Arthur Schopenhauer on the Relationship Between Genius and Madness and How Memory Mediates the Blurry Line Between Sanity and Insanity
“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure, as an abnormal development, disposes to madness.”
By Maria Popova
“I don’t believe insanity is either a requirement or a guarantee for brilliance,” cosmologist Janna Levin wrote in her elegant inquiry into madness and genius. And yet the cooccurrence of the two has long permeated our cultural mythology of creativity.
Nearly two centuries before modern psychologists came to study the complex relationship between creativity and mental illness, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) dedicated to it a lengthy passage in The World as Will and Representation (public library) — the 1818 masterwork that also gave us Schopenhauer on the crucial difference between genius and talent.
It has often been remarked that there is a side at which genius and madness touch, and even pass over into each other, and indeed poetical inspiration has been called a kind of madness: amabilis insania, Horace calls it.
This cannot be ascribed to chance, for on the one hand the number of mad persons is relatively very small, and on the other hand a person of genius is a phenomenon which is rare beyond all ordinary estimation, and only appears in nature as the greatest exception… It might seem from this that every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure, as an abnormal development, disposes to madness.
And yet however enticing the myth of the mad genius might be, Schopenhauer points out that what makes it problematic is the nebulous nature of madness itself and the blurry line between sanity and insanity. In a passage that presages what scientists have since discovered about how memory disorders illuminate the workings of the mind, he writes:
A clear and complete insight into the nature of madness, a correct and distinct conception of what constitutes the difference between the sane and the insane, has, as far as I know, not as yet been found. Neither reason nor understanding can be denied to madmen, for they talk and understand, and often draw very accurate conclusions; they also, as a rule, perceive what is present quite correctly, and apprehend the connection between cause and effect… For the most part, madmen do not err in the knowledge of what is immediately present; their raving always relates to what is absent and past, and only through these to their connection with what is present. Therefore it seems to me that their malady specially concerns the memory; not indeed that memory fails them entirely, for many of them know a great deal by heart, and sometimes recognize persons whom they have not seen for a long time; but rather that the thread of memory is broken, the continuity of its connection destroyed, and no uniformly connected recollection of the past is possible. Particular scenes of the past are known correctly, just like the particular present; but there are gaps in their recollection which they fill up with fictions, and these are either always the same, in which case they become fixed ideas, and the madness that results is called monomania or melancholy; or they are always different, momentary fancies, and then it is called folly, fatuitas.
The World as Will and Representation remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular portion with Joni Mitchell on therapy and the creative mind, then revisit Schopenhauer on what makes a genius and the intellectual rewards of boredom.
Published July 19, 2016