Geniuses are a dying breed.
And yet, they seem to be all around us. We live at a time when commentators speak without irony of “ordinary genius” and claim to find it everywhere. From the “genius bar” at the local Apple Store to bestselling books that trumpet “the genius in all of us,” geniuses seem to abound. But if we consider the idea of “genius” as it has evolved across history, it starts to look like we don’t really need geniuses as we once did. It may be that we don’t need them at all. The increasing banality of genius in the contemporary world has begun to dissolve it as a useful category.
The modern genius emerged in 18th-century Europe as the focal point of a secular devotion of the sort previously reserved for saints. Like the prophets of old, these geniuses were conceived as higher beings endowed with natural gifts—intelligence, creativity, and insight took the place of grace. They, too, were granted a privileged place in the order of creation. As one astounded contemporary asked of Isaac Newton, among the first exemplars of the modern genius, “Does he eat, drink, and sleep like other men?” His virtues, commented another, “proved him a Saint [whose] discoveries might well pass for miracles.” Newton had revealed the laws of the universe—had he not?—he had seen into the mind of God.
Just like their saintly predecessors, the bodies of “geniuses” were treated as holy relics. Upon his death in 1727, Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey, resting place of the saints, and though his skull and bones were left intact (contemporaries marveled instead at his tomb, his death mask, and the many items he had owned and touched), the remains of other geniuses were picked over and venerated as the relics of the special dead. Three of Galileo’s fingers were detached when his body was exhumed in 1737; Voltaire’s heart and brain were absconded with at his death in 1778. Admirers fashioned rings from the repatriated bones of René Descartes during the French Revolution, and the skull of the great German poet Schiller was housed in a special shrine in the library of the Duke of Weimar in the early 19th century.