Saturday 9 October 2010

Robert Graves on Genius

Excerpts from an essay in ‘Difficult Questions, Easy Answers’, 1972


“The word genius in its modern sense first appeared in eighteenth-century England. This was presently exported to Germany, there blown up romantically and re-imported to England in the nineteenth century. It implied an incommunicable power of inventive thought found among a few, very unusual people who somehow did not depend on academic education for their discoveries or performances.


“Not long ago I overheard a group of American professors wondering about the small Greek State of fifth century B.C. Athens. It seemed impossible, they agreed, that an equal percentage of historically important figures could appear today in any part of the United States despite the recent massive increase of educational. facilities. But why? they wondered.

“One of them hopefully suggested that the title 'genius' is too grudgingly awarded nowadays; so that most of the numerous first class physicists working in the States, whose technical know-how would have staggered Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Anaxagoras, Zeno and all the other Athenian geniuses, are denied the title.

“But these professors seemed to me to be confusing historical importance with scientific talent, and scientific talent with the unfathomably original way of thought now associated with genius.

“For example Franklin, Watt, Marconi and Edison were men of unusual scientific talent, and attained considerable historical fame; whereas Clerk Maxwell, Rowan Hamilton, Thompson (of the genes) and Rutherford, whose work displayed all the signs of genius, remain almost unknown to the general public.


“The original sense of genius was a far simpler mystery to accept and handle than the present one. The word genius is not Greek but Latin. Other Latin words of the same formation are progenitor, generate, engender and genitals.

“But genius had a spiritual rather than a physical sense and implied the primitive creative power with which a man is born and which accompanies him throughout life as his highest spiritual self, his protector, his oracle. A Roman who behaved evilly or foolishly was said to have 'defrauded his genius'.

“Genius was his primitive male dignity, his sense of love, and his power of instinctive thought, the preservation of which was his constant duty. Because such genius was considered noble and inspiring, the adjective generous, which in Latin implied a family tradition of honourable dealing, was formed from it. A similar formation was genial, which implied the incessant and comforting radiations of genius on a man's equals and subordinates.

"Still another formation was genuine, meaning the authenticity of this power. Horatius's inspired defence of the Tiber bridge against the whole Etruscan army was quoted as a typical example of personal genius.

“The Greeks, however, rejected this concept by philosophically opposing the good genius with an evil one. The imported Greek notion of opposing demons fighting for the possession of a man's soul weakened the Roman's simple confidence in a mystic power which took possession of him in times of crisis. 


“Geniuses when at work think largely in pictorial images and the consequent exactness of their thought tempts logicians to dismiss them as liars, guessers or madmen.

“But poetry is composed of words alone: is there then no genius in poetry? The difference between prose logic and poetic thought is simple. The logician uses words as a builder uses bricks, for the unemotional deadness of his academic prose; and is always coining newer, deader words with a natural preference for Greek formations.

“The poet avoids the entire vocabulary of logic unless for satiric purposes, and treats words as living creatures with a preference for those with long emotional histories dating from mediaeval times. Poetry at its purest is, indeed, a defiance of logic.


“Psychopaths are often mistaken for geniuses.

“The most common psychopath is the confidence trickster. The prisons are full of con-men; so are politics. Their power to read a victim's mind and so take advantage of his weaknesses is fortunately counterbalanced by their megalomania.

“Every con-man or political rabble-rouser tricks himself in the end.

“Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler have been hailed as geniuses; but all were psychopaths conning themselves with their own boastful legends until they ruined their own countries and died shamefully with no sons to succeed them.


“Romans refused to credit women with an individual genius, on the grounds that they did not engender but parturiated: and held them, instead, to lie under the divine guidance of the goddess Juno Lucina.

“This implied that men were ruled by a male code, but women by a divinity which absolved them of obedience to any code at all, except that of being true to their own bodies.

“And though a patrician Roman's appetite might casually involve him with women from whom he declined to breed children, his social conscience opposed a similar instinct in his female relatives.

“Roman women at first accepted the practical value of this ban on their sleeping with men who lacked the generous tutelary power of patrician genius; but by Catullus's time female morals had noticeably relaxed. 


“Western High Society still deprecates mésalliances, but wherever acceptable alliances are judged not merely by a man's wealth, influence and talents, but by his integrity, women too often make trouble by falling in love with outsiders whom their fellow men recognize as cads or crooks.

“The male proverb 'no woman is wise below the girdle' is, of course, a libellous exaggeration; but few married women like to be cheated of satisfaction in what the Romans called 'the genial couch', meaning the marriage bed. Moreover, in choosing their lovers, few women of spirit realize that a man who has forfeited his sense of honour by some disgraceful act can never be redeemed by even a perfect woman's love.

“That women themselves are infinitely redeemable makes it hard for them to realize that what the Romans called 'a lost man', meaning that he had assassinated his genius, is like a drinking glass, which however neatly repaired after breakage will never again ring clear when tapped with the finger nail.”

The full essay is transcribed online at:



This essay had a big influence on me from when I first read it more than 35 years ago, in a copy borrowed from Bristol Central Library.

As usual with Robert Graves, the essay is compounded of brilliant insights, crazy notions, and rampant egotism - expressed with total conviction.

'Genius', in either its modern or Roman conceptualization, is a pagan value and a part of that noble pagan world with its 'warrior code' values of honour, integrity, duty. 

In its Roman conception, genius would ideally be an attribute of all respect-worthy men; but while necessary, genius is not sufficient, and is not one of the highest 'goods'.

In particular, a man of genius may also (nonetheless) be consumed with pride and devoted to power.


Anonymous said...

I think you may like this (it is about genius):

Numerology Journal said...

There is another possibility for the perception of genius at that time: that we have intimations of a unitary consciousness possessed by the Ancients, that of a higher meaning once infusing fields of knowledge that are today only specialized and compartmentalized technical modes of thought.

Developing unitary insight was part of the Classical tradition, especially in the esoteric branches such as that of Pythagoras, who saw numbers as possessing a deeper meaning reflective of a more meaningful and connected underlying reality.

That kind of education may stimulate intuitive insight, which is largely what we mean by genius.