Our English word “talent” has a curious history. It comes from a Greek word, adopted into Latin, meaning, first, a certain weight, and then a certain sum of money (equal to about £240). It gets its English meaning of “ability” or “capacity” from one of Christ’s parables.
In this story, “A man going into another country” entrusted money to his three servants to trade with for him till he returned; “and to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his several ability”. On his return, he called on his servants to give him an account of their employment of his money in his absence. As the different sums of talents were given to each “according to his several ability”, the word “talent” has come to mean ability of various degrees. And, as Trench points out, this word “talent” “abides as a continual memento” that our “talents” were given or rather lent to us by our Master, God, to use for Him. They are a trust or responsibility.
The word “genius” is the Latin name for a tutelary spirit, who was supposed to guard a person or place against evil, or to influence him powerfully for good; hence, man’s “good genius”. From this comes the idea of “genius” as a form of inspiration; as when we speak, of poetic inspiration, and an inspired poet, artist or writer. He is ‘a man of genius”.
Is there any difference between ‘genius” and “talent”? We generally feel that a man of genius is in some way higher than a man of talent; and that talented men are more common than geniuses.
This is true, but it is rather vague. Genius implies “very extraordinary gifts or native powers, especially as displayed in original creation, discovery, expression or achievement; phenomenal capacity regarded as relatively independent of instruction and training”.
Talent, on the other hand, consists of “mental endowments or capacities of superior character; marked mental ability”. “Talent” is more the capacity to learn to do a thing well; but “genius” is an inborn inspiration that drives a man to do a thing with original excellence. As Meredith said, “Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can”.
Shakespeare in drama and poetry, Isaac Newton in science, Napoleon in war, Beethoven in music, were geniuses; many well-known poets, scientists, generals and musicians have been men of talent.