What is a good person and what constitutes a genius?

In my reading this morning I came across Aristotle’s description of a good person (forgive Aristotle for writing about man and think men and women and other genders) and Clive Bell’s account of what constitutes genius. He knew two geniuses. Can you guess who they are? I know many clever people, much cleverer than me, but I don’t know anybody who is indisputably a genius.

First, Aristotle:

“He does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life,—knowing that under certain conditions it is not worth while to live. He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to have a service done to him. To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority; to receive one is a mark of subordination . . . He does not take part in public displays . . . He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because of his contempt for men and things . . . He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes. He cannot live in complaisance with others, except it be a friend; complaisance is the characteristic of a slave . . . . He never feels malice, and always forgets and passes over injuries . . . . He is not fond of talking . . . . It is no concern of his that he should be praised, or that others should be blamed. He does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies, unless it be to themselves. His carriage is sedate, his voice deep, his speech measured; he is not given to hurry, for he is concerned about only a few things; he is not prone to vehemence, for he thinks nothing very important. A shrill voice and hasty steps come to a man through care . . . . He bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skilful general who marshals his limited forces with all the strategy of war . . . . He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.”

And now Clive Bell:

“Two people I have known from whom there emanated simply and unmistakably a sense of genius: one is Picasso…. It has been my fortune to be friends with a number of very clever people: Maynard Keynes, the cleverest man I ever met, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, Raymond Mortimer, Jean Cocteau. None of them cast the peculiar spell I am trying to characterise. The difference between these very clever people and the less clever, between Roger Fry and me for instance, was it seemed one of degree rather than kind…. But Virginia [Woolf] and Picasso belonged to another order of beings; they were of a species distinct from the common; their mental processes were different from ours; they arrived at conclusions by ways to us unknown.”


O’Brian, Patrick. Picasso: A Biography (Kindle Locations 7366-7371). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.


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