the mercurial barometer, the true theory of the common pump. Von Guericke's air-pump, Copernicus's view of the solar system, Kepler's laws of motion—all these led up, slowly but surely, by various routes, to the ultimate and inevitable discovery of the law of gravitation. The world had its problem then and there neatly presented to it. The Cartesian theory of vortices, indeed, was a premature attempt at a metaphysical, or at least an a priori solution of the self-same difficulty. All the early work of the seventeenth century led up directly to Newton as a foregone conclusion. Newton himself merely came, in the fullness of time, as the great, fully-equipped mathematical and physical thinker who could not fail to advance science by that one step, already foreshadowed and predestined for him by the joint work of his many predecessors.
So it was, too, with organic evolution and with evolution in general. In the last century De Maillet and Monboddo, from different sides, had caught faint glimpses (as in a glass, darkly) of the descent of animals from common progenitors. With Buffon the glimpse became a distinct idea; with Erasmus Darwin the idea grew into a fully evolved and tenable hypothesis. Lamarck gave it form and body; Goethe breathed into it a wider cosmical spirit. Even the particular notion of natural selection was hit upon simultaneously by Wallace and Darwin; while Spencer had traced out the development of mind seven years before the publication of the "Origin of Species." Kant and Laplace and Lyell led on, by many lines, to the "System of Synthetic Philosophy." Evolutionism has been a growth of numberless minds, yet in the future it will appear to the multitude at large as the work of two men, and of two men only—Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. I need hardly say, I hope, that no man feels more profound reverence for those two mighty thinkers than I do—indeed, I dare never trust myself to say in public how profound that reverence really is; we stand so near them still that those who estimate them at their true worth only get laughed at; but I do not think we ought ever to forget the important part played also in their great revolution by so many other able thinkers and workers, whose names will never survive into future ages.
Every now and then a great crisis occurs in the world's history when some new advance, rendered inevitable by the slow growth of the past, halts for a moment on the threshold of realization. A genius is needed to make the advance; but the genius is always then and there forthcoming from the vast reservoir of potential greatness forever present in all civilized countries. It is the noble chance that brings forth the noble knight: the men lucky enough to take the tide at its flood, lucky enough to reach maturity at the very moment of the turn, achieve a visible success perhaps somewhat disproportioned even to their real and undoubted merit. Or rather, they throw unduly into the shade the men who precede and the men who come after them. There are moments when good workers can not fail to obtain wonderful results, because those results are then and there almost forced upon them by the circumstances of science. There are moments when good men must almost of necessity become hewers of wood and drawers of water for the architectonic generation that will come after them, because the last generation has built up all the materials then available, and new stores must needs be collected before another story can possibly be added to the whole vast fabric of scientific thought. Every mighty outburst is followed close by an apparent lull, a lull during which the forces at work are expending themselves rather upon preparation than upon actual performance, upon providing fresh facts and hypotheses and suggestions rather than upon co-ordinating and interpreting the old ones.
Hence it may often happen that certain names, popularly regarded as small, may really belong to greater individualities and greater intellects than certain other names of critical and, so to speak, nodal interest. The man who comes at the exact turning-point performs in one sense a greater work than the man, however able, who chances to light upon one of the ebb-tides or intervening periods. Geology supplies us in our own day with an excellent example. Lyell's name will always be held to typify the evolutionary impulse in geology, as Darwin's does in biology, Spencer's in psychology, and Laplace's in astronomy. But of these four central names, Lyell's stands distinctly on a much lower mental level than the remaining three. On the other hand, we have now among us a geologist of the very highest ability, a man who has devoted to his chosen science a breadth and profoundness of cosmical grasp never before associated with it—I mean, of course, Archibald Geikie. It is impossible for any competent critic to look at Geikie's "Text-Book of Geology" by the side of Lyell's "Principles and Elements" without immediately recognizing the immense difference of mental stature between the two men. I do not mean merely that Geikie's work is fuller and more all-sided than Lyell's; the growth of the science and the accumulation of materials would alone suffice amply to account for that. But the lucid, orderly, and masterly arrangement, the just sense of method and proportion, the logical even development of the subject, the judicial temper, the cosmic vision, the rare combination of profound depth with perspicuous clearness, all alike place Geikie's remarkable book on a far higher level than his famous predecessor's. Yet I do not suppose Geikie's name will ever become as popularly celebrated as Lyell's. The lesser man happened upon the apter moment: he did fairly well the task he had it in hand to do; and the crisis itself more than sufficed to make him and his work conspicuous forever.
Genius, then, I humbly hold, differs from "mere talent" only in one or other out of three particulars: either it is talent of a higher order, backed up by industry; or it is the same talent, made notable by opportunity; or it is talent, often of a low grade, redeemed by exceptional originality, or combined with some piquant and arresting touch of quaintness, oddity, or it may even be grotesque deformity.
This is a democratic age—an age of socialism, of co-operation, of the revolt of the masses against the few and the privileged. We have found out in our own time that all wealth is the creation of the many: that Rome was not built in a day; that the railways, roads, canals, rivers, mines, factories, warehouses, machines, and towns of modern England, were slowly exploited by the continuous labor of thousands upon thousands of skilled workmen. We have found out that generation after generation has helped to build up our cathedrals and castles, our mills and looms, our ships and steamers, our commerce and manufactures. We know that the electric telegraph goes back at least to Gilbert's researches into magnetism in Queen Elizabeth's days; that the steam-engine goes back to the Marquis of Worcester in Charles the Second's reign; that ironclads and revolvers are not things of yesterday; that every art and every invention, though it may have its own eponym in modern times, is the joint creation of innumerable nameless and successive workers through a hundred generations. The Great Man theory has broken down, and has been replaced by a belief in Great Movements. I wish here to reclaim in the same way on behalf of the wider democracy of talent as against the exclusive oligarchy of genius. The language, the vocabulary, the idiom, the eloquence, the thought of every age is molded by a thousand unknown speakers and writers who each contributes his own part to the grand total of the literature of the day. From the lowest to the highest the gradation is regular, even, and continuous: there is no break; there is no gulf; there is no isolated peak of solitary grandeur. Here and there individuals rise a little above the mass, and form as a whole the body of thinkers. Here and there individuals rise a little above the body, and form as a whole the smaller group of men of talent. Here and there individuals rise a little above the group, often in the merest details of their personal idiosyncrasy, and attain more or less distinctly to the level which most of us recognize as genius. But from first to last the various stages of intellect or of special faculty rise gradually one above the other; the differences between the men themselves are minute; it is the differences between the effects produced upon others that elevate some on so high an imaginary pedestal above their fellows.
I know that to say all this may look invidious. I know that the polite crowd of clubs and drawing-rooms, which can not see the importance of a psychological question for its own sake, apart from personalities, will read in it throughout nothing but envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. However, on that point I am not afraid. I don't think any man living has a profounder respect than I have for the genius of Matthew Arnold, and William Morris, and Herbert Spencer, and George Meredith. I'm sure no man living has a more generous appreciation than I have for the genius of Andrew Lang and Austin Dobson, of James and Howells, of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Besant. I know that genius simply swarms among us; that in this age one may see such men as Croll wasting, like spendthrifts, upon a solitary problem of the glacial epoch, vast constructive and organizing powers which in any other age would have secured them world-wide fame and reputation; such men as Beddoe, working for pure love, with inexhaustible industry, through a whole lifetime, at questions which everybody else ignores and neglects; such men as Galton, filled to the brim with ingenuity, acuteness, and insight, till it oozes out at their finger-ends, pouring forth in abundance upon an unheeding world the suggestive results of their piercing, keen, and all-sided thinking. I know that genius is choking and strangling itself in the keen struggle for recognition and consequent usefulness. But I know also that if genius is a drug, talent is a weed in modern London; and that talent too deserves its due honor. Men of ability throng thick around us—men of ability so exceptionally high that in any less richly gifted age than ours it would be universally recognized and crowned as genius. The commoner such talent becomes in the world the more supereminent must be the powers, or the more peculiar the twist, or the more marked the originality which will suffice to raise it into the higher category. In other words, what is talent to-day would have been genius yesterday; what is genius to-day will be but talent as men reckon to-morrow.—Fortnightly Review.