Nautilus

The Common Genius of Lincoln and Einstein

Abraham Lincoln would still be remembered today as a self-taught prairie prodigy and an astute political operator who crushed the Confederate uprising, even without the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the end of slavery. Albert Einstein would still be the most famous physicist of the 20th century, and the author of the most famous equation in history, had he not called on his fellow scientists to address the moral consequences of their discoveries, speaking out against war and nuclear weapons. But both men possessed a quality that went beyond their immense talents in politics and science and elevated them to world-historical stature: an ambiguous but distinctive quality that scientists, historians, and philosophers have begun to call moral genius. By suggesting that morality can, like math or chemistry or musical composition, admit of genius-level contributions, the phrase challenges us to reconsider the nature of genius itself.

Columbia University philosopher Elliot Paul observes that at first glance a great moral leader does not appear “creative” in the same sense as a revolutionary artist or a brilliant scientist. The ideas represented by Lincoln or

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