[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Here’s an odd thing: there really haven’t been any universally-acclaimed geniuses since Einstein. At least I can’t think of any. Really smart people, yes. But geniuses per se, no. It seems Einstein was such a genius that he destroyed the entire concept of genius for us. Or perhaps we’ve just become tired of “genius.” There is, it must be admitted, something democratic cultures don’t like about “geniuses.” If we’re all equal, well, then how can some of us be “geniuses” and others just ordinary folks? It seems that either we’re all “geniuses” or none of us are.
In his fascinating book Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic Books, 2013), Darrin M. McMahon explains Einstein’s impact on the idea of “genius” and much more. You will learn, for example, how in Greco-Roman culture a “genius” was a spiritual double: it was something you had, a ghostly sidekick, not something you were. Sometimes your “genius” was good–a guardian angel–and sometimes it was bad–a demon. It’s only since the Enlightenment that we’ve come to think of “genius” as a certain kind of person, namely, someone with truly extraordinary capacities. It’s a fascinating story. Listen in.