On January 22, 1991, the Roman phase of an investigatory process into the character and merits of John Henry Newman (1801-1890)-begun formally in 1958 in Birmingham, England-was completed with the decree by Pope John Paul II that Newman "had practiced the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity towards God and his neighbor," as well as "the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude . . . to a heroic degree." Whether Newman will ever be made a saint, however, is an open question, and perhaps somewhat unlikely: he was neither a miracle-worker nor a martyr.
The Pope’s language has a distinctly archaic sound in our deconstructionist atmosphere, suffused with irony about all normative moral language. We live in a Nietzschean time "after virtue" in which, a century after the onset of Nietzsche’s madness, his skeptical "genealogy of morals" has finally penetrated both the thought and the behavior of the educated lay world. Classic normative assertions of virtue and value along with the concomitant distinctions between power and authority, objectivity and subjectivity, reason and passion, the ethical and the aesthetic, human and animal, even heterosexual and homosexual, are less and less frequently and confidently made, being widely seen as atavistic or "logocentric" illusions or screens or tools for self or group interest. Natural law thinking is not so much dead as unintelligible in a time when the apparently rapidly changing scientific conceptualizations of nature seem to exhaust the range of meanings of the very word "natural." Since the 1960s, the attack on authority has been carried on by the acclamation of democratized media-television, radio, films, rock music, glossy magazines, and pulp literature-which so profitably debauch the public. The varieties of liberalism-from left radical to right libertarian-quarrel over the various stretches of contemporary educational, social, and economic terrain, but few would doubt that traditional moral language, ideas, institutions, and habits are under unprecedented attack.
Works about Newman spanning several decades now-including those of Basil Willey, J. M. Cameron, Terence Kenny, Ian Ker, and perhaps most recently Robert Pattison, in The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (1991)-are all agreed in seeing him as a dogged and thorough critic of the faith in an inevitable, collective human progress, which is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the liberal, secular-humanist, or Whig interpretation of history. "Newman’s view of history," Willey wrote in 1949, was not, "like that of most of his contemporaries-progressive; he did not view it as a linear forward movement towards light and truth." Newman, wrote Kenny in 1957, "was violently opposed to any notion of automatic moral progress, achieved almost by passage of time and without enormous personal effort. He was completely at odds with what he took to be the spirit of the times." Cameron argued in 1974 that "The Whig interpretation of English [and by extension, Western] history has not often been challenged, and the neo- Marxian interpretations of our own day are for the most part sophisticated versions of the Whig interpretation"-of which, he argued, Newman was a root-and-branch opponent. To Pattison, a liberal himself, "the only critic in the English-speaking world who approaches Newman’s thorough rejection of the modern spirit is T. S. Eliot"; and he goes on to assert that Newman’s "great dissent" is "arguably the most searching rebuke available to liberalism’s cosmic pretensions, and it stands as an unanswered challenge to liberalism’s most cherished principles."
As early as 1832 Newman himself wrote in a letter that "The country seems to me to be in a dream, being drugged with this fallacious notion of its superiority to other countries and other times." In his prescient critique of optimistic nineteenth-century progressivism, which was to be so catastrophically disproved after the summer of 1914, Newman was one of the few major Western intellectuals of his time to see how delusory and destructive a faith it was, and how fraught with those future ill consequences. Aside from the popes, only a few other figures, such as Jakob Burckhardt and Dostoevsky, saw the issues as clearly as Newman.
In this sense Newman, usually seen as a believer in an age of growing skepticism, might more revealingly be seen as a skeptic in an age of growing belief-belief in the idea of the progress of mankind as a whole. He is a skeptic about the credulous faith that H. R. Trevor-Roper has called "the unwarranted assumption that man only needs freedom from ancient restraints in order to realize his inherent perfection." Whatever Newman’s later problems with ecclesiastical intrigue and authoritarianism, throughout a long life he remained remarkably consistent in his mistrust of the flatteries of liberalism, whether philosophical, political, or religious. "They are Liberals," he wrote of some opponents in an 1831 letter, "and in saying this I conceive I am saying almost as bad of them as can be said of anyone," and he took a satirical pleasure in quoting the "sturdy moralist" Samuel Johnson’s statement that "the first Whig was the devil," who seduced, by flattering, human nature. In his "Biglietto Speech" given in 1879 upon being made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, Newman asserted that "For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion," which "is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth." Of progressives and their bromides he had written in 1852: "They can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment, and their happy conformity in ethical character to the age which admires them." The fierce energy of amoral human willfulness had been historically opposed by Jewish prophets and judges, Christian martyrs and bishops, and even by Roman moralists and administrators at their best, but it was a perennial factor in human behavior, one that could be mitigated, channeled, or sublimated, but never wholly destroyed unless human existence, with its potential for true freedom and dignity, were itself to be destroyed.
Newman saw very early on that the natural law, the belief in an "objective moral order," was organically and inextricably linked to Judeo-Christian theism, that "if there is no God, everything is permitted," in the famous formulation of his contemporary Dostoevsky. The nominalist, antinomian reliance on "private judgment," as alluring as it is contradictory, is satirized by Newman in his 1848 novel Loss and Gain , in the character of Mr. Batts and the "British and Foreign Truth Society," whose two leading dogmas are: "1. It is uncertain whether Truth exists. 2. It is certain that it cannot be found." (Among the Society’s "patrons" are Cicero, Peter Abelard, and Benjamin Franklin.)
Yet for all of Newman’s dogged criticism of liberalism, he remains probably the greatest and most eloquent of all spokesmen for liberal education. Modern thinking on university education, J. M. Cameron observed thirty years ago, is no more than a series of footnotes to Newman’s 1852 The Idea of a University , his classic exposition of the nature, values, virtues-and limitations-of a liberal arts education. Even some of Newman’s great secularizing and liberalizing contemporaries saw in his educational and cultural vision the authoritative antidote to the excesses of their age.
Newman was fearful of both the relativism and the will to power of the anarchic individualism that was the beau ideal of so many of his contemporaries, including Carlyle, Emerson, and Thoreau. In Ian Ker’s magisterial John Henry Newman: A Biography (1988) there are over two dozen quotations of the phrase "private judgment," used by Newman in a pejorative sense. The subsequent "private judgment" of such charismatic moralists as Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler (who called himself an "arch-democrat," and argued in Mein Kampf that "Popularity is always the basis of authority") was in the century after Newman’s death to be carried to catastrophic heights undreamed of in the philosophy of the nineteenth-century "liberators." Perhaps only Nietzsche foresaw-and fitfully applaudedadvent of the post-moral phase of human history that would issue in "the nihilism of the aesthete" (Raymond Aron’s lapidary phrase) that pervades our cultural climate today.
Even such contemporary antagonists of Newman as J. A. Froude showed a wary respect for his view that the liberal humanism of nineteenth- century England, America, and much of Europe was an unstable, transitory phase to something far darker, not the utopian "dawn" so widely expected until World War I. As Robert Blake tells us of Newman’s contemporary Disraeli, the belief in progress and material prosperity "struck no echo" in that statesman’s mind: "’Progress to what and from where?’"
"Our race’s progress and perfectibility is a dream," Newman wrote in 1852. What was wrong-and is wrong-with the faith in progress is that not only is historical change not ipso facto benign, but that without a shared knowledge, understanding, and belief in the Good, "the objective moral order," there can be no coherent, believable, or effective knowledge of how to improve either the self or society. Liberalism of whatever stripe cannot ground ethics, cannot constitute or legitimate a real res publica . Liberal relativists can raise doubts, but not children. "A state is in its very idea a society," Newman wrote in 1853, "and a society is a collection of many individuals made one by their participation in some common possession, and to the extent of that common possession, the presence of that possession held in common constitutes the life, and the loss of it constitutes the dissolution, of a state."
This is the voice and tradition of Burke, himself a proponent of natural law. And like Burke, Newman saw that "progressive," secular rationalism was more likely to lead to the anarchy of competitive self-interest than to common moral effort or utilitarian social progress: "The sentiment of the sacredness in institutions fades away, and the measure of truth or expediency is the private judgment of the individual. An endless variety of opinion is the certain though slow result; no overpowering majority of judgments is found to decide what is good and what is bad; political measures become acts of compromise; and at length the common bond of unity in the state consists in nothing really common, but simply in the unanimous wish of each member of it to secure his own interests." Is there a better brief summary of the effects of Western liberalism and libertarianism over the past two centuries? Authority dissolves; but of course will, appetite, and power do not; the traditional res publica , the labor of long ages, wanes; the so-called "liberated self" waxes.
Newman’s political astuteness was joined to a psychological penetration evident not only in his novels, poems, and letters, but in his sermons and epistemological-theological works as well. The mistrust of subjectivism was based not on an uncritical authoritarianism but on an awareness of almost clairvoyant acuteness of each human self’s ontological density and depth and of its need for the immemorial moral tradition constituted by conscience, "the aboriginal vicar of Christ," as he called it in The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875). Each human self is an abyss of possibilities, for good and ill. In Proper Studies , Aldous Huxley paid tribute to Newman’s "analysis of the psychology of thought," which "remains one of the most acute, as it is certainly the most elegant, which has ever been made." Regulated by the realities of God and conscience, Newman’s fastidious insight and sensitivity never degenerated into the aestheticism that was ascendant during the last third of his life or the subsequent nominalist relativism that pervades our time. A turning point in his life had come in 1827, at age twenty-six, when the brilliantly successful young Oxford don had realized the dangers of fashionable rationalism: "I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral; I was drifting in the direction of the Liberalism of the day" ( Apologia Pro Vita Sua ).
The alluring illusions and pleasures of secular rationalism-its pride, its curiosity, its moral instability, its arrogation of rights without duties, its love of novelty and "originality"-were apparent to Newman from his personal and social experience as an intellectual moving toward the apex of English intellectual life. The intellect had its own proper sphere and its unique excellences-about which no one has written more appreciatively than Newman-but: "Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another . . . . Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles." Second things suffer by being put first. Intellectuals and their admirers persist in taking intellectual virtues-real, good, and valuable in their place-"for what they are not . . . arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. 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" ( The Idea of a University ).
The history of the follies and fanaticisms of intellectuals during and since Newman’s time gives great weight to his argument. As Tocqueville put it in The Old Regime and the French Revolution , "It has been said that the character of the philosophy of the eighteenth century was a sort of adoration of human intellect, an unlimited confidence in its power to transform at will laws, institutions, customs. To be accurate, it must be said that the human intellect which some of these philosophers adored was simply their own." And as for the subsequent modern rationalism, it is a protean phenomenon, taking ever-varying shapes and hues, from the most amoral and corrosive skepticism to the most passionate and dogmatic ideological commitment.
Newman is clearly the lineal descendant of a native British tradition of skepticism about skepticism-the heir of Dryden, Swift, Johnson, and Burke, not to mention the more particular traditions of Patristic and Anglican theology. But his estimate of intellectualism has a powerful contemporary resonance. The historian of Soviet Communism Leonard Schapiro wrote a few years ago that "the judgments on Stalin, if collected, would present such a catalogue of the folly of intellectuals as ought to prevent those of us who claim to belong to this category from ever raising our voices again." The grim stranglehold of tenured contemporary Freudians, Marxists, and Deconstructionists on the humanities departments of American universities as well as on scholarly publications and publishers provides fresh evidence for Newman’s address to his colleagues. "You sit in your easy chairs, you dogmatize in your lecture rooms, you wield your pens; it all looks well on paper: you write exceedingly well." But the proof is in the practice: "Go and carry it all out in the world."
Not surprisingly, the Pope’s language in praising Newman’s heroic practice of the theological and classical virtues is the traditional language of normative moral discourse, a language rooted in the belief in conscience as the essence of the human person. "Habeo conscientiam, ergo humanus sum," goes an old stoic or scholastic maxim: "I have a conscience, therefore I am a human being."
The greatest novelists of Newman’s time saw and depicted the divine reality of conscience as the imago Dei within the human person more clearly and dependably than did most of their secular intellectual contemporaries. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk , Newman wrote that in his lifetime conscience as the normative mark of the human person, and the basis of the only sane and enduring res publica , had "been superseded by a counterfeit," the ultimately anarchic assertion of "the right of self-will," what Nietzsche would glorify as the "will to power" of the boldly post-moral individual. "All through my day," Newman wrote,
there has been a resolute warfare, I had almost said conspiracy, against the rights of conscience, as I have described it. [Learning] and science have been embodied in great institutions in order to put it down. Noble buildings have been reared as fortresses against that spiritual, invisible influence which is too subtle for science . . . . Chairs in Universities have been made the seats of an antagonist tradition.
How much truer has this been in our own century, when great political regimes have been erected to deny and destroy this normative assumption about the human person and his fundamental nature and dignity as a creature participating in a realm of absolute value, and when cosseted and highly paid intellectuals promote "anti-foundational," post-moral discourse from just such Chairs.
Like Jonathan Swift, Newman was a celibate clergyman, an Aristotelian Christian, a great controversialist and satirist, and an intellectual who mistrusted mere intellect and intellectuals as a class. In a famous 1725 letter to Alexander Pope, Swift disputed the definition of the human person as animal rationale and insisted that he should be defined as an animal only rationis capax - capable of reason. This sharply unillusioned perception of the realities of human nature was shared by Newman: "After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal" ( The Tamworth Reading Room ).
Yet Newman was no existentialist, fideist, or irrationalist. "Right reason, that is, Reason rightly exercised, leads the mind to the Catholic faith, and plants it there," he wrote in The Idea of a University, but "Reason, considered as a real agent in the world . . . is far from taking so straight . . . a direction." The real operation of individual selves in the world, he said in the Apologia, is often characterized by "the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect." He goes on to assert that he is not referring to the recta ratio of Scholasticism, the normative sapientia of the Christian tradition, the baptized Aristotle of natural law: "I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man." Like close, orthodox observers of the phenomenology of the human spirit from St. Paul onward, Newman saw that human wit was often lawyer to human will, that reason could easily and plausibly be made to disguise and subserve self-interest. Newman’s view of what it means to be a truly "reasonable being" is, in the words of J. M. Cameron, "not only to employ those capacities to be seen at work in the historian . . . natural scientist . . . and mathematician," but "also to respond to the claims of morality and religion."
It is this precise knowledge of the actual scope, character, and course of human reason, its potential apprehensions of the true and the good, its perennial gravitational pull toward self-interest and self-will, that makes Newman perennially relevant. His voice is his own, but not only his own; his view is his own, but not only his own. The ghostly witness to Christian humanism speaks in an eternal present to each new reader, as only the greatest writers do.
Whether or not Newman deserves to be beatified for his sanctity, he deserves to be read and imitated for his prudence and perceptiveness about divine and human realities. Like Dostoevsky, he saw that if and where there is no God, there is no man. The human person is called into his humanity by the perennial and normative voice of reason and conscience, "a word very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." In Veritatis Splendor , Pope John Paul II recently called Newman "that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience," and he went on to quote his insight that "Conscience has rights because it has duties." It is an unflattering mirror for a "liberated" culture, but a true one.
M. D. Aeschliman’s review essay "The Haunted Mr. Hawthorne" appeared in the January 1993 issue of First Things . He is Director of the Erasmus Institute, Lausanne, Switzerland.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?