Denis Diderot

On Genius

Source: Oeuvres Complètes. Paris, Garnier Fréres, 1875;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

In men of genius: poets, philosophers, painters, orators, musicians, there is some particular, secret, indefinable quality of the soul without which they can execute nothing great or beautiful. Is it imagination? No. I’ve seen good and strong imaginations that promised much but that came to nothing, or very little. Is it judgment? No. There is nothing more common than men of great judgment whose productions are flabby, soft, and cold. Is it wit? No. Wit says pretty things but only does small ones. Is it warmth, vivacity, impetuosity? No. Warm people do much and produce nothing of worth. Is it sensibility? No. I’ve seen some whose souls were quickly and profoundly touched, who can’t hear an elevated tale without being lifted out of themselves, transported, drunk, mad: it’s a pathetic trait and, without shedding tears, they stammer like children when they speak or when they write. Is it taste? No. Taste effaces defects more than it produces beauty: it’s a gift that we more or less acquire, and is not in the domain of nature. Is it a certain conformation of the head and the viscera, a certain constitution of the humors? I’ll agree to this, but on condition that we confess that neither I nor anyone else has a precise notion of this, and that we add to it the power of observation. When I speak of the power of observation I don’t mean the petty daily espionage of words, acts, and expressions, this tact so familiar to women, who possess it to a greater degree than the most intelligent men, the greatest souls, the most vigorous geniuses. This subtlety, which I would compare to the art of passing grains of millet through the eye of a needle, is a miserable daily study whose usefulness is domestic and trifling, with the aid of which a valet deceives his master, and his master deceives those for whom he is the valet by escaping them. The power of observation of which I speak is exercised without effort, without contention. It doesn’t look, it sees. It learns; it expands without studying. It has no present phenomena, but it affects everything, and what is left is meaning that the others don’t have. It’s a rare machine that says: That will succeed ... and it succeeds. That will not succeed ... and it doesn’t succeed. That is true or false ... and that is the case. It is noted in great things and small. This kind of prophetic spirit is not the same in all conditions of life: every state has its own. It doesn’t always guarantee against a fall, but the falls that it causes never cause contempt, and they are always preceded by uncertainty. The man of genius knows that he is trusting to chance, and he knows this without having calculated the probabilities for or against. This calculation is entirely done in his head.