Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
An Hebraic View of Genius
By Isaac Mayer Wise (18191900)
[Born in Steingrub, Bohemia, 1819. Died in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1900. The Cosmic God. 1876.]
THE EXISTENCE of genius and its appearance at the right place and time is as mysterious as the centre of the universe. Genius is the superior spontaneity of the mind in productive and executive powers. It conceives, not by an act of volition or tiresome reflection, but freely, generously, and unsolicited; it conceives finished and complete thoughts, schemes, designs or images of universal truth, irresistible impulses to execute or realize, utter and promulgate. All this comes like a flash of lightning, unawares and not expected, in words, symbols, visions, or finished thoughts. The ancient Hebrews called it Ruach hak-kodesh, a holy spirit, and modern language names it Genius .
Talent trims its productions for the public mart, and modifies them to suit its customers; it depends on outward circumstances. Genius is inconsiderate, self-relying, and, like unconscious beauty, without any intention to please. Talent wills, and genius must: it is an internal necessity. Talent is local, genius universal. Talents are acquired, and genius is inborn. The ancient Hebrews looked upon the men of genius as special messengers from on high; therefore the Psalmist sings: Ye shall not touch my Messiahs, not maltreat my prophets, which is recast in the New Testament thus: A sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven. (With special reference to Deut., xviii. 18, 19.)
Wherever genius is placed it manifests itself by breaking through the crystallized forms, and pouring forth new creations of the mind, and is therefore the cause of all progressions in history. It is the same genius under all circumstances, although its peculiar manifestations always depend on outer circumstances. It is the same genius, whether among peasants or mechanics, students or poets, painters, sculptors, or architects, in the army, in the legislature or executive council of a nation, in a schoolmasters chair or a composers study. Its peculiar manifestations only depend on outward circumstances to throw it upon this or that department of human activity; but it will show everywhere its inventive force and the universality of its character. It is the highest differentiation of the vital force. The same genius which became a prophet in Israel, because the nations general turn of mind was religious ethical, might have become an apostle of the fine arts, or formal philosophy, in Greece, or become a great statesman or soldier in Rome, a prominent legislator in England, or a successful inventor in this country, simply by the change of external elements giving direction to genius, which remains the same genius under all influences.
Most every genius works against his own will and interests; ninety-nine out of each hundred are unhappy and dissatisfiedmany miserable, wretched. They feel keener, love profounder, know better, hope and scheme loftier, expect more, are disappointed and mortified more frequently, find less pleasure in carnal enjoyments, than the generality of people. In consequence of their creative powers they are always at war with existing and stereotyped forms and institutions, consequently in perpetual conflict with the conservative element and selfish motives. But there is in genius that irresistible force; it mustit must pour out the truth conceived, the beauty felt, the goodness admired, careless of all consequences. Therefore the ten thousand martyrs in all departments of mental and moral creations whose places in history, marked red with blood and tears, are awfully sublime .
Genius is wanting nowhere, when needed. Every great time begets its great men, every great cause its inspired apostles. They rise, as it were, from the atmosphere of the generation which requires their energies. When the oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt had reached an intolerable degree, Moses was a man already, prepared to redeem them. In a wonderful manner, none can account for it, the eighteenth century brought forth a mighty phalanx of brilliant geniuses, warriors, statesmen, poets, authors, composers, philosophers, scientists, and an unconscious passion for freedom and progression seized upon multitudes, to open widely the flood-gates of intelligence, to pour in its currents upon the nineteenth century, the age of radical revolution, where the lowest rapidly becomes the highest, and the highest sinks down lowest, to rejuvenate the human family.
And now reason comes in and asks, by whom is this marvellous and harmonious arrangement made? In the case of genius, we have evidently before us the same universal law which governs the organic world. Plenty of geniuses are perpetually born, and all are at work somehow and somewhere, so that, all destructive agencies otherwise necessary taken into consideration, there must appear the right man in the right place, where the Logos of History wants him, to shine forth in his pristine glory, and do the preordained work. The other men of genius, like the superfluous fish-egg, also perform a task; it takes many hands to build a city. Here we have before us an extra-human agency.
The law of history is progressive, and man not only remains in quality always the same, but the vast majority is conservative and opposed to every progressive step.Yet history preserves all that is good, true, and useful, continually increases its stock, spreads, utilizes, and promulgates it, contrary to the will of the masses, and in spite of all egotism and prevailing stupidity. Again, in spite of all, whatever is false, erroneous, wicked, nugatory, or useless, is overcome in history, by the very errors and blunders of great men and great nations; by the indomitable and irresistible Nemesis with all her mysterious furies, making war upon all corruption and degradation, and hurling continually the nugatory element and its creatures into oblivion. In spite, I repeat, in spite of all conservatism and egotism, genius rises always and everywhere, to be on hand at the proper time and place, to beget the grand wealth of new truths, to press onward and forward the inert bulk of humanity, tears or smiles, love or hatred, lakes of blood or streams of milk and honey, triumph or defeat, praise or scorn, crowns or gallows, it matters not to genius, it sacrifices itself against its own will, that then, from its very blood, armed and buckled champions of the new ideas rise, to grasp the banner trodden in the dust, and unfurl it again for victory and progression; but onward, always onward, is the watchword.