What Makes a Work of Genius “Genius”?

This Seneca quote contains a great answer to this question

Statue of David
Image by pieroor from Pixabay

“There is a sequence about the creative process, and a work of genius is a synthesis of its individual features from which nothing can be subtracted without disaster.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

The feeling that “This piece is complete” is exactly the feeling you get when you behold a work of genius. Because there’s nothing superfluous about it, you can’t take away the smallest part. By the same token, adding to it would just detract from it. The Taj Mahal and Michelangelo’s David come to mind when thinking of genius works of art.

I so love this sentence from Letters from a Stoic — letter XXXIII to be precise — because it touches upon the idea of beauty and perfection.

Other thinkers from various fields have conveyed the same notion, just with different words and in different contexts.

For instance, in his fascination book, The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee points out, “A whole assembled from the sum of the parts is different from the whole before it was broken down into parts.”

He’s referring, of course, to the marvel that is the gene, a creation of Nature (or a Higher Power if you will). The parts are a phosphate, a sugar and four bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine).

What’s mind-boggling about the gene is the way these six parts are arranged to form the genius double helix structure that encodes all living things, from corn to elephants, from bacteria to human beings.

The whole structure is most definitely infinitely superior to the parts.

I was also reminded of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s famous words from his memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” In this case, the author is referring to flying machines.

We can appreciate genius in the structures of nature, in the arts, in beautiful ideas and theories. It’s important to also remember that complexity does not add to the genius of things. It often does the opposite.

Day 27 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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