We're just not noticing them the way we used to.
Excellent, Elle! An outstanding piece of thinking and writing!
One of your best articles Elle. Also a huge fan of Midnight in Paris. Its a great story with a moral.
Couldn't agree more with you, great reflections. And the cartoon at the end was such a nice touch.
I want to point out that there is a bias in this:
> He says, “if I were forced at gunpoint to name the two greatest minds of the 20th century, I’d pick Bertrand Russell and John von Neumann. Is it really a coincidence that both were basically aristocrats?”
Without education access of course only aristocrats and the very rich can develop genius kids. All other social layers cannot, really. But this takes out about 90% of the talent distribution.
So we could have had many more genius's throughout history if we had more equal education systems of whatever kind. Even most of the aristocrats, at least the ones mentioned in Hilary Mantels Cromwell series, didn't bother to educate their female offspring (leaving about 51% of the talent pool without chances).
On the other hand, Hoel also makes some good points: having mentors, getting educated not only in school, but also at home by the family, the value of a good home library etc.
Love this! You reminded me how much genius there is in the world. Sometimes I think social media and you tubers crowd the airspace so much that we forget that there really are groups of people with great talent pushing us forward societally. I wrote once about a kid genius for a magazine and she was super smart and sweet but without much special tutoring, she had nowhere to put all of those smarts. I’m not sure what she’s up to now but last I heard she was extremely frustrated with her genius rather than gifted with it.
Check out this 1 minute long video on what a genius is:
"Why should we give so much credence to Marcus Aurelius when there are modern thinkers among us who can expand upon what we’ve learned since then? A lot of what we’ve come up with is so much better than those philosophers could even have imagined!"
This way of framing the value (or not) of past thinkers already begs the question against them. Right Now is better, therefore the past is worse. Now where is your wisdom, Plato? <smugface>
The value in reading thinkers like the Stoics, and Plato and Aristotle and Cicero et al, is precisely because they put *our* modern views, including our humanistic assumptions, our natural equation of technology and science with goodness, and the very idea that history has a meaningful trajectory, into relief.
The fact that you can even judge today as "progress" against a prior state of affairs is entirely due to ideas you've received, without realizing it and to be sure through indirect means, from Plato and Aristotle.
I'd ask why incremental progress (James Webb, for example) is now wowing us more than the genuine revolutions in thought marked by Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Neils Bohr. It's easy to slag them off because we don't really get what upsets these were.
The same can be said for philosophers. A major figure like Kant or Hegel (responsible for Marx, by the by) really did bring about lasting changes in how the world looks. That doesn't happen when a lab tech patents a new gene-editing technique or a telescope sees a little better than the last one.
I don't mean to be harsh, but reading your list drove home to me just how *little* techno-science or artistic progress we make these days and how little it takes to amaze us compared to true table-throwing innovations of past thinkers.
I've written a novel about two coming-of-age geniuses who feel alienated as outliers or outsiders. When they meet, they are drawn to each other and fall in love.
Here is the opening Author's Note that seems relevant to this post:
Genius children need protecting. Intelligence possessed to a larger degree than almost any other, they are gifted in many ways except one—they will never be ordinary, and no one will view them that way. From early childhood, their precocity can lead to speaking early, thinking deeply. Such behaviors may appear unlikely, even suspect. They may be envied rather than befriended, often ostracized. They may be viewed as having privileged intellects and talents, and if they have beauty as well, they are judged far too often, with accusation.
Gifts carried as blessing and burden present obstacles and disadvantages others fail to understand. Gifts wrought with shame because they trap, set the genius apart, divided against oneself.
I'd be glad to talk with readers and editors interested in this novel.
I think you’re right about a lot, as is Erik (and I’m a huge fan of you both). This is such an awesome, generative response I really wanted to dive in, but I’m working on a Sunday and doing this on my break so I can only share two thoughts—apologies in advance if these are a bit verbose and meandering.
"I think we give too much credence to dead philosophers and not enough to alive ones." I'll never forget reading a book about ten years ago that was about the modern state of Catholic parishes. I don't remember the book or author (it wasn't very good, overall) but it was hugely influential--they were just handing it out at the front of a church I went to a wedding for and that's how I got it. I mainly remember it for one anecdote I think about all the time.
The audience of the book is Catholics and at the beginning, the author observes that Catholic churches all over the world are losing membership, and trying to build their parishes back up by 10% or so. He says that this is the exact wrong strategy. He then explains how all of the work (volunteering etc.) in a church is done by 1% of the parishioners, and churches would be better served by aiming to double that number than to increase the parish size by 10%. His reasoning makes sense at first, but he is literally (unironically) advocating preaching to the choir.
I think about this a lot when I hear comments like, "we should focus more on these people not these people." I think that these comments come from people who care about things to other people who care about things. Like, all of us reading this CARE about which philosophers are studied--we are "carers" But I think by saying, "let's focus more on thinkers this and less on thinkers like this," we are advocating something similar to doubling the 1% of hardcore parishioners, when instead we should be saying, "let's focus more on thinkers." As a fellow carer, the world would be a better place if the overall number of carers was greater, rather than if the active carers trained their focus on a different subset of thinkers.
There is a good argument to be made that a lot of people we consider geniuses, we do so mostly because someone before us did, and so they were put into the genius pantheon. This is in fact a very low-resolution version of the postmodern critique of the canon. But doesn’t it count for something that generations of people have been inspired to come up with new ways of seeing the world even though they are studying these “geniuses” based solely on some other tastemaker’s input?
I think that if you grok the postmodern critique and agree at all, it’s easy to draw one of two conclusions about what we, as “carers,” can do.
1 – We can share or reinterpret the postmodern critique of the canon to impugn the quality of existing canon thinkers and artist, and therefore draw attention to underrepresented voices
2 – We can simply become those tastemakers ourselves and use the best of what we find in the canon to celebrate the underrepresented voices.
I think the existence of places like Substack is evidence that there is a whole lot of room for a whole lot of new tastemakers, and people who care about a whole lot of things. The truth is that some of the people who care the most about dead philosophers are alive philosophers. I think there is ample room to celebrate and care about both.
I’m actually writing a short round-up of some of Erik Hoel’s stuff I like the most, and one thing that this essay pointed out to me is that I think there is sort of a delicious irony to the fact that two of his most popular pieces are the series you’ve referenced here and the piece on the Gossip Trap. ChatGPT was kind enough to summarize the Gossip Trap as: “The ‘gossip trap’ limits social connections and creates a society focused on reputational management, hindering innovation, but civilization's formal systems level power dynamics and allow for the development of art and new ideas, exemplified by figures with immunity to gossip like Supreme Court justices and journalists.”
The irony is that, one could extrapolate the central thesis of the gossip trap out to something like, “institutions is what makes civilization as we understand it, and this is good, and social media is probably moving us away from this to a more level, primeval, individual and personality-focused way of living.” But the central thesis of they don’t make Einsteins like they used to is, “we don’t make geniuses like we used to, because old-timey geniuses were superhuman talents into whom wealthy people poured resources via tutors, and our homogenous, institutional education system is why the Einsteins are gone.”
I’m probably being way too cavalier with my summaries and a little obtuse with my understanding of the two, but there seems to be an interesting conflict there, like institutions and their hierarchical, structured, ‘personalities are not important’ approach to human affairs are both the reason that we have civilization and also the reason that we don’t have geniuses anymore. (Given, these are different kinds of institutions, timelines, etc., but I think about the state of institutions a lot, and this essay made me view his essays in a way I hadn’t before.)
Plato is obsolete? ... SMH.