Why Are Similar Minds Clustered in History? Envy, Emulation, Desire

Velleius Paterculus on intellectual clustering, part 2 (History of Rome, I.17)

[part 1 is here]

“Although I often seek explanations for why similar minds cluster in one period and focus on the same pursuit with similar success, I never find any I am sure are true, but only those that seem probable, especially the following. Emulation fosters genius; and then envy, then admiration which motivates imitation. By nature, whatever is sought with the utmost passion advances to the greatest degree. It is difficult to continue from there to perfection; naturally, what cannot proceed recedes.

In this way, at the beginning we are motivated to pursue those who lead before us, but when we have lost hope that we might surpass or equal them, our passion weakens with our hope. What we cannot match, we decline to follow, and we abandon a discipline, because it is thoroughly occupied, in search of a new one. When we have passed over that in which we cannot be exceptional, we look for something else in which we might compete. It follows that the greatest obstacle to achieving perfection is our frequent and fickle change in passions.”


Huius ergo recedentis in suum quodque saeculum ingeniorum similitudinis congregantisque se et in studium par et in emolumentum causas cum saepe requiro, numquam reperio, quas esse veras confidam, sed fortasse veri similes, inter quas has maxime. 6 Alit aemulatio ingenia, et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio imitationem accendit, naturaque quod summo studio petitum est, ascendit in summum difficilisque in perfecto mora est, naturaliterque quod procedere non potest, recedit. 8 Et ut primo ad consequendos quos priores ducimus accendimur, ita ubi aut praeteriri aut aequari eos posse desperavimus, studium cum spe senescit, et quod adsequi non potest, sequi desinit et velut occupatam relinquens materiam quaerit novam, praeteritoque eo, in quo eminere non possumus, aliquid, in quo nitamur, conquirimus, sequiturque ut frequens ac mobilis transitus maximum perfecti operis impedimentum sit.


Earlier, I posted Velleius Paterculus’ contemplation of the clustering of geniuses in specific fields in one era. One does not often associate unparalleled and original thought with this historian, but his consideration of this phenomenon seems pretty unique and somewhat out of place with his brief history.

We don’t really need a Gladwellian just-so explanation to go with his observation. His answer seems rather well-engaged with human psychology as it is. Although he hedges that the explanation he offers is true (quas esse veras) he wins me over in offering what he thinks is likely (sed fortasse veri similes).

Apart from the article I cited from Malcolm Gladwell,  I have the sense that I have read about this phenomenon before, I just can seem to think of the right author or terminology.  Any suggestions?