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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Beware of Genius!

From “Rameau’s Nephew”

HE accosted me with, “I am glad to see you again, my philosopher. But why do you sit here and watch these fools at their wretched games of chess and draughts?”

I.Because I have nothing better to do at this moment than to watch good players.

He.Pshaw! Except Légal and Philidor, they know nothing of the game.

I.And M. de Bussy? What do you say to him?

He.He is a chess-player in the sense in which Clairon is an actress. Both know of playing all that can be learned.

I.You are hard to please, and only the consummate master seems to find favor in your eyes.

He.Yes, in games, in poetry, in eloquence, music, and the like fooleries. What is the good of mediocrity in these matters?

I.I could almost agree with you. And yet many must practise these arts that the man of genius may shine more brightly. But let that rest. I’ve not seen you for an age. I never think of you when I don’t see you. But I am always pleased when you appear. What have you been doing?

He.What you do and everybody—good, evil, and nothing. I have been hungry, and have eaten when opportunity came. Furthermore, I have been thirsty, and have often drunk. I let my beard grow and had it shaved again.

I.You should not have done it. The beard alone is lacking to stamp you as a sage.

He.True enough. My forehead is high and furrowed, my eye brilliant, my nose protuberant, cheeks broad, eyebrows heavy, and the whole face square. Were this large chin of mine covered by a beard, it would make a fine showing in bronze or marble.

I.Next to the busts of Cæsar, Marcus Aurelius, or Socrates.

He.No, I should rather stand between Diogenes and Phryne. I am as impudent as the one, and have a weakness for the other.

I.And you are well, I suppose?

He.Usually, yes; to-day, not specially.

I.Why, I should think with that face of yours——

He.My face? Ah, well, the evil humor that dries up my uncle fattens his nephew.

I.Do you ever see your uncle nowadays?

He.I sometimes pass him in the street.

I.Is he not kind to you?

He.Is he kind to any one? I imagine not. He is a philosopher, in his way, thinks only of himself, and considers the rest of the world to be a mere pig’s bladder. His wife and daughter may die for all he cares, if only the church-bells that sound his death-chimes ring in perfect accord. He is a happy man, and, like all men of genius, noticeable for the fact that he is good for one thing only, and for nothing else. Geniuses do not know what it is to be citizens, fathers, mothers, or friends. One would not care to have the seed of genius broadcast. Men we require, not men of genius. By Heaven, no! They try to turn the world topsy-turvy, and in the present prevalence of folly almost gain their end. The wisdom of the monk in Rabelais, that is the true wisdom that tends to peace. To do what is right, always speak well of the good prior, and let the world wag its own way. And the world gets along well enough, for the majority is satisfied with it. Did I know any history, I would show you that all evils have proceeded from men of genius; but I know no history because I know nothing. The devil take me if, though I have never learned anything, I find myself any the worse for it. Once I dined with a minister of the king who had sense enough for a dozen. He demonstrated to us as clearly as that twice two is four, that nothing is more useful to nations than falsehood, nothing more harmful than truth. I don’t remember how he proved it, but it followed as clear as day, that all men of genius are rascals, and that a child who showed the dangerous symptoms of becoming one should at once be strangled or drowned.