Should we forgive a genius his sins simply because he is a genius? Kevin Pietersen, a South African who plays in England's cricket side, issued an apology to his English team mates earlier this week from a hotel press conference in Colombo.
It related to "provocative" text messages that he sent to the South Africans he was meant to be playing against in a Test match during the summer. The England and Wales Cricket Board accepts that he said "nothing derogatory" about then captain Andrew Strauss; but so inflammatory was his behaviour that England had to drop him, his international career nearly ended, and he is now embarked on the sort of "reintegration process" usually reserved for ex-offenders.
That he is a genius is clear. Ironically the word "genius" comes from the Latin for "guardian spirit", something Pietersen may be in need of. As a batsman he has been among the most dazzling players in the history of the game, capable of brutally destroying any bowler and timing the ball exquisitely.
But he also appears to have ready access to a professional self-destruct button. Earlier in his career, he left his post as England captain after another falling out. Which brings us back to my opening question.
Being a constant sinner is not a necessary condition of being an exceptional talent. That is, it is possible to have exceptional talent and also be virtuous. Bertrand Russell, though an adulterer, was remarkably decent, and certainly a genius. Albert Einstein was prone to tantrums – aren't we all – but also extraordinary acts of kindness. Rabindranath Tagore was a polymath who reshaped Bengali culture, and devoted countless hours to the poor.
And yet, as Walter Isaacson's magnificent biography of Steve Jobs relates, we often forgive the vices of people with rare talent, preferring to luxuriate in their greatness. This, if you think about it, is a moral failing: just because someone is powerful or talented doesn't mean they operate in a different ethical universe. Genius is no warrant for the suspension of right and wrong.
This is personified in another contemporary batting great, Sachin Tendulkar. The greatest batsman of the modern age, who has scored more runs in Test cricket than anyone else, is a model of virtue. He treats players and officials with decency and charm, campaigns against poverty, and is now an effective politician. He didn't fall out with two captains or send "provocative" text messages. He's a genius and a constant hero.
What's more, he's scored more runs than Pietersen, and actually plays for his country rather than a bunch of gullible foreigners with a stiff upper lip and a vacancy in the batting order.Reuse content