Posts Tagged ‘Goethe’

Are great geniuses above morality?

January 26, 2014

I recently posted a review of a biography of Steve Jobs, the founder Apple Computer, who was a brilliant entrepreneur and industrial designer, but who was a self-centered person who showed no consideration for anyone else, including his closest family, except to the degree that they helped him achieve his purposes.

Recently I finished reading a historical novel about the great German writer and thinker, Wolfgang von Goethe, another selfish genius who achieved great things, but treated other people only as means to his fulfillment as a creator of great works of literature.

Jobs and Goethe, through the force of their intellects and personalities, were able to create a circle of admirers to accepted that they were above the rules that bind ordinary people.

Is this true?  Do great genius or great achievement justify wrongdoing?  Many philosophers have thought so.  The great German philosopher Hegel, for example, thought that “world-historical” figures such as Napoleon set their own rules.

I don’t agree.  I don’t think that being born with great talents creates an entitlement to break laws and treat people badly, any more than does being born to great wealth.

I think great achievers deserve to be honored for their achievements, even though their personal behavior is reprehensible, but that does not excuse bad personal behavior.  I think, for example, that the filmmaker Roman Polanski deserves to be honored for making great movies such as “The Pianist,” but I don’t think his achievements as a filmmaker give him immunity for having committed rape. [1]

I don’t think there is any contradiction between being a genius and being a good person.  But very few people are geniuses, and genuinely good human beings (as opposed to “nice people) are not all that common, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there aren’t many who have both qualities.