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Title: Genius
Original Title: Génie
Volume and Page: Vol. 7 (1757), pp. 582–584
Author: Jean-François de Saint-Lambert (ascribed) (biography)
Translator: John S.D. Glaus [The Euler Society,]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Saint-Lambert, Jean-François de (ascribed). "Genius." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by John S.D. Glaus. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2007. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Génie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 7. Paris, 1757.
Citation (Chicago): Saint-Lambert, Jean-François de (ascribed). "Genius." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by John S.D. Glaus. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2007. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Génie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 7:582–584 (Paris, 1757).

Genius is the expansiveness of the intellect, the force of imagination and the activity of the soul. The way in which one receives his ideas is dependent on the way in which one remembers them. Man is thrown into the universe with more or less vivid feelings which belong to all mankind. Most people only experience strong feelings when the impression of those objects has an immediate effect on their needs or their tastes. Everything that is foreign to their passion, all that is without a connection to their way of living or is not apparent to them, or is only seen for a moment without being felt and to be forgotten forever.

The man of genius is he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost.

When the soul is affected by the object itself, it is by the memory of it; however in the man of genius , the imagination goes farther, it remembers with more striking feelings than when they were made, because to these ideas are attached a thousand others which appropriately give rise to the feeling.

Genius is occupied by the objects that surround it, it does not remember; it sees. It does not limit itself by looking, it feels. Within the silence and darkness of one’s study it enjoys the full sweetness of the mood; it is frozen by the whistling winds, it is scorched by the sun, and it is frightened by storms. The soul is often delighted by these moments; they provide it with pleasure that is important to it and it gives itself to anything that can enlarge it; with vibrant colors and inalterable habits it wishes to give substance to ghosts who are its work and make it rise to the occasion or which simply amuse it.

Does it wish to describe some of these objects that have just disturbed it? Sometimes human beings divest themselves of their imperfections, they only imprint onto their paintings the sublime and enjoyable; then genius paints the beautiful: at times it only sees in the most tragic events and the most terrible circumstances and then genius paints in the most sober colors; the energetic expressions of trials and pain; it animates matter, it colors thought in the heat of enthusiasm, it has neither the disposition nor the ability to follow its ideas; it is transfigured into the persons that it transports; it has assumed their character; if it has proved to the highest degree the heroic passions, as would be the confidence of a great soul which the force of its feelings raises above all danger such as the love of country transports one to self-forgetfulness, it produces the sublime; the me of Medea, the he died of old Horace, the I am consul of Rome of Brutus: transported by other passions, he allowed Hermione say, who told you that I was loved to Orosmane?; and Thieste, I recognize my brother.

The force of this enthusiasm inspires the correct words when it possesses energy; it is often given to sacrifice by enduring characters; it inspires the harmony of imitation, images of all kinds, the most sensible signs to follow and imitative sounds as the words which characterize them.

The imagination assumes different forms; it borrows them from the different qualities that form the character of the soul. Passion, the diversity of circumstances, certain qualities of the intellect provide a particular shape to the imagination. It does not allow sentimentality into its ideas, since there is not always a link between the imagination and beings.

Genius is not always genial; at times it is more kind than sublime, it senses and paints more of the of the beautiful than the gracious, its experience allows for more of a gentle emotion than the extreme.

At times, the imagination in the mind of a genius is happy; it sweeps up the imperfections of man, his faults and his ordinary follies; the opposite of order is ridicule but as such a novelty it appears that it is the swift glance of a genius which has placed the ridicule into the object which he discovers, the happy imagination of an expansive genius enlarges the field of ridicule and while the common sees it and senses it in the shock of established habits, genius discovers and senses it in that which wounds the universal order.

Taste is often separate from genius as taste is the work of study and time, it relies on the knowledge of a multitude of rules which are established or presumed to be and it allows for beautiful things which are conventional. For something to be beautiful according to the rules of taste, it also must be elegant, finished, refined without the appearance of being so; to be of genius , there are times when neglect is necessary, that it appears to be out of sorts, difficult to achieve, wild. The sublime and genius shine in Shakespeare as does lightening throughout a long night; Racine is always beautiful, Homer is full of genius and Virgil is elegant.

Rules and laws of taste will only be obstacles to genius ; it breaks them to steal from the sublime, the pathetic, and the great. The love of this eternal beauty which characterizes nature; the passion to conform works since I do not know which model it created and after which it has the ideas and the feelings of beauty that are the tastes of the man of genius. The desire to express the passions that excite him is continually bothered by grammar and its uses; often the picture he wishes to write refuses to be expressed by an image which would be sublime in another form. Homer was unable to find a unique dialect for the expressions necessary to his genius ; Milton violated the rules of his language and sought out energetic expressions in three or four different idioms. Finally, there is abundant force; there is no sense of ruggedness or irregularity the sublime and the pathetic are. Such is the character of genius in the arts. It does not touch lightly, it does not please without surprising and it is even more surprising in its mistakes.

Within philosophy where one must perhaps be particularly attentive, there is a certain shyness, a reflexive habit which is hardly compatible with an over-heated imagination and even less with a confidence which makes for genius; its path is as distinguished in the arts as it frequently sows brilliant errors, and sometimes there are great successes. One must seek out the truth in philosophy with ardor and hope for it with patience. It requires men who are capable of order and the ability to follow through with their ideas, to follow the links so as to finish, or to interrupt in order to doubt; one must research and discuss and allow for time since we do not have these qualities in the tumult of passion, neither in the fugues of the imagination. They are the spoils of the expansive intellect; the master of himself who never perceives without perception, who seeks to finds what different objects have in common and that which distinguishes them from one another and that which brings together the most farfetched ideas and allows them to run for an extended period; who in order to seize the singularity of connections with that delicate fugitive from some neighboring ideas, or their opposite and its contrast knows how to pull a particular object from a group of objects of the same kind, place the microscope onto a imperceptible point and does not believe to have seen well unless having looked for a long time. It is these men that go from one observation to another to their correct ending and finds all the natural analogies; curiosity to them is fluid and the love of truth is their passion and the desire to discover is in them as a permanent will which animates them without overheating and which conducts their progress which experience must assure.

Genius is struck by all and if it is not delivered to its thoughts and subjugated by its enthusiasm, he studies, so to say, without even noticing. He is obligated to note the impression that objects make on him and he enriches himself ceaselessly with knowledge that has cost him nothing. He glances at nature with a general eye and pierces the very chasms. He takes to his breast these seeds that enter imperceptibly and which produce in time such surprising effects, that even he is tempted to believe in his inspiration. He has a taste for observing, but he rapidly observes a vastness and a multitude of beings.

Motion which is his natural state is sometimes so soft that he barely notices it, but more often than not this motion excites storms and the genius is carried away by a torrent of ideas which he follows with quiet thoughts. In the man where the imagination dominates, ideas are linked by circumstances and feelings. He provides abstractions with an existence independent of the intellect that has provided them. He realizes his ghosts and his enthusiasm increases in the art of his creation; that is to say through his new combinations; man’s only creations are carried off by the crowd of his thoughts with freedom to combine them, and force to produce them, he finds a thousand specious proofs and cannot be assured of finding one correct, he constructs foolhardy buildings that reason would not dare to inhabit, although he enjoys them because of their looks rather than because of their safety; he admires its systems as he would admire a poem and he accepts them as beautiful by believing to love them as real.

Philosophical creations are true or false but are not distinct characteristics of genius .

There are few errors in Locke and too few truths in Shaftsbury; the former however has nothing but expansive intellect, penetrating and correct; but the latter is a genius of the first order. Locke has seen; Shaftsbury has created, constructed, strengthened. We owe Locke great truths coolly perceived, methodically followed, dryly pronounced; and to Shaftsbury the brilliance of systems poorly founded, full of sublime truths yet in his moments of error, he pleases and continues to persuade through the charm of his eloquence.

Genius hastens the progress of Philosophy by the most felicitous yet unexpected discoveries; it rises as does the flight of the eagle towards the brilliance of truth, the source of a thousand truths will occur when it breaks through the ranks of the shy crowd of wise observers. However, next to this shining truth, it will deposit the works of its imagination unwilling to walk in the path of a career and to continue through the successive intervals. It takes flight at a certain point and throws itself towards its goal and finds an important principle from the darkness, it is rare that it follows the chain of consequences; it is the first strike , to use Montagne’s quote. It imagines more than it sees, it produces more than it discovers, it drags more than it leads; it animates those of the likes Plato, Descartes, Malebranche, Bacon, Leibniz and dependent on whether the imagination was more or less a dominant theme in these men, it allowed brilliant ways to hatch and discover the great truths.

Within the immensity of science but not yet through the depths of government, genius possesses character. Its effects are as easily recognizable within the Arts as in Philosophy, however I doubt whether genius , which has so often come to men at different times and in different ways, shows the way to be lead rather then shows the way to lead. There are certain intellectual qualities, similar to certain emotional qualities, which belong to some but not to others. Everything within the stature of great men is either an inconvenience or has limits.

A presence of mind, is a quality which is so necessary to those who govern, without which one would rarely apply an equitable means to circumstances, without which we would be subject to a defect with the consequences of our thoughts and without which one would lack an intellectual grounding; a presence of mind subjects the soul’s willfulness to reason and maintains it through all experiences, fears, delights, precipitous actions; is there not a single quality which can exist in man that the imagination cannot tame? And is this quality not absolutely opposed to genius ? It has its beginnings in an extreme sensibility which renders it susceptible to a vast number of new impressions by which it can veer off course from its original intent and forced to be secretive and steer itself from the laws of reason and lose through the inequality of conduct, the upward spiral that it might have taken due to the superiority of its brilliance. Men of genius are forced to feel, dictated by their tastes and by their dislikes, distracted by a thousand things, guessing excessively, are shortsighted by allowing an excess of their desires and their hopes and by being forced to accept or deduce constantly the reality of existence, they appear to be better made to overthrow and establish states and to maintain or re-establish order than to follow it.

Genius in business is no more in control of circumstances through the imposition of laws and customs than are the Beaux-Arts through the rules of taste or as in Philosophy by its methods. There are moments when it preserves the state, which would be lost as it unravels and remains in power. Structure is more dangerous in Politics than in Philosophy; the imagination which causes the philosopher to lose himself only allows him to make mistakes: the imagination which causes the statesman to get lost makes him commit mistakes and the misfortune of others.

As easily in war as it is in counseling genius, similarly to divine intervention, seeks in a glance a multiplicity of possibilities selects the best and does it; however it does not do well managing the parts that require focus, combinations, perseverance: Alexander and Condé were masters of events and appeared to be inspired on the day of battle, in these moments when there is no time to deliberate and where it is best to act on one’s first thought, one must see at a moment’s notice the relation of one position and the movements of one’s troops, those of the enemy and the goal that is to be achieved: however best is a Turenne or a Marlborough if one must direct the operations of an entire campaign.

Within the Arts as in the sciences or in business, genius seems to alter the nature of things, its character expands over all it touches, it bursts over the past and the present and lights the future; it precedes its century but cannot follow it; it leaves behind it the reasonable criticisms of others and with its even pace never leaves nature’s uniformity. It is best felt rather than known by the man who wants it; its definition is best left to the person himself to speak of himself and this article which I should not have written should have been the work of one of these extraordinary men who honor this century and to recognize genius would only have had to look at himself.