Two Kids of Genius

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

Two Kinds of Genius.

TO attempt to subject a quality so mysterious and variable as genius to any systematic arrangement or precise definition would be, at the best, a hopeless and foolish endeavour. But, apart from any such arbitrary classification, there are two main divisions of genius, apparent to everyone who considers the question thoughtfully, which have always played an important part in the history of the world. On the one hand, there are the warm-hearted, sympathetic lovers of mankind, who are inspired with a generous impatience of the injustice and misery with which the world is filled, and devote themselves to helping their fellow-creatures by some special teaching and example. On the other hand, there are the calm, philosophical minds, which take a widely intellectual and passionless view of life and its many-sided problems, and are content to tolerate the various evils and incongruities of social existence in consideration of the gradual progress of the human race. He would be a bold man who would venture to decide to which class of genius the world owes the greater debt of gratitude; but it must always be a matter of interest to study and compare them. Indeed, every man is inclined, according to his natural temperament, to one or the other of these great lines of thought, which, though so diverse in aim and direction, will probably be found in their ultimate result to be mutually helpful and supplementary, rather than antagonistic.

  It may be assumed that the object which all great men have most at heart is in the main the same—to improve the condition of their fellow-men. The existence of evil in the world is the great mystery of life, and all are equally concerned in the evident duty of lessening that evil; but when we proceed to consider how this can best be done, we are at once involve in difference and doubt. Are we to believe the philanthropic or the philosophic teachers of mankind?

  In all ages of the world there have been great men whose minds have been filled with indignation at the sight of the grievous and undeserved sufferings of their fellow-creatures, and who have made it their object to bring about a better state of things, by denouncing with their utmost force and passion the cause of the injustice. They dwell rather on the enormity of the evil than on its intermixture with good; they are moralists rather than artists; philanthropists rather than philosophers; originators or advocates of one special system rather than observers of mankind as a whole; possessed of intense enthusiasm for one great idea, but perhaps for that very mason unable to take a widely tolerant and appreciative view of all ranks and classes of society. This burning zeal for mankind, this eager desire to right the wrong, has appeared at all times and in many varieties of character. It was in this spirit that the ancient Jewish prophets uttered their fierce denunciations of present evil and promises of future good. It was not part of their mission to study nicely the characters of the offenders to whom they were sent; they were not commanded to weigh and ponder and suspend judgment, but to denounce, startle, and overawe. So also with the founders of religious sects and communities: in their earnest proclamations of a new belief, it is no wonder if they have sometimes done scant justice to former institutions. The early propagators of the Christian religion, whose whole attention was absorbed in the new and glorious truths which they were proclaiming to the world, had little inclination to study philosophically the old pagan creeds. When Mahomet, in his turn, arose to sweep away the errors and ambiguities that had crept into the Eastern Church, and to establish a simpler faith, he felt it no part of his duty to discriminate minutely between the various sects of his opponents.

  Again, when in later ages Luther rebelled against the monstrous and overgrown tyranny of Rome, he could not calmly set himself to discover what truths, or fragments of truths, might yet lurk in the very superstitions which he cast off; had he striven only to form an unbiassed judgment of the papal authority, the world might have been the richer by a great critical or theological work, but it would have missed the Reformation. And, lastly, in the great humanitarian movement of still later times, it cannot be doubted that the men who led the way to the abolition of torture, slavery, and many other forms of civil and religious oppression from which the civilised world has not long been released, were animated less by a calm judicial spirit and dramatic insight into the general character of the age, than by a fiery impatience of the evils with which the world was infested, and a conviction that those evils were unnecessary and eradicable.

  The merits and demerits, the advantages and disadvantages, of this class of character are equally obvious. In the great question of human improvement it matters little whether the man who successfully emancipates his fellow creatures from some degrading suffering be a philosopher or an enthusiast; in either case he merits the gratitude of. his countrymen, and in no country is this gratitude refused. A man is filled with indignation at some iniquitous wrong, individual or public, social or religious; he devotes his life to redressing it, and finally succeeds. In so doing he may have been partial and one-sided in many of his opinions and acts, yet he is deservedly regarded as a true philanthropist, and his name is held up for the remembrance and veneration of future ages.

  But, for the reasons already stated, such characters are judged too often by the vulgar criterion of success. In the successful philanthropist we are ready enough to pardon any impatience and partiality as the result of noble enthusiasm, and to say with Mr. Browning in Rabbi Ben Ezra

“This rage was right in the main,
That acquiescence vain.”

But much cheap ridicule is lavished on those who unsuccessfully advocate “extreme views” in a cause which is as yet unpopular and undeveloped. Instead of philanthropists, they are then branded as fanatics, sentimentalists, and crotchet-mongers. These are the natural, and almost inevitable, shortcomings of all enthusiasts, and this is the penalty which they are condemned to pay for them in the opinion of ordinary people. Let us now turn to consider the other, the philosophic, class of character.

  To some minds it will always appear irrational and unfair to draw a hard-and-fast line between what is commendable and what is blameworthy, in a world where the good and evil are so strangely blended and intermixed. All must alike deplore the evil, and all alike desire the good; but we must exercise a wise tolerance in extirpating the one and a wise patience in promoting the other. To root up violently the tares from among the wheat may do more injury than to let both grow together awhile. There are many who believe that the man who by life-long experience, and study of all phases of life and every variety of character, is able to give to the world some great artistic work, some faithful copy of life, true to nature in the humblest details, does far greater service to mankind than those whose over-eager anticipation of the good warps their minds and narrows their intellectual vision. To such thinkers as these the true teachers and reformers of mankind will always appear to be those great objective poets and many-sided philosophers who have taken this wide and tolerant view of life, and who are able to sympathise with every system and form of human thought without any expression of personal adherence or dissent. What can be more liberal, more comprehensive, more worldwide, than the poetry of Homer? In him there is no passion, no bias, no partiality, no half-views of things; his spirit is large and patient as the spirit of nature herself. The words of Carlyle about nature might be applied also to these great natural poets:

  “We are to remember what an umpire nature is; what a greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. You take wheat to cast into the earth’s bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn sweepings, dust, and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just earth; she grows the wheat—the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good earth is silent about the rest-has silently turned all the rest to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it! So everywhere in nature! She is true and not a lie; and yet so great, and just, and motherly in her truth.”1

  And if this is true of Homer, still more is it true of the greatest of all poets, Shakspere; the secret of whose strength is the knowledge that there is a soul of goodness in things evil. “He seems to have been sent,” says Mr. Ruskin, in his estimate of Shakspere’s genius,2 “essentially to take universal and equal grasp of the human nature; and to have been far removed therefore from all influences which could in the least warp or bias his thoughts. It was necessary that he should lean no way; that he should contemplate with absolute equality of judgment the life of the court, cloister, and tavern, and be able to sympathise so completely with all creatures as to deprive himself, together with his personal identity, even of his conscience, as he casts himself into their hearts . . . . Not for him the founding of institutions, the preaching of doctrines, or the repression of abuses.”

  I have mentioned the greatest only, but in addition to these many others might be cited as illustrations of the same calm judicial spirit and intellectual strength, all of them artists rather than moralists, yet surely to those who feel with them none the less excellent teachers of morality.

  Yet this philosophical kind of genius, no less than the more impassioned spirit of humanitarian reformers, has its own special shortcomings and imperfections. It cannot, indeed, be accused of intellectual narrow-mindedness or religious fanaticism; nor can we suppose that men of this stamp had not well considered the deepest problems of life, because they were not carried away by personal predilection and enthusiasm; but it may, to some extent, lie open to the suspicion of coldness and indifference to human suffering. If it be true that inhumanity, tyranny, and injustice have been amended by the unceasing protests and earnest endeavours of reformers and philanthropists, and if we unite in praising those who have abolished these evils, how can we consistently and entirely applaud the equanimity of those writers who have ignored them? While there is so much real evil in the world, it seems impossible to maintain an attitude of calm impartiality without sacrificing some of the noblest moral sympathies to the maintenance of the dramatic proprieties. Was there no suffering in Homer’s time? And must not those who read between the lines of the Odyssey and Iliad suspect that, in these faithful pictures of an early stage of society, distance often lends some of the enchantment to the view? We praise Chaucer for his wide human sympathies and tolerant spirit, and the genial pictures he draws of national life; but was the picture entirely a complete one? Langland’s poem, Piers the Plowman, is a terrible witness to the fact that in the midst of all that tale-telling and merriment, there was even then a skeleton in the cupboard in the form of deep suffering and discontent among the down-trodden peasant population. Shakspere is, in the main, well content with his country, “This blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England; “yet we can see from Utopia, that, in the opinion of a thinker no less profound than Sir Thomas More, the state of “this other Eden, demi-paradise,” was very far from being entirely blissful in the sixteenth century. “Is not this,” he says, “an unjust and unkynde publyque weale, whyche gyveth fees and rewardes to gentlemen, as they call them, and to gold-smythes, and to each other, whiche be either ydle persones, or els onlye flatterers and devysers of vague pleaures: and of the contrary parte maketh no gentle provision for poor plowmen, coliars, laborers, carters, yron-smythes, and carpenters, without whome no common wealthe can continewe?”3

  Again, if we look at the present century, we shall see the same defects in the characters of modem objective writers, such as Goethe, Scott, Browning; and this will become more apparent if we contrast them with writers of the opposite type, such as Hugo, Shelley, Swinburne. If we recognise in Goethe the leading intellectual figure of this century, it must not blind our eyes to the fact that he is deficient in those emotional and sympathetic qualities which constitute precisely the strength of Victor Hugo. If we praise Scott for his close grasp of facts and objective realities, we must remember also that he had not a spark of that fiery enthusiasm for suffering humanity which is Shelley’s noblest characteristic. Among poets of our own day we must undoubtedly give the palm to Mr. Browning for great dramatic power and wide intellectual scope. Yet he cannot claim the honour of having lent to the cause of liberty and religious freedom such sympathy and assistance as was given by the more impassioned lyric inspiration of Mr. Swinburne’s Songs Before Sunrise.

  It is important also to notice, as I said before, that every thoughtful man leans naturally to one or the other of these great lines of thought; for, though it is only by real genius that great ideas are originated and expressed, yet the realisation of such ideas, or at least the full recognition of their author’s merits, is often due to the efforts of less gifted men, who are drawn to this or that theory which is more congenial with their own natural inclination.

  And thus it happens that while the virtues of great men of the philanthropic or philosophic stamp are often unduly extolled by their respective admirers, their faults are as often unduly exaggerated by those of the contrary persuasion. To the sober-minded adherents of the more practical and observant school there often seems to be little else in the passionate utterances of reformers than shallow enthusiasm and theatrical declamation. In like manner the grave impartiality and quiet self-control of the philosophic thinkers is often misconstrued by those who differ from them, into mere callousness or indifference. In short, each of these two kinds of genius has its own deficiencies and imperfections, no less than its advantages.

  It is an error, however, to suppose that they are necessarily antagonistic or contradictory; we are not driven to the alternative of pronouncing one to be true and the other false. It is far wiser to suppose that both are true, as far as they go, though they view life from different standpoints, and neither in itself can fully satisfy the understanding. They each tell the truth, and nothing but the truth; but to know the whole truth it is necessary to learn the double lesson of their united teaching. The world is full of grievous injustice, which is from time to time redressed and righted by the genius of some great reformer who devotes his life-work to the service of his fellow-men. All that he teaches, however burning his enthusiasm and zeal, is in itself true and just; but in the very enthusiasm with which he is inspired there lies a new danger, the danger of forgetting that the evil was not all evil, but was interwoven and mingled with good. Hence it is of the utmost importance to keep before our eyes a wider and clearer, though perhaps colder and less enthusiastic, view of life and society; and this is done by those who show us a more complete and faithfully drawn picture of society. Thus a balance is kept between the two extremes, and while each kind of genius becomes, as it were, supplementary to the other, their united result is a solid gain for the progress and happiness of mankind.

1 On Heroes, chap. ii.
2 Modern Painters, vol. iv., p. 372.
3 “Utopia.” Robinson’s translation.

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