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The “Genius” of Chesterton and Newman – Fr. George W. Rutler


March 16, 2014

by Fr. George W. Rutler

In classical Latin culture, a Genius was a guiding spirit given to individuals from birth (gignere), enabling them to have special insights. It can be confused with ingenium, a power from within, not one that is endowed from without. From the latter we get words like ingenious and engine. An engine is not a Genius, nor does Genius exactly mean today what it originally meant. The shift from having a genius to being a genius was gradual. Milton speaks of genius as we know it in his Eikonoklastes. With the idealization of reason in the eighteenth century, talk spread of the genius of mankind and of men who were geniuses. But if there ever were geniuses in that age—take Newton—they did not think of themselves as such. Newton thanked God for his calculations. Mozart did not describe himself as other than a craftsman, rather as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta called herself a pencil in the hand of God, and unlike the brooding spirit of Beethoven, to whom people doffed their hats, giving birth to the Romantic Age. I confess to bias when I say it reached degenerate heights with Wagner’s “beautiful moments but awful quarter hours.”

Two geniuses, if you will, to whom I tip my hat in respect are Newman and Chesterton. But they would be amused should anyone imply that their gifts were inborn and not given. Chesterton knew that people ran the danger of the foundational sin for all other sins, which is Pride. He said that he became a Catholic in order to get rid of his sins. He had no doubt about what caused the Fall of Man because evidence was all around him: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christianity which can really be proven.” Chesterton roared with laughter at himself, while Newman would rather smile. Chesterton was like a big bass drum while Newman was more like a violin, but neither had pretensions to being anything other than made from clay into which God had breathed life. Newman warned against the veneration of “knowledge for its own sake” because it substitutes specimens of mental brilliance for holiness, “arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.” Then came his warning spoken to intellectuals in one of his lectures on the proper idea of a university: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.” In our day, you do not have to try to quarry granite with razors or moor a vessel with a thread of silk to know what he meant.

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