Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The 5 Greatest Geniuses Ever (for Yahoos)

In feeble response to some mindless, inscrutable and (for my purposes) unsearchable askyahoo featurette, in which the popularly approved response consisted of: Stephen Hawkings, Einstein, Bill Gates, Marie Curie, and Louis Pasteur, I offer in brazen contempt the following:

1. Leibniz
2. Mozart
3. Francis Bacon
4. Alfred North Whitehead
5. Alexander the Great

Well, I AM being facetious; though, in terms of raw mental power alone, or in sheer fecundity of intellectual ideas, I can only fail to imagine which human being of history could possibly match Leibniz. Artistic production is a different kind of fecundity altogether, and in that we may well place Mozart ahead of all, ahead of Leibniz too; but as Mozart did not turn himself in the direction of the polymath I feel it only fair to let Leibniz carry off the laurels. If Bacon was no mathematician, he was a philosopher of the highest magnitude, as all the most sensitive souls of Romanticism appreciated (and that despite his obvious place as the progenitor of the Anglo-Empirical and Pragmatic traditions in philosophy, to say nothing of modern science and the Enlightenment itself); and, though I am aware that some, including such disparate souls as Julian Marias and Bertrand Russell seek to minimize his achievements, far the greater number of serious students of his work come away convinced of the awesome fecundity of his mind-- besides his efforts to promulgate the cultivation of material explanations and the discovery of efficient causes, which were fruitful even for Leibniz himself, and his articulation both of modern skepticism (in this the "Novum Organon" is still, I argue, unsurpassed) and of the scientific method (about which much can still be learned-- and perhaps, some things corrected!--by the careful examination of the same work), he is as much a visionary in the realm of the human sciences as Newton or Leibniz in the realms of physical science and mathematics. "The Advancement of Learning" is a still-unexhausted blueprint for the conquest of all knowledge: one may find all of the Enlightenment within it, the birth of sociology and anthropology, a system of aesthetics, a theory of rhetoric, of leadership, of history-- riches everywhere, penetrative discourse flowing outward in all directions, sweeping everything before it. A mere sampling of the "Essays" proves unassailably how nothing could escape this invincible man of thought. Bacon builds his science of the human upon sturdier foundations than any other science devised, and it still soars, Babel-like, above all other works of man. To heap upon him the labors of Shakespeare is equal parts redundancy and blasphemy. Such idle, unfounded speculations are merely intergalactic, for we know of no such species as could maintain such effort.

To Whitehead belongs the mantle of the Modern Leibniz. I can only consider, based upon his seniority and the obvious fecundity of his widespread speculations, that his was the greater part of the "Principia Mathematica." Famous as this work is, admittedly neither Russell nor Whitehead is ever quite accorded the name-dropping relish of a Frege, a Godel, or a Tarski. Perhaps the professional logicians are embarassed at the thought of a fellow logician descending to such a mere activity as building a philosophy (as even Russell, let it be admitted, fell to doing). To this we may add the astonishing, only possibly superseded, and hardly ever attended to, labor of his alternative Theory of Relativity. Then the mass of his processivist philosophy, touching as it does upon many questions of modern physics in a pertinent and unrelentingly probing way, and then his "humanistic" labors, concerning education and the popularization of the fruits of his mathematical, logical and scientific labors, which never blinded him (not, at least, from the moment he turned to metaphysics proper) to the awesome and indisputable role of philosophy itself. Compared to him, Russell is a bugbear and Wittgenstein a decadent Viennese gadfly.

I turn finally to Alexander the Great as a proper corrective to the obvious middle-school edification of reciting such triflers as Curie and Pasteur as world-historical geniuses, to say nothing of the Champion of Men, Gates. It is not to isotopes, or antibodies, but to empires that we should look for inspiration. To me, the regular laudations fed to the young (albeit in the completely vague terms that are endemic to American public education) of such people as Edison, Franklin, Jefferson and Da Vinci are almost as bad as those assignments where I and my fellow pupils had to crib the life of Cortez-- and Pizarro, and De Soto, and the whole lot of them-- out of the World Book Encyclopedia. Doubtless the litany of Conquistadors (at least a dozen of whom we had to know, I swear) has seen the axe of political correctness, but must we flatter the innate geekiness of children by telling them that the schmuck who invented the lightbulb is somehow the superior of such voiceless, unnamed and unknown ghosts as Bach, Plato, Virgil, Raphael? Or that a hundred-year patent is better cause than to build a nation? God knows someone else would've come along and invented the lightbulb in Edison's place-- think of the wireless, or the cinematograph. Hell, even CALCULUS happened simultaneously to fall within the ken of two brilliant minds. And Persia would have fallen too-- but in so visionary a fashion? To begin the dangerous, and certainly violent, work of building a multicultural empire, the astounding work of a youth who lived and died in his charismatic prime-- is this not more wholesome food for the imagination? Wholesome, because such a god will not come again, and because the violent parts add color and fire, the seasoning of the tragic and the extreme, to this exalted chimera, built on the very real sand of a couple of million square miles of territory and stamped indelibly upon not only the imaginations, but the very institutions, of a couple of ensuing millenia, the product of this young man's sweat and vision. Compared to this, all Bill Gates' largesse, flowing as smoothly and slowly as toothpaste worked back into the tube, is as inspiring as Nero opening up the granaries after the torching of Rome. That Gates never dissipated with any Poppaeas or debauched an Octavia (at least, Melinda ain't saying) counts for little in the light of his vapid neo-liberal imperialism, the necessary and expected concommitant of his rise to fortune as the blandest of microbarons. Neither industry nor philanthropy can build lasting institutions-- for these, a polis and a leader are required. Even Seleucus and Ptolemy, in truth, built more lasting and admirable works than the curent Bill-and-the-Billionaires Boy Club of capitalist charity will accomplish.

--And, to carry the day further against our historic techno-geeks: who would say that Petrarch could have written the "Paradiso" in Dante's place, or Beethoven have composed the Symphony in G-minor? Could "Paradise Lost" have waited for Dryden, or the "Phedre" for Voltaire? Yet astoundingly, the "research" tells us that women are more liable to name Einstein as a genius than Shakespeare! Women!! --Let this be a warning, O Educators, of the damned fruits ye sow. Worship your false gizmos, your digital timber and stone, your disinfectant Baals and radioactive Ashtoreths, and profanate your offspring to follow you in your knee-bending abominations! Your sons shall mate with cybergeeks, your swains shall draw manga books beneath their Juliets' balconies; instead of sonnets, ad copy shall flow off their spf 30-gleaming lips. Engineers shall couple while troubadours waste away under a forlorn dormroom's shade. The myrtle shall wilt while the lava-lamp glows. Jesus, and you wonder why every college kid wears sweatpants all the time? As in "Brave New World", when poetry is dead, even science lies unknown.

Postscript: I must refer the curious to an essay in the much-defunct magazine "Talk", concerning the non-world-historical stature of Stephen Hawkings, Physicist. The Oxbridge rumor has it (and Oxbridge rumor, O Gaudy Night!, is that very beast Virgil told you about) that his actual achievements add up to a couple of elegant mathematical theorems, unconfirmed by experimental science. His propaganda achievement, on the contrary, is astounding. He has stepped on, or rather, run over, some toes in his ascent to notoriety. Apparently though he contemplates the law of the heavens while listening to his Wagner, this immobile Siegfried has never really slain any dragons. In the enterprise of multidimensional chess, he has nor Einstein nor Newton in checkmate.

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