Geniuses and Prodigies – Comedies and Tragedies

Geniuses and prodigies live among us. They are within our plain sights, hiding among the masses of mediocrity. They eat, sleep, play and work much like the rest of us but their minds are different. If you would take out the Collins English Dictionary and turn to the entry on ‘prodigy’, you would find that its definition includes the following:

  1. A person, especially a child, of unusual or marvellous talent;
  2. Anything that is the cause of wonder and amazement; and
  3. Something monstrous or abnormal.

The root of the word ‘prodigy’ comes from the Latin word ‘prodigium’ that means unnatural happening. To be prodigious is to be wondrous or marvellous in the modern world, but in the past it was a curse of abnormality by the pagan Gods. A genius on the other hand, is defined as ‘a person with exceptional ability especially of a highly original kind’. They too suffer from being different from the rest of society. The following are tragic tales about prodigies and geniuses.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)

Maybe the ancients were right that prodigies are indeed a curse. The story of the musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a prime example. At age seven, Mozart together with his father Leopold and his sister Nannerl were already giving public performances. Mozart himself won great admirations and ovations on concert tours throughout Europe. At age 17, Mozart was a court musician at Salzburg. He was, as many people would say, a true child prodigy walking in the flesh.

Forget his operas, ‘Don Giovanni’and ‘The Marriage of Figaro’; you remember Mozart when you hear a mother sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to her baby. You hear Mozart when you sit in a restaurant and they play ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ or ‘Rondo Alla Turca’. Almost everyone you meet now knows at least one or two of Mozart’s most famous melodies while other less famous composers have faded into the abyss of time.

The melodies and tunes that Mozart created were so easy to remember. They were so distinct and yet they possess such an air of simplicity. It was as if musical notes of every kind found harmony and beauty within his musical pieces. Every note is at the right place at the right time. We know Mozart today as the musical genius that he really is. We now exalt his genius and his musical achievements as one of the pinnacles of human achievement.

However, Mozart was quite a financial failure during his lifetime. He would bend his will to no one and as a result, he would not flourish in a time when a music composer needs an aristocratic patron. According to a history book (Kishlansky, Geary and O’Brien, 1995), “while Joseph Haydn lived in a palace, Mozart, probably the greatest musical genius in Western history, lived impoverished in a garret and died at age thirty-five from lack of medical attention.” One only needs to watch the movie ‘Amadeus’ by Peter Shaffer to get a grip of the tragic life of this great musical mind.

Click the link below to hear some of Mozart’s musical pieces:


Paul Charles Morphy (1837-1884)

Mozart is not alone in the club of tragic child prodigies. Paul Charles Morphy was once hailed as the greatest grandmaster of chess in the world. Rumour was that he taught himself how to play chess after seeing a single chess match. According to a writer on the history of chess, “he was head and shoulders above the players of his time.” Paul Morphy was a rare phenomenon. At age twenty, he played eight blindfold games at Birmingham in 1858 and won six of the eight matches. Repeating his blindfold performance in 1859, he won all eight games! He had genius, he had grace and he was a master of positional play in chess.

How did he do it?

According to Tony Buzan, “Paul Morphy was a chess champion who could remember every move of every game that he played throughout his championship career, including those he had played while blindfolded. His claims were backed by the fact that nearly 400 of his games were preserved only because he was able to dictate them long after the event, and have the moves confirmed by his opponents and the judges present.”

But surely genius is not measured by memory alone. If you would take a look at the annotated chess games that Morphy played, you would see the beauty of how he would sacrifice valuable chess pieces to gain superiority in terms of position while forcing his opponents into a corner that they cannot escape. It was as though he could read ahead into the future. As though he knew the next move that his opponents would make and then, with a single masterstroke, he would change the tide of the contest.

So how did Morphy fare outside the game of chess? After smashing his way through chess competitions and conquering every master of chess that stood in his way, Morphy returned to his home in New Orleans and withdrew from the world of chess in 1863. His career in law was a failure and the woman he loved refused to marry him. Isolating himself from people, he began to become paranoid and suspected that people were trying to kill him at every corner. In 1884, Morphy took a walk, got into a cold bath and was found dead. Ironic indeed that one of the greatest chess players of all time with his infamous strokes of genius was found dead in a bathtub as a result of a stroke. Morphy was often called, “the pride and sorrow of chess.”

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

Now Mozart and Morphy are but tragic examples of geniuses that excelled greatly in one aspect of life but were failures in many other aspects. But Sir Isaac Newton had a different story. Newton was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived! If you used to have trouble with calculus in high school, you would loved to have murdered Newton before he was 21 years old. Because between the 21 to 27 years old, Isaac Newton wrote his Principia Mathematica, laid the foundations of integral calculus, and brought forth theories that would subsequently change our understanding of the universe.

Newton’s theories can be used now to predict the motions from tiny objects to the positions and trajectories of the stars and planets! Alexander Pope once said, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.” But that was not all; Newton was successful as a scientist even when he was alive. He was the first scientist to ever be knighted, and he was appointed as the president of the Royal Society. When he died, he was buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey. His genius seemed to be accompanied by no tragedy.

Or so it seemed.

Although the flaws of Newton were not in his achievements, public prominence, or financial situation, his character as a person was not something admirable. His relations with other academicians were nothing but cordial. In a conflict with the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who withheld certain information that Newton wanted, Newton had himself appointed to the Royal Observatory and tried to force Flamsteed to publish his work. Facing a continuously stubborn Flamsteed, Newton had the astronomer’s work seized and he later arranged for the stolen work to be published by Flamsteed’s mortal enemy Edmond Halley.

Thankfully, Flamsteed took his case to court and managed to obtain a court order to stop the publication of his work. In response and revenge, Newton had Flamsteed’s name deleted from all later editions of his Principia Mathematica although Flamsteed had earlier provided much needed data for Newton’s Principia.

German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz however, was not so lucky. Leibniz, a polymath and a genius in his own right, had independently developed a branch of mathematics called calculus. Although Newton discovered calculus earlier than Leibniz, he published his work much later. Soon a battle ensued over who had been the first to discover calculus. Newton was said to have wrote articles in defence of himself in his own hand only to publish them in the name of friends!

As the heat of the battle grew hotter, Leibniz made a mistake of bringing his case to the Royal Society to resolve the dispute. With Newton as the president of the society, Leibniz’s fate was sealed. Appointing his own friends into a so-called ‘impartial committee’, Newton, who reportedly wrote the committee’s report himself, accused Leibniz of plagiarism publicly. Newton was said to have declared after the death of Leibniz that he had taken great satisfaction in “breaking Leibniz’s heart.”

The Problems of Geniuses and Prodigies

After a musician, a chess player and a scientist, what is next? Schumann, Nietzsche, Nash and Hawking?

What explains the problems that these geniuses and prodigies face? Why is there a thin line that divides genius and madness, prodigies and failures?

According to German Philosopher Schopenhauer, “genius is simply the most complete objectivity. Genius is the power of leaving one’s own interests, wishes and aims entirely out of sight, of entirely renouncing one’s own personality for a time, so as to leave a pure knowing subject and a clear vision of the world.” While the lowest forms of life are entirely made up of will i.e., the will to live, the will to reproduce, the genius has overcome such demands of the will and has transcend into the realm of objective knowledge. The genius is then, a person that possesses a heightened sense of consciousness and clearness of the highest degree.

The secret of genius lies in the clear and impartial perception of the objective, the essential and the universal (Durant, 2005). The thoughts of a genius form a clear mirror of the essence of the world. The genius does not treat the object that he is studying as something personal or a means to personal ends. Instead, he is freed from will and sees the object as it is; just as he sees reality as it is. And when he speaks the truth of his thoughts, the world rejects or revolts against him.

It is this removal of the personal equation that leaves the genius so ill equipped in the world where practical and personal activity dominates. The genius see’s so far that he does not see what is in front of his eyes. He is like the astronomer in the fable that, while walking, has his sights so intently fixed to a star that he falls into a well. Often we see that geniuses and prodigies excel in academics, sciences and arts, but fail when it comes to more social activities.

The geniuses and prodigies are thinking of the fundamental, the universal, and the eternal. But the rest of us are thinking of the temporary, the specific and the immediate. With no common ground, the minds of geniuses and prodigies seldom meet with the minds of mediocrity. And so the genius is left alone in a world of his own; isolated, lonely, sad, and with no one capable of understanding him.

And yet the geniuses and prodigies continue to think of things so far ahead, so far advanced, so far developed that he forgets of the present. They see the world as a broader canvas, a bigger picture and a perfect equation. Their works are meant to be everlasting. “In the long-run we are all dead,” said Keynes. But Mozart cannot help but think of things that would outlast him, or beauty that would be eternal. And so he died young, paying the price for his genius.

Other geniuses and prodigies pay the price by succumbing to madness. “It is often commented that genius and madness have an aspect in common, and even converge,” commented Schopenhauer. But if the price for such intellectual power is madness, would it be worth it?

I think not.

Of course some will argue that not all geniuses and prodigies are mad or unhappy. Some like the late bloomer Einstein seemed to have led quite an extraordinary but content life. Maybe it is also true that not all geniuses and prodigies have their perks and weird behaviours. But I cannot help but notice that an alarming number of them just find it hard to fit into this world.

Click the link below to see:
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