Synopses & Reviews
. With hints of madness and mystery, moral license and visionary force, the word suggests an almost otherworldly power: the power to create, to divine the secrets of the universe, even to destroy. Yet the notion of genius has been diluted in recent times. Today, rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled and#145;geniuses,and#8217; and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it.
As acclaimed historian Darrin M. McMahon explains, the concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possessand#151;or to be possessed byand#151;demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that the genius was truly born, idolized as a new model of the highest human type. Assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon, the modern genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality. Contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. The phenomenon of genius drew scientific scrutiny and extensive public commentary into the 20th century, but it also drew religious and political longings that could be abused. In the genius cult of the Nazis and the outpouring of reverence for the redemptive figure of Einstein, genius achieved both its apotheosis and its Armageddon.
The first comprehensive history of this elusive concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius and geniuses through the ages down to the present day, showing howand#151;despite its many permutations and recent democratizationand#151;genius remains a potent force in our lives, reflecting modern needs, hopes, and fears.
"McMahon (Happiness: A History) delivers a comprehensive look at the concept of genius in all its philosophical glory. He takes readers from Socrates to Enlightenment figures like Isaac Newton and on to Oscar Wilde, noting how the ancient Greeks conceived of genius as the daimonion (the root of our modern 'demon') that inhabited a body, whereas the 19th-century Romantics' notion of genius privileged originality. He goes on to show that our contemporary idea of genius is based on celebrity. McMahon touches briefly on the usual names Mozart, Shelley, Einstein, and Lenin and he also addresses the inherent dangers of genius, from Dr. Frankenstein to Adolf Hitler. He ends with a look at the medical and religious implications of the idea, from the development of IQ tests to the perception that geniuses pose potential dangers to the social order. Throughout its history, genius has been attributed mostly to white European males, and this account admittedly reflects that. Covering topics from science to the arts to philosophy, the book offers a densely packed, earnest look at how genius has been viewed throughout the centuries. It's clear that McMahon knows his topic; it's less clear that we are any better off for having geniuses among us. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris Endeavor." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Genius. The word connotes an almost unworldly power: the power to create, to grasp universal secrets, even to destroy. As renowned intellectual historian Darrin McMahon explains in Divine Fury
, the concept of genius can be traced back to antiquity, when men of great insight were thought to be advised by demons. The modern idea of genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality; contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. Today, the idea of genius has become cheapenedrock stars and football coaches earn the term with seemingly the same ease as astrophysicists and philosophersyet our enduring fascination with it reflects the desires, needs, and fears of ordinary human beings.
The first comprehensive history of this mysterious yet foundational concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius from Socrates to Napoleon to Einstein and beyond, analyzing its democratization, disappearance, and potential rebirth.
About the Author
Darrin M. McMahon
is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University. The author of Happiness: A History
and Enemies of the Enlightenment
, he lives in Tallahassee, Florida.