The Duty of Genius
“[Bertrand Russell:] At last we got on to other topics, and I thought it was all right, but he suddenly stood still and explained that the way we had spent the afternoon was so vile that we ought not to live, or at least he ought not, that nothing is tolerable except producing great works or enjoying those of others, that he has accomplished nothing and never will, etc. – all this with a force that nearly knocks one down. He makes me feel like a bleating lambkin.”
I think that Ludwig Wittgenstein is the single most interesting (secular) individual ever to have lived. Through superlatively creative and rigorous thinking, he sculpted philosophy to his own ends, and there are few subdivisions of the discipline unchanged. He was literally a genius in the strongest sense of the term. Frank Ramsey, an accomplished philosopher in his own right, makes this clear: “We really live in a great time for thinking, with Einstein, Freud and Wittgenstein all alive.” Assuming his ferocious intelligence as a given, Monk has written such a phenomenal work because he has connected the genius of Wittgenstein’s philosophy with his life.
At the age of ten, Wittgenstein constructed a working model of a sewing machine from slabs of wood and wire. He and Hitler were at the same school at the same time. He accidentally helped in the design of certain helicopters before they had first been manufactured. In the First World War, he insisted that he fight where he was most likely to die. He wrote a spelling dictionary for rural primary schools (where he taught maths). He was a gardener for a monastery. His design for his sister’s house was so precise that he forced the builders to re-roof when he discovered that the height of the rooms deviated millimetres from the plan. He gathered disciples at Cambridge and persuaded his students not to pursue academic philosophy. What is most striking is that these examples are not the strangest that I could have chosen.
When he died, his final words were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Heartbreakingly, I think he was lying. Through Monk’s meticulous research into his timeline, one sees that shockingly, his blazing mind was human. All are embodied. We cannot transcend touch. His razor intellect actually serves to clarify the human condition; throughout his painful and flickering life he struggles with, and loses to, sin, questions of identity and morality. Even geniuses are not free from such things. It is alarming that what drove Wittgenstein’s genius is at root what drove 50 Cent’s “get rich or die trying” mentality. One can substitute money for philosophy (or family or happiness or work or…) but the principle is the same. Let us make a name for ourselves.
What else can the Christian learn from Wittgenstein’s life that Monk has brilliantly recorded? Certainly zeal, single-mindedness and rigour in our walk. How much greater is our purpose. But it also stoked a burning for thinking again in me. Outside of the obvious philosophy student, I would recommend this book to those intent on pouring their minds into loving the Lord God and want their drive to be warmed on the fires of genius.