Author: Huxleў
© Huxleў — almanac about philosophy, business, art and science.
6 minutes for reading

Where is the border between genius and insanity

Where is the border between genius and insanity
Share material
moonothing. Quantum of you, 2021 /


The assumption that genius and madness are two sides of the same personality has been around since time immemorial. Plato stated that outstanding writers of tragedies and comedies are often «out of their minds». Aristotle noted the tendency to depression in creative individuals.

But all these conjectures gained the structure of a full-fledged scientific theory only in the XIX century when a specific genre appeared — pathography. That is, the description of the biography of an outstanding person from the point of view of psychiatry.




We can say that in the XIX century, the discovery of the pathological dimension of the psyche of great people was a kind of reflection of the global trend toward the democratization of social life.

The ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity increasingly captured the minds of the masses despite the obvious inconsistency with reality. Can we talk about the equality of creative abilities of a hereditary lumpen from the Parisian suburbs and Leonardo da Vinci? Obviously not.

And then the society, which is obsessed with equality, was given a saving thought by science: yes, Leonardo is not equal to a lumpen, but just as a mentally ill person is not equal to a mentally healthy one.

Thus, the «ordinary» man was given the opportunity to feel the full greatness of his «normality». Let’s agree: it somehow reconciles you with the universal injustice if you can’t play the violin like Paganini, compose music like Mozart, and paint like Raphael.




The first victim of pathography was Socrates, to whom the French scientist and physician Louis Lelut dedicated the work «Socrates’ Demons», which saw the light of day in 1836. The fact is that the nature of his own uniqueness Socrates explained as follows: «It began in my childhood — there is some voice that every time deviates me from what I intend to do». On the normality of Socrates, a no-nonsense scientific dispute stretched over decades and, in general, not resolved to this day, was broken out.

Lelut believed that in the case of the Socratic demon, we are dealing with insanity, which manifested itself in the form of auditory hallucination. But this was only the first of the possible interpretations. Other authors interpreted this demon as a «voice of conscience», as a hoax of a cunning philosopher, as a consequence of epilepsy and even homosexuality.

And the famous Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso, who claimed that the physiognomy of a person reflects his criminal tendencies, believed that the «Socrates’ demon» — nothing else than generated by alcoholism philosopher white fever.

In his book «Genius and Insanity», Lombroso concludes that there is no difference between a genius and a madman at the moment of a seizure.




Thus, Lelut has opened Pandora’s box. The entire cultural and not-so-cultural public was first shocked and later inspired by his discovery. It turns out that genius is not a divine gift received by man from the outside but something that has quite rational and, worse, physiological reasons.

For example, «sensory or perceptual madness», like Socrates. Once Lelut had cracked down on the nature of genius, stripping it of its sacred dimension, the Freudian interpretation was a stone’s throw away.

Although Sigmund Freud’s essay about Leonardo da Vinci is considered a «classic» example of pathological biography, it was not he who coined the term «pathography». Its author is the German neurologist Paul Julius Mobius.

In 1903, he published a monograph where he formulated and developed the concept of a prominent degenerate as a creative personality, linking creativity and mental abnormalities. From the positions of psychopathology and medical psychology, he analyzed the biographies of Goethe, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Schumann, and others.


By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art




But Friedrich Nietzsche and… women suffered the most from the inquisitive German scientist. Nietzsche’s family and the philosopher himself, Mobius, were diagnosed with «softening of the brain» and women — «natural» physiological dementia. Needless to say, how «scientific» was this view of the nature of genius and madness?

The lifetime diagnosis that doctors gave Nietzsche was neurosyphilis. However, the clinical picture was largely inconsistent with this disease, so the search for causes continued. Later psychoanalytic biographies deduced Nietzsche’s madness from his struggle with his own childhood.

Nietzsche lost his father at the age of 4. He was raised by women — his grandmother, mother, sister, and two aunts. Female upbringing caused him a deep crisis of self-identity and an acute complex of male inferiority.

The consequence of mental overstretch was monstrous headaches, attacks of nausea, and loss of vision, identifying himself with a goat and the god Dionysus. But Mobius was not interested in these Freudian subtleties. In his desire to discover the «button» that turned on the madness and genius of the philosopher, he went so far as to open and dissect the skull of Friedrich Nietzsche’s father.




The turning point was Michel Foucault’s «A History of Madness in the Classical Age», which was published in 1961. A dialectical relationship between madness and genius was discovered. It is not exhausted by medical diagnosis but continues life in the cultural and social dimension.

According to Foucault’s thought, by falling into madness, a person «falls into his truth» and loses it at the same time. He believed that Nietzsche endured an «experience of madness» that meaningfully approached «absolute knowledge».

In other words, Nietzsche’s madness is a «code», a kind of message that «normal» thinking is unable to unravel. Thus, madness and genius, if not returned to their divine nature, were at least given a common, irreconcilable mystery.

However, even today, many people believe that the hype around the madness of geniuses is a storm in a glass of water. Yes, pathographies of great people are full of examples of pathological deviations from the norm.

Van Gogh’s severed ear. Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s communication with aliens. Schumann’s schizophrenia, who spoke to the spirits of Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Mozart’s sexual deviations. Vrubel was going insane after painting his «Demon».

This list could easily be supplemented with many dozens of names. But does it prove a direct link between insanity and genius?




First, not all geniuses are insane. Second, most psychiatric patients show no signs of genius. Even such a «king of pathology» as Marquis de Sade, the main sadistic compositions were published during his imprisonment, not after he was recognized as insane.

And yet, according to modern research, geniuses and madmen share one common feature — «cognitive disinhibition», which is expressed in the inability of the mind to get rid of «garbage» — useless things, ideas, and images. It is cognitive disinhibition that is the source of confusion, delusions of all kinds, and… creativity.

«If only you knew from what rubbish poetry grows without shame», confessed one great poetess. Stories of discovery and creation of masterpieces are full of numerous cases when the creative process was triggered by some «nonsense». Like the bath that Archimedes took or the apple that fell on Newton’s head.

So, where is the line between genius and madness? Apparently, only a high level of intelligence and self-reflection can draw it. As Salvador Dali said, «the only difference between me and a madman is that I’m not mad». 


When copying materials, please place an active link to
By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art
Share material

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: