The Boy Genius
Finding Him Again Through the Patriarchal Group
by Anthony Esolen
Lately I have made a hobby of going to a certain very fine and utterly unpolitical website, to see how great chess games were once played, and to learn about the lives and the habits of the game's most illustrious masters. That means I have come into contact with quite a few boy geniuses, as they used to be called. You may recognize their names: Bobby Fischer, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mikhail Tal, and my favorite among them, the nineteenth-century American lad, Paul Morphy.
One of the best players of his day said that losing to Paul Morphy for the first time was like your first experience of an electric shock. It has no relation to anything you have ever felt before, and it is not so much painful as utterly astonishing. That is because Morphy played the game as it had never been played. Nobody knew what he was doing. He sacrificed pieces with brave abandon. He placed them where you never expected them to be. He would allow you to put him within one move of checkmate as if it were ten. He beat his father once by driving Dad's king all the way across the board, and then delivering the checkmate by castling. He seemed to think that the main use of his pawns was to get them out of the way.
Bobby Fischer, a century later, would say that in the open game, there was still nobody who had anything that would improve upon Paul Morphy. For me, to replay his games move-by-move is to feel an intense artistic delight, as if you could hold the wrist of a young Michelangelo and feel every stroke of the chisel as he turned a great amorphous block of marble into the Pieta. The website categorizes hundreds of his games as "Chess Variants," meaning that Morphy has spotted his opponent one of his rooks, or a knight, or a knight and a pawn, or whatever; and he still carves the man up into slices. I imagine that plenty of men thought it was a privilege to be so dismembered.
Nowadays, if you have talent in chess, you will hire a coach and he will bear down upon you day after day, having you commit to memory all of the two or three hundred standard openings and their variations, and instructing you in the counting strategies of the pawns in the endgame, but at that time there were no such coaches, and Morphy, like the similar genius Capablanca, learned chess from watching his father play, but was otherwise self-taught. He was something of a lusus naturae: an odd move that Nature makes on the chessboard, dangerous and bold, with a potential for magnificent success or magnificent failure.
There are several points I wish to make about the boy genius, but the first one is this: the boy genius is almost always a boy. I am persuaded that we are not just talking about a high level of intelligence. We are not talking about some quality that allows you to succeed in school. We are talking about something that is, like an electric shock, foreign, strange, unsettling, unpredictable. Blaise Pascal's sister said that Blaise, as a small boy, played with conic sections the way other children played with toys. Einstein lay on his belly on the brow of a hill in Tuscany and asked himself what the world would look like if he saw it while he was riding on a beam of light. Alexander Pope said of his boyhood, "I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." Tom Edison at four years old sat on a hen's egg to see if he could hatch it.
We fool ourselves if we say that we would enjoy being around such people. "Enjoy" is the wrong word. That is like saying that you enjoy the electric shock. It is like saying that you hope someday to experience a sudden tectonic shift, otherwise known as an earthquake. The basketball player Jerry Lucas once set himself to memorize the Manhattan telephone directory. I don't know whether he did it, but I do know that he kept in his mind a running tally of the statistics for every player in every single NBA game he played, going so far as to pester the scorers to make sure to whom they had awarded an assist. Lucas was a great player whom nobody seems to have liked.
The mathematician Henri Poincaré would lose himself utterly in mathematical calculation, and pace back and forth in his room, completely oblivious to his surroundings. The story goes that a young mathematician traveled all the way from Sweden to Paris to speak to Poincaré. Upon his arrival, he was ushered into Poincaré's room and his name was announced, but Poincaré didn't seem to hear. When the poor man finally cleared his throat and attempted to say something, the great man turned on him in complete surprise and bellowed out, "What are you doing here?" At which his visitor rushed out of the room and went straight back across the North Sea.
We recognize, I hope, that this sort of thing is peculiarly masculine. In some of its manifestations it resembles what we now call autism, a malady that afflicts many more boys than girls, and more severely.
One of my philosophy professors at Princeton, Saul Kripke, wrote a dissertation so subtle and penetrating—I believe on the question of how we can say that a thing that has changed is still the same thing it was before—that only four or five people in the world were considered qualified to grade it, or even to read it and understand it. So they awarded him his doctorate on those grounds. When he lectured, he showed why certain rumors regarding his table habits at home—that his wife had to feed him sometimes—were probably true. He prowled about the front of the room, making goose-like honking noises that were his form of a stutter, smiling and quite innocent of any care about how he looked. "Honk–honk–honk–Berkeley," he would spurt out, "Berkeley–Berkeley," and then he would go on a spritz of brilliance and coherence for a couple of minutes. Then the machine had to be wound up again, and the honks would resume, occasionally punctuated by a drink of water one of his graduate students would hand him, some of the water dribbling down his beard, which he wiped grandly with the back of his sleeve. I have never in my life seen a woman behave so. I have known many men who, to a lesser degree, are like Professor Kripke.
Thomas Aquinas must have been so. Picture him at the court table of the saintly King Louis IX, with all the lords and ladies roundabout, chatting about the things that lords and ladies chat about while partaking of their venison and soup and bread, when suddenly, lost in concentration, Thomas bangs his fist on the board and cries out, "And thus are the Manicheans refuted!" The king calls a pageboy over. "Go get Brother Thomas paper and pen," says he.
So grant me my point about probability. My second point is that it makes good sense that it should be so. Stark variations from the norm or the median come at considerable expense. It is not just a stereotype, the business about the extremely intelligent boy who is physically frail. If you are a member of Mensa, it is more likely than not that your constitution is compromised by some oddity: you are left-handed, your eyesight is bad, you suffer severe allergies, and so forth.
The genius is far more likely to be dead by age forty than is his merely smart and well-built cousin. He may well be dead by his own lapses in noticing things around him: a philosopher, I have told my students, is a man who, if he is walking in an open field with a flagpole in it, will find a way to walk into that flagpole. He may be dead by his bizarre experiments: Benjamin Franklin should not have lived to tell about his adventure with lightning and the kite.
It stands to reason, then, that if you want your clan to survive, you had damned well better not have such people among the females. Your children will die. They will be in the jaws of the tiger before their theoretical mothers would ever notice. The adrenal systems of women have two settings for threats: danger, and no danger. You do not want people who take care of small children to be calculating odds and weighing risks. You certainly do not want them to be lost in the haze of a couple of thousand lines of poetry composed in their minds.
Homer would have been blind even if he had not been blind. Mozart, said his father, was blind in that way. He could see, in the sense that the light struck his eyes, but he did not see: a murder might be committed ten feet away from him, and if he was in the middle of composition, he might not notice. He could compose in between billiard shots, because in some way the activities are similar: the arrangement of a multitude of musical angles and concussions and ricochets.
Nature is conservative with females, because to them is given the whole biological future of the race. She is devil-may-care with males, because they are demographically expendable. If Johnny blows himself up while trying to invent nitroglycerine, he as a father to children may easily be replaced, and some other Johnny will invent the stuff instead.
My third point is built upon the second. Edison was a compulsive worker and about as antisocial a man as you can be. He taught himself to sleep an hour or two at night on his laboratory table. Nobody ever called upon Michelangelo for the charm of his wit. He was always a fiery and brooding man, as we see him portrayed in Raphael's painting The School of Athens, in the foreground, lost in concentration, alone. Sometimes you get the jolly semi-autistic fellow, like Chesterton, who once sent a telegram to his wife, saying, "In Piccadilly now—where should I be?" More often you don't.
If that is the case, then an institution is the last place where you may expect the boy genius to thrive, unless that institution possesses certain features, which I will come to later. For now, I am asserting that the boy genius suffers in two or three ways at once in the institution called "school." The unruliness of genius suffers. The unruliness of the boy suffers. And the whole aim of the school weighs upon him like a fog.
The purpose of our large social stewing pots, our schools, is to sink the genius to equality, that is, to the mediocre, and to raise the half-wit to the same. In this enterprise I say that they win one and lose one: they cannot succeed with the half-wit, but they do succeed with the genius. They muffle, stifle, dishearten, and bore. When equality is the aim, and an enforced conformity the means, genius retires, sullen and idle.
Most of the girls I knew liked school well enough; I knew only one of them who hated it with a passion. Most of the people I knew who hated school with a passion, as I did, were boys, nor did I know a single boy who really liked it. This should not surprise us. The boy's body is like that of a big and active dog. It needs acreage. The people who run the schools are women, and they run it to their tastes, not his. Their tastes run to the safe space, the walled garden. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall / That wants it down," said Robert Frost, who also disliked school, and spent most of his time as a child whittling and otherwise not paying attention to the goings on, so that he hardly knew how to read before he was thirteen years old.
Our schools are places of routine and sociability, which means, practically, that they are snake-pits of gossip and sinkholes of drudgery. Yet the cheerfulness of young people somewhat lightens the mood, and also the genuine goodwill and kindness of the women teachers. There is the occasional charm in the fog. But genius is what it is in part because it cannot be taught in any easily predictable or convenient way. It resists all standardization. If you are in most social environments—with one exception that I will get to, I promise—you must abide by a kind of complicated etiquette that is remarkably effective and that does redound to human happiness. But not to the happiness of the poor befuddled boy, to whatever extent he is afflicted by the malady I am calling genius.
The institution by its nature exists to continue its existence. It is like a granite cliff. It is there. But something in the boy wants to act upon that cliff. His mind drives a wedge into its heart. Quarry it for granite. Blow a hole through it so that a train can rumble through. Set charges of dynamite in it to carve a massive sculpture.
"Young men's thoughts are bold," says the poet Spenser. The boldness fits with their bodies and with their felt need to show themselves as strong and desirable for women: they are the bright cardinal singing loudly upon an open branch. Give a boy an ax and he will chop down trees with it. If we had not become used to such phenomena, so used to them that we no longer notice them, there is no way that most of us could imagine something as bizarre as digging a canal through the mountains that separate the Delaware River from the Hudson, as did the first settlers of the towns where I grew up in Pennsylvania, so that they could float barges of coal to New York City without having to go through Philadelphia.
A fine madness grips the man. The Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk were like the first man who strapped an ox to his own shoulders with a blade to scrape up the earth—or like the first man who culled a young wild ox from the herd. No institution, as an institution, would invent a plow. By the time the first semi-savage boy with an idea and an ox had gotten through the layers upon layers of approval, the ox would be dead and the boy would be off in the woods on his own, half-starved and sullen and of no use to anyone.
Different Interests, Different Languages
My fourth point hinges upon the difference between the space that women enjoy and the space that men enjoy. Of the former, I call to witness the feminists themselves. Suppose you have the run of a library filled with the greatest works of the human mind: works by Plato, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gibbon, Dr. Johnson, Goethe, Homer, Petrarch, Cervantes, and Dante. Suppose you are invited, every week, to lectures by the world's most perspicacious critics of these works, and suppose that they engage the most difficult questions that have perplexed us. Difficult and momentous questions: Do we possess free will? Are the good and the true convertible? What is the nature of matter? Is evil an existent thing, or a mere negation? Is the common good identifiable with the good of individuals? What is the whole duty of man?
Now suppose that instead of reading those books and attending those lectures, you demand that a new wing of the library be built, where you and members of your sex, at the expense of men as well, retire to read Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Andrea Dworkin, Rosemary Ruether, and Margaret Atwood, and that the questions you engage all have to do with the status of women in your own time. You make it clear, in addition, that only certain opinions will be entertained: Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer, one of the leaders of the opposition to women's suffrage in the United States, and the most prominent critic of architecture, of either sex, in her time, need not apply for admission. It is an institutional safe space, a feminist quilting bee, except that nothing so attractive and useful as a quilt is ever made.
It should go without saying that most men and boys would find such a place intolerable. That is part of the point. But the men and boys would also not enjoy other classes taught by women who would establish such things. The women do not speak their language. I do not need to show here that no woman can inspire boys intellectually. In general, they do not do it, and I am not blaming them for that, no more than I would blame them for not inventing new sports—which boys and men invent all the time. I assume that the interests of the sexes are not identical, because the sexes are not identical.
If someone should object and say that I am wrong, and that boys are surely inspired to greatness by their women teachers, I must shrug and ask why those same boys then lag so badly behind their sisters, who come from exactly the same families as they do, with the same social status and income, who go to the same schools, and in the aggregate are possessed of no greater natural intelligence. Whether it could theoretically happen that we would get a Bach or a Michelangelo from a system dominated by women, I don't know, but then I also don't know whether it is theoretically possible for man to live on Mars. I know that it does not happen; it is not happening.
We do not speak the same language. I will give you the most obvious example. When we are dealing with any assertion beyond the merely technical or logical, the woman will think of a dozen ways in which it is consequential for the welfare of human beings, including herself. The first question that the man will think of is simply this: "Is it true?"
Again I call to witness the feminists themselves. They are the ones who first showed me that it was masculine, all too masculine, to insist upon truth before all other considerations. They call it being "logocentric," or "phallocentric," or some other such nonsense, while they calmly type away in their offices, inside buildings constructed by men who never inquired about the feelings of brick or the social implications of angular momentum, but made their angles right and their walls plumb and their levels true.
Feelings are neither here nor there. If English literature, taken all in all, is superior to Welsh literature, then—as much as I like the Welsh—it is, and that is that. Calling the attitude "fascist" or "imperialist" may mask your fear to acknowledge the truth, but the truth remains.
Intellectual Boxing Rings
And now my final point. I have said that boys may flourish in an institution if the institution has a certain characteristic. It is simply that the institution should be a patriarchy. I do not know whether every mother wants her daughter to be greater than she is. I do not know whether women think in such comparative terms. I do know that every good father wants his son to be a better man than he has been. This is a fact attested to in every culture. It is what Hector says in the Iliad, as he dandles his infant son in his arms; he hopes that the men of Troy will someday say of Astyanax that his father Hector was a good man but that he is better. My father said it of me. Archie Manning says it proudly of his boys Peyton and Eli.
This attitude is not sentimental and it does not necessarily imply softness. Men are the sex that builds the military space, the palestra, the arena for fighting, and you can fight with your mind as well as with your fists. G. K. Chesterton, a bluff admirer of women, said that there are only three things that women do not understand, and they are Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. All three things come together in the club, the beer hall, the boxing ring, and the school for boys that is run by men. In that place, no question is out of bounds. Social rank does not matter. Feelings do not weigh in the balance with truth. The boys and men fight it out with ideas, as with fists, and oftentimes they are all the more firmly bound to one another for the gift of a bloody nose.
Notice the kind of thing that men in the Middle Ages, who invented the university, invented for the proving of bachelors: an intellectual boxing ring, in public, with the masters and doctors asking questions, and the object of their scrutiny answering them as best he could, while everyone interested looked on and judged the performance, just as fans at Madison Square Garden might nowadays score a fight on their cards.
This was not just a concluding ceremony. It was only the most public manifestation of what had been going on in the university all the time. St. Thomas Aquinas, given the unflattering nickname "the Dumb Ox" by his fellow students, threw a mean uppercut and a crushing right cross—with blows of the mind. It was what enabled the monk Gaunilo to attempt a rebuttal of St. Anselm, on behalf of the fool who says in his heart, "There is no God," and Anselm did not either take the rebuttal personally, nor did he cast doubt upon Gaunilo's faith. Under the protection of the fathers, and of the Father himself, the sons could fight and grow strong, and thresh out the truth from error and falsehood.
Time to Rebuild
I believe that nature provides us with as many boy geniuses now as she ever did. If we do not see them, it is because we have stifled them. Where would they flourish? Where would they go to be free? Where can they build their catapults to hurl half a mountain against the massive complacency that surrounds them? Where will they learn to see their gifts as an expression of their masculine nature, ordained to serve the common good? Name the place. There is none.
So they must be built again. It is hardly necessary for me to argue that men alone must do this. Only men have done it, and the women of our time show not the slightest interest in it; rather the reverse. But the work is now three generations overdue. Time to get to it.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.