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Geniuses do not conform. They push forward
This is Part 2 of our three part series on the biographies of genius.
“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against… every one of its members…. The virtue in most request is conformity.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
“…when wisdom must finally face real dangers, there is a chance, on the contrary, for it to once again stand tall, once again be respected.”—Albert Camus
Galileo Galilei graduated from the University of Pisa in 1584 and could not find a job. He didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. His father sold canvas and rope to sailors, and had a small shop near the ports, but Galileo didn't want to take over the business. He thought about medical school, because it would provide a comfortable life.
Galileo loved to read. At a bookshop he came across a new translation of essays by Archimedes and Pythagoras, ancient Greek mathematicians, that connected their knowledge of measurements and angles with Copernicus, who argued that the earth revolves around the sun. He found an addictive truthfulness to the application of mathematics to explain the natural world.
The position of the Catholic church, which was the government, was that the earth is immobile, and that the sun revolves around the earth. One hundred years earlier Copernicus claimed otherwise, and his opinion had some adherents. However to publicly state it would risk being burned alive, as happened to a popular friar.
Galileo’s town was a superstitious place. Society enforced that the numbers three and seven were good luck, and that moods and disease were caused by the stars. The shape of a perfect sphere was seen as holy, thus ovals and ellipses could not exist. And it was taken for granted that heavier objects would fall to the ground faster than lighter ones.
That belief system was embedded into all people from a very young age, including into Galileo. Reading Archimedes, however, ignited something inside of him. His mind became clear.
Galileo decided to start a small engineering firm based on the principles from Archimedes and Pythagoras. He would use measurements observations, and mathematics to elucidate the natural world, even if it meant contradicting the Church.
He threw rocks and balls from various angles and heights, with different forces, and took detailed notes on what happened. He showed that objects follow a curve that makes part of an oval, a shape that social orthodoxy believed could not exist. He did the same for objects of different weights dropped straight down. He showed they hit the ground at the same time, which was impossible.
As his findings grew, so did his boldness. He wasn't hated. Indeed, he had many friends inside the Church, including an eventual Pope. They saw immense value in what he was doing.
Eventually he came up with a way to increase the magnification of telescopes by adding a variety of lenses. This invention was the start of his downfall, because now he was peering into outer space, which many people considered to be the exclusive realm of religion.
Everybody knew what he was doing--trying to show that the earth spins on an axis and circles the sun. He was told to stop, but, like all geniuses in history, he pressed forward, because progress had to be made. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, brought nearly all of Europe into the age of science.
Intelligence is not as variable as we are led to believe. We live in a time when most people grow up in homes without lead paint, and with access to healthy foods and time outdoors, things that are shown to nurture intelligence. Everybody is capable of something great. To activate your potential, however, you might need a spark.
Katha Pollitt, in the introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Women, characterizes the power difference between men and women in 1790 Europe as this: "The married male citizen was not just an individual but the head of a household.... he represented his wife at the polls and controlled her money and property; his domicile was her legal residence, to which she could be forcibly returned should she leave him...."
This state was not just accepted but defended. People with loud voices argued that women were created by God for men, and thus were a type of pet. All types of justifications were brought forth to support this, everything from anatomy to passages from the Bible.
This belief went unchallenged. There was no critical inquiry, no competitive counter argument— until suddenly there was.
There was nothing obviously special about Mary Wollstonecraft. She went from job to job, broke off an engagement, and tried to start a business with her friend, which failed. Although she did not have a formal education, she did have books as a child and learned to read, and also learned French. She was an avid reader her whole life.
After her failed business she worked for a publisher, translating French texts into English. She was friends with people who believed in the Enlightenment principles of freedom of mind and equality for all, and the publisher she worked for did as well. The Enlightenment was a highly subversive intellectual movement that would end up changing the world.
The United States sent out its Declaration of Independence, which is based on Enlightenment philosophy, just fourteen years prior, and declared that all men are created equal. The French Revolution was a few years away, in 1798, and would declare that all men are born free and equal and shall remain free and equal. This new concept of equality was the spark that ignited Mary Wollstonecraft.
Wollstonecraft felt strongly that unless somebody made the case that women should be included as equals they would not be. So she set pen to paper to make her case. Her publisher distributed her work. Her friends spread the word.
She was, predictably, attacked. Essays were written denouncing her. Newspapers condemned her views. People gossiped, because small minds always gossip. But she didn't care. She had become a flame, and all the paper and words fed her, like coal into a furnace.
Crucially, however, she was right. Genius is always right because it always sides with equality and freedom. When the world stops, genius presses forward. Her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, is a work of immense force, and brought in a new era of rights for women.
Everybody has great potential. Ignore the outside world. Look inside of yourself and you will find yours.
Martin Luther King Jr, in his sermon Love in Action, characterizes the general social thinking mid century as this: "All men are made in the image of God; God, as everybody knows, is not a Negro; Therefore, the Negro is not a man." Most people, he says, "sincerely came to believe that the Negro was inferior by nature and that slavery was ordained by God."
Howard Thurman, a theologian and scholar, was friends with Martin Luther King Jr's father. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1923, then went to divinity school. He made a name for himself preaching in African American communities, and over twenty years attained a variety of professorships and chairmanships. He studied with Quakers, and also Gandhi. He was a voracious reader and believed in patience and Gandhi style nonviolent protest.
His grandmother was enslaved for part of her life. When Thurman was a child, in Florida, he would read Bible passages to her. She enjoyed this time with him, and he loved reading to her. Although she grew up enslaved, she considered herself Christian. But she had a complaint for God. Thurman quotes his grandmother:
“‘the master's minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves....Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul... ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters...., as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God's will that we were slaves.... I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.’”
His grandmother rejected part of the Bible because it said she was born to be a slave. Thurman sensed she was right. Her position was a North Star for him. In his college years he tried to keep his eyes on it, and in the years after he did as well. But his conclusions were often some form of be patient and wait for the world to turn.
There was something wrong. He knew he needed a change. When lost, people move toward the North Star. They don’t wait for it to come to them. So he moved west to California, with a horizon as wide and as bright as his heart. There, in 1943, in an era when African Americans were lynched for looking at white people, he opened the first interracial congregation in the United States.
It was here that he gave life to his grandmother’s words and became a type of North Star for the United States.
He started to write a book that would address his grandmother's position. He writes: "too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed, those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity...."
He believed that Christianity as practiced did not cover "what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in history, with their backs against the wall." And, in a very bold allusion, he pointed out the historical fact that "Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group.”
Thurman came to strongly believe that religious study should focus on the man Jesus. From an understanding of Jesus’ life, one would infer that Christianity should provide solace to the weak and abused. His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, reinterpreted Christianity so it could shine bright in a dark age.
Understand this point: Society is made up of fear, prejudice, false wisdom. These things infect marriages, families, workplaces, friendships. They permeate the internet, so when you search online for help to life’s struggles you will find only poison.
Geniuses throughout history were not born for greatness. They became great. Each looked inward and saw that the messages of their era were wrong and harmful. That realization was often the catalyst for their potential. They then decided to act on it, which created the conditions for their inner genius to thrive.
To activate your potential you must remove the poisons of today. Doing so will illuminate a new way forward and provide a glimpse of the genius you are capable of. When you spot your North Star, go to it.
Today’s era is not one of a single, unified toxic message. Rather, our era seems to have brought about a type of internet induced schizophrenia. Thinking and feeling by way of the internet is becomming addictive and compulsive.
Geniuses throughout history have grounded themselves on certain principles. These principles are self evident, but they do not fight for themselves and thus are easily obscured and overtaken. That is sobering. Timeless principles of being are needed now more than ever.
Be sure to catch the upcoming editions of the WLS.
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