Homer, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Tolstoy; Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, and Einstein. What do these world-famous figures in the arts and sciences have in common?--apart from the fact that their achievements are a century or more old. Most of us would probably answer something like this: all ten individuals through their work permanently changed the way that humanity perceived the world: each possessed something we call genius. But pressed to be more precise, we find it remarkably hard to define genius, especially among individuals of our own time.
Despite his fame and influence, Pablo Picasso's stature as a genius is still debated, for example, as is that of Virginia Woolf in literature. In science, Stephen Hawking, although often regarded by the general public as a contemporary genius comparable with Einstein, is not accepted as such by the physicists who fully understand his work; they regard Hawking as only one of several current luminaries in the field of cosmology.
Genius is highly individual and unique, of course, yet it shares a compelling, inevitable quality--for the general public and professionals alike. Darwin's ideas are still required reading for every working biologist; they continue to generate fresh thinking and experiments around the world. So do Einstein's theories among physicists. Shakespeare's plays and Mozart's melodies and harmonies continue to move people in languages and cultures far removed from their native England and Austria. Contemporary ‘geniuses' may come and go, but the idea of genius will not let go of us. Genius is the name we give to a quality of work that transcends fashion, fame, and reputation: the opposite of a period piece. Somehow, genius abolishes both the time and the place of its origin.
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'. It was already in wide currency in 1711, when Joseph Addison published an article on ‘Genius' in his newly established journal The Spectator. ‘There is no character more frequently given to a writer than that of being a genius', wrote Addison. ‘There is not a heroic scribbler in the nation that has not his admirers who think him a great genius; and as for your smatterers in tragedy, there is scarce a man among them who is not cried up by one or other for a prodigious genius.'
In the middle of the 18th century, Samuel Johnson attempted a definition that is recognizably modern in its emphasis on genius as being something achievable through dedication. According to Johnson, ‘...[S]ince a genius, whatever it be, is like fire in the flint, only to be produced by collision with a proper subject, it is the business of every man to try whether his faculties may not happily cooperate with his desires, and since they whose proficiency he admires, knew their own force only by the event, he needs but engage in the same undertaking, with equal spirit, and may reasonably hope for equal success.'
Not long after, Johnson's friend, the painter Joshua Reynolds, noted in his Discourses on Art that: ‘The highest ambition of every Artist is to be thought a man of Genius.' But in 1826, the critic William Hazlitt suggested in his essay ‘Whether genius is conscious of its powers?': ‘No really great man ever thought himself so. ... He who comes up to his own idea of greatness, must always have had a very low standard of it in his mind.' Picasso, for instance, said publicly: ‘When I am alone with myself, I cannot regard myself as an artist. In the strict sense of the word. The great painters were Giotto, Rembrandt, and Goya.'
The scientific study of genius began with the publication in 1869 of Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, the founder of psychology, who conducted detailed research on the backgrounds, lives, and achievements of illustrious individuals and their relatives, deceased and living. But strangely, there is hardly a mention of ‘genius' in Galton's book; no attempt is made to define genius; and no entry for ‘genius' appears in the book's index (unlike ‘intelligence'). When Galton published a second edition in 1892, he regretted his title and wished he could change it to Hereditary Ability. ‘There was not the slightest intention on my part to use the word genius in any technical sense, but merely as expressing an ability that was exceptionally high,' he wrote in a new preface. ‘There is much that is indefinite in the application of the word genius. It is applied to many a youth by his contemporaries, but more rarely by biographers, who do not always agree among themselves.'
That unavoidable imprecision persists today. Although certain individuals may be widely accepted as geniuses, there cannot be a consensus on exactly who is, and is not, a genius. Indeed, this paradox is part of genius's allure--to academics studying genius almost as much as to Dr Johnson's ‘every man'.