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On Genius - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, introduction by Lord Robbins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).
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Addressed to the Author of an Article, entitled “Some Considerations respecting the Comparative Influence of Ancient and Modern Times on the Development of Genius;” and of its continuation, headed, “On the Intellectual Influences of Christianity.”[*]
You have turned your attention, and that of the readers of the Monthly Repository, to a question, with which, if we well consider its significance, none of the controversies which fill the present age with flame and fury is comparable in interest. You have shown that, without being indifferent to politics, you can see a deeper problem in the existing aspect of human affairs, than the adjustment of a ten-pound franchise; and that with no inclination to undervalue the intellect of these “latter days,”[†] you do not write it down transcendant because steam-carriages can run twenty-five miles an hour on an iron railway; because little children are taught to march round a room and sing psalms, or because mechanics can read the Penny Magazine. You do not look upon man as having attained the perfection of his nature, when he attains the perfection of a wheel’s or a pulley’s nature, to go well as a part of some vast machine, being in himself nothing. You do not esteem the higher endowments of the intellect and heart to be given by God, or valuable to man, chiefly as means to his obtaining, first, bread; next, beef to his bread; and, as the last felicitous consummation, wine and fine linen. Rather, you seem to consider the wants which point to these bodily necessaries or indulgences, as having for their chief use that they call into existence and into exercise those loftier qualities. You judge of man, not by what he does, but by what he is. For, though man is formed for action, and is of no worth further than by virtue of the work which he does; yet (as has been often said, by one of the noblest spirits of our time) the works which most of us are appointed to do on this earth are in themselves little better than trivial and contemptible; the sole thing which is indeed valuable in them, is the spirit in which they are done.[‡] Nor is this mere mysticism; the most absolute utilitarianism must come to the same conclusion. If life were aught but a struggle to overcome difficulties; if the multifarious labours of the durum genus hominum were performed for us by supernatural agency, and there were no demand for either wisdom or virtue, but barely for stretching out our hands and enjoying, small would be our enjoyment, for there would be nothing which man could any longer prize in man. Even men of pleasure know that the means are often more than the end: the delight of fox-hunting does not consist in catching a fox. Whether, according to the ethical theory we adopt, wisdom and virtue be precious in themselves, or there be nothing precious save happiness, it matters little; while we know that where these higher endowments are not, happiness can never be, even although the purposes for which they might seem to have been given, could, through any mechanical contrivance, be accomplished without them.
To one who believes these truths, and has obtained thus much of insight into what the writer to whom I have already alluded would call “the significance of man’s life,”[*] it was a fitting inquiry what are really the intellectual characteristics of this age; whether our mental light—let us account for the fact as we may—has not lost in intensity, at least a part of what it has gained in diffusion; whether our “march of intellect” be not rather a march towards doing without intellect, and supplying our deficiency of giants by the united efforts of a constantly increasing multitude of dwarfs. Such, too, is actually the problem which you have proposed. Suffer, then, one who has also much meditated thereon, to represent to you in what points he considers you to have failed in completely solving, and even in adequately conceiving the question.
Have you not misplaced the gist of the inquiry, and confined the discussion within too narrow bounds, by countenancing the opinion which limits the province of genius to the discovery of truths never before known, or the formation of combinations never before imagined? Is not this confounding the mere accidents of Genius with its essentials, and determining the order of precedence among minds, not by their powers, but by their opportunities and chances? Is genius any distinct faculty? Is it not rather the very faculty of thought itself? And is not the act of knowing anything not directly within the cognizance of our senses (provided we really know it, and do not take it upon trust), as truly an exertion of genius, though of a less degree of genius, as if the thing had never been known by any one else?
Philosophic genius is said to be the discovery of new truth. But what is new truth? That which has been known a thousand years may be new truth to you or me. There are born into the world every day several hundred thousand human beings, to whom all truth whatever is new truth. What is it to him who was born yesterday, that somebody who was born fifty years ago knew something? The question is, how he is to know it. There is one way; and nobody has ever hit upon more than one—by discovery.
There is a language very generally current in the world, which implies that knowledge can be vicarious; that when a truth has become known to any one, all who follow have nothing to do but passively to receive it; as if one man, by reading or listening, could transport another man’s knowledge ready manufactured into his own skull. As well might he try the experiment upon another man’s eyesight. Those who have no eyesight of their own, or who are so placed that they cannot conveniently use it, must believe upon trust; they cannot know. A man who knows may tell me what he knows, as far as words go, and I may learn to parrot it after him; but if I would know it, I must place my mind in the same state in which he has placed his; I must make the thought my own thought; I must verify the fact by my own observation, or by interrogating my own consciousness.
The exceptions and qualifications with which this doctrine must be taken, and which are more apparent than real, will readily present themselves. For example, it will suggest itself at once that the truth of which I am now speaking is general truth. To know an individual fact may be no exercise of mind at all; merely an exercise of the senses. The sole exercise of mind may have been in bringing the fact sufficiently close for the senses to judge of it; and that merit may be peculiar to the first discoverer: there may be talent in finding where the thief is hid, but none at all in being able to see him when found. The same observation applies in a less degree to some general truths. To know a general truth is, indeed, always an operation of the mind: but some physical truths may be brought to the test of sensation by an experiment so simple, and the conclusiveness of which is so immediately apparent, that the trifling degree of mental power implied in drawing the proper inference from it, is altogether eclipsed by the ingenuity which contrived the experiment, and the sagacious forecast of an undiscovered truth which set that ingenuity to work: qualities, the place of which may now be supplied by mere imitation.
So, again, in a case of mere reasoning from assumed premises, as, for instance, in mathematics, the process bears so strong an analogy to a merely mechanical operation, that the first discoverer alone has any real difficulty to contend against; the second may follow the first with very little besides patience and continued attention. But these seeming exceptions do not trench in the least upon the principle which I have ventured to lay down. If the first discovery alone requires genius, it is because the first discovery alone requires any but the simplest and most commonplace exercise of thought. Though genius be no peculiar mental power, but only mental power possessed in a peculiar degree, what implies no mental power at all, requires to be sure no genius.
But can this be said of the conviction which comes by the comparison and appreciation of numerous and scattered proofs? Can it, above all, be said of the knowledge of supersensual things, of man’s mental and moral nature, where the appeal is to internal consciousness and self-observation, or to the experience of our common life interpreted by means of the key which self-knowledge alone can supply? The most important phenomena of human nature cannot even be conceived, except by a mind which has actively studied itself. Believed they may be, but as a blind man believes the existence and properties of colour. To know these truths is always to discover them. Every one, I suppose, of adult years, who has any capacity of knowledge, can remember the impression which he experienced when he discovered some truths which he thought he had known for years before. He had only believed them; they were not the fruits of his own consciousness, or of his own observation; he had taken them upon trust, or he had taken upon trust the premises from which they were inferred. If he had happened to forget them, they had been lost altogether; whereas the truths which we know we can discover again and again ad libitum.
It is with truths of this order as with the ascent of a mountain. Every person who climbs Mont Blanc exerts the same identical muscles as the first man who reached the summit; all that the first climber can do is to encourage the others and lend them a helping hand. What he has partly saved them the necessity of, is courage: it requires less hardihood to attempt to do what somebody has done before. It is an advantage also to have some one to point out the way and stop us when we are going wrong. Though one man cannot teach another, one man may suggest to another. I may be indebted to my predecessor for setting my own faculties to work; for hinting to me what questions to ask myself, and in what order; but it is not given to one man to answer those questions for another. Each person’s own reason must work upon the materials afforded by that same person’s own experience. Knowledge comes only from within; all that comes from without is but questioning, or else it is mere authority.
Now, the capacity of extracting the knowledge of general truth from our own consciousness, whether it be by simple observation, by that kind of self-observation which is called imagination, or by a more complicated process of analysis and induction, is originality; and where truth is the result, whoever says Originality says Genius. The man of the greatest philosophic genius does no more than this, evinces no higher faculty; whoever thinks at all, thinks to that extent, originally. Whoever knows anything of his own knowledge, not immediately obvious to the senses, manifests more or less of the same faculty which made a Newton or a Locke. Whosoever does this same thing systematically—whosoever, to the extent of his opportunity, gets at his convictions by his own faculties, and not by reliance on any other person whatever—that man, in proportion as his conclusions have truth in them, is an original thinker, and is, as much as anybody ever was, a man of genius; nor matters it though he should never chance to find out anything which somebody had not found out before him. There may be no hidden truths left for him to find, or he may accidentally miss them; but if he have courage and opportunity he can find hidden truths; for he has found all those which he knows, many of which were as hidden to him as those which are still unknown.
If the genius which discovers is no peculiar faculty, neither is the genius which creates. It was genius which produced the Prometheus Vinctus, the Oration on the Crown, the Minerva, or the Transfiguration;[*] and is it not genius which comprehends them? Without genius, a work of genius may be felt, but it cannot possibly be understood.
The property which distinguishes every work of genius in poetry and art from incoherency and vain caprice is, that it is one, harmonious, and a whole: that its parts are connected together as standing in a common relation to some leading and central idea or purpose. This idea or purpose it is not possible to extract from the work by any mechanical rules. To transport ourselves from the point of view of a spectator or reader, to that of the poet or artist himself, and from that central point to look round and see how the details of the work all conspire to the same end, all contribute to body forth the same general conception, is an exercise of the same powers of imagination, abstraction, and discrimination (though in an inferior degree) which would have enabled ourselves to produce the selfsame work. Do we not accordingly see that as much genius is often displayed in explaining the design and bringing out the hidden significance of a work of art, as in creating it? I have sometimes thought that conceptive genius is, in certain cases, even a higher faculty than creative. From the data afforded by a person’s conversation and life, to frame a connected outline of the inward structure of that person’s mind, so as to know and feel what the man is, and how life and the world paint themselves to his conceptions; still more to decipher in that same manner the mind of an age or a nation, and gain from history or travelling a vivid conception of the mind of a Greek or Roman, a Spanish peasant, an American, or a Hindu, is an effort of genius, superior, I must needs believe, to any which was ever shown in the creation of a fictitious character, inasmuch as the imagination is limited by a particular set of conditions, instead of ranging at pleasure within the bounds of human nature.
If there be truth in the principle which the foregoing remarks are intended to illustrate, there is ground for considerable objection to the course of argument which you have adopted in the article which gave occasion to the present letter. You argue, throughout, on the obstacles which oppose the growth and manifestation of genius, as if the future discoverer had to travel to the extreme verge of the ground already rescued from the dominion of doubt and mystery, before he can find any scope for the faculty thereafter to be developed in him,—as if he had first to learn all that has already been known, and then to commence an entirely new series of intellectual operations in order to enlarge the field of human knowledge. Now I conceive, on the contrary, that the career of the discoverer is only the career of the learner, carried on into untrodden ground; and that he has only to continue to do exactly what he ought to have been doing from the first, what he has been doing if he be really qualified to be a discoverer. You might, therefore, have spared yourself the inquiry, whether new truths, in as great abundance as ever, are within reach, and whether the approach to them is longer and more difficult than heretofore. According to my view, genius stands not in need of access to new truths, but is always where knowledge is, being itself nothing but a mind with capacity to know. There will be as much room and as much necessity for genius when mankind shall have found out everything attainable by their faculties, as there is now; it will still remain to distinguish the man who knows from the man who takes upon trust—the man who can feel and understand truth, from the man who merely assents to it, the active from the merely passive mind. Nor needs genius be a rare gift bestowed on few. By the aid of suitable culture all might possess it, although in unequal degrees.
The question, then, of “the comparative influence of ancient and modern times on the development of genius,” is a simpler, yet a larger and more commanding question, than you seem to have supposed. It is no other than this: have the moderns, or the ancients, made most use of the faculty of thought, and which of the two have cultivated it the most highly? Did the ancients think and find out for themselves what they ought to believe and to do, taking nothing for granted?—and do the moderns, in comparison, merely remember and imitate, believing either nothing, or what is told them, and doing either nothing, or what is set down for them?
To this great question I am hardly able to determine whether you have said aye or no. You are pleading for the moderns against those who place the ancients above them, for civilization and refinement against the charge of being impediments to genius; yet you seem incidentally to admit that inferiority in the higher endowments, which it appeared to be your object to disprove. Your only salvo for the admission is, that, if the fact be so, it must be our own fault. Assuredly it is always our own fault. It is just as possible to be a great man now as it ever was, would but any one try. But that does not explain why we do not try, and why others, mere men like ourselves, did; any more than we can explain why the Turks are not as good sailors as the English, by saying that it is all their own fault.
I cannot say that I think you have much advanced the question by terminating where you do. If you were writing to Pagans, it might have been to the purpose to tell them that they would find in Christianity a corrective to their faults and ills; or if we had been superior to the ancients instead of inferior, as in numerous other respects we really are, Christianity might have been assigned as the cause. But to refer us to Christianity as the fountain of intellectual vigour, in explanation of our having fallen off in intellectual vigour since we embraced Christianity, will scarcely be satisfactory. In proportion as our religion gives us an advantage over our predecessors, must our inferiority to them be the more manifest if we have fallen below them after all. If genius, as well as other blessings, be among the natural fruits of Christianity, there must be some reason why Christianity has been our faith for 1500 years, without our having yet begun to reap this benefit. The important question to have resolved would have been, what is the obstacle? The solution of this difficulty I have sought in vain from your two articles—permit me now to seek it from yourself.
I complain of what you have omitted, rather than of what you have said. I have found in your general observations much that is true, much that is wise, and eternally profitable to myself and to all men. The fact which you announce, of the intimate connexion of intellectual with moral greatness, of all soundness and comprehensiveness of intellect with the sublime impartiality resulting from an ever-present and overruling attachment to duty and to truth, is deeply momentous; and, though many have known it heretofore, you also speak as one who knows it,—who therefore has discovered it in himself. It is as true now as it was of yore, that “the righteousness of the righteous man guideth his steps.”[*] But Christianity, since it first visited the earth, has made many righteous men according to their lights, many in whom the spiritual part prevailed as far as is given to man over the animal and worldly, yet we have not proportionally abounded in men of genius.
There must, then, be some defect in our mental training, which has prevented us from turning either Christianity or our other opportunities to the account we might. Christianity, and much else, cannot have been so taught or so learnt as to make us thinking beings. Is it not that these things have only been taught and learnt, but have not been known?—that the truths which we have inherited still remain traditional, and no one among us, except here and there a man of genius, has made them truly his own?
The ancients, in this particular, were very differently circumstanced. When the range of human experience was still narrow—when, as yet, few facts had been observed and recorded, and there was nothing or but little to learn by rote, those who had curiosity to gratify, or who desired to acquaint themselves with nature and life, were fain to look into things, and not pay themselves with opinions; to see the objects themselves, and not their mere images reflected from the minds of those who had formerly seen them. Education then consisted not in giving what is called knowledge, that is, grinding down other men’s ideas to a convenient size, and administering them in the form of cram—it was a series of exercises to form the thinking faculty itself, that the mind, being active and vigorous, might go forth and know.
Such was the education of Greece and Rome, especially Greece. Her philosophers were not formed, nor did they form their scholars, by placing a suit of ready-made truths before them, and helping them to put it on. They helped the disciple to form to himself an intellect fitted to seek truth for itself and to find it. No Greek or Roman schoolboy learnt anything by rote, unless it were verses of Homer or songs in honour of the gods. Modern superciliousness and superficiality have treated the disputations of the sophists as they have those of the schoolmen, with unbounded contempt: the contempt would be better bestowed on the tuition of Eton or Westminster. Those disputations were a kind of mental gymnastics, eminently conducive to acuteness in detecting fallacies; consistency and circumspection in tracing a principle to its consequences; and a faculty of penetrating and searching analysis. They became ridiculous only when, like all other successful systems, they were imitated by persons incapable of entering into their spirit, and degenerated into foppery and charlatanerie. With powers thus formed, and no possibility of parroting where there was scarcely anything to parrot, what a man knew was his own, got at by using his own senses or his own reason; and every new acquisition strengthened the powers, by the exercise of which it had been gained.
Nor must we forget to notice the fact to which you have yourself alluded, that the life of a Greek was a perpetual conflict of adverse intellects, struggling with each other, or struggling with difficulty and necessity. Every man had to play his part upon a stage where cram was of no use—nothing but genuine power would serve his turn. The studies of the closet were combined with, and were intended as a preparation for, the pursuits of active life. There was no littérature des salons, no dilettantism in ancient Greece: wisdom was not something to be prattled about, but something to be done. It was this which, during the bright days of Greece, prevented theory from degenerating into vain and idle refinements, and produced that rare combination which distinguishes the great minds of that glorious people,—of profound speculation, and business-like matter-of-fact common sense. It was not the least of the effects of this union of theory and practice, that in the good times of Greece there is no vestige of anything like sentimentality. Bred to action, and passing their lives in the midst of it, all the speculations of the Greeks were for the sake of action, all their conceptions of excellence had a direct reference to it.
This was the education to form great statesmen, great orators, great warriors, great poets, great architects, great sculptors, great philosophers; because, once for all, it formed men, and not mere knowledge-boxes; and the men, being men, had minds, and could apply them to the work, whatever it might be, which circumstances had given them to perform. But this lasted not long: demolishing the comparatively weak attempts of their predecessors, two vast intellects arose, the one the greatest observer of his own or any age, the other the greatest dialectician, and both almost unrivalled in their powers of metaphysical analysis,—Aristotle and Plato. No sooner, by the exertions of these gigantic minds, and of others their disciples or rivals, was a considerable body of truth, or at least of opinion, got together—no sooner did it become possible by mere memory to seem to know something, and to be able for some purposes even to use that knowledge, as men use the rules of arithmetic who have not the slightest notion of the grounds of them, than men found out how much easier it is to remember than to think, and abandoned the pursuit of intellectual power itself for the attempt, without possessing it, to appropriate its results. Even the reverence which mankind had for these great men became a hinderance to following their example. Nature was studied not in nature, but in Plato or Aristotle, in Zeno or Epicurus. Discussion became the mere rehearsal of a lesson got by rote. The attempt to think for oneself fell into disuse; and, by ceasing to exercise the power, mankind ceased to possess it.
It was in this spirit that, on the rise of Christianity, the doctrines and precepts of Scripture began to be studied. For this there was somewhat greater excuse, as, where the authority was that of the Omniscient, the confirmation of fallible reason might appear less necessary. Yet the effect was fatal. The interpretation of the Gospel was handed over to grammarians and language-grinders. The words of him whose speech was in figures and parables were iron-bound and petrified into inanimate and inflexible formulæ. Jesus was likened to a logician, framing a rule to meet all cases, and provide against all possible evasions, instead of a poet, orator, and vates, whose object was to purify and spiritualize the mind, so that, under the guidance of its purity, its own lights might suffice to find the law of which he only supplied the spirit, and suggested the general scope. Hence, out of the least dogmatical of books, have been generated so many dogmatical religions—each claiming to be found in the book, and none in the mind of man; they are above thought, and thought is to have nothing to do with them; until religion, instead of a spirit pervading the mind, becomes a crust encircling it, nowise penetrating the obdurate mass within, but only keeping out such rays of precious light or genial heat as might haply have come from elsewhere.
And after all which has been done to break down these vitiating, soul-debasing prejudices, against which every great mind of the last two centuries has protested, where are we now? Are not the very first general propositions that are presented for a child’s acceptance, theological dogmas, presented not as truths believed by others, and which the child will hereafter be encouraged to know for itself, but as doctrines which it is to believe before it can attach any meaning to them, or be chargeable with the greatest guilt? At school, what is the child taught, except to repeat by rote, or at most to apply technical rules, which are lodged, not in his reason, but in his memory? When he leaves school, does not everything which a young person sees and hears conspire to tell him, that it is not expected he shall think, but only that he shall profess no opinion on any subject different from that professed by other people? Is there anything a man can do, short of swindling or forgery, (à fortiori a woman,) which will so surely gain him the reputation of a dangerous, or, at least, an unaccountable person, as daring, without either rank or reputation as a warrant for the eccentricity, to make a practice of forming his opinions for himself?
Modern education is all cram—Latin cram, mathematical cram, literary cram, political cram, theological cram, moral cram. The world already knows everything, and has only to tell it to its children, who, on their part, have only to hear, and lay it to rote (not to heart). Any purpose, any idea of training the mind itself, has gone out of the world. Nor can I yet perceive may symptoms of amendment. Those who dislike what is taught, mostly—if I may trust my own experience—dislike it not for being cram, but for being other people’s cram, and not theirs. Were they the teachers, they would teach different doctrines, but they would teach them as doctrines, not as subjects for impartial inquiry. Those studies which only train the faculties, and produce no fruits obvious to the sense, are fallen into neglect. The most valuable kind of mental gymnastics, logic and metaphysics, have been more neglected and undervalued for the last thirty years, than at any time since the revival of letters. Even the ancient languages, which, when rationally taught, are, from their regular and complicated structure, to a certain extent a lesson of logical classification and analysis, and which give access to a literature more rich than any other, in all that forms a vigorous intellect and a manly character, are insensibly falling into disrepute as a branch of liberal education. Instead of them, we are getting the ready current coin of modern languages, and physical science taught empirically, by committing to memory its results. Whatever assists in feeding the body, we can see the use of; not so if it serves the body only by forming the mind.
Is it any wonder that, thus educated, we should decline in genius? That the ten centuries of England or France cannot produce as many illustrious names as the hundred and fifty years of little Greece? The wonder is, that we should have produced so many as we have, amidst such adverse circumstances. We have had some true philosophers, and a few genuine poets; two or three great intellects have revolutionized physical science; but in almost every branch of literature and art we are deplorably behind the earlier ages of the world. In art, we hardly attempt anything except spoiled copies of antiquity and the middle ages. We are content to copy them, because that requires less trouble and less cultivated faculties than to comprehend them. If we had genius to enter into the spirit of ancient art, the same genius would enable us to clothe that spirit in ever-new forms.
Where, then, is the remedy? It is in the knowledge and clear comprehension of the evil. It is in the distinct recognition, that the end of education is not to teach, but to fit the mind for learning from its own consciousness and observation; that we have occasion for this power under ever-varying circumstances, for which no routine or rule of thumb can possibly make provision. As the memory is trained by remembering, so is the reasoning power by reasoning; the imaginative by imagining; the analytic by analysing; the inventive by finding out. Let the education of the mind consist in calling out and exercising these faculties; never trouble yourself about giving knowledge—train the mind—keep it supplied with materials, and knowledge will come of itself. Let all cram be ruthlessly discarded. Let each person be made to feel that in other things he may believe upon trust—if he find a trustworthy authority—but that in the line of his peculiar duty, and in the line of the duties common to all men, it is his business to know. Let the feelings of society cease to stigmatize independent thinking, and divide its censure between a lazy dereliction of the duty and privilege of thought, and the overweening self-conceit of a half-thinker, who rushes to his conclusions without taking the trouble to understand the thoughts of other men. Were all this done, there would be no complaint of any want of genius in modern times. But when will that hour come? Though it come not at all, yet is it not less your duty and mine to strive for it,—and first to do what is certainly and absolutely in our power, to realize it in our own persons.
I am, Sir, yours respectfully,
THOUGHTS ON POETRY AND ITS VARIETIES
[[*] ]Anon., Monthly Repository, n.s. VI (Aug., 1832), 556-64, and ibid., n.s. VI (Sept., 1832), 627-34.
[[†] ]See Deuteronomy, 31:29.
[[‡] ]Mill is referring to Thomas Carlyle. See, for example, “Characteristics,” Edinburgh Review, LIV (Dec., 1831), 351-83, passim, but especially pp. 357-63, 367-8, and 372-3.
[[*] ]Carlyle, “Biography,” Fraser’s Magazine, V (Apr., 1832), 255.
[[*] ]The references are, respectively, to Aeschylus’ Prometheus vinctus, Demosthenes’ De corona, the statue of Minerva called the Palladium (or to Phidias’ Athena Parthenos), and Raphael’s Transfiguration.
[[*] ]Cf. Proverbs, 11:5, and 13:6.