Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Les Âges de la vie en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle

Serge Soupel

Première partie. Aspects théoriques, philosophiques, historiques, artistiques, culturels et religieux

Genius and the Stages of Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Germany

Myles W. Jackson

Texte intégral

1In this paper I wish to argue for a socio-cultural history of genius. During the eighteenth century in Great Britain and Germany, the term genius had powerful political and moral dimensions which many historians have tended to ignore. As I hope to illustrate in this paper, the notion of genius was a potent rhetorical device used to legitimate one’s artisitic and natural beliefs on the one hand and political and social values on the other. I wish to argue that the main characters in the discussions on genius during this century employed the stages of life in their accounts. In Great Britain Edward Young’s view of genius was based on the stages of life, and Goethe claimed that the definition of genius in late eighteenth-century Germany depended on the age of the particular individual defining the term. The older generation believed the trait of genius to be conservative and law-abiding, while the younger generation of early Romantics propagated the revolutionary tendencies of genius.


2Let us first consider Great Britain. The notion of genius proved to be a very explosive issue during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The dilemma which faced individuals attempting to define, and indeed come to terms with, genius was clearly a social one. Certainly to possess genius necessarily meant to transcend, or even break or totally disregard, established rules of art or natural philosophy. A mere obedience to the existing laws was an example of imitation, and perhaps talent, but not genius. The ramifications of such a representation were politically, ethically and socially obvious. Genius soon became a legitimation for subversive ideologies. This particular point was argued by the exponents of a conservative definition of genius which emphasized its law-generating characteristics.

  • 1 As quoted in M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp; Romantic Theory and the Critical Theory (Oxford (...)

3Addison dealt with this aforementioned dilemma by positing two types of genius: a natural genius which was one who was born possessing this quality, and an artful genius, in whom genius appeared later in life. Addison cited Homer, Pindar, the Old Testament poets and Shakespeare as representatives of natural genius which he defined as “the prodiges of mankind, who by the mere strength of natural parts, and without any assistance of art and learning, have produced works that were the delight of their own times, and the wonder of prosperity”1. The produced artful genius, on the other hand, which included Plato, Virgil and Milton, was defined as “those that have formed themselves by rules, and submitted the greatness of their natural talents to the corrections and restraints of art” (Abrams 187). One can immediately see Addison’s employment of the stages of life. A natural genius was apparent at birth, a gift of nature subject only to her laws and order. An artful genius, on the other hand, was tempered by society’s laws and restraints, and, therefore could only appear later in life.

4The natural genius often appeared to be wild, untamed, like nature herself. As Addison wrote:

[Natural genius] is like a rich soil in a happy climate, that produces a whole wilderness of noble plants rising in a thousand beautiful landslips, without any certain order or regularity. In the other [i.e., artful genius] it is the same rich soil under the same happy climate that has been laid out in walks and parterres, and cut into shape and beauty by the skill of the gardener. (quoted in Abrams 187)

5Gardens were one of the most significant links between art, natural philosophy and political ideology during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Pope remarked, “as in most regular gardens, Art can only reduce the beauties of Nature to mere regularity” (as quoted in Abrams 188-89). Gardens reflected the political milieu of the country in which they were cultivated. The English gardens, as Pope and Addison have illustrated, were noted for their wild appearance and lack of any inherent order. They reflected nature’s order which superficially appeared chaotic to man, since man’s senses had become imperfect after Adam’s fall. It was certainly not coincidental that English gardens had such as appearance. After all, post-Reformation England was quite sensitive to any metaphor reflecting tyranny. On the other hand, French gardens were renowned for their exaggerated symmetry and man’s imposed order upon nature. Undoubtedly, this was a reflection of France’s monarchy which sought to legitimize its rule of enlightened despostism by claiming that it created the order of the world in accordance with a law-generating nature. Such contrasting ideologies were prevalent during the eighteenth century and were major topics of discussion in Germany of such men as Goethe and Schiller.

6Artful genius was attributed to society’s laws. An artful genius was one who conformed quite well to society and thus in no way represented a deviant. Natural genius, on the other hand, was a bit more difficult to explain. Historically, there have been many attempts. Those natural geniuses which were not social deviants were said to have been given divine inspiration at birth. Such a view had been certainly common among ancient Greeks, and later traditions had assimilated this pagan doctrine to the mysteries of the Christian faith (Abrams 188-89). Those natural geniuses who had been rejected by society had been accused of insanity brought about by celestial powers. During the early eighteenth century, however, such animistic hypotheses began to wane, since the Enlightenment believed that any recourse to miracles was not only ridiculous but also deleterious to the State as it suggested that religious zealots had a personal contact with God (Abrams 190). Such a scenerio was detrimental since it represented a shift in power which the Enlightenment sought to impede. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, several English poets returned to the ancient doctrine of inspiration. Shelley interestingly introduced a parallel between the inventive process and the embryonic growth of man: “A great statue of picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother’s womb; and the very mind which directs the hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the gradations, or the media of the process” (as quoted in Abrams 192).

  • 2 Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition (London, 1759) 31-32.

7Edward Young took issue with Addison’s two types of genius in his Conjectures on Original Composition published in 1759. He clearly differentiated between two types of genius, much in the same way as Addison: an earlier, or infantine, and a later, or adult, genius. An adult genius, such as Shakespeare, sprung from nature’s hand, fully grown and mature. An infantine genius, such as Swift, was a genius which needed to be aided and nursed2. Young argued that genius lay outside the sphere of social rules and constraints. An original writer represented the beginning of life while an imitator who adhered to pre-existent laws was synonomous with death, “The pen of an Original Writer, like Armida’s wand, out of a barren waste calls a blooming spring: Out of that blooming spring springs an Imitator, a transplanter of laurels, which sometimes die on removal, always languishes in a foreign soil”. (Young 1759, 10, italics in the original). Young’s emphasis on the freedom of genius is evident throughout the work. He wrote:

Too great Awe for them lays Genius under restraint, and denies it that free scope, that full elbow-room, which is requisite for striking its most masterly stokes. (25)

For unprescribed Beauties, and unexampled Excellence, which are Characteristics of Genius, lie without the Pale of Learning's Authority and Laws;... Rules, like Crutches, are a needful Aid to the Lame, tho’ an Impedement to the Strong. (27-28, italics in the original)

8Indeed Young went as far as to claim that genius may wander wildly (37).

9Young’s references to the stages of life appear throughout the entire work. He began his essay by stating, “We confess the Follies of Youth, without a Blush; not so, those of Age. However, keep me a little in countenance by considering, that Age wants Amusement more, tho’ it can justify them less, than the preceding periods of life” (1-2). He spoke of the mind breaking through the frozen obstructions of age as compared to the mind contemplating favourite themes as being easily quieted and refreshed like a peevish child (3-5). The thoughts of an imitator, “as it is with Words, and with both, as with Men; they may grow old and die”, but “An Original enters early upon Reputation: Fame, fond of new Glories, sounds her Trumpet in Triumph at its birth” (13 and 15, italics in the original).

10Finally, towards the end of Young’s essay, the moral and political aspects of genius become most apparent. Young claimed that there was “as much Genius on the British, as on the Grecian stage, tho’ the former is not swept so clean; so clean from violations not only of the dramatic, but moral rule....” (80, italics in the original). When comparing the merits of Swift, Pope and Addison, Young wrote:

To distingush this triumvirate from each other, and like Newton, to discover the different colours in these genuine and meridian rays of literary light, Swift is a singular wit, Pope a correct poet, Addison a great author. Swift looked on Wit as the Jus divinium to dominion and sway in the world; and considered as usurpation, all power that was lodged in persons of less sparkling understandings. This inclined him to tyranny in wit; Pope was somewhat of this opinion, but was for softening tyranny into lawful monarchy; yet there were some acts of severity in his reign. Addison’s crown was elective, he reigned by the public voice. (96-97)

  • 3 Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Genius (London, 1774) 14.

11The notion of law was certainly a key motif in Alexander Gerard’s influential An Essay on Genius published in 1774. Gerard was Professor of Divinity at King’s College, Aberdeen. Interestingly, Gerard differentiated between aritistic and scientific genius vis à vis their relationship to rules and laws. Gerard claimed that one “allow[s] the artist who excels in it [i.e., invention] the privilege of transgressing established rules”3. Quite the opposite was true in experimental natural philosophy. Aristotle was considered a genius because “he has displayed a penetrating and inventive mind, capable of remarking circumstances and investigating general laws, which lay concealed from others” (Gerard 15). Similarly, Francis Bacon was a genius because he “establish[ed] rules, formerly unknown, by which genuine and inductive philosophy might be cultivated and raised to perfection; and to make considerable progress applying these rules to the actual production of that stipendous edifice of knowledge” (Gerard 16-17). Gerard honoured Newton by claiming that his discovery of the laws of gravitation which the celestial bodies observe in their revolutions represented the zenith of scientific genius.

12Gerard continually emphasized that genius was a product of imagination disciplined by reason and proper judgement. The influence of reason and proper judgement indicated a rather conservative notion of genius, much in line with his political ideology. Indeed, he defined imagination as “far from being capricious or irregular, but for the most part observes general and established laws” (39-40). He stressed that genius resulted in an ordered series, such as the design of Newton’s experiments, i.e., a regularity “to connect the design of the whole with the idea that it introduced” (46). Confusion, disorder and chaos were the antithesis of genius.

13Gerard employed the ancient notion of divine intervention for the power of imagination. He wrote, “In this manner the fire of genius, like a divine impulse, raises the mind above itself, and by the natural influence of the imagination actuates it as if it were supernaturally inspired” (68). However, Gerard stipulated that although inspiration has at times been defined as being “capricious and unaccountable », it “is subject to established laws” (70). Indeed, he stated that the genius prescribed the rules to be followed by the imitators. He continually stressed that judgement and reason needed to regulate imagination. Thus, Gerard wished to take a moderate path between two extremes. Judgement alone could not be genius; imagination without judgement lead to extravagance and lack of control.

14In experimental natural philosophy, Gerard believed that imagination was prerequisite for contriving experiments, but he warned that this imagination could not receive any assistance from the passions. If passions entered into these investigations, “they would infect our conclusions, and obstruct our discoveries. Where truth is the object, the passions can produce only prejudices to lead away from it” (356). Thus investigations of experimental natural philosophers always needed to be accompanied by judgement and its connection to and control of imagination. A genius of natural history, and not a scientific or philosophical genius, conducted and varied experiments, according to Gerard, but never inferred from them the differing degrees of the refrangibility of rays of light as did Newton. Thus, a scientific and philosophical genius such as Newton could deduce general laws and causes and could discern experimental results and compare them and search for causes and connections. (305-06). It was required of scientific genius to inquire about the “causes of phenomena, their concomitants, the effects proceeding from causes, and the consequences of general laws” (333).

15Finally, as was the case with Young, at the conclusion of Gerard’s essay, the political responsibility of genius reappeared. Gerard wrote:

Under the guidance of the principle of association [of genius in the arts and sciences] naturally predominant, the other principles operate with such alacrity as subjects show serving their rightful kind; under the guidance of any other principle, their operation resembles the spiritless backwardness with which a people obey an usurpor or conqueror. (431)

16From the above passage it is quite clear that the guiding principle of genius had a political motif since a proper principle of genius was equivalent to enlightened despotism, and an improper principle was tantamount to usurpation or unlawful conquest.

17The relationship between genius and rules was also a crucial component of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art. Reynolds approached the genius dilemma in a very interesting way. First, he used he notion of reason to establish a new academy of art. In so doing, he needed to show how an artistic genius needed to break the existing laws in order to legitimize his desired project. On the other hand, Reynolds sought monarchial patronage from George III. Indeed, the Discourses on Art begin with a letter of dedication to the King from Reynolds. Thus Reynolds needed to show not only that genius transcended established rules but also needed to carefully explain to the King that his notion of genius was not a revolutionary one in the political sense. After all, George III was a bit wary of political revolutions when Reynolds began writing his Discourses.

  • 4 Joshua Reynolds, Discourse on Art, éd. Robert R. Wark (London, 1774; New Haven and London: Yale UP (...)

18Thus, in the very first Discourse, Reynolds wrote, “Every opportunity, therefore, should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion, that rules are the fetters of genius. They are fetters only to men of no genius, as that armour, which upon the strong is an ornament and a defence, upon the weak and mis-shapen becomes a load, and cripples the body which it was made to protest”4. But Reynolds conservatively qualified such a radical, revolutionary statement: “How much liberty may be taken to break through those rules, and, as the Poet expresses it, To snatch a grace beyond the reach of art [Reynolds is quoting from Pope’s Essay on Criticism here; italics in the original] may be subsequent consideration, when the pupils become masters themselves. It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold, until we raised the building” (17). Thus, Reynolds justified his desire to create and direct the Royal Academy of Art in 1769. He argued in his Discourses that an implicit obedience to the rules of art must be demanded from the young students and a premature disposition to a masterly dexerity must be repressed. Such a stance ensured that authority would remain with the older master teachers and also ensured that a shift resulting in usurpation by the younger students would be impossible. In Discourse VI, Reynolds stated:

It must of necessity be, that even Works of Genius, like every other effect, as they must have their cause, must likewise have their rules; it cannot be by chance, that excellencies are produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance, but the rules by which men of extraordinary parts, and such as are called men of genius work, are either such as they discover by their own peculiar observations, or of such a texture as not easily to admit being expressed in words.... (97-98)

  • 5 Simon Schaffer, “Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy”, Romanticism and the Sciences, eds. A. Cun (...)

19The most influential work on the subject of genius was undoubtedly Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757. One needs to consider briefly Burke’s political ideology before analyzing his stance on the sublime and the beautiful. His work Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 is too well known to be discussed here. Basically, he emphasized the dangers of an abstract democracy unguided by the leadership of a hereditary aristocracy; i.e., he believed that the social order had been undermined by the French Revolution. Burke believed in the laws of nature and their moral implications. Ethics, according to Burke, were based on a universal order of things, or what François Quesnay, the French physiocrat, called an ordre naturel. A hierarchial aristocracy was legitimized since it mirrored the hierarchy present in nature. Recall that the Great Chain of Being was a prevalent theory of nature during the eighteenth century. Hence Burke not only argued that the French Revolution was destructive, but more importantly it was morally wrong since it was contrary to the laws of nature. Burke was the most prominent critic of Jacobin natural philosophy. He believed that the views of nature employed by astrologists, alchemists, mesmerists and electromagnetists resulted in a subversion of the social order5.

  • 6 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, e (...)

20With such an emphasis on natural laws, it should not at all be surprising that the basis of Burke’s argument in his Philosophical Enquiry was that a thorough investigation of the laws of nature by the experimental natural philosopher would result in the deduction of the rules which could be applied to the imitative arts6. Thus, like Immanuel Kant, Burke believed that the genius had the inherent talent to discover nature’s laws and apply them to the human arts. Burke’s entire work was based on the establishment of laws of the beautiful and sublime and relating them to the laws governing human interactions and human society (44). The politics of the sublime and beautiful was also present. Burke claimed that he “know[s] of nothing sublime which is not some modificaiton of power” (64). In Part II of the Philosophical Enquiry, Burke quoted a very political passage dealing with the sublime from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

... or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On behalf the nations; and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs

21Burke then proceeded to State how the sublime had an element to it which caused “he ruin of monarchs, and the revolutions of kingdoms” (62).

22In short, laws based on nature interestingly prevented the evil component of the sublime to appear. They also served to keep man’s imagination from becoming too romantic which would result in “tyranny, cruelty, injustice and everything horrid and abominable” (157-58). Burke believed that incorrect cosmologies resulted in a dangerous political policy: “to destroy any power growing wild from the rank productive force of the human mind, is tantamount in the moral world, to the destruction of the apparently active properties of bodies in the material” (as quoted in Schaffer, “Genius” 87).

  • 7 Richard Yeo, “Genius, Method, and Morality: Images of Newton in Britain, 1760-1860”, Science in Co (...)
  • 8 See also James Secord, “Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls” (...)

23When analyzing scientific genius during the eighteenth century, one theme is apparent throughout all of the works of this genre; Newton was, amongst all British scholars, considered a scientific genius7. His epistemology was praised by Burke, Gerard, Young and Duffy. As I have previously mentioned, these authors focused their attention on Newton’s ability to discover natural laws. The rhetoric of natural laws, as argued above, had profound implications for natural theology. Hence, genius was not the sole property of scientific epistemology, but also included political and moral dimensions. During the early nineteenth century, a new genre of works aimed at a popular audience appeared on the men of genius. They often paid considerable attention to childhood. Newton was no exception. In an anonymous work of 1816 entitled, Buds of Genius: Or Some Account of the Early Lives of Celebrated Characters who were Remarkable in their Childhood, Newton’s genius qualifies present during his childhood were examined. Similarily, J.G. Edgar’s The Boyhood of Great Men continued on this theme (Yeo 259). The association of science and morality was also a major motif in late eighteenth-century works including the many editions of The Newtonian System of Philosophy, Adapted to the Capabilities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies by Tom Telescope (259-60)8. In Buds of Genius, the relationship between scientific genius and good character was explicit:

Henry [a child] asks his mother: “Was he [Newton] a good man, as well as a great philosopher?” Marna: “His temper was so mild and amiable, that scarcely any accident could disturb it.... He was a truly excellent character; and his modesty was as remarkable as his genius. (as quoted in Yeo 260)

  • 9 Simon Schaffer, “Newtonianism”, Companion to the History of Modem Science, ed. R.C. Olby, et al. ( (...)

24Throughout his lifetime, Newton went to great lengths to ensure that his natural philosophy was accepted by the Church. Newton and his colleagues worked very hard indeed from 1690 until his death in 1727 to come to an agreement about the terms and their meanings of his natural philosophy as well as their implications for culture, both religious and political9. Because the Tories and High Churchmen accused Newton of heresy, it was crucial for him to have an ally named Richard Bentley, a preacher at Cambridge who gave sermons which used Newtonism as a defence of religion. Interestingly, the Jacobites David Gregory, Archibald Pitcaime and John Freind all used Newton in their attempt to forge together morality and natural philosophy. During the late eighteenth century, the Edinburgh professor John Robison wamed that the French’s misunderstanding of Newton’s doctrine had resulted in the French Revolution (Schaffer, “Newtonianism” 617-18). Once again, the argument is the same. Misunderstanding nature was tantamount to bad morality and dangerous political ideology.

25Such a sentiment was undoubtedly an issue with Newton and his doctrine. During the 1830s it was important for such scholars as Willliam Whewell and Stephen Rigand to save Newton’s reputation from a scathing attack by Francis Baily in his An Account of the Reverend John Flamsteed dealing with the disputes between Newton and Flamsteed in 1694-5 and 1704. Rigand remarked, “if Newton’s character is lowered, the character of England is lowered, and the cause of Religions is injured” (as quoted in Yeo 271).

26In The Boyhood of Great Men the chapter dealing with Newton during his childhood reads, “many of the great qualities which excite our admiration in the career of this great philosopher may be imitated by those who cannot hope to vie with him in the splendour of his genius...” (as quoted in Yeo 271). E. Lodge argued in his 1835 work Portraits of Illustrations of Personages that “the beauties of his [Newton’s] moral character were, if possible, more admirable than the powers of his mind, and his piety was not less genuine than his philosophy” (as quoted in Yeo 271).

27Interestingly, it was the religious and moral attitudes of natural philosophers which determined whether or not their theories would be successful. This was certainly the explanation which early nineteenth-century scholars employed to account for Newton’s success and Descartes’ failure in Britain. The Scottish Evangelical, Thomas Chalmers, argued in his Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revolution of 1815 that Descartes’ views were presumptions and immodest whereas Newton’s ideas were a result of “humility and hardihood” (as quoted in Yeo 272). After all, Descartes was raised in a Jesuit school, and of course, was French. Whewell argued that science progressed by individuals who possessed sound moral and religious dispositions which enabled them to progress from a disorderly array of facts to the deduction of natural laws (as quoted in Yeo 272). Whewell also argued that Descartes’ faculty of deductive principles was a result of a weak moral character. According to Whewell, “in the whole of his philosophy, he [Descartes] appears to deserve the character of being rash and cowardly...” (as quoted in Yeo 273).


  • 10 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. with analytical indexes by James Creed Meredith ( (...)

28Let us now consider the development of the notion of genius n Germany during the late eighteenth century. Although Burke’s and Young’s works were translated into German and were undoubtedly read by several of the individuals involved in this debate, it would be futile to argue for an “influence scenerio”. Such an historiography can be very tenious (not to mention that influence accounts deny human actions), and I shall therefore not consider this option. Rather, I shall discuss Germany’s case in isolation and illustrate how the ages of life played a vital role in the conflicts. The most influential work on genius in Germany was undoubtedly Kant’s Third Critique, The Critique of Judgement of 1790. In this critique, Kant defined genius as “the innate mental aptitude (ingentum) through which nature gives rule to art”10. Kant believed, unlike his English counterparts, that fine art was the only possible product of genius. He explicitly stated that science (Naturwissenschaft) could never be the product of genius (168-69). Since the goal of the natural philosopher was to be able to comprehend totally nature and her processes, he put nature on trial by setting up experiments, i.e., the natural philosopher attempted to imitate nature via experimentation. As Kant argued, imitation was not genius. His notion of genius was rather conservative. It was based on natural laws. Indeed, he wrote, “Now, seeing that originality of talent is one (though not the sole) essential factor that goes to make up the character of genius, shallow minds fancy that the best evidence they can give of their being full-blown geniuses is by emancipating themselves from all academic restraints of rules...” (Kant 171). Kant targeted Hamann, Lavater and Swedenborg for their use of Schwärmerei, or fanaticism, mystical language and inferior asthetics, all of which characterized their passionate philosophizing (Schaffer, “Genius” 89).

29During the last decade of the eighteenth century, the meaning of genius was transformed. After the French Revolution the German early Romantics interested in natural philosophy, who were originally very sympathetic to the uprising, used genius as a rhetorical device to portray strategies for understanding and controlling power. (Schaffer, “Genius” 84). Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre of 1794 dealt with the first System of freedom modelled after the Revolution which combined genius, natural power and popular right. Such a type of genius exemplified by mesmerists, physiognomists, electrical philosophers and pneumatic performers was deleterious to both the academic and social orders (Schaffer, “Genius” 84).

30Goethe played a major role in the genius debate. Initially, the young Goethe had a rather radical view of genius which reflected his commitment to the Sturm und Drang literary movement. However, by the first decade of the nineteenth century, he changed his stance completely. The sixty-year old Goethe realized how the early Romantics took the Sturm und Drang’s notion of genius to its absurd conclusion.

  • 11 Hans Reiss, Political Thought of the German Romantics 1793-1815 (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1 (...)
  • 12 Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, eds. E. Behler, J.-J. Anstedt and H. Eic (...)

31As a consequence of denying universal laws in nature either by taking a relativistic stance or denying their existence altogether, Friedrich Schlegel and the other early Romantics concentrated upon the singular instance. The more spectacular the instance, the more informative it was. The search for the spectacular and bizarre became one of the hallmarks of early German Romanticism. Individuals searching for sensational facts, produced “a cult of the great event, the great man, the great nation”11. This inevitably led to a cult of genius. Everyone was demanded to possess genius. Schlegel echoed this view by stating that “one should demand genius of everyone” and “every complete person possesses genius”12.

32Such a cult certainly annoyed Goethe. He found any definition of genius which emphasized lawlessness and lack of restraint both repulsive and dangerous. Goethe, being the Privy-Councillor and the most powerful man in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar behind only Duke Carl August himself, believed in law and order in both nature and society. As was the case with Burke, Goethe believed in the interaction between nature and governement. Hence, the genius of natural philosophy could discover and investigate the laws of nature, while the genius Hofmeister could interpret those laws and apply them to society thereby establishing social order. Goethe did both. Investigating the laws of nature was a central theme in Goethe’s scientific epistemology. This was clear in his botanical, optical, geological and anatomical writings. Similarly, as a university-trained lawyer in a prominent political position, Goethe worked daily to apply universal laws to human relations and social institutions. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the older Goethe’s definition of genius emphasized law and restraint as opposed to the early Romantics’ emphasis on a revolutionary, freedom-searching genius. Goethe wrote during his Italian journeys from 1786-88 that the classical works of art were created “like the highest works of nature, according to true and natural laws”. Later, he claimed that artists “finally form the rules out of themselves according to laws of art which lie just as truly in the nature of the formative genius as the great and universal nature eternally maintains its organic laws” (as quoted in Abrams 223).

33It is important to stress that Goethe himself noticed a change in the definition of genius. He argued in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, that the metamorphosis in the definition was due to the younger generation’s outlook on life. The older Goethe looked back to the previous decades and blamed the younger early Romantics for advocating a revolutionary genius which was not merely inaccurate, but more importantly, deleterious to the State. The passage is worth quoting at length:

  • 13 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Poetry and Truth: From My Own Life, rev. trans. Minna Steele Smith (18 (...)

No one willingly concedes superiority to another, so long as he can in any way deny it. Natural gifts of every kind cannot easily be denied, and yet in the common parlance of the day genius was ascribed to the poet alone. But now another world seemed all at once to emerge; genius was looked for in the physician, in the general, in the statesman, and before long, in all men who thought to make themselves eminent either in theory or practice. Zimmermann, especially, had advanced these claims. Lavater, by his views of physiognomy, was compelled to assume a more general distribution of mental gifts of all kinds; the word genius became a universal watchword, and because men heard it uttered so often, they thought that what it stood for was to be met with everywhere. Then, since everyone felt justified in demanding genius of others, he finally believed that he must possess it himself. The time was yet far distant when it could be affirmed, that genius is that power of man which by its deeds and actions gives laws and rules [Kant], At this time it was thought to manifest itself only by overstepping existing laws, breaking established rules, and declaring itself above all restraint. It was, therefore, an easy thing to be a genius, and nothing was more natural than that its abuse in word and deed should rouse all well-regulated minds to oppose such a disordered State of affairs.
When anybody rushed into the world on foot, without exactly knowing why or whither, it was called a tour of genius; and when anyone took in hand some aimless and useless absurdity, it was a stroke of genius. Young men, full of energy, often really gifted, came to grief in their scorn of all moderation; and then older and more sensible men, wanting, perhaps, in talent and in soul, took malacious pleasure in making their failures appear ridiculous in the eyes of the public13.

34At this time Goethe wrote to his close friend, the musician C.F. Zelter, expressing his concern over the younger generation:

  • 14 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke: Weimarer Ausgabe, 1887-1919, 4: 23 and 186-87.

See how people in general, and the younger generation in particular, are not only giving free reign to their desires and passions, but... even their higher and better aspirations are distorted and caricatured by the serious follies of our times, so that everything that should lead to their salvation turns into a factor of damnation... We do not stop to think that reason and the brave exercise of will are given to us to ward off not only what is evil, but also an excess of what is good14.

  • 15 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. Hollingdale (1809; Hammondsworth: Pengu (...)

35Goethe satirized the younger generation’s view of genius, particularly the views of Schlegel, in his novel, Elective Affinities. Goethe was clearly objecting to Schlegel’s rather ordinary definition of genius which asserted that it was demanded of every individual. The romantic character of Eduard serves as the vehicle for Goethe’s criticism. Eduard realizes that all of his endeavors have been imitations: “Alas... how unfortunate I am that all my endeavors have been no more than an imitation, a counterfeit.... It is a terrible task to imitate the imitatable. I will perceive, my dear friend, there can be genius in anything, even martrydom”15. Two points are worth mentioning. First, Eduard’s claim that all efforts result in mere imitation is rather significant. Kant and the British authors such as Young all stressed that genius does not imitate but necessarily creates, “Everyone is agreed on the point of the spirit of imitation. Now since learning is nothing but imitation, the greatest ability, or aptness as a pupil (capacity) is still, as such, not equivalent to genius” (Kant 169; italics in the original). Goethe certainly defended Kant’s definition of genius in the above quote from his autobiography. In addition to Truth and Poetry, Goethe repeated the Kantian definition of genius in Maxims and Reflections (#724). Thus, genius does not abolish laws but generates them. Second, Eduard’s claim that there can be genius in anything reflects the Schlegelian notion of genius which Goethe was attacking.

36Appropriately, there was a political issue at the centre of the controversy. The young Schlegel was a staunch proponent of the French Revolution and attempted to bring about in Germany similar scenes which occurred in France in 1789. Goethe was a staunch opponent of the French Revolution since he had a vested interest in enlightened despotism. Hence for Schelgel nature was above artificial (i.e., manmade) rules, and a model citizen would revolt against any artificial order set up by a government. For Goethe the opposite was true. The citizen must inherently obey the rules of society which a proper enlightened despot and his court would have created using nature’s laws as a model.

37In conclusion, the reason why eighteenth-century scholars appealed to the stages of life in their notions of genius was to legitimize their claims by appealing to nature. Since the unity of nature was a prevailing theme throughout the eighteenth century, one wished to argue that the genius intellect of endowed individuals was a part of nature. By using such rhetoric as embryonic, development, gestation, childhood and adult, the explanation of genius could be grounded in biological development. It is not surprising to see such a terminology, since interest in the nature of man and his development as well as in the study of natural history blossomed in Britain, France and Germany from 1750 onwards. By appealing to nature’s authority, the notion of genius was relevant not only to the studies of nature and art, but just as importantly, to the realm of politics and morality.


1 As quoted in M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp; Romantic Theory and the Critical Theory (Oxford, London and New York: Oxford UP, 1953) 187.

2 Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition (London, 1759) 31-32.

3 Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Genius (London, 1774) 14.

4 Joshua Reynolds, Discourse on Art, éd. Robert R. Wark (London, 1774; New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1975) 17.

5 Simon Schaffer, “Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy”, Romanticism and the Sciences, eds. A. Cunningham and N. Jardine (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1990) 82-98; here 87.

6 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. with an introd. and notes by J.L. Boulton (London, 1757; New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958) 74.

7 Richard Yeo, “Genius, Method, and Morality: Images of Newton in Britain, 1760-1860”, Science in Context 2 (1988): 257-81.

8 See also James Secord, “Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls”, History of Science 23 (1985): 127-51.

9 Simon Schaffer, “Newtonianism”, Companion to the History of Modem Science, ed. R.C. Olby, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) 610-26; here 615.

10 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. with analytical indexes by James Creed Meredith (Königsberg, 1790; Oxford: Clarendon, 1952) 168, italics in the original.

11 Hans Reiss, Political Thought of the German Romantics 1793-1815 (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1955) 6.

12 Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, eds. E. Behler, J.-J. Anstedt and H. Eichner (Munich, Paderbom and Vienna, 1960) 2: 148 and 259.

13 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Poetry and Truth: From My Own Life, rev. trans. Minna Steele Smith (1811-1814; London: Bell, 1908) 2: 285-86.

14 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke: Weimarer Ausgabe, 1887-1919, 4: 23 and 186-87.

15 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. Hollingdale (1809; Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1971)205.


University of Cambridge

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1995

Conditions d’utilisation :