The Virtue of Not Being a Genius

I just read this great quote by Lionel Trilling, writing about George Orwell:

“If we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”

Though Orwell was a Brit, of course, I feel that the “virtue of not being a genius” is one of America’s great virtues. Our nation’s best accomplishments have been achieved by extraordinary ordinary folks remembered much more for their open-hearted devotion and practical creativity than their mental majesty. The Ida B. Wellses and Benjamin Franklins; the Eleanor Roosevelts and Gifford Pinchots in our history weren’t once-in-a-century minds– they were just citizens who had a high estimation of their own significance and an open ear to the challenges calling them.

“He is not a genius,” Trilling wrote of Orwell. “What an encouragement!”

I hope the same for millennial America: that we can be ever better built of, by and for extraordinary ordinary citizens, so that our descendants may say “our ancestors accomplished so much and they were not geniuses… what an encouragement!”

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