Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/July 1896/The Genius and his Environment I & II




PSYCHOLOGICAL science has reached a sort of understanding in these recent years of the individual and of the social setting in which he customarily disports himself; and the duty now devolves upon it of dealing with the exceptions to the rule. No one will be disposed to deny certainly that the genius is in some way exceptional; and if any instance can, by showing what society is not, cast light on what it is, the genius is the man to question. So it is my purpose in this paper to endeavor to understand him, as far as may be, without putting ourselves in his shoes; for apart from the inherent difficulty of assuming his exceptional role, it may for another reason be more comfortable not to do so, for under the exceptions to our social rule we are forced to include also these other extremes found in the weak-minded and the insane.

The facts about the genius seem to indicate that he is a being sui generis. Common mortals stand about him with expressions of awe. The literature of him is embodied in the alcoves of our libraries most accessible to the public, and even the wayfaring man, to whom life is a weary round, and his conquests over Nature and his fellows only the division of honors on a field that usually witnesses drawn battles or bloody defeats, loves to stimulate his courage by hearing of the lives of those who put Nature and society so utterly to rout. He hears of men who swayed the destinies of Europe, who taught Society by outraging her conventions, whose morality even was reached by scorn of the peccadilloes which condemn the ordinary man, to whom might makes right, and homo mensura omnium. Every man has in him to some degree the hero-worshiper, and gets inflamed somewhat by reading Carlyle's Frederick the Great.

Of course, this popular sense can not be wholly wrong. The genius does accomplish the world movements. Napoleon did set the destiny of Europe, and Frederick did reveal, in a sense, a new phase of moral conduct. And the truth of these things is just what makes the enthusiasm of the common man so healthy and stimulating. It is not the least that the genius accomplishes that be thus elevates the traditions of man, inspires the literature that the people read. He sows the seeds of effort in the fertile soil of the newborn of his own kind, while he leads those who do not have the same gifts to rear and tend the growing plant in their own social gardens. This is true: and a philosophy of society should not overlook either of the facts—the actual deeds and the peculiar influence of the great man upon their own time—or his lasting p]ace in the more inspiring social tradition which is embodied in literature and art.

But it is not my aim to add to the literature of hero-worship. The considerations on that side are so patent that he who runs may read. My aim is to present just the opposite aspect of these apparent exceptions to the canons of our ordinary social life, and so to oppose the extreme claim made by the writers v/ho attempt, in the name of social philosophy and science, to blur the lines of sane thought on these topics. For it only needs a moment's consideration to see that if the genius has no reasonable place in the movement of social progress in the world, then there can be no possible doctrine or philosophy of such progress. To the hero-worshiper his hero comes in simply to "knock out," so to speak, all the regular movement of the society which is so fortunate, or so unfortunate, as to have given him birth: and by his initiative the aspirations, beliefs, struggles of the community or state get a push, in a new direction—a tangent to the former movement or a reversal of it. If this be true, and it be further true that no genius who is likely to appear can be discounted by any human device before his abrupt appearance upon the stage of history, then the history of facts takes the place of the science or philosophy of them, and the chronicler is the only historian with a right to be.

Our genius, then, is a very critical factor in human thought. Not only is he the man from whom we expect the thought; he is also the man who, if the hero-worshiper is right, traduces thought. For of what value can we hold the contribution which he makes to thought if this contribution runs so across the acquisitions of the earlier time, and the contributions of earlier genius, that no line of common truth can be discovered between him and them? Then each, society would have its own explanation of itself, and that only so long as it produced no new genius. It may be, of course, that society is so constituted—or, rather, so lacking in constitution—that simple variations in brain physiology are the sufficient reason for its cataclysms; but a great many efforts will be made by the geniuses themselves to prove the contrary before this highest of all spheres of human activity is declared to have no meaning—no thread which runs from age to age and links mankind, the genius and the man who plods, in a common and significant development.

It is, therefore, on the side of just this endeavor that I write. It seems that we have now at hand in our recent literature some social truths of such generality that certain things may be said of social progress which do not rob the genius of his credit, nor of his influence, even though they do tend to explain him. They go further, indeed, in that they explain him in the same terms and to the same extent that they explain the common man and society too. We may turn to these considerations.


The first and most general position which has come as a new insight, in the confusion of present-day discussion, is indicated by a phrase which I have used elsewhere—"Social Heredity." The theory of social heredity has been worked up through the contributions, from different points of view, of several authors. I shall first expound this point of view in my own way, bringing out most prominently the aspects of social heredity which seem to be of value for the true "appreciation" of the genius. What, then, is social heredity?

This is a very easy question to answer, since the group of facts which the phrase describes are extremely familiar—so much so that the reader may despair, from such a commonplace beginning, of getting any novelty from it. The social heritage is, of course, all that a man or woman gets from the accumulated wisdom of society. All that the ages have handed down—the literature, the art, the habits of social conformity, the experience of social ills the treatment of crime, the relief of distress, the education of the young, the provision for the old—all, in fact, however described, that we men owe to the ancestors whom we reverence, and to the parents whose presence with us perhaps we cherish still. Their struggles, the Fourth of July orator has told us, have bought our freedom; we enter into the heritage of their thought and wisdom and heroism. All true; we do. We all breathe a social atmosphere; and our growth is by this breathing-in of the tradition and example of the past.

Now, if this be the social heritage, we may go on to ask. Who are to inherit it? And to this we may again add the further question. How does the one who is born to such a heritage as this come into his inheritance? And with this yet again. How may he use his inheritance—to what end and under what limitations? These questions come so readily into the mind that we naturally wish the discussion to cover them, even apart from the requirement which is urged upon us, in these latter days, that we make all social discussion as biological as possible. The term heredity does certainly bring up a biological line of thought, and the analogy from evolution doctrine is materially helpful; so we need not be afraid of it.

Generally, then, who is eligible for the social inheritance? This heir to society we are, all of us. Society does not make a will, it is true; nor does society die intestate. To say that it is we who inherit the riches of the social past of the race, is to say that we are the children of the past in a sense which comes upon us with all the force that bears in upon the natural heir when he finds his name in will or law. But there are exceptions. And before we seek the marks of the legitimacy of our claim to be the heirs of the hundred years of accumulated thought and action, let us say, of this American continent, it may be well to advise ourselves as to the poor creatures who do not enter into the inheritance with us. They are those who people our asylums, our reformatories, our jails and penitentiaries; those who prey upon the body of our social life by demands for charitable support, or for the more radical treatment by isolation in institutions: indeed, some who are born to fail in this inheritance are with us no more, even though they were of our generation; they have paid the penalty which their effort to wrest the inheritance from us has cost, and the grave of the murderer, the burglar, the suicide, the red-handed rebel against the law of social inheritance, is now their resting place. Society then is, when taken in the widest sense, made up of two classes of people—the heirs by right and the rebels by birth.

We may get a clear idea of the way a man attains his special heritage by dropping figure for the present and speaking in the terms of plain natural science. Ever since Darwin propounded the law of "natural selection" the word "variation" has been current. The student in natural science has come to look for variations as the necessary preliminary to any new step of progress and adaptation in the sphere of organic life. Nature, we now know, is fruitful to an extraordinary degree. She produces many specimens of everything. It is a general fact of reproduction that the offspring of plant or animal is quite out of proportion in numbers to the parents that produce them, and also to the means of.living which await them. One flower produces seeds which are carried far and near—to the ocean and to the desert rocks, no less than to the soil in which they may take root and grow. Insects multiply at a rate which is simply inconceivable to our limited capacity for thinking in figures. Animals also produce more abundantly, and man has children in numbers which allow him to bury half his offspring yearly and yet increase the adult population from year to year. This means, of coarse, that whatever the inheritance is, all can not inherit it—some must go without a portion in natural goods if the resources of Nature are in any degree limited. That the resources of Nature are inadequate to provide for such numbers, with the extraordinary increase, is a matter of course; for if not so now, how soon must it become so, as the increase goes on? Nature solves the problem in the simplest of ways: all the young born in the same family are not exactly alike; "variations" occur. There are those that are better nourished, those that have larger muscles, those that breathe deeper and run faster. So the question who of these shall inherit the earth, the fields, the air, the water—this is left to itself. The best of all the variations will live, and the others will die. Those that do, have thus, to all intents and purposes, been "selected" for the inheritance, just as really as if the parents of the species had left a will and had been able to enforce it. This is the principle of "natural selection."

Now, this way of looking at problems which involve aggregates of individuals and their distribution is becoming a habit of the age. Wherever the application of the principles of probability do not explain a statistical result—that is, wherever there seem to be influences which favor particular individuals at the expense of others—men turn at once to the principle of variations for the justification of this seeming partiality of Nature. And what it means is that Nature is partial to individuals in making them, in their natural heredity, rather than after they are born.

The principle of heredity with variations is a safe assumption to make in regard to mankind; and we see at once that in order to come in for a part in the social heritage of our fathers we must be born fit for it. We must be born so endowed for the race of social life that we assimilate, from our birth up, the spirit of the society into which we are reared. The unfittest, socially, are cut off. In this there is a distinction between this sphere of selection and that of the organic world. There the fittest survive, the others are lost; here the unfittest are lost, all the others survive. Social selection weeds out the unfit, the murderer, the most unsocial, and says to him, "You must die"; natural selection seeks out the most fit and says, "You alone are to live." The difference is important, for it marks a prime series of distinctions, when the conceptions drawn from biology are applied to social phenomena; but for the understanding of variations we need not now pursue it further.

Given social variations, therefore, differences among men, what becomes of this man or that? We see at once that if society is to live there must be limits set somewhere to the degree of variation which a given man may show from the standards of society. And we may find out something of these limits by looking at the evident, most marked differences which actually appear about us. First, there is the idiot. He is not available, from a social point of view, because lie varies too much on the side of defect. He shows from infancy that he is unable to enter into the social heritage because ho is unable to learn to do social things. His intelligence does not grow with his body. Society pities him if he be without natural protection, and puts him away in an institution. So of the insane, the pronounced lunatic; he varies too much to sustain in any way the wide system of social relationships which society requires of each individual. Either he is unable to take care of himself, or he attempts the life of some one else, or he is the harmless, unsocial thing who wanders among us like an animal or stands in his place like a plant. He is not a factor in social life; he has not come into the inheritance.

Then there is the extraordinary class of people whom we may describe by a stronger term than those already employed. We find not only the unsocial, the negatively unfit, those whom society selects with pity in its heart; but there are also the antisocial, the class whom we usually designate as criminals. These persons, like the others, are variations; but they seem to be variations in quite another way. They do not represent lack on the intellectual side always or alone, but on the moral side, on the social side, as such—for morality is in its origin and practical bearings a social thing. The least we can say of the criminals is that they tend, by heredity or by evil example, to violate the rules which society has seen fit to lay down for the general security of men taken together in the enjoyment of the social heritage. So far, then, they are factors of disintegration, of destruction; enemies of the social progress which proceeds from generation to generation by just this process of social inheritance. So society says to the criminal also, "You must perish." We kill off the worst, imprison the bad for life, attempt to reform the rest. They too, then, are excluded from the heritage of the past.

So our lines of eligibility get more and more narrowly drawn. The instances of exclusion now cited serve to give us some insight into the real qualities of the man who lives a social part, and the way he comes to live it.


Passing on to take up the second of the informal topics suggested, we have to find the best description that we can of the social man—the one who is fitted for the social life. This question concerns the process by which any one of us comes into the wealth of relationships which the social life represents. For to say that a man does this is in itself to say that he is the man society is looking for. Indeed, this is the only way to describe the man—to actually find him. Society is essentially a growing, shifting thing. It changes from age to age, from country to country. The Greeks had their social conditions, and the Romans theirs. Even the criminal lines are drawn differently, somewhat, here and there; and in a low stage of civilization a man may pass for normal who, in our time, would be described as weak in mind. This makes it necessary that the standards of judgment of a given society should be determined by an actual examination of the society, and forbids us to say that the limits of variation which society in general will tolerate must be this or that.

We may say, then, that the man who is fit for social life must he born to learn. The need of learning is his essential need. It comes upon him from his birth. Speech is the first great social function which he must learn, and with it all the varieties of verbal accomplishment—reading and writing. This brings to the front the great method of all his learning—imitation. In order to be social he must be imitative, imitative, imitative. He must realize for himself by action the forms, conventions, requirements, co-operations of his social group. All is learning; and learning not by himself and at random, but under the leading of the social conditions which surround him. Plasticity is his safety and the means of his progress. So he grows into the social organization, takes his place as a socius in the work of the world, and lays deep the sense of values, upon the basis of which his own contributions—if he be destined to make contributions—to the wealth of the world are to be wrought out. This great fact that he is open to the play of the personal influences which are about him we call, in psychology, his "suggestiveness," and the influences themselves "suggestions"—social suggestions. These influences differ in different communities, as we so often remark. The Turk learns to live in a very different system of relations of "give and take" from ours, and ours differ as much from those of the Chinese. All that is characteristic of the race or tribe or group or family—all this sinks into the child and youth by his simple presence there in it. He is suggestible, and here are the suggestions; he is made to inherit, and he inherits. So it makes no difference what his tribe or kindred be; let him be a learner by imitation, and he becomes in turn possessor and teacher.

An entire department of so-called genetic pyschology is being written on this topic—the mode and method of the child's learning to be a man and a social man. I need not dwell upon it further here. But the case becomes more interesting still when we give the matter another turn, and say that in this learning all the members of society agree; allmust he horn to learn the same things. They enter, if so be that they do, into the same social inheritance. This again seems like a commonplace remark enough, but certain things flow from it. Each member of society gives and gets the same set of social suggestions, the differences being the degree of progress each has made, and the degree of faithfulness with which each reflects what he has before received. This last difference is, again, a phenomenon of variation and brings us back to the genius; but I wish to neglect him a little longer, in order to point out another fact which is fundamental to what is distinctive in this paper.

There grows up, in all this give and take, in all the interchange of suggestions among you, me, and the other, an obscure sense of a certain social understanding about ourselves generally—a Zeitgeist, an atmosphere, a taste, or, in minor matters, a style. It is a very peculiar thing, this social spirit. The best way to understand that you have it, and something of what it is, is to get into a circle in which it is different. The common phrase "fish out of water" is often heard in reference to it. But that does not serve for science. And the next best thing that I can do in the way of rendering it is to appeal to another word which has a popular sense, the word judgment. Let us say that there exists in every society a general system of values, found in social usages, conventions, institutions, and formulas, and that our judgments of social life are founded on our habitual recognition of these values, and of the arrangement of them which has become more or less fixed in our society. For example, to say "I am glad to see you" to a disagreeable neighbor shows good social judgment in a small matter; not to quarrel with the homoœpathic enthusiast who meets you in the street and wishes to doctor your rheumatism out of a symptom book, that is good judgment. In short, the man gets to show more and more, as he grows up from childhood, a certain good judgment; and his good judgment is also the good judgment of his social set, community, or nation. The psychologist might prefer to say that a man "feels" this; perhaps it would be better for psychological readers to say simply that he has a "sense" of it; but the popular use of the word "judgment" fits so accurately into the line of distinctions I am making that I shall adhere to it. And so we reach the general position that the eligible candidate for social life must have good judgment as represented by the common standards of judgment of his people.

It may be doubted, however, by some of my readers whether this sense of social values called judgment is the outcome of suggestion operating throughout the term of one's social education. This is an essential point, and I must just assume it. Its consideration falls under the method of the child's learning, which I have referred to as too great a topic to treat in this article. Yet I may say that it will appear true, I trust, to any one who may take the pains to observe the child's tentative endeavors to act up to social usages in the family and school. One may then actually see the growth of the sort of judgment which I am describing. Psychologists are coming to see that even his sense of his own personal self is a gradual attainment, achieved by the child through his imitative responses to his personal environment. His thought of himself is an interpretation of his thought of others, and his thought of another is due to further accommodation of his active processes to changes in his thought of a possible self. And around this fundamental movement in his personal growth all the values of his life have their play. So I say that his sense of truth in the social relationships of his environment is the outcome of his very gradual learning of his personal place in these relationships.

We reach the conclusion, therefore, from this part of our study, that the socially unfit person is the person of poor judgment. He may have learned a great deal; he may in the main reproduce the activities required by his social tradition; but with it all he is to a degree out of joint with the general system of estimated values by which society is held together. This may be shown to be true even of the pronounced types of unsocial individuals whom we had occasion to speak of at the outset. The criminal is a man of poor judgment. He may be more than this, it is true. He may have a bad strain of heredity, what the theologians call "original sin"; he then is an "habitual criminal" in Lombroso's distinction of types, and his own sense of his failure to accept the teachings of society may be quite absent, since crime is so normal to him. But the fact remains that in his judgment he is mistaken; his normal is not society's normal. He has failed to be educated in the judgments of his fellows, however besides and however more deeply he may have failed. Or, again, the criminal may commit crime simply because he is carried away in an eddy of good companionship, which represents a temporary current of social life; or his nervous energies may be overtaxed temporarily or drained of their strength, so that his education in social judgment is forgotten: he is then the "occasional" criminal. It is true of him also that while he is a criminal he has lost his balance, has yielded to temptation, has gratified private impulse at the expense of social sanity; all this shows the lack, of that sustaining force of social consciousness which represents the level of righteousness in his time and place. Then, as to the idiot, the imbecile, the insane, they, too, have no good judgment, for the very adequate but pitiful reason that they have no judgment at all.

[To be continued.]