1930s >> 1936 >> no-384-august-1936

Does Genius Come from Unhappiness?

Genius comes from unhappiness! So reads a headline in an article in the Liverpool Evening Express. The grounds for this amazing assertion, you ask? The only reason given by the author of the article in question is that ”the great geniuses of the world have been far from happy men.” One naturally asks whether, had they been happy, they might not have been even greater geniuses.

The author adopts the expedient of quoting selected instances in support of his assertion, but many other selected instances could be quoted in opposition.

Before we start talking about genius, it might be of interest to understand what is generally meant by this term, and for this purpose the following definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th, 1929, edition) will be of assistance : —

   “Genius itself has become the regular English word for the highest conceivable form of original ability, something altogether extraordinary and beyond even supreme educational prowess, and differing in kind, apparently, from “talent,” which is usually distinguished as marked intellectual capacity, short only of the inexplicable and unique endowment to which the term ‘genius’ is confined.”

The greatest instance of genius given by Mr. Charles Carter, the author in question, is that of Michelangelo—sculptor, painter, architect, military engineer, and poet. Yet the only instance of unhappiness given here is the fact that he was “unhappy” because he was not able to devote as much time as he would have liked to one of his favourite works—the tomb of Julius II. Yet obviously his genius had become apparent and was recognised long beforehand, so it might almost be argued from the evidence given by Mr. Charles Carter himself that it was Michelangelo’s own genius which caused his “unhappiness.” This would indeed appear to be the case, because it was the recognition of Michelangelo’s genius which caused the various potentates to quarrel over him.

Again, however, definition becomes necessary. What do we mean by happiness or unhappiness? Many attempts have been made to define happiness, but the writer ventures to put forward a definition of his own, for which, however, he does not claim any originality, namely, a condition of life in which the individual is able to give full scope to his mental and physical ability. Such a definition will explain the  unhappiness” of Michelangelo, but it does not follow that genius itself results from such unhappiness. It would perhaps be more correct to say that there is a tremendous variety in the make-up of individuals and that the physical factors which make for “genius” also makes for an incomplete fulfilment of the human organism in all its functions.

Possibly the simplest answer of all to the assertion that genius causes unhappiness is to point out that here are two conditions, viz., “genius” and “unhappiness,” and one might just as well argue that genius causes unhappiness as that unhappiness causes genius. The author has either fallen into the trap or deliberately adopted the cheap method of connecting two facts and assuming that the one is the cause of the other when both may, in fact, be due to some other cause.

To revert for a moment to the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition given above, it will be noticed that the main idea of genius is originality. When, however, we study originality in the light of historical development, we find that history generally records only those instances which have been useful to the ruling class at a particular epoch, or useful to a new rising class who are about to seize the reins of power. Not only that, but the nature of the originality itself depends upon the stage in economic development which any particular society has reached. We thus find that whilst Galileo was, in 1632, forced to recant his theories. Sir Isaac Newton’s great work, published only 55 years later, brought him honour and renown, he being knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. Whilst Galileo’s theories menaced the interest of the then dominant church, in Great Britain economic development had reached a stage further, and the new merchant capitalist class welcomed any discovery which seemed beneficial to their interests.

Intelligence is obviously allied to the “genius” spoken of above, and the Practical Psychologist of May, 1935, contained a summary of the conclusions which have so far been reached on this subject. Briefly, they are that intelligence is an inherent quality; it may be dormant for some time, but must be already present if it is to be developed. The bright child becomes the bright adult. So that we see that, according to this view at any rate, intelligence does not come from unhappiness. Intelligence is defined as the power to see the various relations or connections between things.

Original ability may, of course, apply to any form of human activity. It may apply to painting, sculpture, music, architecture, mathematics, or practical science. In a system of society based upon the private ownership of the means of production, the last of these is deemed the most important, and hence the average man immediately thinks of practical scientific inventions in connection with the word “genius.” Previous instances have been given in these columns of the meagre rewards granted by capitalism to its inventors. Whilst the inventors are themselves spurred on to investigate and experiment by their need for self-expression, yet where you have a system of society based upon the private ownership of the means of production, the inventor, if he happens to belong to the working class, is obliged to eke out a miserable existence in some uncongenial occupation in order to provide him with the wherewithal of the means of life before he may even attempt to make the researches in which he is interested. Frequently he is unable to patent his ideas on account of the expense, time, and formalities involved, and his ideas may lie dormant for years on this account. Even if he is able to patent them, he is often faced with manufacturers who will not trouble to make the necessary changes to their plant, or by a combine which offers to buy the patent at the price of a Ritz dinner. In this country the inventions of employees in connection with the work on which they are employed are the property of their employers.

Only when “genius” is freed from its subservience to a ruling class, will it be possible for it to be developed to its fullest extent. Such a condition of affairs can only come about under Socialism—the next stage in the development of society, when men will be freed alike from their dependence on a ruling class and the necessity of ministering to the wants of that class, and will be able to devote their energies to improving the means of production and to encourage all forms of ability which promise to add to the general welfare and happiness of mankind

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