Johnson and Genius

Lawrence Lipking*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


During the eighteenth century 'genius' began to refer less to some special talent (Newton had a genius for mathematics) than to someone who surpassed the ordinary scope of human beings (Newton was a genius). Johnson resists both definitions. True genius reflects 'a mind of large general powers,' he writes, not any particular aptitude; and a genius relies on knowing the use of tools, not on some quasi-divine inspiration. This topic often exposes tensions in Johnson, who constantly weighs his own powers against those of others, and who balances a strong sense of competition with a desire to identify with the lives and thoughts of common readers. In his effort to demystify and humanize the growing cult of genius, he finds a surprising ally in Newton. Despite his singular genius, according to Johnson, Newton regarded himself as a man like anyone else. And Johnson is comforted by that measure of genius.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSamuel Johnson
Subtitle of host publicationThe Arc of the Pendulum
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191745003
ISBN (Print)9780199654345
StatePublished - Nov 15 2012


  • Aptitude
  • Chain of being
  • Genius
  • Humility
  • Inspiration
  • Newton
  • Powers of mind
  • Samuel Johnson
  • Singularity
  • Tools

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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