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How Genius Is Made

I meant to get into the discussion of “how genius is made” as a part of my essay on Peter Leithart and the Protestants who can’t write, but I decided that it would take an already too-long essay down one more rabbit trail. Still, it’s worth considering, and an important new book on this topic has just come out. Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Genius seeks to ask the question how geniuses come to be and to see if we can’t find some common traits.

NPR recently conducted an interview with Mr. Weiner, and some of the main themes of his book come out clearly. I found these paragraphs particularly important:

On the role competition plays

I think it’s important with the proviso that it has to be healthy competition. If you look at a place like Renaissance Florence, there was fierce competition. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci despised one another. They really couldn’t stand one another. But that brought out the best in both of them. And it turns out that the modern social science sort of backs up what I found on the ground. For instance, one study found that we tend to cooperate better with whom we once competed. And you see that time and again. Competitors turned into teammates.

On the “sweet spot of friction”

Freud was an outsider, he was a Jew, he was an immigrant and there was real tension in Freud’s Vienna. His ideas were considered “fairy tales.” And he had to really push against the system. But that’s almost always the case. In these genius clusters there’s friction. The genius fits, but it’s not a perfect fit. It’s an imperfect fit. And that sweet spot of friction, the right amount of friction is, I believe, what produces genius. …

Someone who is fully invested in the status quo is not going to be a genius. I think that’s fair to say, because they’re not going to rock the boat. They’re almost always an outsider. But I want to say they’re not fully outsiders. They’re what I call insider-outsiders. Freud is a good example. He was not fully accepted. But he was accepted enough that people listened to his ideas, or we wouldn’t know the name Sigmund Freud today.

These are very good points. The theme of “friction” is very important, and it explains why a lot of pious Christians do not go on to produce genius– they avoid friction or find a way to spiritualize it to the point of a non-issue. The “Ned Flanders” version of Christianity is not going to have the subversive spark necessary to produce great art, and, unfortunately much of modern Evangelicalism– along with most of American Christianity– is really Ned Flandersism.

Mr. Weiner does also get into the “culture” question, and I think he makes a very important point about our current day:

On how geniuses are shaped by the time and culture in which they are born

Think about it: why are there no classical composers the likes of the Beethoven and Mozart out there today? There are very good ones, but we don’t think that there’s a Beethoven or a Mozart. It’s not that the talent pool is dried up or there’s been some weird genetic fluke that’s diminished the talent pool. It’s because if you’re a young, ambitious person, you’re more likely to head to Silicon Valley than to Vienna to study classical music. …

During Mozart’s time, in Vienna, 18th century, he had an extremely receptive audience, he had a demanding audience, and his audience was almost a co-genius with him. We tend to think that the genius produces this magnificence. And we, the audience, just passively receive it. I don’t think it works that way. Mozart was acutely aware of his audience and the demands that they had. And the audience appreciated his music, demanded better music from him — if more of us were like that today, vis-à-vis classical music, I think we would have more Mozarts.

The main reason we don’t have “great culture” is that we don’t have a market for it. Most folks simply aren’t that interested in it, and there’s not much money to be made. They put their time into STEM education, sports, and entertainment.

But pastors can definitely change all of this. By inculcating a love of wisdom, including the classical virtues and liberal arts, we can try to move the affections of our people. This can and should include liturgy. An artless liturgy will be, well, artless. As a Protestant, I would still argue that our liturgy has to be Biblically-driven and theologically sound, but there’s no good reason for it to be tacky. But we should also call people to appreciate the full range of genius, including the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

And we might even have to challenge our people to give up some of the “market” share in order to find other, better, goods in their lives. This won’t be easy, but it might end up giving us some more of that cultural “friction” upon which genius thrives.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.