Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

GENIUS.

Of genius or demon, we have already spoken in the article on “angel.” It is not easy to know precisely whether the peris of the Persians were invented before the demons of the Greeks, but it is very probable that they were. It may be, that the souls of the dead, called shades, manes, etc., passed for demons. Hesiod makes Hercules say that a demon dictated his labors.

The demon of Socrates had so great a reputation, that Apuleius, the author of the “Golden Ass,” who was himself a magician of good repute, says in his “Treatise on the Genius of Socrates,” that a man must be without religion who denies it. You see that Apuleius reasons precisely like brothers Garasse and Bertier: “You do not believe that which I believe; you are therefore without religion.” And the Jansenists have said as much of brother Bertier, as well as of all the world except themselves. “These demons,” says the very religious and filthy Apuleius, “are intermediate powers between ether and our lower region. They live in our atmosphere, and bear our prayers and merits to the gods. They treat of succors and benefits, as interpreters and ambassadors. Plato says, that it is by their ministry that revelations, presages, and the miracles of magicians, are effected.”— Cæterum sunt quædam divinæ mediæ potestates, inter summum æthera, et infimas terras, in isto intersitæ æris spatio, per quas et desideria nostra et merita ad deos commeant. Hos Græco nomine demonias nuncupant. Inter terricolas cœli colasque victores, hinc pecum, inde donorum: qui ultro citroque portant, hinc petitiones, inde suppetias: ceu quidam utriusque interpretes, et salutigeri. Per hos eosdem, ut Plato in symposio autumat, cuncta denuntiata; et majorum varia miracula, omnesque præsagium species reguntur.”

St. Augustine has condescended to refute Apuleius in these words:

“It is impossible for us to say that demons are neither mortal nor eternal, for all that has life, either lives eternally, or loses the breath of life by death; and Apuleius has said, that as to time, the demons are eternal. What then remains, but that demons hold a medium situation, and have one quality higher and another lower than mankind; and as, of these two things, eternity is the only higher thing which they exclusively possess, to complete the allotted medium, what must be the lower, if not misery?” This is powerful reasoning!

As I have never seen any genii, demons, peris, or hobgoblins, whether beneficent or mischievous, I cannot speak of them from knowledge. I only relate what has been said by people who have seen them.

Among the Romans, the word “genius” was not used to express a rare talent, as with us: the term for that quality was ingenium. We use the word “genius” indifferently in speaking of the tutelar demon of a town of antiquity, or an artist, or a musician. The term “genius” seems to have been intended to designate not great talents generally, but those into which invention enters. Invention, above everything, appeared a gift from the gods — this ingenium, quasi ingenitum, a kind of divine inspiration. Now an artist, however perfect he may be in his profession, if he have no invention, if he be not original, is not considered a genius. He is only inspired by the artists his predecessors, even when he surpasses them.

It is very probable that many people now play at chess better than the inventor of the game, and that they might gain the prize of corn promised him by the Indian king. But this inventor was a genius, and those who might now gain the prize would be no such thing. Poussin, who was a great painter before he had seen any good pictures, had a genius for painting. Lulli, who never heard any good musician in France, had a genius for music.

Which is the more desirable to possess, a genius without a master, or the attainment of perfection by imitating and surpassing the masters which precede us?

If you put this question to artists, they will perhaps be divided; if you put it to the public, it will not hesitate. Do you like a beautiful Gobelin tapestry better than one made in Flanders at the commencement of the arts? Do you prefer modern masterpieces of engraving to the first wood-cuts? the music of the present day to the first airs, which resembled the Gregorian chant? the makers of the artillery of our time to the genius which invented the first cannon? everybody will answer, “yes.” All purchasers will say: “I own that the inventor of the shuttle had more genius than the manufacturer who made my cloth, but my cloth is worth more than that of the inventor.

In short, every one in conscience will confess, that we respect the geniuses who invented the arts, but that the minds which perfect them are of more present benefit.

§ II.

The article on “Genius” has been treated in the “Encyclopædia” by men who possess it. We shall hazard very little after them.

Every town, every man possessed a genius. It was imagined that those who performed extraordinary things were inspired by their genius. The nine muses were nine genii, whom it was necessary to invoke; therefore Ovid says: “Et Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo” —“The God within us, He the mind inspires.

But, properly speaking, is genius anything but capability? What is capability but a disposition to succeed in an art? Why do we say the genius of a language? It is, that every language, by its terminations, articles, participles, and shorter or longer words, will necessarily have exclusive properties of its own.

By the genius of a nation is meant the character, manners, talents, and even vices, which distinguish one people from another. It is sufficient to see the French, English, and Spanish people, to feel this difference.

We have said that the particular genius of a man for an art is a different thing from his general talent; but this name is given only to a very superior ability. How many people have talent for poetry, music, and painting; yet it would be ridiculous to call them geniuses.

Genius, conducted by taste, will never commit a gross fault. Racine, since his “Andromache,” “Le Poussin,” and “Rameau,” has never committed one. Genius, without taste, will often commit enormous errors; and, what is worse, it will not be sensible of them.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25