Next to originality, the most distinctive characteristic of genius is a right proportion between the productive and regulative forces of the mind. A certain exceptional amount of intellectual vigor being presupposed, what most distinguishes minds of the first from those of a lower order is that due command of their powers which precludes all wildness and excess, and secures for their works the crowning grace of proportion. The mind of man, like the planet he inhabits, and like all the great agencies of nature, is bipolar. It has its positive pole and its negative,—antagonist forces, which, for want of a better designation, we will call Imagination and Reflection. Imagination is the positive force, reflection the negative; imagination creates, reflection limits and defines. The one gives the stuff, the other the form. Imagination, although the most exalted of the intellectual powers, is also the most universal. It is the first faculty which the infant exercises, and the last to become extinct in old age. Its universality is seen in dreams. The clown dreams as well as the poet; and the dreams of either are just as poetic at one time, and just as absurd at another. Dreaming is an act of pure imagination, attesting in all men a creative power which, if it were available in waking, would make every man a Dante or a Shakespeare. Our night-history is a series of poetic compositions, each one of which, however absurd as a whole, contains perhaps some one passage or trait which would make the fortune of a work of art. But though the raw capacity is universal, the trained faculty is peculiar. Out of this unorganized prose imagination the conscious artistic power must develop itself, like the winged bird from the senseless egg. The artist differs from the common man not so much in the amount of mind possessed as in the amount taken up into consciousness. Imagination alone does not constitute genius. There may be an excess of that element, unbalanced by the regulative powers. “Men of unbounded imagination,” says Dryden, “often want the poise of judgment.” In actual life that excess produces, or rather constitutes, insanity,—a phenomenon very similar to that of dreaming. The maniac, like the dreamer, is taken out of his true position in space and time; but the reason of the disturbance is not the same in both. In the maniac the imagination, owing to some morbid action of the brain, overrules the impressions derived through the senses; in the dreamer the predominance of the imagination arises from the torpid state of the sentient organs. The dreamer is a madman quiescent; the madman is a dreamer in action.
In intellectual efforts the excess of imagination over the negative faculty shows itself in overstrained and fantastic productions, in poetic “ambition that o’erleaps its sell.” Phaëton, in the Greek myth, borrows the sun-chariot, but, unable to guide the steeds, is hurried away by them to his own destruction. There are Phaëtons in every walk of life,—men of great capacity and vast ambition, who fail in serious undertakings for lack, as we say, of “judgment,” that is, of negative power. They are carried away by great conceptions which they are unable to manage and bring to successful execution. They have the positive element of genius, imagination, but want reflection,—that reaction of the mind on its own forces which fixes their limits and binds them with law and form. Unlimited force is force without effect. The sun’s rays would be powerless without the refracting and reflecting planets, which oppose their denser spheres to the prodigal efflux. The planets would fly asunder and be dissipated in nebulæ without the centripetal force, which negatives their eager striving for limitless expansion. The vegetable growths of the earth would exhaust themselves in rank excess of leaf and stalk, and never ripen into fruit, were it not for the concentrative power which checks this overgrowth, and, reducing the volume for the sake of the product, collects the luxuriant juices of the plant into edible pulp and marrow. What the centripetal power is to the planet, what concentration is to the plant, that reflection is to the mind,—the power which sets bounds, which corrects and defines, which moulds and perfects and renders available the raw material of imagination.
— Frederick Henry Hedge in his essay “Genius” available in Atheism in Philosophy: and other essays, (Boston, Massachusetts: Roberts Brothers, 1884), p. 364. Cited in part by Tryon Edwards, C. N. Catrevas, & Jonathan Edwards in The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A cyclopedia of quotations from the best authors of the world, both ancient and modern, alphabetically arranged by subjects, (New York: Standard Book Company, 1955), p. 142. Originally published (1877).
"Next to originality, the most distinctive characteristic of genius"