On Birthdays

by Charlie Huenemann


a family genius, flanked by two other celebrating guardian deities (from UTexas)

“A genius is a god under whose protection each person lives from the moment of his birth.” This is the opinion of Censorinus, a Roman rhetorician of the third century CE. Censorinus tells us that our birthday celebrations are not really about us. Instead, they are banquets of gratitude for our spiritual guardians, or the beings known by the Romans as geniuses. Everybody has one: they are the spirits who make sure we are born, that we survive, that we are protected, and that we flourish. Censorinus writes that our genius “has been appointed to be so constant a watcher over us that he never goes away from us even for a second, but is our constant companion from the moment we are taken from our mother's womb to the last days of our life.” As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observes, this makes every birth in fact a double birth – one for us, and one for our guardian genius.

These Roman geniuses are not unique to humans. They also watch over animals, places, households, and even ritualized celebrations like the original Olympics. Exactly how to count them up is hard to say, since each genius is usually one among many different aspects of a god, another face that is shown to a newcomer. And as each god has multiple faces or concerns, each face serves as a different genius for different occasions – as guardians of individuals, their homes, their marriages, their savings, their harvests, and so on. But set the counting issue aside. On our birthdays, according to Censorinus, we are to show particular gratitude to our own genius, the one who has brought us safe thus far:

A Genius is a god under whose protection each person lives from the moment of his birth. Whether it is because he makes sure we get generated, or he is generated with us, or he takes us up and protects us once we are generated, in any case, it is clear he is called our “Gen-ius” from “gen-eration.”… And so we offer special sacrifice to our Genius every year throughout our lives….

This notion of genius is precisely the one to have in mind when we read Emerson: “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.” In calling upon “whim,” he's certainly not writing about dodging family responsibilities when he feels like waxing philosophical. He is writing about being under another's guidance, like experiencing a kind of demonic possession – though in Emerson's case the demon is reliably good-natured.

His genius takes hold of him, inspires him, and enthuses him. (“Enthusiasm” is another underestimated word; when Emerson claims that “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” he wasn't talking about the power of positive thinking!) His “lintels of the door-post” reference recalls Exodus 12:23, where the Jews are instructed to smear blood on their door-posts to protect themselves from the Lord's slaughter of the Egyptians. In Emerson's case, whim is the guardian that will protect him from being lost to the rapacious demands of everyday trivialities. He will open himself up to the wild guidance of his genius and entrust his protection to that divine spirit.

Meanwhile – back on earth – birthdays are for us episodes of joyous self-indulgence. We receive presents, a special meal, a cake, and our friends and family sing a congratulatory hymn to us. “Good for you!” our celebrants are saying to us. “You have completed another solar orbit!” But it is surely true that we do not deserve all or even most of the credit for this accomplishment. We have had the support of others, both known and unknown to us, and we have had a decent share of Luck – perhaps the only genius we commonly call to mind anymore in a spirit of gratitude.

There is something powerful in believing – even if only as make-believe – that there is some invisible entity watching over us and guiding us in our development. It preserves us and calls us to purposes that are utterly unknown to Luck, since Luck really does not care what happens, one way or another. “My genius works to preserve me so that I may go on to do something interesting,” we might say to ourselves on our special day. “I am very grateful for this allowance, and each year I will make my gratitude known by hosting a banquet in honor of my genius.” And then we shall turn to our pals and say, “Please, my friends, no gifts for me; simply join me in pouring some unmixed wine upon the earth. Then we shall feast, and see who can pin the tail on the donkey!”

Nietzsche was writing of Censorinian genius when he wrote of our higher selves:

Let the young soul look back upon its life with the question: what have you up to now truly loved, what attracted your soul, what dominated it while simultaneously making it happy? Place this series of revered objects before you, and perhaps their nature and their sequence will reveal to you a law, the fundamental law of your authentic self. Compare these objects, observe how one completes, expands, surpasses, transfigures the others, how they form a stepladder on which until now you have climbed up to yourself; for your true being does not lie deeply hidden within you, but rather immeasurably higher above you, or at least above what you commonly take to be your ego.

Nietzsche in this essay was writing to praise great teachers, the ones who help us to realize that we are indeed more than we thought we were. But each great teacher is only a Socratic midwife, one who helps us to give birth to our future self. These great teachers awaken us to our genius – which is the only spirit capable of transforming a sequence of haphazard events into something with a point.

With such sentiments, a birthday passes from a minor celebration of good fortune to an occasion of calling to mind an obligation you have to your own genius: to make each year's survival not only “happy,” but worth it.