Imagine being so influential a writer that a few lines in one of your books, maybe little more than a casual remark to you, ends up shaping complex concepts in culture for thousands of years to come. Wouldn’t any writer or philosopher dream of that? Follow me as we trace a line from the trial of Socrates to tortured artists: It’s time for another journey accompanied by our trusty sidekick, etymology.
The writer and philosopher in question is Plato, who wrote about Socrates’ trial; one of the accusations against Socrates were blasphemy or heresy, though really people were just tired of listening to him. Socrates claimed that a god or a daimon (not to be confused with the demons of the Christian world) sometimes spoke to him, an inner voice that guided him. For his troubles, he was sentenced to drink a cup of poisonous hemlock, and thus Socrates became one of the only persons whose sarcasm killed him.
Unlike his predecessor, Chryssippus, who died from laughing at his own joke. Philosophers.
In another work, Plato clarified that gods and daimons are not the same, however; if you imagine a hierarchy of existence with gods on top and humans at the bottom, daimons are the species in between. It was this clarification that posterity just ran wild with.
Those analysing Plato elaborated that while gods live in the heavens, daimons live in the air between heaven and earth, which is where mankind lives (remember how Demorgorgon was mistaken as the ruler of the three worlds? Here you have them again). Furthermore, just as Socrates had a daimon whispering to him, guiding him, so did everyone else. The concept of a guardian spirit (quickly becoming a guardian angel in Christian times) was born.
The mental state of my own guardian angel on most days.
But the train doesn’t stop here. As Latin replaced Greek as the language of knowledge, daimon was translated; in Latin, it is “genius”. What happened next was that genius became internalised. It was no longer an outside spirit, but the spirit within. Probably as part of the general process in European thinking, where the outside world became more and more demystified, it became weighed, measured, and explained through science, whereas the human being took centre stage in philosophy: the birth of humanism.
The reaction to rationalism was romanticism, and they happily took the train to the next station. Genius now became something for the few, the select, the artists: a description of their creative force, their talent, their tortured state of being, which fuels art.
I am so tortured! Look at how tortured I am, surrounded by this gorgeous landscape!
Eventually though, the artist, like everything else, lost his pedestal. The meaning of genius became blurred; it went from being a concept to being an ordinary description of something extraordinary. If Socrates were here today, I am sure he would have a venomously sarcastic remark to make, and since you cannot prosecute people for sarcasm anymore, we would all just have to swallow it – like he swallowed that hemlock.