Sometimes a word tells an entire story. Often the evolution of a word and its meaning reveals a lot about the evolution of the social mind. In some ways tracing strands of linguistic evolution is like psychoanalysis of the social.
We do not necessarily need to make a formal study (etymology, linguistics, semantics, etc.) to gain some insight. Sometimes we can just notice a trend going on. We can speculate based on clues and intuition and then do some fact checking to test our hypothesis to see if our ideas hold any water.
~ <)o O o(> ~
Let us look at the words genius and demon. In contemporary culture these two words are very different. One is associated with high intelligence and creativity and the other is an evil spirit associated with Hell. But these words have had a changing relationship in the social mind which is quite telling.
Some time ago I read into the meaning of my name, Damian. I read that it is a name form for the Greek word daimon. I then read that Plato or Socrates spoke of the daimon. Daimon means something like “indwelling spirit or intelligence” in their philosophy. I noticed how close the word daimon is to daemon which is old English for demon! Let’s put that aside for the moment.
From what little I have read it seems that the daimon of Plato and Socrates is their genius. Their inspired thoughts, their intelligent observations, their creative force is from their daimon. They spoke of the daimon in the way that we speak of our genius. If we did something selfish we would say that we acted out of our ego. If we formulated a theory or painted a great painting we would say it was from our genius.
But what about this whole “indwelling spirit” thing? It seems that a daimon did not necessarily need a human body to exist. It can be a non-human spirit. A demon is a non-human spirit. So is an angel. Today we think of one as evil and the other as good. In ancient Greek thought, a daimon was not split along those lines.
Let us turn to an other word for “indwelling spirit”; genie. In Arab folklore a genie is a spirit with intelligence and power. In English the plural form of genie is genii by the way. We think of a genie as dwelling in a bottle, a spirit that is powerful, creative and knowledgeable and wise. In Arab folklore a jinn could exist as an autonomous spirit just like the Greek daimon.
So I sit back and think that thought the words “daimon” and “genie” are very different in their sound and come from very different languages, they basically mean the same thing.
But wait! “Daimon” shares much in meaning with “genius” and “genius” sounds a lot like “genie”. Is there a relation there that is not just coincidental? Let me look it up… (yes I am actually researching while writing this blog)…
It seems that “genius” comes from Latin, a Latin form of the Arabic word djinn! Aha! Now we can see that in both cases we start with a word that can mean an autonomous intelligent spirit that can dwell in a human and give them genius ideas. From Arab to Roman to English culture, the concept/word jinn or genie evolves into genius; something quite rational and its spiritual or metaphysical meaning disappears over time. But from ancient Greek to Roman to English the concept/word daimon turns to daemon which turns to demon; something quite spiritual and its psychological meaning disappears over time.
Now that we checked our leaps of speculation and confirmed that our intuitions have historical basis, we can ask what can we learn about the social mind by tracing the evolution of these concepts/words? I am not sure myself but my initial thoughts tell me that there are 2 major threads here;
1. Whereas today we think of genius as something that is part of our minds it seems that in ancient times it was something they received or possessed (or were possessed by) but which was not just a part of their minds but rather something that could exist within or without them.
2. In contemporary monotheist culture (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) a demon is a spirit, an evil spirit. It is not considered a part of the mind and indeed if it exists in a persons’ mind we say that the person is possessed. Genius is something that inspires us whereas a demon is something that possesses us.
But wait! What of this word “inspire”. It sounds like it means to have spirit within. Indeed, to be inspired means to be inspirited, to have spirit. Today, if we say someone is inspired or “has spirit” we mean that they have a sort of genius. But surely this used to be taken more literally in the past than today.
If we can see the parallel between “inspiration” (genius) and “possession” (by a demon) we can see the deep connection. In either case we can think of a daimon or genius as something that can exist in the mind and move it in extraordinary ways.
We can say that we are possessed with genius or that we are inspired by our daimon.
But we can also make a third observation;
3. In Western Monotheistic culture we have split the neutral daimon into poles of good and evil. We say that demons are evil spirits and that angels are good spirits. Demons are subserviant to the Devil and angels are subservient to God. We have lost the idea that an intelligent, creative and powerful spirit can be independant or neutral.
The jinn of Arab folklore and daimon of ancient Greek culture were not subservient to a god and were not bound to pure good or pure evil. They served no deity. This is very telling of the difference between pagan democratic culture and monotheistic monist culture. Monotheistic philosophy thinks of all things coming from one supreme deity. If there is anything else it must come from pure evil. One must take a side. There is no independence, no autonomy. There are no colors. There is not even shades of gray. There is only black and white. Even though we have modern democracies, there is still a strong tendency toward monism – the belief in one correct view. Pagan philosophy tends to think in pluralistic terms (not monist) where there can be many views. Each view is independent and not ultimately subservient to one extreme or its opposite. It is much like ancient Greek democracy where each individual had their own independent view and vote. They were not polarized by left and right (wings) or good vs evil.
This is what I mean when I say that the evolution of a word and its meaning reveals a lot about the evolution of the social mind.
In our contemporary western culture the social mind is strongly limited by its monotheistic and monist background. Things tend to be polarized and limited to top or bottom, better or worse, good or evil, left wing or right wing. This view is not nearly as instructive as a more wide open and non-polarized view.
Let is dispense with mere black and white. Let us dispense with the polar view. Let us see full circle, let us see the whole spectrum.
~ <)o O o(> ~
Postscript I ~ After writing the above rant I started to read Sudden Genius? the Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs by Andrew Robinson. On page 4 the author writes,
“What does it mean to call Einstein, Feynman, Bardeen and Shockly all physics ‘geniuses’? Not a lot, say some psychologists, who try to avoid using the word in their research, and prefer instead ‘exceptionally creative’. But the ‘genius’ – with us since ancient Greece and Rome – cannot be put back in the bottle so easily by scientists.”
The author is saying that the concept of ‘genius’ is not so easily handled, measured or understood by science but that it is not easy to drop the whole idea either. But notice he doesn’t use any number of other phrases like “cat out of the bag” or “Pandora’s box” and so on. He makes a metaphoric reference to genies coming from bottles. It doesn’t seem that the author realizes the potential pun; that the word ‘genius’ evolved from ‘genie’.
Postscript II – In reading Robinson’s book it seems that I.Q. and education do not make genius. Genius here is defined by a combination of high intelligence, ability (artistic, scientific, etc.), and high creativity/originality. Whereas high intelligence can be hereditary and can not be taught and ability can be inherited and/or learned, high creativity is not hereditary and can not be learned.
What I think is relevant to my thoughts laid out above is that intelligence and genius are two different traits. They are closely associated because genius can not flower in one who has low I.Q. and/or low ability, but high I.Q. and/or ability does not make the occurrence of genius any more likely. So we can speak of genius as something distinct from intelligence and ability.
Remember that the word ‘inspiration’ literally means to have a spirit rise within. Of course we do not use the word so literally today. We say that someone was inspired to create a genius work of art or an important scientific advance much as an ancient Greek philosopher would say that someone was inspirited by a daimon to create a genius work of art or an important scientific advance.
I think we all can relate to the phenomena of sudden inspiration that seems to come from nowhere but which yields fruitful ideas in music, art, science, literature or innovation. It is perhaps a question for psychology; where does genius come from? Are ‘genius’ ideas formed in the subconscious and come to the conscious mind in a more-or-less fully developed form? If so, how does the high level of organization and coherency form in subconsciously without the conscious mind being aware of it?
A fellow blogger has written an excellent treatment of this subject which I recommend; A Brief History of the Daimon (and the Genius)