Johnson and Genius

Lawrence Lipking

in Samuel Johnson

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199654345
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191745003 | DOI:
Johnson and Genius

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During the eighteenth century ‘genius’ began to refer less to some special talent (Newton had a genius for mathematics) than to someone who surpassed the ordinary scope of human beings (Newton was a genius). Johnson resists both definitions. True genius reflects ‘a mind of large general powers,’ he writes, not any particular aptitude; and a genius relies on knowing the use of tools, not on some quasi-divine inspiration. This topic often exposes tensions in Johnson, who constantly weighs his own powers against those of others, and who balances a strong sense of competition with a desire to identify with the lives and thoughts of common readers. In his effort to demystify and humanize the growing cult of genius, he finds a surprising ally in Newton. Despite his singular genius, according to Johnson, Newton regarded himself as a man like anyone else. And Johnson is comforted by that measure of genius.

Keywords: Samuel Johnson; genius; Newton; aptitude; inspiration; powers of mind; tools; chain of being; singularity; humility

Chapter.  5807 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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