Rhodes Lecture Gives Insight Into ‘Genius’

ERINN FIGG | Special to The Daily News

You don’t have to be a genius to appreciate Wednesday night’s lecture by author and historian Darrin McMahon at Rhodes College.


You just have to be curious, McMahon said. And ready to be entertained.

As part of Rhodes’ free, public lecture series Communities in Conversation, McMahon will discuss his new book, “Divine Fury: A History of Genius,” which traces the notion of genius – along with the evolution and dilution of the term – through the centuries. Newton, Napoleon, Einstein, Hitler, angels, demons, celebrities and even Apple’s Genius Bar all get their 15 minutes or more of genius in the book, and McMahon said there should be something for everyone.

“It’s all there, from Plato to Einstein and beyond,” McMahon said. “I don’t want people to be scared off by the word ‘genius’ in the title. People may be worried that it’ll be overly intellectual. But the subject itself goes in ways you don’t expect. It touches on demons and angels, great scientists, the cult of the body, art and poetry.”

McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University’s Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, the most active and prolific program in the nation for the study of Napoleon. A specialist on the history of 18th century Europe, McMahon said the topic of genius was right up his alley in terms of his fascination with intellectual history and the evolution of ideas. His previous books, “Happiness: A History” (2006) and “Enemies of Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity” (2001), offer similar looks at how the past has shaped modern concepts. The journey of an idea from the past to present moment and its subsequent impact on a culture is an enriching exploration, he said.

“Our own little narrow space in time is just a fraction of eternity,” McMahon said. “There are riches in the past, and historians work to bring those riches forward.”

Rhodes’ Communities in Conversation lecture series exists to provide a forum in which such riches can be shared and discussed, said professor Jonathan Judaken, who holds the Spence L. Wilson chair in humanities at the college.

“It is intended to put a spotlight on what we do in the academy, to show that professors do not live in an ivory tower,” he said. “What we discuss in our classrooms and in our research are the same issues being addressed in our churches, on social media and across dinner tables. We’ve just been trained to conduct those conversations in a certain way. If those conversations are translated for a broader public, it will be evident that scholars have important insights to communicate that can inform and deepen our public discourse.

“The McMahon lecture will be a good example of this, since his history of the concept of genius illuminates our whole shared cultural heritage, from Socrates and the Greeks to Einstein and up to the present.”

From McMahon, one can learn what can happen when a culture twists a sacred concept to self-serving benefit.

“In an era when the liberal arts and the humanities are widely denigrated as useless kinds of knowledge and in the age of the new economy – when knowledge ought to produce concrete goods, and universities are supposed to focus on the needs of the workforce – McMahon’s history of genius reminds us that democracy as conceived by the Enlightenment required educated citizens,” Judaken said.

“When knowledge was only guided by utility, as was the case for the Nazis, this could result in the election of demagogic geniuses who were hailed as geniuses, like Hitler.”

If anything, McMahon said, he wants people to walk away from his lecture with new perspectives.

“I hope the audience will leave with a richer understanding of many of the complicated ways people have thought about genius through history,” he said.

Judaken said the book and the lecture could be a wake-up call for some.

“McMahon’s history reminds us that heralding genius was once about connecting to the highest values of culture,” Judaken said.

“It required the kind of understanding that comes from the liberal arts, which are about the appreciation of beauty and the dignity of knowledge for its own sake and often required wrestling with questions whose answers are indeterminate and perhaps insoluble – not necessarily coming up with instrumental solutions.”

McMahon will discuss “Divine Fury: A History of Genius” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13, in the McCallum Ballroom in Bryan Campus Life Center at Rhodes College, 2000 North Parkway. The event is free and open to the public and will be preceded by a 5:30 p.m. reception. McMahon’s book will be available for purchase and signing during the event.