Friday, 10 February 2012

How should a genius behave?


This seems to me the big question for Goethe and the major German writers which followed him.

For instance, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann (in his essays, and implicitly in some of the novels) seem to be focused on the matter of 'how should a genius (such as myself) behave?'

That, of course, all of these were indeed real geniuses only makes matters worse!

Germany was the most intellectually advanced of the Western nations. Its culture exemplified at the highest level that early modern phenomenon of unchecked pride; pride inverted to become a virtue

- in which the genius consecrated his talents, not to God (as Bach had done), but to his own autonomous and self-worshiping genius.



Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

With respect to Nietzsche, Goethe and other geniuses of that country and era, the following may be of interest. From Schuon:

One of the determining causes of the blossoming of genius from the end of the 18th century onwards – but above all in the 19th century – was the impoverishment of the environment: whereas in earlier times, above all in the Middle Ages, the environment was at once religious and chivalrous, thus charged with colors and melodies, if one may say so, the Age of Philosophy and above all the Revolution, took away from the world all supra-natural poetry, all vital upward-extending space; men were more and more condemned to a hopeless horizontality, profanity and pettiness. It is this which explains in part, or in certain cases, the cries of protest, of suffering and despair, and also of nostalgia and beauty. If Beethoven, or any other great creator in the realm of art, had lived in the epoch of Charlemagne or of St. Louis, their genius might have remained more inward, they would have found satisfactions and consolations – and above all, planes of realization – more in conformity with what constitutes the reason for the existence of human life. In short, they would have found their center; or they would have perfected the center they already possessed by rendering it supernatural. Deprived of a real world, of a world which has a meaning and allows one to engage in liberating pursuits, many geniuses create for themselves an intense inner world, but one which is exteriorized on account of the need to manifest themselves; a world composed of nostalgia and grandeur, but in the final analysis with no meaning or efficacy other than that of a confession.

Such was also the case with Nietzsche, a volcanic genius if ever there was one. Here, too, there is passionate exteriorization of an inward fire, but in a manner that is both deviated and demented; we have in mind here, not the Nietzschian philosophy, which taken literally is without interest, but his poetical work, whose most intense expression is in part his ‘Zarathustra’. What this highly uneven book manifests above all is the violent reaction of an a priori profound soul against a mediocre and paralyzing cultural environment; Nietzsche’s fault was to have only a sense of grandeur in the absence of all intellectual discernment. ‘Zarathustra’ is basically the cry of a grandeur trodden underfoot, whence comes the heart-rending authenticity – grandeur precisely – of certain passages; not all of them, to be sure, and above all not those which express a half-Machiavellian, half-Darwinian philosophy, or minor literary cleverness. Be that as it may, Nietzsche’s misfortune, like that of other men of genius, such as Napoleon, was to be born after the Renaissance and not before it; which indicates evidently an aspect of their nature, for there is no such thing as chance.

This was also Goethe’s misfortune, a well-balanced and, from a certain standpoint, too well-balanced genius. By this we mean to say that he was the victim of his epoch owing to the fact that humanism in general and Kantianism in particular had vitiated his tendency towards a vast and finely-shaded wisdom; he thus became, quite paradoxically, the spokesman of a perfectly bourgeois “horizontality.” His ‘Faust’, which starts off in the Middle Ages and in mystery, comes to an end, so to speak, in the 19th century and in philanthropy, leaving aside the final apotheosis which springs from the poet’s Christian subconsciousness, without being able to compensate for the Kantian and Spinozan atmosphere of the work. All the same, there is unquestionably great scope in the human substance of Goethe: a scope manifested by the lofty and generous quality of his mind; and also, in a more intimate fashion, in those poems where he makes himself the “medium” of the popular soul, in short of medieval Germany; in so doing, he continues the spring-like and delicate lyricism of Walter von der Vogelweide, as if time had come to a stop.

– Frithjof Schuon, “To Have a Center”, pp.9-11

dearieme said...

I read some Goethe once, in translation - Travels in Italy. It's a boreathon - utterly dull.

I can only suppose he did some better stuff that I've not read.

Wm Jas said...

Dearieme, the thing to read is Faust (both parts; I don't know why everyone just reads Part I). Theory of Colours is also quite interesting. Give Sorrows of Young Werther a miss.

Kristor said...

Peter: great quote from Schuon. He writes so beautifully! I am determined from this passage alone that I shall have to read him with close attention.

Anonymous said...

Peter S. said…

Re: Kristor,

I’m glad you enjoyed it. Part of the problem of coming to Schuon’s writings is knowing where to start – in this regard, let me offer a few brief suggestions that may be of benefit. James Cutsinger has a very accessible introductory volume, “Advice to the Serious Seeker” that presents Schuon’s essential thought on the central themes of ‘truth’, ‘virtue’, ‘beauty’ and ‘prayer’ that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Another fine place to begin is a thin volume of aphorisms and short excerpts, “Echoes of Perennial Wisdom”. Both of these volumes may well serve as vade mecums of the spiritual life. Two edited volumes, “The Fullness of God” and “Prayer Fashions Man”, respectively present Schuon’s writing on Christianity and prayer and are fine points of contact to Schuon’s thought for those already grounded within the Christian tradition. Finally, “The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon” may be recommended as a general anthology of his writings. Two introductory articles treating Schuon’s written legacy that I might recommend are James Cutsinger’s, “A Knowledge that Wounds our Nature” ( and Harry Oldmeadow’s “A Sage for the Times” (

While I have the opportunity, I wanted to follow up with a quote in reply to an inquiry from reader ‘PatrickH’ regarding Schuon’s understanding of the issue of the relative fullness of revelation in one religion rather than another from several posts back, one that I just recently came across, that builds on the somewhat abbreviated reply I had then given and that seems apropos to his question:

Extract from a letter from Frithjof Schuon dated 29 May 1964.

I must call your attention to an important aspect of universality or unity: the divergence between religions is not only due to the incomprehension of men; it is also in the Revelations, hence in the divine Will, and this is why there is a difference between exoterism and esoterism; the diverse dogmas contradict one another, not only in the minds of theologians, but also—and a priori—in the sacred Scriptures; in giving these Scriptures, however, God at the same time gives the keys for understanding their underlying unity. If all men were metaphysicians and contemplatives, a single Revelation might be enough; but since this is not how things are, the Absolute must reveal itself in different ways, and the metaphysical viewpoints from which these Revelations are derived—according to different logical needs and different spiritual temperaments—cannot but contradict one another on the plane of forms, somewhat as geometrical figures contradict each other as long as one has not grasped their spatial and symbolic homogeneity.

God could not wish for all men to understand Unity since this understanding is contrary to the nature of man in the “dark age”. This is why I am against ecumenism, which is an impossibility and absurdity pure and simple. The great evil is not that men of different religions do not understand one other, but that too many men—due to the influence of the modern spirit—are no longer believers. If religious divergences are particularly painful in our times, this is only because the divisions between believers, in the face of an unbelief that has become more and more menacing, have become all the more acute and also all the more dangerous. It is therefore high time that: 1. men return to faith, whatever their religion may be, on condition that it is intrinsically orthodox and in spite of dogmatic ostracisms; 2. that those who are capable of understanding pure metaphysics, esoterism, and the inward unity of religions discover these truths and draw the necessary inward and outward conclusions. And this is why I write books.


dearieme said...

Thanks, Wm - but still, read a chap who can make Italy dull?

nk said...

A very good observation, bgc !

I really like Nietzsches prose (but not his ideas), Wagners Music and especially Thomas Manns novels .

These works are beautiful in a strange way. The problem of 'K√ľnstlertum' (the way of living as an artistic genius) which dominates their thinking is of course not a practical problem for me as an ordinary guy, and I always appreciated that fact.

I really never saw the amount of hubris in their question but in fact, your are right : It is hubris from top to bottom.