Mini-Feature: Defining "Genius"

How would you define genius?

Can genius be defined? Should it be defined? What genius wants his or her genius to be defined? Is there not a creepy danger in defining genius out from under genius—in this “defining” becoming, first in the minds of definers, then in the minds of others, the “real” genius, the one that arbitrates all matters and questions of genius? What is so great about genius after all—what would the advantage be of cutting into the person or the thing, not simply finding this “holy grail” but questing after it, seeking to master the “natural world” wherein genius after all may above all want to hide, hide from exactly those who would scorch the earth if it meant at last gripping, grasping, controlling, and ultimately possessing the knowledge, the true knowledge, of genius?

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


It seems like there’s a difference between genius and being a genius. Genius I see as the spirit of wit and apt formulation that breathes through everyone at various times. In the sense that a fully shuffled deck of cards is almost certainly in an unprecedented, unique order, the originality of any human specimen’s genetic coding provides him with the capacity of making truly unique statements or gestures of profundity or flash. That’s genius, which moves among people and peoples with a kind of insouciance....like in a “language speaks man” kind of way. 

A genius is different. Some people burn with originality and are capable of hitting invisible targets regularly. It’s like they have access to other dimensions that baffle us, like the sphere in Flatland. Shakespeare with his zero-person authorship is an example—try to identify his point of view or where “he” is speaking. It’s all from the perspective of eternity. Or Kant, who keeps more balls in the air than seems possible to follow even as a reader, much less a creator.

We all have moments of inspiration. But some are turbines of inspiration. 

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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genius is a presiding deity, hovering over us from the moment we are begotten (genitus). From this meaning there develops the sense of genius which means the particular divine spirit of a place, person, or thing: the genius which attends upon music, say, or J.S. Bach, or the town of Leipzig. In some rare cases a person’s genius is the genius of a human practice, as in Bach’s case: he was graced by the very spirit of music, and from his birth the spirit of his life was that of music. 

This is a beautiful myth, and a pretty good metaphorical description of what we mean by genius. It is why we can fittingly say someone has a “genius” for bartending, without degrading the higher geniuses such as that of Bach: everything has its particular genius, because everything has its essence and its purpose. To “be” a genius at something is actually to share the genius of that thing, to excel at it natively with a kind of blessed kinship.  

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind