Genius Loci

Newman considered it of great importance to create among the students a healthy intellectual atmosphere, which once begun would be carried on by tradition.

‘It is scarcely too much to say that one-half of the education which young people receive is derived from the tradition of the place of education. The genius loci, if I may so speak, is the instructor most readily admitted and most affectionately remembered.’ (Report for the Year 1854–55)

The authorities were unable to create it directly, but they were in a position to foster and influence it.

Newman felt that everything in a long-established institution was influenced by this intangible but all-important power, which he called the genius loci. It has been described as combining ‘in itself the power of discipline with the power of influence, for though its ways were secret and indirect and personal, it had all the authority of law and all the consistency of a living idea’. (The imperial intellect, D. A.  Culler)

Newman’s audience would have been familiar with the concept from the Dublin lecture in which he describes how a youthful community naturally gives birth to a living teaching, which in course of time takes the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition ‘which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow’. It constituted ‘a sort of self-education’, and was clearly visible in the academic institutions of Protestant England.

‘A characteristic tone of thought, a recognized standard of judgment is found in them, which, as developed in the individual who is submitted to it, becomes a twofold source of strength to him, both from the distinct stamp it impresses on his mind, and from the bond of union which it creates between him and others.’ (Idea of a university)

Leaving aside the question of whether the standards and principles of any one particular ethical atmosphere were true or false, there was no disputing that here was a real teaching. Since the Catholic University was starting without the aid of this tradition, Newman deliberated about how to substitute for this ‘invisible teacher’, as well as how to grow it from seed.

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