Thoreau on Genius

2017-02-04

Someone who knows that I'm writing a book on Thoreau sent me a link from BrainPickings.org about Thoreau's views on the topic of genius. Drawing on the "Thursday" and "Friday" chapters of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the author focuses her brief essay on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius.

Although that's fine as far as it goes, the word "genius" meant something more significant - and more ancient - for Thoreau than it does for us. When we think of geniuses, we think of really smart and inventive people like Albert Einstein. Yet for Thoreau, every person has a genius: "There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius." The key is a derivation from the Roman idea of your good genius, which borrowed directly from the even older Greek notion of your daimon - that is, your conscience, your higher self, your inner god, the aspect of your personality that partakes in the divine.

Consider a few quotes from Walden. In "Higher Laws", Thoreau writes:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him.

And in "Sounds":

I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.

In "Economy", Thoreau makes explicit the connection between genius and independence:

I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.

At root, then, for Thoreau genius is not a matter of intellectual brilliance but of following your own path to the higher ground of your upland farm.

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