Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
By Isaac Disraeli (17661848)
From The Literary Character
THAT faculty in art which individualises the artist, belonging to him and no other, and in a work forms that creative part whose likeness is not found in any other work,is it inherent in the constitutional dispositions of the individual, or can it be formed by patient acquisition?
Astonished at their own silent and obscure progress, some have imagined that they had formed their genius solely by their own studies; when they acquired, they conceived that they had generated; and losing the distinction between nature and habit, with fatal temerity the idolatry of philosophy substituted something visible and palpable, yet shaped by the most opposite fancies, called a Theory, for Nature herself! Men of genius, whose great occupation is to be conversant with the inspirations of nature, made up a factitious one among themselves, and assumed that they could operate without the intervention of the occult original. But Nature would not be mocked; and whenever this race of idolaters have worked without her agency, she, who is genial in all her own productions, invariably afflicts the votaries who do not feel her influence with the most stubborn sterility.
Theories of genius are the peculiar constructions of our own philosophical times: ages of genius had passed away, and they left no other record than their works; no preconcerted theory described the workings of the imagination to be without imagination, nor did they venture to teach how to invent invention.
The character of genius, viewed as the effect of habit and education, on the principle of the equality of the human mind, infers that men have an equal aptitude for the work of genius; a paradox which, with a more fatal one, came from the French school, and arose probably from an equivocal expression.
Locke employed the well-known comparison of the mind with white paper void of all characters, to free his famous Inquiry from that powerful obstacle to his system, the absurd belief of innate ideas, of notions of objects before objects were presented to observation. Our philosopher considered that this simple analogy sufficiently described the manner in which he conceived the impressions of the senses write themselves upon the mind. His French pupils, the amusing Helvetius, or Diderot, for they were equally concerned in the paradoxical LEsprit, inferred that this blank paper served also as an evidence that men had an equal aptitude for genius, just as the blank paper reflects to us whatever characters we trace on it. This equality of minds gave rise to the same monstrous doctrine in the science of metaphysics which that of another verbal misconception, the equality of men, did in that of politics. The Scottish metaphysicians powerfully combined to illustrate the mechanism of the mind,an important and a curious truth; for as rules and principles exist in the nature of things, and when discovered are only thence drawn out, genius unconsciously conducts itself by an uniform process; and when this process had been traced, they inferred that what was done by some men, under the influence of fundamental laws which regulate the march of the intellect, must also be in the reach of others who, in the same circumstances, apply themselves to the same study. But these metaphysicians resemble anatomists, under whose knife all men are alike: they know the structure of the bones, the movement of the muscles, and where the connecting ligaments lie; but the invisible principle of life flies from their touch: it is the practitioner on the living body who studies in every individual that peculiarity of constitution which forms the idiosyncracy.