Genius is Dead! Long Live Liberal Democracy.

Posted on July 28, 2014


TheHerdIt was in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche that I first encountered the idea. The rise of liberal democracy, Nietzsche claimed, would spell the end of genius.

Why? Because the fact of genius is not an ahistorical transcendent property. It is determined instead by the value judgments of living breathing people. Traditionally, it was a fairly small group of people whose judgments determined who or what was considered genius in most fields. Because the standards of this group could easily be protected, perpetuated and propagated in an illiberal state or community, what seemed like genius yesterday still seemed like genius today. Genius looked to be ahistorical and transcendent only because its assessment was always made with the same values by the same kinds of people.

The value judgment game that determines who or what is genius changes considerably when everyone gets to play an equal role in it. In a well-functioning liberal democracy, it quickly becomes impossible to reserve the term’s use for any one community of value. It also quickly becomes apparent that our community’s genius is your community’s charlatan and that other community’s derivative copycat. With so many legitimate claims to the throne of genius, no person or community can lay claim to it as their own. Genius, like God, is not actually dead, of course. Rather, for clear thinking people, it becomes obvious that the idea of genius, as something which is ahistorical, transcendent and unique, is as silly as old men with white beards in clouds.

Genius, like truth and morality, is always relative to an audience. The illusion of a genius that transcends all communities and all times can be maintained only in illiberal and authoritarian power structures that allow one community of value to compel other communities of value to accept its judgments of value as the one true value judgment to rule them all. A genius needs authoritarian leaders and structures to undergird, protect, and enforce his or her claim to genius.

Like Nietzsche, I think a well-functioning liberal democracy is the nail in the coffin of genius. The explosion of social media is also helping to highlight this fact, as viral stars come and go. Unlike Nietzsche, however, I say good riddance. The term will, of course, still be used by various communities of value, but the more often it is used the less meaningful it will become. When every community thinks its god is the one true god, the idea of the one true god looks more and more suspect. In an equal and just society, no community can force its god on any others. Similarly, in an equal and just society, no community can force its standard of genius on anyone else. And that, I think, is a good thing.