In 1550, in the waning years of the Italian Renaissance, artist and architect Giorgio Vasari published his wildly influential Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It quickly became a standard text in art history and criticism and remains so to this day, with its famous attribution of superhuman qualities to the quintessential Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci.
In “Situating Genius,” cultural anthropologist Ray McDermott notes that in the seventeenth century, “as part of a package of terms including creativity, intelligence, individual, imagination, progress, insanity, and race, [genius] began to refer to an unusually able kind of person.” As a theory of human exceptionalism, the notion of genius blossomed during the Renaissance as philosophers, scientists, theologians, and poets sought out and celebrated ideals of human ability and achievement.
But Vasari’s fawning profile of the Italian master wasn’t a simple celebration of common genius. He was interested in pinnacles of achievement. “Sometimes, in supernatural fashion,” wrote Vasari, “beauty, grace, and talent are united beyond measure in one single person, in a manner that to whatever such an one turns his attention, his every action is so divine, that, surpassing all other men, it makes itself clearly known as a thing bestowed by God (as it is), and not acquired by human art.” By Vasari’s accounting, da Vinci was just such a divinely-inspired person.
Vasari’s sketch of da Vinci’s unique genius helped crystallize an evolving theory of exceptional human ability sweeping across Europe and the Americas at the time. Vasari’s theory of genius remained implicit in The Lives, but the virtuosity he described would come to be labeled “universal genius,” and da Vinci its poster child.
In the five centuries since da Vinci’s death, however, the theory of universal genius metastasized in ways that continue to have active, destructive consequences on a global scale.
Renaissance and Universal Genius
Universal genius is not a term of precision. It combines elements of Greek polymathy, Roman homo universalis (the “universal man” who excels in many areas of expertise), and Renaissance humanism (with its emphasis on the inherent value of humanity and secular morality) in fluctuating proportions. The term was used for centuries as if the definition were self-evident.
In general, universal genius refers to a person or persons of extraordinary ability “whose form can only be divined but never deeply fathomed.” Following Vasari, universal genius typically designates any person who stands out as distinctive even among other geniuses for their unparalleled access to beauty, wisdom, and truth.
Renaissance genius in general, and universal genius in particular, were distinguished from other theories of genius by two key characteristics. First, whereas earlier theories of polymathy or “universal man” tended to stress expansive learning and deep thought, genius was reconceived during the Renaissance as unique, innate, and untutored. It was bestowed by God and/or nature and could not be learned, though it could be amplified by study and practice.
Second, if Renaissance genius was divine, it was also generally narrow. Every person had some measure of genius by virtue of their essential humanity, but some people merited the “genius” label. As a rule, they were born especially brilliant, supplemented their natural genius with study and experience, and excelled in a particular specialty—an art or science, or even a trade or craft.
Universal genius transcended even these special geniuses’ quotidian limits. Universal genius was attributed to men (always men)—including da Vinci, of course, but also Shakespeare, Galileo, and Pascal, among others—who combined their naturally endowed genius not necessarily with deeper contemplation and learning, nor with narrow expertise, but with an unparalleled, instinctive insight that operated across a boundless range of knowledge.
That is, universal geniuses naturally excelled in any endeavor they undertook. The possessor of such genius had distinctive access to “universal” knowledge that transcended the particularities of time and place. They could simply perceive that which was important in any situation. A universal genius’s unique insights could then be applied across vast areas of knowledge to solve society’s most complex problems.
Vasari’s da Vinci, for instance, was so brilliant that “to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.” Da Vinci’s genius was bestowed by God, could not be acquired through terrestrial education or contemplation, and could be readily applied to any interest or concern. If he couldn’t solve all the world’s problems, that’s only because he was constrained by the limitations of his mortal coil.
Universal Genius, Empire, and Systematic Brutality
As the concept of universal genius evolved throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, it celebrated unique talent and cognitive superiority. But the shift from deep learning and thinking to divine inspiration and insight had profound social and political consequences.
Not coincidentally, universal genius emerged in a period of expanding European imperialism, at which point there was intensifying global conflict over which of the world’s people were the most advanced, and therefore the most entitled to rule others.
Sixty years before da Vinci died, and less that one hundred years before Vasari’s deification of him, Pope Nicholas V authorized Spanish and Portuguese explorers to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” It marked the beginning of what would become the global slave trade.
The year Vasari’s Lives was published, Spain was gripped by debates about the fundamental humanity (or its lack) of Indigenous populations stemming from Columbus’s brutal subjugation of the West Indies. Just fifty years after that, the British East India Company was chartered to manage global trade and quickly became associated with brutality and atrocity against native and Indigenous populations.
It was within this cultural ecosystem that universal genius evolved as a theory of exceptional individual brilliance to help justify European powers’ growing investments in colonialism, slavery, and other forms of systematic brutality and resource extraction.
For centuries, universal genius was used to justify racist, patriarchal, and imperial policies because the theory insinuated, and sometimes stated directly, that universal geniuses only came from European stock. Da Vinci’s genius, for instance, was routinely cited as proof of European superiority (including by Mussolini’s Fascist Party) to rationalize colonial practices in North Africa and elsewhere.
Likewise, Shakespeare’s appointment as a “universal genius” was deeply intertwined with British imperialism, including efforts to codify celestial bodies in international law using Shakespearean names. As such, even European non-geniuses gained a sort of agency-by-proxy by being associated with cultures which could produce universal geniuses, even if they weren’t geniuses themselves.
Genius Generals and Political Polymaths
For at least two centuries after Vasari’s compendium was published, universal genius was applied almost exclusively to luminaries in the arts and sciences. Had it remained so, it would still have had long-term detrimental effects, particularly for women and colonized peoples who were almost always excluded from definitions of genius beyond the most basic.
But by the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers also began to transmute theories of universal genius into supposedly empirical political and social theories—including, especially, phrenology and varieties race science. As McDermott notes, “genius” became attached to the idea of genes, to ever more horrific effect over time.
Around the same time, universal genius was also adapted into a model of ideal martial and political leadership. Nineteenth-century French military historian, Antoine-Henri Jomini, for instance, attributed military genius to Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte. According to Jomini, military geniuses have a flair for coup d’oeil, or a glance that allows a leader to take in a whole scene, coupled with strategic intuition that allows them to make split-second decisions.
Jomini’s contemporary, famed German military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, took this notion even further, developing the idea in his book, On War. For Clausewitz, superior military ability (which, incidentally, is never found among “uncivilised people”) is characterized by a “glance of genius” that provides “judgment raised to such a compass as to give the mind an extraordinary faculty of vision which in its range allays and sets aside a thousand dim notions which an ordinary understanding could only bring to light with great effort, and over which it would exhaust itself.” Jomini and Clausewitz did not use the term universal genius, but echoing Vasari, their theories of military genius carried all the hallmarks of divine, unique insight.
The transference of universal genius into military and political leadership introduced an innovative feature. From the sixteenth to eighteenth century, someone might be labelled a genius after a distinguished record of achievement, and usually, posthumously. This was especially true with universal genius. But as a model of leadership, it assumed a new predictive character.
Often combined with the features of “charismatic leadership” and just-world ethics, universal genius became invested with the mythical traits of a godlike redeemer who could “see the truth in a situation even if they aren’t very knowledgeable.”
Because universal geniuses were divinely inspired, no record of human achievement was necessary. Moreover, because universal geniuses could supposedly perceive the world, understand complex problems with ease, and act decisively, these diamonds-in-the-rough were often protected from criticism or accountability because their unorthodox decisions were taken as proof of their unique insight. The average person simply couldn’t understand, much less critique, God-given brilliance. Which meant even a record of failure didn’t necessarily tarnish a universal genius’s reputation as such.
Hitler, the Genius
Undoubtedly the most destructive case of “universal genius” in modern history is Adolf Hitler. Beginning as early as 1921, when he was still a minor figure in Munich’s right-wing, extreme nationalist circles, Hitler was increasingly identified as a universal genius. His mentor, Dietrich Eckart, was particularly invested in asserting Hitler’s “genius” as a way to build a personality cult around his protégé.
Hitler dropped out of high school without earning a diploma. He was famously rejected from art school twice. And he failed to distinguish himself as a soldier, never rising past the rank of lance corporal. But his long record of failure was not at all disqualifying in post-war German politics. Indeed, Nazi propaganda redefined his failures as proof of his universal genius. He was simply too brilliant to fit the stifling norms of modern culture.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Hitler was identified by an increasing number of Germans as a universal genius in the mold of other German geniuses throughout history, including Goethe, Schiller, and Leibniz, and he happily adopted the title.
Hitler’s supposed genius won him adherents, particularly after he withdrew from the League of Nations, flouted the Versailles Treaty, and reoccupied the Rhineland without facing any consequences. Each instance, along with many others, was offered as proof of his penetrating perception.
Hitler’s reputation as a universal genius also protected him from criticism. Until the collapse of the Third Reich, whenever evidence of Nazi violence or corruption came to light, millions of Germans blamed his lackeys, assuming that “if only the Führer knew” about the problems, he’d solve them. Even many of his generals accepted the universality of his brilliance. The irony that this universal genius couldn’t perceive the problems right in front of him didn’t seem to occur to his supporters.
By the time WWII started, Nazi propaganda had so deeply ingrained the myth of Hitler’s unique ability to perceive and solve the most complex problems that millions of Germans accepted his decisions—including those about the Final Solution—as ineffable expressions of his universal genius.
Universal Genius Becomes Business Leadership
Not coincidentally, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung were all hailed as universal geniuses, as well. But following the collapse of Nazism, and fascism more generally, universal genius as a concept lost much of its cachet in political and military leadership, at least in the West, and the term itself largely went out of fashion. Despite increasingly sophisticated research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education that calls the notion of “innate genius” into question, however, the principles of universal genius persist in contemporary thinking.
Projecting an unrealistic amount of intelligence and insight onto a single person has become a mainstay of business leadership in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Warren Buffett, Elizabeth Holmes, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and Mark Zuckerberg, to name just a few, have built personality cults around their supposed genius-level abilities to apply unique, innate brilliance across a range of disciplines and problems. And their supposed genius gets referenced to justify all sorts of bad behavior.
Of course, not all theories of genius are theories of universal genius. Indeed, some theories of genius focus on learning, study, and effort instead of divine inspiration. Those theories of genius can be beneficial, particularly in studies of creativity and innovation. Da Vinci was almost certainly a creative genius, as were Einstein, Katherine G. Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Jagadish Chandra Bose, and many others. There is no shortage of people throughout history that have been expansively educated, deeply thoughtful, and profoundly accomplished. Understanding how and why is a worthy pursuit.
But when genius-in-general takes on the qualities of universal genius—divinely-ordained, uniquely insightful, applicable across any domain of knowledge—it feeds demagoguery and us-or-them thinking, reinforces inequality, and obscures symptoms even of extreme danger. And as history tells us, when used to prevent criticism, the myth of universal genius takes us inexorably down a destructive path. Without losing sight of the profound importance of Vasari’s book, universal genius is one aspect of his worldview we’d do well to rid ourselves of altogether.