The Guardian Spirit And The Idea Of “Genii”

Most of us are familiar with the idea of the “patron saint” in Christianity.  The doctrine is even found in some branches of Islam.  It is a  comforting thing to believe that there is someone out there watching over us, and protecting us in an hour of need.  I never used to give this idea much serious thought until recent years.  But the idea predates Christianity; it was absorbed into Christianity from beliefs that came before it.  The idea of the “guardian spirit” was a commonly-accepted one in the late classical world, as this passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reveals:

For the theologians maintain that there are associated with all men at their birth, but without interference with the established course of destiny, certain divinities of that sort, as directors of their conduct; but they have been seen by only a very few, whom their manifold merits have raised to eminence.  And this oracles and writers of distinction have shown; among the latter is also the comic poet Menander, in whom we read these two senarii [verses]:

A daemon is assigned to every man

At birth, to be the leader of his life.

Likewise from the immortal poems of Homer we are given to understand that it was not the gods of heaven that spoke with brave men, and stood by them or aided them as they fought, but that guardian spirits attended them; and through reliance upon their special support, it is said, that Pythagoras, Socrates, and Numa Pompilius became famous; also the earlier Scipio, and (as some believe) Marius and Octavianus, who first had the title of Augustus conferred on him, and Hermes Trismegistus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Plotinus, who ventured to discourse on this mystic theme, and to present a profound discussion of the question by what elements these spirits are linked with men’s souls, and taking them to their bosoms, as it were, protect them (as long as possible) and give them higher instruction, if they perceive that they are pure and kept from the pollution of sin through association with an immaculate body. [XXI.14; trans. by J.C. Rolfe]

Notice that Ammianus draws a distinction between the “guardian spirit” and the soul of the individual.  The two are not the same thing.  In the Roman religion there was something called the genius:  an attendant spirit that each man possessed, and that accompanied him throughout his life.  St. Augustine specifically equated it with the Christian concept of the soul:

It is he, then, with whom is the dominion of all sowings. What is Genius? He is the god who is set over, and has the power of begetting, all things. Who else than the world do they believe to have this power, to which it has been said:

Almighty Jove, progenitor and mother?

And when in another place he says that Genius is the rational soul of every one, and therefore exists separately in each individual, but that the corresponding soul of the world is God, he just comes back to this same thing — namely, that the soul of the world itself is to be held to be, as it were, the universal genius. This, therefore, is what he calls Jupiter. For if every genius is a god, and the soul of every man a genius, it follows that the soul of every man is a god. But if very absurdity compels even these theologists themselves to shrink from this, it remains that they call that genius god by special and pre-eminent distinction, whom they call the soul of the world, and therefore Jupiter. [City of God VII.13; trans. by Cath. Encyclop.]

It is important to remember that the word genius is a Latin word, not an English one; its plural form is genii.  We should not be confused by the fact that an English word has an identical spelling.  The Latin genius has nothing whatsoever to do with superior intelligence or anything of that sort.  It is a religious and spiritual term.  But what is the connection between a guardian spirit and an individual man’s genius?  As the passage from Ammianus above suggests, it appears that the guardian spirit nurtures and protects each man’s individual soul, guiding it along the right path in life, and helping it to reach a higher state of perfection.  This makes sense in the context in which the passage appears.  Ammianus is describing the elevation of the emperor Julian to the throne upon the sudden death of his cousin Constantius.  The historian hints that the incident is the fulfillment of the intentions of Julian’s guiding spirit.

I suppose the next question would be this:  how do we find our guardian spirit, or know what it will be?  Or can it even be found?  I am not sure about the answer to this question.  I can only rely on my own intuition and what I have read on these subjects (which is often ambiguous and contradictory).  But I suspect that a guardian spirit cannot be sought out; it seeks you, and reveals itself to you, rather than the other way around.  This to me has the ring of truth.  In my life, I have been through enough hazards, scrapes, and dangers to feel comfortable with the idea of a guardian spirit watching over me.  Whether this is “literally true” I neither know nor care to know.  It matters only that the paradigm helps me make sense of some past experiences.

Now I know there are readers who will smile at what they believe to be superstitious relics that have no bearing on their modern lives.  I suppose there are many who will see all of this as a comfortable delusion.  Maybe they are right; but for my part I find it useful to explore the different ways that man has expressed his innermost thoughts on Fate, destiny, and the soul, even if some of those ideas run counter to accepted modern “orthodoxy.”  Sometimes great wisdom is hidden in unexpected places.  Beyond this, man needs creative ways of wrapping his mind around abstract concepts; metaphysics and religion sometimes need to be tethered to comprehensible reality.

Which paradigm we choose to describe the world is entirely up to us; and there is nothing wrong with believing two different things at the same time.  Reality has many facets, many sides, and many faces.


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