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Schopenhauer defines the romantic idea of genius

June 11, 2008

This discussion of the nature of genius is from Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation.

Genius, however, consists in a wholly abnormal, actual excess of intellect, such as is not required for the service of any will. For this reason, the men of genuine works are a thousand times rarer than the men of deeds. It is just that abnormal excess of intellect, by virtue of which it obtains the decided preponderance, emancipates itself from the will, and, forgetful of its origin, is freely active from its own force and elasticity. It is from this that the creations of genius result.

Further, genius consists in the working of the free intellect, that is, of the intellect emancipated from the service of the will; and a consequence of this very fact is that the productions of genius serve no useful purpose. The work of genius may be music, philosophy, painting, or poetry; it is nothing for use or profit. To be useless and unprofitable is one of the characteristics of the works of genius; it is their patent of nobility. All other human works exist only for the maintenance of relief of our existence; only those here discussed do not; they alone exist for their own sake, and are to be regarded in this sense as the flower or the net profit of existence. Our heart is therefore gladdened at the enjoyment of them, for we rise out of the heavy earthly atmosphere of need and want. Moreover, analogous to this, we rarely see the beautiful united with the useful. Tall and fine trees bear no fruit; fruit trees are small, ugly, and stunted. The double garden rose is not fruitful, but the small, wild, almost scentless rose is. The most beautiful buildings are not the useful ones; a temple is not a dwelling house. A person of high, rare mental gifts, compelled to attend to a merely useful piece of business for which the most ordinary person would be fitted, is like a valuable vase decorated with the most beautiful painting, which is used as a kitchen-pot; and to compare useful men with men of genius is like comparing bricks with diamonds.

The merely practical man, therefore, uses his intellect for that for which nature destined it, namely for comprehending the relations of things partly to one another, partly to the will of the knowing individual. The genius, on the other hand, uses his intellect contrary to its destiny, for comprehending the objective nature of things. His mind therefore belongs not to himself, but to the world, to the elucidation of which it will in some sense contribute. From this, disadvantages of many kinds are bound to arise to the individual favoured with genius. For in general, his intellect will show the faults that are usually bound to appear in the case of every tool that is used for the purpose for which it is not made. In the first place, it will be, so to speak, the servant of two masters, since at every opportunity it emancipates itself from the service in keeping with its destiny, in order to follow its own ends. In this way it often leaves the will very inopportunely in the lurch; and accordingly, the individual so gifted becomes more or less useless for life; in fact, by his conduct we are sometimes reminded of madness.

Schopenahuer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, Vol II, trans. EFJ Payne, Dover Publications, 1958, pp. 388-389, ISBN 486 21762 0

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rainulf Stelzmann permalink
    January 14, 2010 6:02 pm

    Your articles does not address the topic, since Sch. wrote an article specifically dealing with the nature and effect of music in His “Paralegomena.”

    The world, as we know it, is divided into four layers:
    I. The Intellect (Spirit), II. Feeling (Gefuehl), III. Vegitation, IV. Matter. While the higher layers may include the lower , the lower do not include the higher.

    Schopenhauer believes that the four voices in music correspond to these layers:
    The highest is expressed by the soprano (the “leading voice”).
    The animal kingdom correponds to the alto, the vegitative kingdom to the tenor, the lowest, consisting of earth, rock, and stonattere to the bass voice. So the singing stone statue in Mozart’s Don Giovanni combines the human, intellectual with dead m.

  2. January 24, 2010 5:36 am

    Positively brilliant. Thank you for that wonderful article. You described Genius with such understanding, compassion and humanity. It gave me solace just when I needed it the most.

  3. April 21, 2017 1:39 pm

    Genius is elusive in nature unless it holds some advantage in being certain at all times yet it is universal, beyond the universal. Man of genius holds his stare firm towards the skies while his mind pierces through the infinite.

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