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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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TO 1770


Genius is relevant to the history of ideas in the follow-
ing meanings: (1) the designation of superior mental
powers productive of rare superior performances; or
also as the designation of a man possessing these
powers; (2) as the peculiar spiritual character of an
era, of a nation, of a man; (3) as a special talent for
some particular type of performance.

The first designation is basic. Performances con-
sidered as products of genius may also belong to poli-
tics, warfare, exploration, etc., but such achievements
are regarded primarily as original intellectual work,
as discoveries or inventions, and especially as artistic
creations in contrast to imitation. Until the middle of
the eighteenth century, these original activities were
collectively designated by inventio, or equivalents of
this term. Their further differentiation (especially of
discoveries from inventions) is frequently ignored.
During the Renaissance (and later), two different Latin
terms were used for genius: ingenium and genius; they
seem to have first acquired this meaning in Italy, where
corresponding Italian words, ingegno and genio, were
also used. A fundamental trait of genius is that it is
an innate capability, operating with spontaneous fa-
versus talents which may be taught and learned
by diligence; but, nevertheless, it may need dili-
gence for its development and discipline. Whether this
capability depends on a unique mental power, or on
an assemblage (proportion) of powers, or on a kind
of inward revelation, is a further debatable question.

At first, irrational traits attributed to genius are
considered irrelevant; later they are magnified by the
confluence into this idea of the Platonic doctrine of
furor poeticus in poetics. Genius, in this respect, is
sometimes considered as verging on distraction. Also
Platonic is the divine character frequently attributed,
metaphorically or not, to genius, because its original
work is compared both with God's creation, and with
what is considered the result of supernatural inspira-
tion. In fact, while ingenium is intended to mean
“inventive intelligence,” the Latin term genius (Italian
genio) in the Renaissance originally refers, meta-
phorically or not, to a superior spirit inspiring a human
being in the tradition of Socrates' demon or in that
of astrology (astral spirit). Petrarch and Boccaccio had
used ingenium in this sense, but still rather atypically;
but Poliziano and Pico stress the element of originality
when they use it. Pico also refers to genius, as does
Erasmus in 1528. Castiglione (1528) only uses ingegno.
The Portuguese art theorist Hollanda, a pupil of
Michelangelo, stresses (1548) the innate character of
genius (Portuguese engenho, genio). Alberti, Condivi,
and Vasari point out that genius and diligence are
different qualities, but that they may be profitably
united; the same connection between genius and mem-
ory is asserted by Boccaccio, Alberti, Enea Silvio
Piccolomini, Erasmus, Trissino.

Scaliger's doctrine of genius (1561), centering on
poetics, is peculiarly important. Genius (ingenium,
) is something divine and innate, associated with
enthusiasm (furor poeticus); it belongs to both arts and
sciences. Cardano identifies genius with a kind of
spiritus familiaris. For Fracastoro and Giovio, genius
only means a talent in some particular field (Zilsel,
1926; Thüme, 1927). The term “genius” is used by
Adriani (Manuale, 1845) as the spirit of a nation.

For Bruno (1585), genius as divine enthusiasm is the
origin of the rules of art (Bruyne, 1951; Thüme, 1927).
But seventeenth-century Italian authors, such as
Galileo, Torricelli, Magalotti, Salvini, exclude from
genio supernatural and enthusiastic traits (Zilsel, 1926).
Pellegrini (1650), Tesauro (1654), and Pagano consider
ingegno in connection with beauty. For Vico, genio
is the source of inventions (Croce, 1946; Pagano, 1650).


In Spain, Vives (1538) defines ingenium as the
strength of the mind (Gracián, 1960); Huarte, in his
famous Examen de ingenios (1575), means by ingenio
a special talent. Huarte's book stimulated many imita-
tions in all European countries (Lipenius, 1682;
Kahlius, 1740). Herrera (1580) identifies “Plato's ge-
nius” (Spanish genio) with “Aristotle's active intellect”
as a supernatural power of invention. Rengifo (1592)
and Carvallo (1602) interpret ingenio as furor poeticus
(Menéndez, 1962). Gracián (1646; 1658) makes a dis-
tinction between genio and ingenio: the first seems to
be (as for other authors) a natural inclination to un-


common achievement, the second a peculiar intelli-
gence (agudeza) adapted to discover similarities and
analogies (Gracián, 1960; Cirot, 1926; Zilsel, 1926).


The French Renaissance, aware of the problem of
originality and inspiration in poetry (Thüme, 1927),
seems, however, to ignore this twofold meaning of the
French term génie; ingenium is translated into French
as esprit (Zilsel, 1926), a word having a much wider
range of meanings. Descartes employs the term
ingenium to mean both an unusual capability to dis-
cover the truth (viz., new truths) and a special talent
(Laporte, 1950). Génie appears in seventeenth-century
psychology as a kind of inventive instinct which must
be ruled by reason and taste; or, as the natural spon-
taneity of an author, in contrast to science and art.
Mairet (1637) calls it fureur divine (Zumthor-Sommer,
1950); for Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1640) it is a
secret force coming from heaven, bestowing greatness
and majesty (Bray, 1927). Saint-Evremond regards
poetical genius as incompatible with common sense
(bon sens): sometimes it verges on madness. For Dacier
(1681), on the contrary, judgment governs genius but
is concealed under inspiration and apparent disorder
(Thüme, 1927). Rapin (1686) calls genius feu céleste
(Bray, 1927), and Bouhours finds it opposed to, but not
incompatible with common sense. Boileau contrasts
genius with art and its rules. For Perrault (1693) genius
(feu sacré, sainte fureur) discovers the eternal ideas of
beauty (Zumthor-Sommer, 1950). Dubos (1719) takes
“genius” to stand for an instinctive and natural capa-
bility for original creation, above and sometimes
against the rules; it should not be overwhelmed by
enthusiasm; genius results from an assemblage of
psychophysical powers (Wolf, 1923; Grappin, 1952;
Fubini, 1965). For André (1741), genius (feu de l'esprit)
may infringe the rules of art, but only within certain
limits (André, 1843). Vauvenargues (1746) considers
genius as depending on the passions, and resulting from
an assemblage of powers; its originality does not ex-
clude imitation (Vauvenargues, 1857). Condillac (1746)
opposes genius to talent: both are powers of invention,
combining ideas received through the senses; but talent
does not go beyond natural combinations, while genius
is provided with an esprit créateur (Condillac, 1803).

In Batteux's opinion (1747), genius should not con-
flict with natural laws; in fact, it discovers, it does not
create. Therefore, it is a superior form of reason imi-
tating nature, and promoted by enthusiasm (Wolf,
1923; Grappin, 1952). Diderot considers genius as a
mystery of nature, going beyond imagination and
judgment by the force of enthusiasm; this brings about
creation, as an idea drawn from experience through
an original process (Dieckmann, 1941; Belaval, 1950).
For d'Alembert (1751) genius, the power of original
invention in science and art, cannot be taught
(d'Alembert, 1930). Cahusac (1757) applies genius to
emotion and feeling, as a faculty receptive to and
reproductive of impressions. J. F. de Saint-Lambert
(1757) opposes genius to taste; genius creates inde-
pendently of the rules; in philosophy, Shaftesbury is
a genius, he has créé, construit, édifié—Locke is not,
because we owe him only de grandes vérités froidement
aperçues, méthodiquement suivies, froidement an-
Helvétius (1758) gives a mechanical explana-
tion of genius: genius invents by combination, not by
creation, and it is a rational power (Wolf, 1923).
Voltaire identifies genius with “active imagination”; it
ought to be matched by memory and judgment
(Encyclopédie, 1765). Voltaire, as many others in his
time, uses génie also to mean the character of an era
or of a nation (Tonelli, 1955) as was usual in France,
at least after Corneille and Racine (Corneille, 1640-41;
Racine, 1669). In this sense, esprit is a synonym of


In Britain, Barclay mentions a genius saeculi (“genius
of the age”) as early as 1614 (Tonelli, 1955).

The doctrine of originality and divine inspiration
especially for poetry is developed during the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries (Thüme, 1927), but the term
“genius” is comparatively rarely used in this connec-
tion (Latin ingenium is frequently translated as “wit,”
but as such it does not include the idea of creativity).
Evelyn refers to Huygens as a “universal Mathematical
Genius” (Evelyn, 1662); Wolseley (1685) opposes
poetical genius to imitation and to laborious elabora-
tion. Temple (1690) refers genius to “Coelestial Fire
or Divine Inspiration,” superior to the constraint of
the rules. The doctrine of creative imagination and of
its superiority to the rules is especially developed in
Shakespearean criticism, e.g., by Rymer (Thüme, 1927).

During the eighteenth century British writers begin
to theorize about genius, and stress its irrational traits
more than elsewhere. For Shaftesbury, a genius is a
person who is able to create as nature does: and nature
is a revelation of the universal spirit. Therefore a genius
is considered as a second deity, or as a Prometheus.
Enthusiasm is a condition of creation; nevertheless, a
man of genius should not infringe the rules of art: he
needs knowledge and good sense, although he avoids
minuteness. Addison (1711) considers genius as founded
on active imagination, and contrasts it to imitation;
but there are two kinds of geniuses: the first, or the
natural kind (Homer, Shakespeare) create inde-
pendently of the rules; the second, or the learned kind


(Plato, Vergil, Bacon, Milton) have been educated and
developed through the rules. For Young (1759), genius
is divine inspiration; its creation is as spontaneous as
that of nature, and the rules are only a hindrance to
it. With Young, the interpretation of genius as a sort
of irrationality reaches its climax. Gerard (1759; 1774)
distinguishes genius from imagination: the second col-
lects new materials, the first orders them into a whole
according to judgment and to taste. The work of genius
is the original source of rules: it establishes them, but
is not constricted by them. Though genius, for Gerard,
does not act in a consciously rational way (but rather
by inspired enthusiasm), its psychological explanation,
through the theory of association of ideas, is completely
rational (Wolf, 1923; Thüme, 1927). Duff considers
genius as a proportion of different powers, such as
inventive imagination, judgment, and taste. In art, the
proper manifestation of genius is the sublime (Duff,
1767). For Ogilvie, genius or invention proceeds in
science by judgment or understanding, in poetry by
imagination; only poetical invention is original and,
metaphorically speaking, creative (Ogilvie, 1777).


In seventeenth-century Holland, Vossius mentions a
furor as ingenii excitatio for poetry (Bray, 1927). In
late sixteenth-century Germany, Castiglione's ingegno
is translated into German as ingenium (Zilsel, 1926).
German seventeenth-century treatises in Latin use
ingenium in its various meanings (Lipenius, 1682);
“genius” appears only occasionally (Maior, n.d.). The
German term of French origin, Das Genie, has been
known since 1728 (Bertram, 1728), but became of
general use only after J. A. Schlegel's translation of
Batteux (1751). Bodmer still employs grosser Kopf,
grosser Geist
to mean a poetical genius submitted to
rules of nature and of reason only, not to those imposed
by the critics (Grappin, 1952). Ingenium is also trans-
lated, e.g., by Chr. Wolff, as Witz, but in the very
restricted meaning of a power productive of discovery
of similarities or analogies (Baeumler, 1923). For
Baumgarten and Meier ingenium latius dictum, or
Kopf, is a favorable proportion of mental powers pro-
ducing superior performances in science or, as
ingenium venustum, in art; they neither stress the
creative aspect of genius, nor admit irrational elements
into it (Baeumler, 1923; Wolf, 1923; Grappin, 1952;
Tonelli, 1966). Creativity and freedom from the rules
were claimed for artistic genius by Gellert in 1751
(Wolf, 1923). Trescho (1754) considers genius to be an
instinct providentially inborn in all human beings, as
an inclination towards a certain role in life. For
Wieland (1755), genius is connected with freedom of
imagination and with enthusiasm. Sulzer (1757; 1771)
identifies genius with an extraordinary strength of the
whole representative faculty, utilizing all its powers;
it is a gift of nature and, in art, its task is to reach
ideal beauty. The production of genius is partially
unconscious; its sudden manifestation generates enthu-
siasm. Originality (and independency of the rules) is
not always connected with genius, but genius should
pursue it. Resewitz (1759-60) explains genius through
the preponderance over others of a certain aptitude
required by some art (but not required in science). In
general, a genius must be especially predisposed to
intuitive knowledge. For Flögel (1762), genius is a
harmony of powers; it is not opposed to the rules.
Moses Mendelssohn is convinced that genius corre-
sponds to a state of perfection of all mental powers
working in harmony towards a certain aim; if it can
control enthusiasm through reason, it may reach
sublimity in art. Through genius, nature dictates her
own rules; therefore, genius cannot oppose true rules
(Wolf, 1923; Grappin, 1952).

Hamann (1760-61), influenced by Young, breaks with
the rationalist tradition in the explanation of genius.
He regards it as a divine inspiration opposed and supe-
rior to reason; creation is brought about by feeling,
identified with intuition; its thinking is identified with
linguistic expression, and its language is poetry. Genius
is considered sometimes as a kind of divine seizure
(Grappin, 1952). For Klopstock, artistic genius, a bal-
ance of different powers, must be endowed with com-
passion, which can generate emotion along with moral
conscience. It is subject to rules (Grappin, 1952).
Lessing's theory is still more rationalistic; genius is a
natural facility for discovering the true and reasonable
principles of art (Rosenthal, 1933; Grappin, 1952).
Riedel (1767) refers to genius as a facility in intuitive
knowledge, both in science and in art (Riedel, 1783).
Eberhard's interpretation of genius (1776) almost
completely excludes irrational elements (Eberhard,

Genius for Herder means chiefly national genius.
(Genie as the characteristic of an era or of a nation
was used by other German authors at that time; how-
ever, the term Geist was generally preferred for the
national characteristic.) Herder refuses to analyze the
notion of original genius, but defines it as a natural
force. At first, he is inclined to stress the irrational
elements of genius, but later he restricts their function
(Ernst, 1916; Grappin, 1952). Lavater, in his enthusi-
astic and rather confused exaltation of genius (1778),
stresses its instinctive and extraordinary character
(Ernst, 1916).

Between 1770 and 1780, Kant developed a first
version of his theory of genius. He distinguished genius
from skill or talent, when these are not creative; genius


is opposed to diligence, but needs instruction, and is
a favorable proportion of four powers: sensibility,
judgment, creative spirit, and taste. Its realm is the
production of new ideas and ideals. Genius, freedom,
and living organisms are elements which cannot be
explained mechanically (Tonelli, 1966).

Thus, a rational explanation of the force of genius
seems to be largely prevalent in Germany in this period,
in spite of the Sturm und Drang ideology, developing
after 1770: rational elements seem to be prevalent also
in Goethe's early theory of genius (Sudheimer, 1935;
Grappin, 1952).


J. Addison, Spectator, 160 (3 September, 1711). J. Le Rond
d'Alembert, Discours préliminaire de l'Encyclopédie, ed.
Ducros (Paris, 1930), pp. 47, 53, 64. Y. M. André, Oeuvres
ed. Cousin (Paris, 1843), p. 59. A. Baeumler,
kants Kritik der Urteilskraft, ihre Geschichte und Systematik
(Halle, 1923); reprinted as Das Irrationalitätsproblem in der
Aesthetik und Logik des 18. Jahrhunderts bis zur Kritik der
(Darmstadt, 1967), Part I, A, Ch. 7: pp. 146f.,
Witz; pp. 157f., Baumgarten. Y. Belaval, L'esthétique sans
paradoxe de Diderot
(Paris, 1950), pp. 141, 151f., 156f., 299f.
J. F. Bertram, Einleitung in die sogenannten Schönen
(Brunswick, 1728), p. 199. R. Bray, la for-
mation de la doctrine classique en France
(Paris, 1927):
Balzac, p. 87; Vossius, p. 88; Rapin, p. 90. E. de Bruyne,
Geschiedenis van de Aesthetica. De Renaissance (Antwerp
and Amsterdam, 1951), p. 142. G. Cirot, review of “B.
Gracián, pages caractéristiques,” in Bulletin Hispanique,
28 (1926), 106f. E. Bonnot de Condillac, Connoissances
Part I, Sec. II, # 104, in Oeuvres complètes (Paris,
1803), I, 147f. P. Corneille, Cinna (1640-41), Act II, scene
1. B. Croce, Estetica come scienza dell'espressione e lin-
guistica generale
(Bari, 1946), “Storia,” Ch. III: Pellegrini,
Tesauro, p. 207; Vico, p. 253. H. Dieckmann, “Diderot's
Conception of Genius,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 2
(1941), 151-82. W. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius and
Its Various Modes of Exertion in Philosophy and the Fine
(London, 1767), pp. 6, 8, 10, 22, 99. J. A. Eberhard,
Allgemeine Theorie des Denkens und Empfindens (Berlin,
1786), pp. 208f. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des
sciences, des arts et des métiers
(Neufchâtel, 1765), Vol. VIII,
art. “Imagination.” J. Ernst, Der Geniebegriff der Stürmer
und Dränger und der Frühromantiker
(Zurich, 1916): Herder,
pp. 25f.; Lavater, pp. 29f. J. Evelyn, Sculptura: or the history
and art of Chalcography and engraving Copper
1662), p. 74. E. Fubini, Empirismo e classicismo: saggio sul
(Turin, 1965), pp. 75f. B. Gracián, Obras completas,
ed. del Hoyo (Madrid, 1960): Vives, et al., p. 78n.; genio
and ingenio, pp. 78f.; ingenio and beauty, pp. 239f. P.
Grappin, la théorie du Génie dans le préclassicisme
(Paris, 1952): Dubos, pp. 112f.; Batteux, pp. 114f.;
J. A. Schlegel, pp. 110f.; Bodmer, p. 62; Baumgarten, pp.
91f.; Trescho, pp. 122f.; Wieland, pp. 125f.; Sulzer, pp. 139f.;
Resewitz, pp. 128f.; Flögel, pp. 134f.; Mendelssohn, pp.
131f.; Hamann, pp. 187f., 207f.; Klopstock, pp. 254, 259f.;
Lessing, pp. 169f.; Herder, pp. 221f., 228f., 247f.; Goethe,
pp. 270f. I. M. Kahlius, Biblioteca philosophica Struvviana
(Göttingen, 1740), II, 82-96. J. Laporte, le rationalisme de
(Paris, 1950), pp. 29f. M. Lipenius, Bibliotheca
realis philosophica
(Frankfurt am Main, 1682; reprint
Hildesheim, 1967), I, 731f. I. D. Maior, genius errans, sive
de ingeniorum in scientiis abusus
(Kiel, n.d.). Manuale
dell'arte greca
(Florence, 1845), p. 15. M. Menéndez Pelayo,
Historia de las ideas estéticas in España (Madrid, 1962), Vol.
II: Huarte, p. 141; Herrera, p. 71; Rengifo, Carvallo, pp.
218f. J. Ogilvie, Philosophical and Critical Observations on
the Nature, Characters and Various Species of Composition

(London, 1774), pp. 46f., 55f., 104f. M. Pagano, I fonti
dell'ingegno ridotti ad arte
(Bologna, 1650). J. Racine,
Britannicus (1669), Act III, scene 2. F. J. Riedel, Sämtliche
(Vienna, 1783), III, 282f. E. Rosenthal, Der
Geniebegriff des Aufklärungszeitalters. Lessing und die
(Berlin, 1933). O. Schlapp, Kants Lehre
vom Genie und die Entstehung der“Kritik der Urteilskraft”

(Göttingen, 1901). H. Sudheimer, Der Geniebegriff des
jungen Goethe
(Berlin, 1935), with many references to the-
ories of genius prior to Goethe. H. Thüme, Beiträge zur
Geschichte des Geniebegriffes in England
(Halle, 1927):
furor poeticus in the Italian Renaissance, pp. 7f.; Cardano,
pp. 17f.; Fracastoro, p. 11; Bruno, pp. 23f.; French Renais-
sance, pp. 29f.; Saint-Evremond, p. 65; Dacier, pp. 72f.;
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, pp. 31f., 51f.;
Wolseley, Temple, Rymer, pp. 62f.; Shaftesbury, pp. 67f.;
Addison, pp. 78f.; Young, pp. 87f. G. Tonelli, Kant,
dall'estetica metafisica all'estetica psicoempirica,
della Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, Series III, Volume
3, Part II (Turin, 1955): Barclay, Voltaire, p. 115; Kant, p.
61; idem, “Kant's Early Theory of Genius (1770-1779),” The
Journal of the History of Philosophy,
4 (1966); 217f., on the
theory of genius in the eighteenth century; Meier, p. 219.
L. de Clapiers de Vauvenargues, Oeuvres (Paris, 1857), pp.
20f. O. Walzel, Das Prometheussymbol von Shaftesbury zu
(Munich, 1932). R. Wittkower, “Imitation, Eclecti-
cism and Genius,” in E. R. Wasserman, ed., Aspects of the
Eighteenth Century
(Baltimore, 1965). H. Wolf, Versuch
einer Geschichte des Geniebegriffes in der deutschen
Aesthetik des 18. Jahrhunderts,
Vol. I, von Gottsched bis auf
(Heidelberg, 1923): Dubos, pp. 52f.; Batteux, pp.
57f.; Cahusac, pp. 71f.; Saint-Lambert, p. 73; Helvétius, pp.
60f.; Shaftesbury, pp. 17f.; Addison, pp. 24f.; Young, pp. 30f.;
Gerard, pp. 37f.; Baumgarten, pp. 101f.; Gellert, pp. 108f.;
Wieland, pp. 113f.; Sulzer, pp. 142f.; Resewitz, pp. 115f.;
Flögel, pp. 126f.; Mendelssohn, p. 130. E. Zilsel, Die
Entstehung des Geniebegriffes. Ein Beitrag zur Ideen-
geschichte der Antike und des Frühkapitalismus
1926): definition of genius, p. 252; problem of irrationality,
p. 269; invention, pp. 272f.; divine, pp. 276f.; Petrarch, pp.
213f.; Boccaccio, pp. 267f.; Poliziano, Pico, Erasmus, pp.
214f.; Hollanda, p. 246; genius and diligence, pp. 266f.;
genius and memory, pp. 267f.; Scaliger, pp. 284f.; Cardano,
pp. 292f.; Fracastoro, pp. 290f.; Galileo, Torricelli, et al.,
pp. 296f.; translations of ingenium into modern languages,
pp. 294f.; Gracián, pp. 297f. P. Zumthor and H. Sommer,


“A propos du mot génie,” in Zeitschrift für romanische
66 (1950): in general, 180f., 186; Mairet, 183;
Bouhours, 191; Boileau, 196; Perrault, 197f.


[See also Art and Play; Beauty; Creativity; Genius, Musical;