“Genius is a much abused word” – piece on Goethe and the “Great Man” school of history for Eurotimes, 2008

Goethe’s Colour Wheel (source: Wikipedia)

On my other blog I have very occasionally posted copies of reviews I did for Eurotimes, the journal of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons. Such gems of popular appeal as “Femtosecond laser – Principles and Applications in Ophthalmology.” and “Corneal Ulcers – Diagnosis and Management.” As I wrote on A Medical Education:

OK, undoubtedly the writing I have been paid the most for over the years – the writing that has been the closest I have been to earning some kind of living via the pen – were the book reviews I wrote for Eurotimes, the publication of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, from 2004 until 2010. With a payment by the word, and a brief essentially to write a piece about a book that would include a physical description of the size, cover design and proportions of the book, this was an assignment that ultimately became too much “for the money” rather than any great emotional investment on my part. Perhaps that was all to the good. Generally I would hold forth for some paragraphs about some wider issue inspired by the book, and this is fairly typical of my efforts

I was upfront with the magazine about my lack of specialist knowledge of ophthalmology (although it has always been an interest and even quite far into psychiatric training I thought of changing specialties…. occasionally I think of it still) but that didn’t matter – the ability to write serviceable prose on a reliable schedule was the important thing. I tried to make these pieces interesting. I am not sure I always succeeded. Payment by the word may have engendered a certain long windedness.

I did a couple of forays into non-book review pieces for Eurotimes, one on the Venetian ophthalmologist Giuseppe Gradenigo (which was actually quite interesting, might dig it up if I can) and one on the optic work of Goethe, which incorporated some digressions on the overuse of the word “genius”:

Genius is a much abused word. Its connotations of exceptional ability have been lost when every talented fashion designer, or computer game programmer, or even every high school student who does well in their exams, is dubbed a genius. Even ophthalmologists use the word to describe gifted categories, yet an interesting after-dinner game at a conference might be to make a list of the true geniuses of eye doctoring.

My own view is that the word “genius” should be reserved for those few figures whose influence on culture in the widest sense is so profound that that influence in unquantifiable. And a remarkable number of the figures who have a claim on the title had ophthalmological, or at least optic, interests. In the era that straddled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an age of towering figures, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) towers above all, and is one of those historical figures no one can dispute was a genius. His major fame now rests on literary achievements, and these alone beggar belief. He managed to be one of the founding fathers of romanticism and yet maintain a classical distance from the overheated romantic world that helps prevent his work from becoming dated and keep it fresh.

As well as this, he did considerable work in a variety of scientific and philosophical fields. Ironically, it was for his work in optics that Goethe himself thought he would be remembered. Another over-used term, “polymath”, equally applies.

In the Anglo-Centric world, it is hard to get a grasp of just how towering Goethe was to his contemporaries. Most English-speaking general readers will have heard at least of Goethe’s version of Faust, and perhaps his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Yet Goethe, for instance, played an integral part in creating the modern celebrations of Christmas – his adoption of a Christmas tree, traditional only in Alsace, lead to its population in the German-speaking world and thereby internationally.

This of course was an age during which the distinction between the humanities and the sciences was not as sharp as it is now. Indeed, the term “natural philosopher” was used to describe scientists, and the overlap between scientific, political, literary and artistic interests was considerable.

Of course, the advent of specialisation, and the current trend to micro-specialisation, have lead to far greater efficiency in science at any rate. One could argue too that mass literacy in Western societies has made this an age where towering figures are less likely to emerge, and perhaps this is no loss. Certainly academic historians tend to dismissive of the “Great Man” school of history., Nevertheless, with the academic unfashionability of the Great Man school of the history in general and history of science in particular, there is a concomitant popular interest in the lives of the scientists. In many ways this is analogous to the popularity of books and television programmes about battles and royalty – the “maps and chaps” approach history that is frowned on in teaching and academia. Children (and undergraduates) are supposed to be interested in how the Romans made porridge, not Julius Caesar.

Since the success of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, there has been a mini-boom in books about the personalities of the history of science. Lively biographies of the names best known as units or constants proliferate. The titles alone demonstrate the popular resistance to the death of the “Great Man” school of history of science – with the likes of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla. The success of these books must be, in part, due to a yearning for exactly those tales of exemplary lives that we have allegedly grown out of.

And in considering figures like Goethe, it is hard not to feel that we have lost something in the drive to specialisation and the drive to depersonalise intellectual history. As well as his more purely literary work, Goethe did lasting work in mineralogy, in the developing theory of evolution, linguistics, philosophy, and many other fields.

As mentioned above, Goethe himself believed his contributions to optics would win enduring fame. His 1810 treatise “A Theory Of Colours” outlines this. It comprises three sections – one observational, one polemical against the theory of Newton, and one historical. Despite the title, it lacks a theoretical structure, but describes various optical phenomena. Both wave and particle theories are rejected because they not directly perceived by the senses. From looking at light through a prism, Goethe observed that the spectrum was not discretely divided into seven colours, but that there were borderline zones between each colour. Therefore colour was a compound phenomenon – “Colours arise at the borders, where light and dark flow together” – and there were only two pure colours, yellow and blue. Darkness held a pivotal role in Goethe’s optical theory. It was not simply the absence of light, but a positive entity, polar to light. Colour derived from the relation between darkness and light.

While the theory as such has been effectively demolished, it retains a power as Goethe’s descriptions of the phenomenology of colour have not been equalled. The philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that the “Theory of Colour” was not really a theory, but a vague schematic outline, and it is an outline that has inspired thinkers and philosophers up to the present day.

Goethe’s lasting contribution to medical science is an indirect one – “the Werther effect”, named after his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. This tale of adolescent passion – the original bildungsroman or coming-of-age tale, caused a sensation upon its publication, and was held responsible for a wave of young male suicides throughout Europe.

Ironically, given the thoughts on the overuse of the word “genius” with which this piece begins, it was German authors of the eighteenth century who began to use it in its current sense, although largely to distinguish innate great abilities from those derived from study or effort. Classically, “genius” referred to “tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world; also, the tutelary and controlling spirit similarly connected with a place, an institution” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other meanings (thus readers coming across the word “genius” in pre-eighteenth century literature should be cautious about its meaning) Thus during a time when genius in its true sense was perhaps more evident than any other in history, the power of the word began to be diluted.

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