In defence of the eccentric
“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.