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GENIUS (from Lat. genere, gignere)

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Originally appearing in Volume V11, Page 595 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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GENIUS (from Lat. genere, gignere), a term which originally meant, in Roman mythology, a generative and protecting spirit, who has no exact parallel in Greek religion, and at least in his earlier aspect is of purely Italian origin as one of the deities of family or household. Every man has his genius, who is not his creator, but only comes into being with him and is allotted to him at his birth. As a creative principle the genius is restricted 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 attempt, however, to define either quality, or to discriminate accurately between them, has given rise to continual controversy, and there is no agreement as to the nature of either; and the commonly quoted definitions of genius—such as Carlyle's " transcendant capacity of taking trouble, first of all,"1 in which the last three words are usually forgotten—are either admittedly incomplete or are of the nature of epigrams. Nor can it be said that any substantial light has been thrown on the matter by the modern physiological school, Lombroso and others, who regard the eccentricity of genius as its prime factor, and study it as a form of mental derangement. The error here is partly in ignoring the history of the word, and partly in misrepresenting the nature of the fact. There are many cases, no doubt, in which persons really insane, of one type or another, or with a history of physical degeneration or epilepsy, have shown remarkable originality, which may be described as genius, but there are at least just as many in whom no such physical abnormality can be observed. The word " genius " itself however has only gradually been used in English to express the degree of original greatness which is beyond ordinary powers of explanation, i.e. far beyond the capacity of the normal human being in creative work; and it is a convenient term(like Nietzsche's " superman ") for application to those rare individuals who in the course of evolution reveal from time to time the heights to which humanity may develop, in literature, art, science, or administrative life. The English usage was originally derived, naturally enough, from the Roman ideas contained in the term (with the analogy of the Greek & autos), and in the 16th and 17th centuries we find it equivalent simply to " distinctive character or spirit," a meaning still commonly given to the word. The more modern sense is not even mentioned in Johnson's Dictionary, and represents an 18th-century development, primarily due to the influence of German writers; the meaning of " distinctive natural capacity or endowment " had gradually been applied specially to creative minds such as those of poets and artists, by contrast with those whose mental ability was due to the results of education and study, and the antithesis has extended since, through constant discussions over the attempt to differentiate between the real nature of genius and that of " talent," until we now speak of the exceptional person not merely as having genius but as " a genius." This phraseology appears to indicate some reversion to the original Roman usage, and the identification of the great man with a generative spirit. Modern theories on the nature of " genius " should be studied with considerable detachment, but there is much that is interesting and thought-provoking in such works as J. F. Nisbet's Insanity of Genius (1891), Sir Francis Galton's Hereditary Genius (new ed., 1892), and C. Lombroso's Man of Genius (Eng. trans., 1891).
End of Article: GENIUS (from Lat. genere, gignere)
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