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Opinion | Ingenious and democratic: Two sides of the same coin

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Ordinarily, we think that a genius, among other things, is someone who is generally better than others. This sense is clearly not egalitarian. However, I think that a properly philosophical concept of genius is not only egalitarian, but the product of democratization of the societies, and it is the democratization’s ultimate purpose.

The key feature of an ordinary idea of genius is that a genius is someone who has been granted talent by some force independent of them. Geniuses are privileged by some force independent of them.

Take the concept of artistic genius expressed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The artistic genius sets up certain novel, original aesthetic rules, yes, but he does so because nature speaks through him. His brush or chisel is guided by a force that is truly beyond him. The greatness of this genius’s creation is in a way mysterious; we can imitate the works of this genius, but we cannot become like him just out of our own volition.

This sensibility about genius is ubiquitous. In popular consciousness, popular science and academia, we are often eager to say with admiration that some historical figure — a scientist, a thinker, a politician — was a true genius in the sense that this genius was so singular, such a miracle of nature, that we cannot compare to them. Some even say that we will never have more geniuses in the future. 

But this is dubious. By such an idea of genius, we mean that these geniuses were by nature destined to be great and we cannot even think this greatness could apply to us. But how elitist at its heart this notion is! The aristocracy in the past and the quasi-aristocracy of the present, which is against inheritance taxations and such provisions, all share the very same sensibility: that they are just created by nature to be great.

This unpleasant anti-democratic unavailability of genius should make us suspicious about these alleged geniuses. We, democratic peoples of this planet, no longer accept that there are some zones of privileged access to understanding reality and creating great things. So, when we hear that some thinker of the past had some genius ungraspable by us, we tend to respond with ambivalence and a question: “How can we even know that they were not only ostensibly ingenious?” If they are not understandable, we do not even know if there is a point in trying to understand them at least a bit.

Our ordinary sense of the word “genius” is thus much more paradoxical than it sounds at first. It is not just that we claim for geniuses some ungraspable privilege, or that they are better than us, but we do not really believe that this means anything to us, and we do not care accordingly about them.

The ordinary idea of genius is at its heart very abstract and does not capture much of what concerns contemporary societies. It seems not just inappropriate to aspire to become a genius but also insane. You are born to be a genius or not, and it is in any case not something you should seek to become.

I think we should completely change this outlook. We should treat becoming a genius as something dependent primarily not on nature but on human will, and — hence — also obtainable potentially by everyone. 

But to do this we must start viewing geniuses in a very specific way. Not as instruments of nature that serve the creation of beautiful artistic objects. Not as those who have great memory or computational skills and are thus praised because they are as good as computers. Not as those who are so good at fierce competition on the financial markets that they are wolves. No, a genius in my proposed understanding is someone who is the best at being human: a self-conscious, creative and social animal.

I have just said that genius understood as an excellent human is an end, a purpose of democratization. But I think it is also the emergence of democracy that has made the concept of genius for the first time make sense.

Alexis de Tocqueville argued that democratization makes everyone equal, but also mediocre. However, such a position assumes that if everyone is equal, everyone must be somewhere in between being great and being completely uncreative and unfree. I, on the other hand, see it completely feasible to think that everyone can be equal and great.

The source of the great democratic ideal of the equality of all humans is the conviction that all humans can be equal; that is, they are free to be equal. Now, if we establish that every human is in principle free, then it is natural to try to understand and practice this freedom better and better, to make real use of it. And as we deepen our human freedom, we become more and more self-conscious, creative and capable of thoughtful deeds for the society or exceptionally devoted and inspiring friendships.

This is how democratization of the world brings true geniuses. The freedom it brings makes us all equal, average, but it also makes the average not mediocrity but genius. 

We can actually posit this even more radically: as our human freedom becomes more and more manifest, our conscience tells us increasingly often that each one of us should exercise our freedom as much as we can. There arises a certain moral obligation to try to become ingenious. It is of course an obligation to become geniuses in the proper sense: the best humans possible.

But because it is a democratization and equalization of peoples that gives to individuals power to become the best humans and thus makes it not a matter of accident, but of self-fashioning, to enter the ranks of the best humans, we must be always conscious of the very truth that we are children of the democratizing society. Our being great humans assumes obligations towards this society, but even more fundamentally, a realization that although we have for the first time a power to truly shape ourselves, we are not the only force that shapes us.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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