I am currently enjoying Edward Short’s delightful and learned Newman and His Family , a study of John Henry Newman’s relationships with his parents and siblings, and a sequel to Short’s equally fascinating Newman and His Contemporaries . Protestant to the core of my being, I confess to a longstanding fascination with the life and work of John Henry Newman, a man who seemed to embody so many of the conflicts and contradictions of his age and who, despite his neglect outside of certain Roman Catholic circles, is arguably just as significant a Victorian figure as either Marx or Darwin, given the challenges his writings raised for the modern church. I hope to offer more reflections on the book in the new year but in the interim I will mention one striking aspect of the family story which offers great insights into the different paths that the lives of siblings can take. Such differences can take on a greater significance as they come to represent in miniature decisions and dramas played out in the culture at large.
Francis Newman, one of John’s younger brothers, was a significant intellectual in his own right. A polymath, he served with some distinction as professor at University College, London. Indeed, he and John represented two antithetical responses to the challenges of Victorian Britain: Both found Anglicanism wanting but, while John found his answers in Rome, Francis exalted private conscience and became by turns a Darbyite and then an eccentric kind of Unitarian. He also wrote extensively on what he called ‘the church of the future,’ a kind of philanthropic, non-dogmatic society that would supplant traditional Christianity. It is thus interesting to note a letter from Francis in The Spectator in February, 1873 (curiously misidentified by Short as a co-authored article), advocating suicide and pointing towards euthanasia. It is clear from the letter that the arguments for such have not advanced much in the last 140 years. It is also interesting to note the article which The Spectator offered by way of rejoinder. This is worth reading in full but here is one important paragraph:
If, then, there is to be a duty of suicide, it would surely be a duty by no means exceptional. It would be a duty affecting all who believed themselves to be, on the whole and without remedy, a burden and trouble to their fellow-creatures, instead of a blessing. Indeed, we are clear that if life is not to be regarded as a trust which we have no right to lay down, either merely at our own discretion or only because we think that it is the cause of more pain than pleasure to our fellow-creatures, a totally new and most dangerous class of questions, which might acquire a most serious significance for any nation that entertained them, would at once arise. If there be such a thing, as Professor Newman thinks, as the duty of suicide at all, it is a duty of enormously wide sweep, for it is hardly too much to say that a considerable portion of every population on the globe might have quite as much reason as his aged invalid to think themselves a mere burden on the face of the earth, a cause of irremediable sorrow to others and no cause of joy to themselves. And once let the duty turn on such a doubtful subjective balance of considerations, and where would this stream of apparently inexpensive, but ultimately costly spiritual emigration end? Does Professor Newman think that people would be deterred from suicide by a registrar’s refusal to grant a bene decessit in their case, if they had once got rid, by the help of the law itself, of all scruple as to the morality of self-destruction ?
Reading The Spectator s very fine response, it is clear that the arguments contra have not developed much in the last 140 years either. That is a curious fact and raises the obvious question: If the arguments have not changed, why is it that Francis Newman’s case seems so much more compelling today? The answer is that, of the two brothers, it was Francis, not John, who was the harbinger of the ‘church of the future’ as manifested in the wider mores of a society driven by sentiment, tastefulness, and the concomitant pragmatic and emotive ethics with which we are now sadly all too familiar.