In de­fence of the ec­cen­tric

Sussex Life - - Front Page -

“It is de­sir­able… that peo­ple should be ec­cen­tric. Ec­cen­tric­ity has al­ways abounded when and where strength of char­ac­ter has abounded; and the amount of ec­cen­tric­ity in a so­ci­ety has gen­er­ally been pro­por­tional to the amount of ge­nius, men­tal vigour and moral courage it con­tained. That so few now dare to be ec­cen­tric marks the chief dan­ger of the time.” John Stu­art Mill, On Lib­erty.

I’ve been read­ing that pas­sage out loud at the cul­mi­na­tion of my stand-up com­edy show Ge­nius for the best part of a year and now I’m us­ing it to open what I hope will be­come a new reg­u­lar fea­ture in healthy. Amid to­day’s nev­erend­ing quest for Likes and Faves, such in­dif­fer­ence mat­ters more than ever.

I went to Mill for Ge­nius be­cause I’ve been try­ing to un­der­stand the na­ture of ex­cep­tional hu­man tal­ent and more ur­gently to dis­cover why it seems to have fled the pub­lic stage. I don’t care what your pol­i­tics are, I doubt very much that you’re see­ing them rep­re­sented at the high­est level by first class minds. Why is that?

Mill him­self is one of very few historical fig­ures to have been ac­corded an IQ of over 200 in the Guin­ness Book of Records – that be­ing the point at which the level of cog­ni­tive abil­ity be­comes too great to mean­ing­fully mea­sure against hu­man norms – or in­deed Norms. So it seemed fair to hear what he had to say about cre­at­ing a so­ci­ety that cul­ti­vates ge­nius in oth­ers. But much of his own life was in ec­cen­tric in ways be­yond his con­trol.

His fa­ther, a pas­sion­ate Ben­thamite, took stern con­trol of his ed­u­ca­tion, away from the so­ci­ety of his peers or any sort of dis­trac­tion. Mill was learn­ing an­cient Greek at the age of three and con­tin­ued in that vein through­out ado­les­cence. He thrived in­tel­lec­tu­ally and the ex­per­i­ment was, in the words of Isa­iah Ber­lin, “an ap­palling suc­cess” – yet by early adult­hood, Mill teetered on the brink of sui­ci­dal de­spair. His grey mat­ter was peer­less but his life was grey too, de­void of any soul food, pur­pose or emo­tional ori­en­ta­tion. It was the po­etry of Wil­liam Wordsworth, whom his fa­ther had re­garded with the sort of cold con­tempt modern par­ents re­serve for a week­end spent play­ing Fort­nite, that saved young Mill’s life. I must con­fess I strug­gle to get my kids to see Wil­liam Wordsworth as light re­lief from their home­work, but it’s all rel­a­tive I sup­pose.

Mill re­mained se­ri­ous of pur­pose but end­lessly ques­tion­ing. And in due course he penned the fiercest de­fence of free speech and in­di­vid­ual self-de­ter­mi­na­tion I have ever come across – On Lib­erty, from which the quote comes.

Mill him­self was a Lon­doner, of Scot­tish stock, but I am qui­etly de­ter­mined that Sus­sex too can be shown to be no slouch when it comes to ec­centrics – and in­deed ge­nius – and I hope in so do­ing, they can lead by ex­am­ple.

Join me on this page next month for the first in­stal­ment of this new en­deav­our, all il­lus­trated by my good friend, gifted artist, West Dean res­i­dent and com­mit­ted ec­cen­tric Guy Ven­ables.


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