He is not much read today, but when his book Talents and Geniuses appeared in 1957, the exemplary public intellectual Gilbert Highet could count on two things. First, he would find a mass audience for it, for even lofty and difficult books of his such as The Classical Tradition sold well. And second, at least some of that audience would understand the fine distinction he was proposing with his title: Among creative types, among the writers and artists and inventors, some are born, and some are made.
For most of their careers as words, there has not been much semantic difference placed between “genius” and “talent”: Both are inborn capabilities that allow some of us, at least, to do things like puzzle out complex mathematical problems and compose difficult symphonies. One either has or does not have them, these things that are woven into the fabric of one’s being at birth.
By the time of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth (the greater genius than the talented William), “talent” and “genius” were beginning to diverge, with the latter outranking the former, and with talent being viewed in turn—and not without some disdain—as something that might even be teachable to those not blessed with genius.
By the next generation, the distinction had become clearer. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian, wrote in 1849 of one regal subject of inquiry, “He had shown… two talents invaluable to a prince, the talent of choosing his servants well, and the talent of appropriating to himself the chief part of the credit of their acts.” Our prince, Macaulay seems to be suggesting, though quite skilled at it, had been schooled in the art of choosing his aides and then taking their glories as his own.
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” So Oscar Wilde remarked. If one takes genius to be the ineducable, irreducible precondition for true creative achievement, even if a lesser version might be effected by someone who is merely talented, then Wilde’s comment is apropos. In that light, Miley Cyrus is a talent, while Ludwig van Beethoven is a genius; Salvador Dalí was a talent who wanted to be taken as a genius, whereas Brian Eno is a genius who allows only that he has a certain talent at the keyboard, whether computer or piano. (The New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones tells us that “the genius of Eno is in removing the idea of genius.”) Susan Sontag, like Oscar Wilde, was both talented and a genius, always seeking to build on her native gifts, while William F. Buckley Jr. was a talent who read about geniuses at Yale. And so forth.
Not all things inborn are desirable, of course. Bullying, ethologists tell us, is something that many social species share. It’s education—whatever isn’t DNA—that teaches us to curb our inner nastiness: We may be geniuses at causing each other pain, but the best of us nurture instead a talent for conviviality. That may not be quite what Gilbert Highet was driving at, but the distinction holds.