Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/August 1896/The Genius and his Environment III & IV

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WITH this outcome, we may return to the genius. And the first requirement is that we state the social man in the fewest terms, in order that we may then judge the genius with reference to the sane social man, the normal socius. What he is we have seen. He is a person who learns to judge by the judgments of society. What, then, shall we say of the genius from this point of view? Can the hero-worshiper be right in saying that the genius teaches society to judge; or shall we say that the genius, like other men, must learn to judge by the judgments of society? The most fruitful point of view is, no doubt, that which considers the genius a variation. And unless we do this it is evidently impossible to get any theory which will bring him into our general scheme. But how great a variation? and in what directions?—these are the questions. The great variations found in the criminal by heredity, the insane, the idiotic, etc., we have found excluded from society; so we may well ask why the genius is not excluded also. If our determination of the limits within which society decides who is to be excluded is correct, then the genius must come within these limits. He can not escape them and live socially.

The directions in which the genius actually varies from the average man are evident as a matter of fact. He is, first of all, a man of great power of thought, of great constructive imagination, as the psychologists would say. So let us believe, first, that a genius is a man who has, occasionally, greater thoughts than other men have. Is this a reason for excluding him from society? Certainly not; for by great thoughts we mean true thoughts, thoughts which will work, thoughts which bring in a new era of discovery of principles, or of their application. This is just what all development depends upon, this attainment of novelty, which is consistent with older knowledge and supplementary to it. But suppose a man have thoughts which are not true, which do not fit the topic of their application, which contradict established knowledges, or which result in bizarre and fanciful combinations of them; to that man we deny the name genius: he is a crank, an agitator, an anarchist, or what not. The test, then, which we bring to bear upon the intellectual variations which men show is that of truth, practical workability—in short, to sum it up, "fitness." Any thought, to live and germinate, must be a fit thought. And the community's sense of the fitness of the thought is their rule of judgment.

Now, the way the community got this sense—that is the great result we have reached above. Their sense of fitness is just what I called above their judgment. As far, at least, as it relates to matters of social import, it is of social origin. It reflects the outcome of all social heredity, tradition, education. The sense of social truth is their criterion of social thoughts, and unless the social reformer's thought be in some way fit to go into the setting thus made by earlier social development, he is not a genius but a crank.

I may best show the meaning of the claim that society makes upon the genius by asking in how far in actual life he manages to escape this account of himself to society. The facts are very plain, and this is the class of facts which writers like Mr. Spencer urge, as supplying an adequate rule for the application of the principles of their social philosophy. The simple fact is, say they, that without the consent of society the thoughts of your hero, whether he be genius or fool, are practically valueless. The fullness of time must come; and the genius before his time can not be, if judged by his works, a genius at all. His thought may be great, so great that, centuries after, society may attain to it as its richest outcome and its profoundest intuition, but before that time it is as bizarre as the madman's fancies and as useless. What would be thought, we might be asked, of a rat which developed upon its side the hand of a man, with all its exquisite mechanism of bone, muscle, tactile sensibility, and power of delicate manipulation, if the remainder of the creature were true to the pattern of a rat? Would not the rest of the rat tribe be justified in leaving this anomaly behind to starve in the hole where his singular appendage held him fast? Is such a rat any the less a monster because man finds use for his hands?

To a certain extent this argument is true and forcible. If social utility be our rule of definition, then certainly the premature genius is no genius. And this rule of definition may be put in another way which renders it still more plausible. The variations which occur in intellectual endowment in a community vary about a mean; there is theoretically an average man. And the differences among men which can be accounted for by any philosophy of life must be in some way referable to this mean. Variations which do not meet their counterpart at all in the social environment, but which strike all the social fellows with disapproval, finding no sympathy whatever, are thereby exposed to the charge of being "sports" of Nature and the fruit of chance. The lack of hearing which such a man gets sets him in a form of isolation which stamps him not only as the social crank but also as the cosmic tramp.

Put in its positive and usual form this view simply claims that man is always the outcome of the social movement. The reception he gets is the measure of the degree in which he adequately represents this movement. Certain variations are possible—men who are forward in the legitimate progress of society—and these men are the true and only geniuses. Other variations, which attempt to discount the future, are sports; for the only permanent discounting of the future is that which is projected from the elevation of the past.

The great defect of this view is found in its definitions. We exclaim at once: Who made the past the measure of the future? And who made social approval the measure of truth? What is there to eclipse the vision of the poet, the inventor, the seer, that he should not see over the heads of his generation, and raise his voice for that which to all men else lies behind the veil? The social philosophy of the school of Spencer can not answer these questions, I think; nor can it meet the appeal we all make to history when we cite the names of Aristotle, Pascal, and Newton, or of any of the men who have single handed and alone set guideposts to history, and given the world large portions of its heritage of truth. What can set limit to the possible variations of fruitful intellectual power? Rare such variations—that is their law: the greater the variation, the more rare! But so is genius: the greater, the more rare. And as to the rat with the human hand, he would not be left to starve and decay in his hole; he would be put in alcohol when he died, and kept in a museum! And the lesson which he would teach to the wise biologist would be that here, in this rat, Nature had shown her genius by discounting in advance the slow processes of evolution.

It is indeed the force of such considerations as these which has led to many justifications of the position that the genius is quite out of connection with the social movement of his time. Prof. William James, for instance, in a most vivid and interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly, October, 1888, brings out the implications of the doctrine of variations very clearly, and bases upon it the further position that the causes which enter into the production of variations in the heredity of the individual are altogether physiological, and so represent a complete "cycle," apart from the other "cycle" of causes found in the physical and social environment of the individual. So that the individual brings his variations to his society whether society will or not; and as to whether there be any harmony between him and his social fellows—that is a matter of outcome rather than of expectation or theory.

But this is not tenable, as we have reason to think, from the interaction which actually takes place between the two so-called "cycles" of causation. To be sure, the heredity of the individual is a physiological matter, in the sense that the son must inherit from his parents and their ancestors alone. But granted that two certain parents are his parents, we may ask how these two certain parents came to be his parents. How did his father come to marry his mother, and the reverse? This is distinctly a social question; and to its solution all the currents of social influence and suggestion contribute. Who is free from social considerations in selecting his wife? Does the coachman have an equal chance to get the heiress, or the blacksmith the clergyman's daughter? Do we find inroads made in Newport society by the ranchman and the dry-goods clerk? And are not the inroads which we do find, the inroads made by the dukes and the marquises, due to influences which are quite social and psychological? And, on the other hand, what leads the duke and the marquis to lay their titles at Newport doors, while the ranchman and the dry-goods clerk keep away, but the ability of both these types of suitors to estimate their chances just on social and psychological grounds? Novelists have rung the changes on this intrusion of the social into the physiological cycle. What is Bourget's Cosmopolis but a picture of the influence of social race characteristics on natural heredity, with the reaction of natural heredity again upon new social conditions?

A speech of a character of Balzac's is to the point, as illustrating a certain appreciation of these social considerations which we all to a degree entertain. The Duchesse de Carigliano says to Madame de Sommervieux: "I know the world too well, my dear, to abandon myself to the discretion of a too superior man. You should know that one may allow them to court one, but marry them—that is a mistake! Never—no, no. It is like wanting to find pleasure in inspecting the machinery of the opera instead of sitting in a box to enjoy its brilliant illusions." To be sure, we do not generally deliberate in this wise when we fall in love: but that is not necessary, since our social milieu sets the style by the kind of intangible deliberation which I have called judgment and fitness. Suppose a large number of Northern advocates of social equality should migrate to the Southern States, and, true to their theory, intermarry with the blacks. Would it not then be true that a social consideration had run athwart the physiological "cycle," in the production of a legitimate mulatto society? A whole race might spring from a purely psychological or social initiation. "Sexual selection" is certainly a principle of broad biological application in human affairs.

I agree, however, with the hero-worshiper so far as to say that we can not set the limitations of the genius on the side of variations in intellectual endowment. So, if the general position be true that he is a variation of some kind, we must seek somewhere else for the direction of those peculiar traits whose excess would be his condemnation. This we can only find in connection with the other demand that we make of the ordinary man—i. e., the demand that he be a man of good judgment. And to this we may finally turn.

In approaching this topic it is well to bear in mind a further result which follows from the reciprocal character of social relationships. If the man in question have thoughts which are socially true, he will, ipso facto, know that they are true. He is a social outcome as well as are the fellows who sit in judgment on him. He must judge his own thoughts, too, as they do. So his own proper estimate of things and thoughts, his relative sense of fitness, gets application by a direct law of his own mental processes to himself and to his own creations. The limitations which, in the judgment of society, his variations must not overstep, are set by his own judgment also. So we reach the conclusion regarding the intellectual variations which the genius may have: he and society must agree in regard to the fitness of them, although this agreement is not the emphatic thing. The essential thing in this matter of intellectual variation is that the thoughts thought must always be critically judged by the thinker himself. This may be illustrated in some detail.

Suppose we take the man of striking thoughts and with them no sense of fitness—none of the judgment about them which society has. He will go through a mighty host of discoveries every hour. The very eccentricity of his imaginations will only appeal to him for the greater admiration. He will bring his most chimerical schemes out and air them with the same assurance that the real inventor exhibits his; but such a man is not pronounced a genius. If his ravings about this and that are harmless, we smile and let him talk; but if his lack of judgment extend to things of grave import, or be accompanied by equal illusions respecting himself and society in other relations, then we classify his case and put him into the proper ward for the insane. Two of the commonest forms of such impairment of judgment are seen in the victims of persecution on the one hand, the exaltés on the other. The images which throng into the consciousness of the former of these are those which represent his own powerlessness before an ever-present enemy. Neither the assurances of friends nor the evidence of his own senses are sufficient to rectify the judgment he makes that these imaginings are real. He has no true sense of values, no way of selecting the fit combinations of his fancy from the unfit; and even though some transcendently true and original thoughts were to flit through his diseased imagination, they would go as they came, and the world would still wait for a genius to arise and rediscover them. The other class—the exaltés—are somewhat the reverse. The illusion of personal greatness is so strong that their thoughts are infallible and their persons divine.

Men of such perversions of judgment are common among us. We all know the man who seems to be full of rich and varied thoughts, who holds us sometimes by the extraordinary power of his conceptions or the beauty of his creations. And yet we find in it all some incongruity, some eminently unfit element, some grotesque application, some elevation or depression from the level of commonplace truth, some ugly strain in the æsthetic impression. The man himself does not know it, and that is the reason that he includes it. His sense of fitness is dwarfed or paralyzed. We in the community learn to regret that he is so "visionary," with all his talent, and so we accommodate ourselves to his unfruitfulness, and at the best only expect an occasional hour's entertainment under the spell of his thinking. This certainly is not the man to produce world movements.

Most of the men we call "cranks" are of this type. They are essentially lacking in judgment, and the popular estimate of them is exactly right.

It is evident, therefore, from this last explanation, that there is a second direction of variation among men—a variation in their sense of the truth and value of their own thoughts, and with them of the thoughts of others. This is the second limitation which the man of genius shares with men generally—the limitation in the amount of variation which he may show in his social judgments, especially as these variations affect the claim which he makes upon society for recognition. It is evident that this must be an interesting and important factor in our estimate of the claims of the hero to our worship, especially since it is the more obscure side of his temperament, and the side generally overlooked altogether. I shall therefore devote the rest of my space to the attempt to illustrate this matter of what I shall call the "social sanity" of the man of genius.


The first indication of the kind of social variation which oversteps even the degree of indulgence society is willing to accord to the great thinker, is to be found in the effect which education has upon character. The discipline of social development is, as we have seen, mainly conducive to the reduction of eccentricities, the leveling off of personal peculiarities. All who come into the social heritage learn the same great series of lessons derived from the past, and all get the sort of judgment required in social life from the common exercises of the home and school in the formative years of their education. So we should expect that the greater singularities of disposition which represent insuperable difficulty in the process of social assimilation would show themselves early. Here it is that the actual conflict comes—the struggle between impulse and social restraint. Many a genius owes the redemption of his intellectual gifts to legitimate social uses to the victory gained by a teacher and the discipline learned through obedience. And thus it is, also, that so many who give promise of great distinction in early life fail to achieve it. They run off after a phantom, and society pronounces them mad. In their case the personal factor has overcome the social factor; they have failed in the lessons they should have learned, their own self-criticism is undisciplined, and they miss the mark.

These two extremes of variation, however, do not exhaust the case. One of them tends in a measure to the blurring of the light of genius, and the other to the rejection of social restraint to a degree which makes the potential genius over into a crank. The average man is the mean. But the greatest reach of human attainment, and with it the greatest influence ever attained by man, is yet more than any one of these. It is not enough, the hero-worshiper may still say, that the genius should have sane and healthy judgment, as society reckons sanity. The fact still remains that even in his social judgments he may instruct society. He may stand alone and, by sheer might, lift his fellow-men up to his point of vantage, to their eternal gain and to his eternal praise. Even let it be that he must have self-criticism, the sense of fitness you speak of, that very sense may transcend the vulgar judgment of his fellows. His judgment may be saner than theirs; and as his intellectual creations are great and unique, so may his sense of their truth be full and unique. Wagner led the musical world by his single-voiced praise of the work of Wagner; and Darwin had to be true to his sense of truth, to the formulations of his thought, though no man accorded him the right to instruct his generation either in the one or in the other. To be sure, this divine assurance of the man of genius may be counterfeited; the vulgar dreamer often has it. But, nevertheless, when a genius has it, he is not a vulgar dreamer.

This is true, I think, and the explanation of it leads us to the last fruitful application of the doctrine of variations. Just as the intellectual endowment of men may vary within very wide limits, so may the social qualifications of men. There are men who find it their meat to do society service. There are men so naturally born to take the lead in social reform, in executive matters, in organization, in planning our social campaigns for us, that we turn to them as by instinct. They have a kind of insight to which we can only bow. They gain the confidence of men, win the support of women, and excite the acclamations of children. These people are the social geniuses. They seem to anticipate the discipline of social education. They do not need to learn the lessons of the social environment. Their "tact," we say, is great.

Now, such persons undoubtedly represent a variation toward suggestibility of the most delicate and singular kind. They surpass the teachers from whom they learn. It is hard to say that they are "learning to judge by the judgments of society." And yet they differ from the man whose eccentricities forbid him to learn through the discipline of society. The two are opposite extremes of variation; that is the only possible construction of them. It is the difference between the ice-boat which travels faster than the wind, and the skater who braves the wind and battles up-current in it. The latter is soon beaten by the opposition; the former outruns its ally. The crank, the eccentric, the enthusiast—all these run counter to sane social judgment; but the genius leads society to his own point of view, and interprets the social movement, of which he and his fellows are part, so accurately, sympathetically, and with such profound insight that his very singularity is its inspiration.

Now, let a man combine with this insight—this extraordinary sanity of social judgment—the power of great inventive and constructive thought, and then, at last, we have our hero, and one that we well may worship. To great thought he adds balance; to originality, judgment. This is the man to start the world movements, if we want a single man to start them. For, as he thinks profoundly, so he discriminates his thoughts and assigns them values. His fellows judge with him or learn to judge after him, and lend to him the motive force of success—enthusiasm, reward. He may wait for recognition, he may suffer imprisonment, he may be muzzled for thinking his thoughts, he may die, and with him the truth to which he gave but silent birth. But the world comes, by its slower progress, to traverse the path in which he wished to lead it; and if so be that his thought was recorded, the world revives it in regretful sentences on his tomb.

The thing to be emphasized, therefore, on the rational side of the phenomenally great man—I mean on the side of our means of accounting for him in reasonable terms—is the sanity of his judgment; the fact that he has great thoughts being the acknowledged and familiar fact. And the variations from this social sanity give all the ground that various writers have for the one-sided views which are now current in popular literature. We are told, on one hand, that the genius is a "degenerate"; on the other hand, that he is to be classed with those of "insane" temper; and yet again, that his main characteristic is his readiness to outrage society. All these so-called theories rely upon facts—as far as they have any facts to rely upon—which we may readily estimate from our present point of view. As far as a really great man busies himself mainly with things which are objective, unsocial, and morally neutral—such as electricity, natural history, and mechanical theory with its applications—of course, the mental capacity which he possesses is the main thing, and his absorption in this may lead to a warped sense of the more ideal and refined relationships which are had in view by the writer in quest for degeneracy. It will still be admitted, however, by those who are conversant with the history of science, that the greatest scientific geniuses have been men of profound quietness of life and normal social development. It is to the literary and artistic genius that the seeker after abnormities has to turn; and in this field, again, the facts serve to show their own meaning. As a general rule, these artistic phenomena do not represent the union of variations which we find in the greatest genius. Such men are often distinctly lacking in power of sustained constructive thought. Their insight is largely what is called intuitive. They have flashes of emotional experience which crystallize into single creations of art. They depend upon "inspiration"—a word which is responsible for half the overrating of such men, and for a good many of their illusions. Not that they do not perform great feats in the several spheres in which their several "inspirations" come; but with it all they do present the sort of unbalance and fragmentary intellectual endowment which allies them, in particular instances, to the classes of persons whom the theories I am discussing have in view. It is only to be expected that the kind of sharp jutting variation in the emotional and æsthetic realm which the great artist often shows should carry with it irregularities in heredity in other respects.

Besides, the very habit of this kind of genius, the habit of living by inspiration, puts a premium upon any half-hidden peculiarities which he may have, both in the remark of his associates and in the conduct of his own social duties. He gets to be considered the social exception, the anomaly, the man to be indulged; and his own sense of the greatness and peculiarity of his gifts leads him to claim the indulgence. I honestly think that a due imposition of certain social penalties upon men like Byron in the crises of their existence would at once have purified their lives and dignified their art; while at the same time it would have removed some of the best examples of Nordau and the rest, and suppressed the stimulus to the same kind of social deformity in later men of talent. Mark you, I do not discredit the superb art of these examples of the literary and artistic "degenerate"; that would be to make some of the highest ministrations of genius, to us men, random and illegitimate, and to deny to humanity some of its most exalting and intoxicating sources of inspiration. But I do still say that wherein such men move and instruct us they are in these spheres above all things sane with our own sanity, and wherein they are insane they do discredit to the inheritance to which their better gifts make legitimate claim.

One of Balzac's characters again hits the nail on the head. "My dear mother," says Augustine, in the Sign of the Cat and Racket, "you judge superior people too severely. If their ideas were the same as other folks they would not be men of genius."

"Very well," replies Madame Guillaume, "then let men of genius stop at home and not get married. What! A man of genius is to make his wife miserable? And because he is a genius it is all right! Genius! genius! It is not so very clever to say black one minute and white the next, as he does, to interrupt other people, to dance such rigs at home, never to let you know which foot you are to stand on, to compel his wife never to be amused unless my lord is in gay spirits, and to be dull when he is dull."

"But, mother, the very nature of such imaginations!"

"What are such 'imaginations'?" Madame Guillaume went on, interrupting her daughter again. "Fine ones are his, my word! What possesses a man, that all on a sudden, without consulting a doctor, he takes it into his head to eat nothing but vegetables? There, get along! if he were not so grossly immoral, he would be fit to shut up in a lunatic asylum."

"O mother, can you believe?"

"Yes, I do believe. I met him in the Champs-Elysées. He was on horseback. Well, at one minute he was galloping as hard as he could tear, and then pulled up to a walk. I said to myself at that moment, 'There is a man devoid of judgment!'"


The main consideration which this paper aims to present, that of the responsibility of all men, be they great or be they small, to the same standards of social judgment, and to the same philosophical treatment, is illustrated in the very man to whose genius we owe the principle upon which my remarks are based—Charles Darwin; and it is singularly appropriate that we should also find the history of this very principle, that of variations with the correlative principle of selection, furnishing a capital illustration of my inferences. Darwin was, with the single possible exception of Aristotle, the man with the sanest judgment that the human mind has ever brought to the investigation of Nature. He represented, in an exceedingly adequate way, the progress of scientific method up to his day. He was disciplined in all the natural science of his predecessors. His judgment was an epitome of the scientific insight of the ages which culminated then. The time was ripe for just such a great constructive thought as his—ripe, that is, as far as the accumulation of scientific data was concerned. His judgment differed then from the judgment of his scientific contemporaries mainly in that it was sounder and safer than theirs. And with it Darwin was a great constructive thinker. He had the intellectual strength which put the judgment of his time to the strain—everybody's but his own. This is seen in the fact that Darwin was not the first to speculate in the line of his great discovery, nor to reach formulas; but with the others guessing took the place of induction. The formula was an uncriticised thought. The unwillingness of society to embrace the hypothesis was justified by the same lack of evidence which prevented the thinkers themselves from giving it proof. And if no Darwin had appeared, the problem of biological development would have been left about where it had been left by the speculation of the Greek mind. Darwin reached his conclusion by what that other great scientific genius in England, Newton, described as the essential of discovery, "patient thought"; and having reached it, he had no alternative but to judge it true and pronounce it to the world.

But the fate of the principle of variations with natural selection had the reception which shows that good judgment may rise higher than the level of its own social origin. Even yet the principle of Darwin is but a spreading ferment in many spheres of human thought in which it is destined to bring the same revolution that it has worked in the sciences of organic life. And it was not until other men, who had both authority with the public and information enough to follow Darwin's thought, seconded his judgment, that his great formula began to have currency in scientific circles.

Now I ask. Does not any theory of man which loses sight of the supreme sanity of Darwin, and with him of Aristotle, and Angelo, and Leonardo, and Newton, and Leibnitz, and Shakespeare, seem weak and paltry? Do not delicacy of sentiment, brilliancy of wit, fineness of rhythmical and aesthetic sense, the beautiful contributions of the talented special performer, sink into something like apologies—something even like profanation of that name to conjure by, the name of genius? And all the more if the profanation is made real by the moral irregularities or the social shortcomings which give some color of justification to the appellation "degenerate." But, on the other hand, why run to the other extreme and make this most supremely human of all men an anomaly, a prodigy, a bolt from the blue, an element of extreme disorder, born to further or to distract the progress of humanity by a chance which no man can estimate? The resources of psychological theory are adequate, as I have endeavored to show, to the construction of a doctrine of society which is based upon the individual, in all the possibilities of variation which his heredity may bring forth, and which yet does not hide or veil those heights of human greatness on which the halo of genius is wont to rest. Let us add knowledge to our surprise in the presence of such a man, and respect to our knowledge, and worship, if you please, to our respect, and with it all we then begin to see that because of him the world is the better place for us to live and work in.

We find that, after all, we may be social philosophers and hero-worshipers as well. And by being philosophers we have made our worship more an act of tribute to human nature. The heathen who bows in apprehension or awe before the image of an unknown god may be rendering all the worship he knows; but the soul that finds its divinity by knowledge and love has communion of another kind. So the worship which many render to the unexplained, the fantastic, the cataclysmal, this is the awe that is born of ignorance. Given a philosophy that brings the great into touch with the commonplace, that delineates the forces which arise to their greatest grandeur only in a man here and there, that enables us to contrast the best in us with the poverty of him, and then we may do intelligent homage. To know that the greatest men of earth are men who think as I do, but deeper, and see the real as I do, but clearer, who work to the goal that I do, but faster, and serve humanity as I do, but better—that may be an incitement to my humility, but it is also an inspiration to my life.

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