1757 | Paris


What are the qualities of a genius?

Genius (philosophy and literature). Range of mind, power of imagination, and responsiveness of soul: this is genius. The man of genius has a soul with greater range, can therefore be struck by the feelings of all beings, is concerned with everything in nature, and never receives an idea that does not evoke a feeling. Everything stirs him and everything is retained within him.

When the soul has been moved by an object itself, it is even more affected by the memory of the object. But in a man of genius imagination goes further: it recalls ideas with a more vivid feeling than it received them, because to these ideas are connected a thousand others more appropriate to arouse the feeling.

The genius surrounded with objects that preoccupy him does not remember: he sees but does not restrict himself to seeing: he is moved; in the silence and obscurity of his room he enjoys the smiling and fertile countryside; he is chilled by the whistling of the winds; he is burned by the sun; he is frightened of storms. The soul often takes pleasure in these momentary affections; they give him enjoyment that is precious to him. The soul gives itself to everything that can increase its scope; with true colors and indelible strokes it would like to give body to the phantasms that are its work, that transport or amuse it.

When he wishes to paint a few objects that excite him, things and people sometimes shed their imperfections. Only what is sublime or pleasant finds its way into his paintings; then genius paints the bright side of everything—sometimes he sees in the most tragic events only the most terrible of circumstances, and in this moment genius spreads the most somber colors, powerful expressions of lament and sorrow; he animates matter, colors thought. In the heat of enthusiasm he neither orders nature nor arranges the sequence of his ideas; he is transported into the situation of the personages he invents; he has taken on their character: if he feels heroic passions to the highest degree, such as the confidence of a noble soul in full possession of its power rising above all danger, such as love of country carried to the point of forgetting oneself, then he produces the sublime.

Translated by Stephen Gendzier. © 1967 by Stephen Gendzier. Used with permission of Stephen Gendzier.

From the Encyclopédie. A career army officer known to have shared mistresses with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, Saint-Lambert published a volume of verse and contributed various articles to Diderot and d’Alembert’s dictionary of thought.