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The Idea of Genius

The idea of Genius is an important but too little studied aspect of Western history; it is an important pagan concept which still governs our thinking.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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The idea of Genius is an important but too little studied aspect of Western history; it is an important pagan concept which still governs our thinking. We can begin to understand what genius means if we recognize that it is basically the same word as the Arabic jinn or genie. -lhe word genius comes from the Latin, and the idea is Roman, but it is hard to distinguish it at times from the Arabic idea, because the two are so similar.

The idea of genius comes out of pagan animism and ancestor worship. The genius of a family, house, group, or state was the protecting, guiding, inspiring supernatural spirit which took care of it and was also the object of its worship. All good Romans therefore worshipped "the genius of Rome." "The genius of Rome" was the divine power protecting Rome, the Roman mission, Rome itself ("divine Rome"), and its heroic leaders and emperors. Godlike men were believed to receive from the gods a special destiny above that of ordinary mortals. These men became the Lares or genius for their time.

With the coming of Christianity, the idea of genius receded, as did the related Greek idea of the hero. The hero was a great protector of men who was descended from the gods, or born of a god, and he was worshipped as a god after His death. Because Biblical faith makes a sharp and clear distinction between God and man, between the uncreated and divine Being of God, and the created and creaturely being of men, the idea of the genius (and of the hero) was for some time in the background. With the revival of Greek philosophy, of Aristotle and of Plato, the idea of the genius again came to the fore, especially with the Renaissance. The hero or divine leader of men came to be a leader of the state. The Leader or Hero now became a commanding and totalitarian figure. The Genius, the man with divine powers of insight and guidance, came to be the artist. Previously, in Christian Europe, the artist was not an artist in the modern sense. He was a craftsman, an artisan, and a businessman who was a specialist in his field. (In recent years, one composer, Igor Stravinsky, specifically denied being an artist in the modern sense and saw himself as an old-fashioned semi-Christian artisan, an opinion for which he was widely attacked.) The Christian artisan did his work like any other skilled specialist, without any pretensions. With the Renaissance, the artist was not only regarded as a man of genius, but also called by extravagant names, "the divine Aretino", "the divine Michelangelo", and so on.

But this was not all. In paganism, the genius had been essentially a political figure in the developed form of the idea of genius. The medieval artisan was essentially related to the faith, and his greatest work was in the church. After the Renaissance, the artist associated himself increasingly with the state. The church continued to be a great patron of art, and, in the following eras, such creations as baroque church art certainly represented very great outlays of money, but artists found their chief voice and their best self-expression in works done for the royalty and the nobility, for the state. The neo-pagan genius and hero were working together.

The artist, and especially the writer began to see himself as a genius, producing for the ages. He was thus an elite man, but he was more than merely an elite man; the elite are the pick of society, the choicest part. The genius is much more than that: he is a supernormal and somewhat supernatural break-through into society and thus above even the elite.

The literary elite at first identified themselves with the nobility and with royalty, with the great heroes of the arena of politics. With the Enlightenment, however, the artists, especially the literary and pseudo-philosophical ones, began to turn against the nobility and royalty even while often fawning on them.

The French Revolution was preceded by a long war by men like Voltaire, Diderot, and others on church and state alike, with a new concept of society vaguely imagined as the true and coming order. In the French Revolution, men who believed in their genius overthrew a social order and began the ruthless destruction of all things which ran counter to their "inspiration". Because the middle class had been held back and hindered by the monarchy, the literary elite briefly championed the middle class cause as a useful weapon towards overthrowing the old regime. Very quickly, however, they turned on the middle classes with venom.

In the 19th century, the idea of the hero as the organizing principle of society (together with his instructor, the artistic genius) became very common. It was widely taught by such men as Carlyle, Nietzsche, and Wagner, and, in the 20th century, by Spengler, Stefan George, D. H. Lawrence, and others. The world, they held, cannot be understood by the faith and creeds of Christianity but only by intuition, history, and the hero. The evolution of things in history is in terms of the hero, who acts without being hindered by old moralities and creeds. He incarnates the true evolution of the world and brings in a new order as the next step of evolution. His attitude is pragmatic, not dogmatic. He has his roots in the folk or people, and he moves them into the future and progress by his ruthless, powerful drive. The hero is a realist who is not afraid to kill or to sin in order to further his cause. As Bentley summarized Carlyle's view, "The man who is undefiled by pitch...must be in the wrong, for he has not been willing to sin and compromise. He has not seized reality by its filthy hand." (Eric Bentley: A Century of Hero-Worship, p.56. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, second edition.) The ideas of the men of "genius" of the 19th and 20th centuries helped produce the "heroes" they imagined, men like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

Moreover, the genius, having broken quickly with the middle class, then turned against the middle class savagely for failing to bow down to him and to recognize his genius. He called therefore for the liquidation of these insensitive clods who could not appreciate genius and were too much concerned about business and profits. The "genius" class or elite turned now to the working class, the proletariat, as a new hope for society, as a people who would follow the leadership of genius into a brave new world. The Russian Revolution was the longed-for proletarian revolution. The workers, however, failed the artists and writers: they did not appreciate genius. Only by a dictatorship could the state proceed with its plan for a new society. In the 20th century, and especially with the 1960s, the men of "genius" began to look for a new class to overthrow workers and the middle class alike, the outlaw. The existentialist genius in particular began to see the criminal as the true hero (and this criminal-hero definitely includes the homosexual in the forefront), and prison riots became revolutionary events in which men of genius located new heroes. (Remember too that the prison days of Lenin and Hitler were widely hailed as a part of their heroic history.)

For some time now, the men of genius have been in search of a society to lead. Some have dreamed of a society of programmed men, as in B. F. Skinner's intellectual nightmare, men with electrodes in their brains to obey the commandments of heroes and geniuses. The Genius has been increasingly a man with a pathological hatred of society, of normality (of the "squares"), of a world which rejects his privileged and superior wisdom. He has not found that world in the nobility and royalty, nor in the middle and working classes, nor will he find it among the outlaws, who, like him, are incapable of true loyalty and allegiance, let alone subservience. The genius believes that he is beyond the law, that he should, in fact, be the organizing force in society today, even as in ancient Rome the genius was worshipped, and, in the person of the emperor, ruled. By the 1830's, the writers of France had come to a logical conclusion of the doctrine of genius: "everything is permitted to men of intelligence." (Cesar Grana: Bohemian versus Bourgeois, p. 47. New York: Basic Books , 1964.) Their hatred of the normal world was so great that one writer of that era said, "I would give half my talents to be a bastard." (Ibid., p. 145.) In his excellent study of Sartre, Molnar has shown how the idea of bastard and intellectual came to be identified; the bastard-intellectual is a heroic outlaw at war with middle class society and culture, deliberately at odds with normal, well-integrated people. (Thomas Molnar: Sartre: Ideologue of Our Times, pp. 5ff. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.)

The bastard-intellectual-genius is in search of a society to lead, but he can only disintegrate society: he can neither create nor lead one, because the essence of his inspiration is destruction. He no longer looks for a hero, because, in his pretensions he no longer needs the hero, but only followers. Such ideas were prominent in Nietzsche, who wrote to his sister in December, 1888: "You have not the slightest idea what it means to be next-of-kin to the man and destiny in whom the question of epochs has been settled. Quite literally speaking: I hold the future of mankind in the palm of my hand." Everything was settled, if only the world would recognize it! But what the world recognized and learned from each bastard-intellectual-genius was the corrosive, burning hatred of man and society, the radical contempt of all things save its own superiority and genius. Carlyle said, "There is nothing else but revolution and mutation, the former merely speedier change." The goal thus is perpetual revolution for perpetual destruction. The state must obey genius and must liquidate all things in terms of a gospel of perpetual revolution or destruction.

The idea of genius in the modern world gained much from Rousseau. Among other things, Rousseau, in his Social Contract, held that "Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free." As Andelson has pointed out, this is echoed in the slogan of Orwell's 1984, "Freedom is Slavery." The general will is not merely the democratic majority, it is the genius-intellectual's interpretation of what the general will of the whole body or country should be. Robespierre, as spokesman for the Jacobins, said bluntly, "Our will is the general will." (Robert V. Andelson: Imputed Rights, p. 8. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971.) The old latin expression, vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God, now had a new development: the voice of the genius-intellectual is the voice of the people and of the gods.

As against the idea of the genius, Biblical faith offered and offers to men the idea and office of prophet. Most people make central a secondary aspect of the office of prophet, namely, one who foretells the future. The primary function and office of a prophet is to speak for God and to represent Him in total faithfulness to His law-word. This is the duty of every man in whatever calling he has. His reliance must not be on his word, or his idea of truth, or his concept of good and evil, but on the absolute and unchanging word of God. That word must be applied to church, state, school, science, all society and all learning, and its implications faithfully developed. The Christian must work for the liquidation of the idea of genius and its replacement by the calling of the prophet.

But this is not all. The believer has a priestly office. In his priestly office, the believer must dedicate himself, his social order and institutions, his family, work, and all things to the glory and service of God. "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever," the Westminster Catechism tells us; this is a priestly calling and task, and its emphasis is on joy. The priesthood of Israel was radically separated from death and mourning; it could not indulge in grief as could other men, because the priesthood set forth not only the triumph of God but joy in Him. Nehemiah told a sorrowful people, "This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep... for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Neh. 8:9,10). The priestly calling of man brings him joy and peace.

Man also has a royal calling in Christ, to be a king under God and to exercise dominion over the earth, by knowledge, authority, science, invention, farming, and in every other way. As kings under God and His law, we must oppose the lawless idea of the hero, the fuhrer, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and all like variations of the pagan faith. This dominion under God means the development of all things under His law, and it is a mandate for orderly progress and advancement. It means culture. The word culture is related to cultivate and agriculture, it means tillage, development, improvement. Culture requires time, capitalization, and work. The bastard-intellectual-genius program of revolution is also a war against culture and calls for the destruction of culture, which can only thrive with time, capitalization, and cultivation. Culture cannot be limited to the arts; it is a myth propagated by the artists of the modern era that culture means what they do. Culture, however, is the faith or religion of a people externalized in their total activities. True culture is today being warred on, and many people travel widely to see the relics of culture which are surviving our age of revolution.

The state as the apotheosis and incarnation of genius is proving to be an anti-cultural, anti-human ideal, a destroyer of man and society. When the Bolsheviks were accused of being anti-culture, they answered the charge by turning to the past: they revived the tsar's ballet! This is the way of the Yahoo, on both sides of the iron curtain.

If our hope is in a hero or in genius, we will wait for such a leader, and we will get a fuhrer or dictator, and we will deserve him. If, however, we see our calling as prophets, priests, and kings under God and in Christ, we will begin the task of reconstruction wherever we are, because we are the future. The Christians of the Roman Empire were ready to swear allegiance to the emperor, but they refused to swear by the genius of the emperor, and for this they were persecuted (Tertullian: Apologeticus, 32.) Under God, they could not surrender their own calling under God to the will of a man, nor commit their future to the will of man.

The culture of tomorrow will not come from the state and the bastard-intellectual-genius elite of the state. It will come from us who are prophets, priests, and kings under God, who are doing our duty under God and to His glory. St. Paul's counsel still stands: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor. 15:58). The world of the hero and the genius will disappear. Good riddance.

(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 784; Chalcedon Report No. 78, February 1, 1972)

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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