There immediately follows a piece of vintage Newmanian satire. He imagines the division of mind that is bound to arise in Protestants who have become personally acquainted with individual Catholics but who have not yet given up their anti-Catholic stereotypes.
The Birmingham people will say, “Catholics are, doubtless, an infamous set, and not to be trusted, for the Times says so, and Exeter Hall, and the Prime Minister, and the Bishops of the Establishment; and such good authorities cannot be wrong; but somehow an exception must certainly be made for the Catholics of Birmingham . . . . Priests in general are perfect monsters; but here they are certainly unblemished in their lives, and take great pains with their people. Bishops are tyrants, and, as Maria Monk says, cutthroats, always excepting the Bishop of Birmingham, who affects no state or pomp, is simple and unassuming, and always in his work.”
Of course, Newman hopes that the personal influence exercised by Catholics will eliminate this situation by diminishing the Protestant stereotypes; then the dividedness of the Protestant mind would give way to an understanding of Catholicism based on the personal influence of individual Catholics.
Newman himself exercised powerfully the personal influence of which he speaks. At his death in 1890 the Times of London said, speaking in the vein in which so many Protestants spoke as they took leave of Newman, “Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of his pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness, unsoured by any trace of fanaticism, will endure, and that whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.” The writer of these lines is remembering not Newman’s arguments, not his accomplishments, not the institutions he founded, but rather the purity of his personality, which is the main thing that undermines the writer’s anti-Catholic prejudices. One might object that the Times was expressing not local opinion but metropolitan opinion. But when the one exercising personal influence is a personality of Newman’s proportions, metropolitan opinion and local opinion coincide. Newman’s neighborhood had become the whole nation.
Newman’s writings on education show us another aspect of his teaching on personal influence. They also show us personal influence as it exists among friends and not simply as it overcomes enemies. In a paper titled “What Is a University?” Newman discusses the litera scripta , or written word, which has become available in unprecedented abundance in the modern world. He acknowledges that “the inestimable benefit of the litera scripta is that of being a record of truth, and an authority of appeal and an instrument of teaching in the hands of a teacher.” He then continues: “But . . . if we wish to become exact and fully furnished in any branch of knowledge which is diversified and complicated, we must consult the living man and listen to his living voice.” He says that people who are serious about education “avail themselves . . . of the rival method [rival to reading the printed word], the ancient method of oral instruction, of present communication between man and man . . . of the personal influence of a master, and the humble initiation of a disciple.”
In fact, real education is possible without the support of books at all. In a paper on Athens in the age of Plato, Newman writes, “I doubt whether Athens had a library till the reign of Hadrian. It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens.”
We might think that when it comes to religious education, Newman would make more of the litera scripta , which for him is nothing less than the Bible. But consider what he says of religious education:
Its great instrument, or rather organ, has ever been that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher, or, in theological language, Oral Tradition. It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechizes. Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason . . . .
This is said by someone who lived deeply immersed in the Scriptures and whose sermons are full of deep and original meditations on them.
Newman contrasts his ideal of personal influence, not only with the written word and the reading of books, but also with the organization and juridical structure of a university. In another paper, “Discipline and Influence,” he constructs a dialogue with a critic who asserts, “I cannot help thinking that [you] make more of persons than is just, and do not lay stress enough upon order, system, and rule, in conducting a university.” In response Newman acknowledges that order, system, and rule are indeed indispensable for the integrity of a university, but he says that teaching and learning by way of personal influence constitutes the essence of the life of a university, and in this way he asserts the primacy of personal influence.
Some years ago I became embroiled in a debate at my university about a proposal to offer university degrees by means of “distance education.” Courses were to be put on audiotape, and some limited e-mail contact between teacher and student was envisioned. It was only when I went back to these papers of Newman that I realized why I was against the proposal. Distance education in the form proposed would largely block the flow of personal influence. The living presence of a teacher as well as the interpersonal medium constituted by a community of learners would be filtered out; little more than information would pass from the teacher to the student through the audiotapes. The electronically facilitated transmission of information is not education, at least not in the same sense in which teaching and learning on the basis of personal influence is education; it can never enable influence to flow between persons as it does when teachers and learners see each other in the flesh and live in community with each other. Newman would have deplored the proposal on the grounds that it would make for depersonalized, disembodied education.
After being received into the Catholic Church in 1845 Newman surveyed the various religious communities in the Church, looking for the one in which he would feel most at home. He eventually joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and in fact brought the Oratory to England for the first time. In talks given to his brother Oratorians Newman tried to articulate the genius of religious community as lived in the spirit of St. Philip. In one of these Newman goes back to the funeral oration of Pericles, as reported in Thucydides, and in particular to the famous passage in which Pericles contrasts the Athenian and the Spartan. Newman wants to say that the genius of Athens, once it is baptized and made the principle of a religious community, yields the spirit of the Oratory. “The point of the Orator’s [Pericles’] praise of the Athenians is this, that they, unlike the Spartans, have no need of laws, but perform from the force of inward character those great actions which others do from compulsion. Here the Oratorian stands for the Athenian, and the Spartan for the Jesuit.”
This means for Newman that in the Oratory, as in Athens, personal influence has a natural home. As he writes, the “Jesuit fathers are part of a whole, but each Oratorian stands by himself and is a whole, promoting and effecting by his own proper acts the wellbeing of the community.” Newman goes on to explain what he means by “his own proper acts”: “It is the common sense, the delicacy, the sharp observation, the tact of each which keeps the whole in harmony. It is a living principle, call it (in human language) judgment or wisdom or discretion or sense of propriety or moral perception, which takes the place of formal enactment” and of commands and prohibitions.
We find everywhere in Newman this aversion to the Spartan spirit, as found in those who slavishly follow and apply rules that remain external to them, and everywhere this admiration for the Athenian spirit, as found in those who have so internalized rules and laws as to be eminently free in living by them and imaginative and resourceful in connecting them with concrete situations. These latter are alive as persons, they engage others as persons, they give and receive personal influence, while the former act in a passive and mechanical way.
In his great work in religious epistemology, The Grammar of Assent , Newman contrasts formal inference, as found in a demonstration in geometry, with informal inference, as found in discerning the upshot of a complex body of concrete evidence. As an example of the latter, he mentions the way in which someone who really knows the Latin classics and the culture out of which they grew also knows that they could not have been forgeries of the medieval monks who copied them. No demonstration more geometrico is available to this person; he cannot force his reasoning on some willful colleague who insists on the hypothesis of forgeries; he cannot prove deductively the absolute impossibility of a medieval monk composing the Aeneid . And yet he reasons no less than the geometrician does, and no less successfully, even if in his own nondeductive, informal way.
What particularly fascinates Newman about informal reasoning is the highly personal way in which one reasons. In reasoning formally I tend to disappear behind some structure of argument, which even has a certain existence outside of my reasoning and which in a way does the work of reasoning for me, whereas in reasoning informally it is preeminently I who reason. I take responsibility for my informal reasoning in a way that is not necessary when I rely on forms of deductive proof. Reasoning informally “is a personal gift, and not a mere method or calculus . . . . It is seated in the mind of the individual, who is thus his own law, his own teacher, and his own judge in those special cases of duty which are personal to him.” It follows that “the personality of the parties reasoning is an important element in proving propositions in concrete matter.” What Newman wants to defend is simply the Athenian principle of spontaneity as transferred from the conduct of social life to the activity of reasoning. What he objects to is the Spartan principle of compulsion that appears in the intellectual life as an over-reliance on formal demonstration.
Consider how the master of informal inference will address others. I who reason in this personal way also challenge my interlocutor to the same personal engagement. If the other is going to agree with me, he will not be “indolently borne along” to the conclusion that I argue for, he will not be effortlessly transported to the conclusion ex opere operato ; no, he will have to stir up all the resourcefulness in himself of which he is capable and make the same investment of himself in the reasons that I have made.
Shortly after Newman entered the Catholic Church, he was asked by someone to give a brief account of his reasons for taking this step; he responded in a memorable letter with well-founded impatience:
I do not know how to do justice to my reasons for becoming a Catholic in ever so many words”but if I attempted to do so in few, and that in print, I should wantonly expose myself and my cause to the hasty and prejudiced criticisms of opponents. This I will not do. People shall not say, “We have now got his reasons, and know their worth.” No, you have not got them, you cannot get them, except at the cost of some portion of the trouble I have been at myself. You cannot buy them for a crown piece . . . . You must consent to think . . . . Moral proofs are grown into, not learned by heart.
Newman here challenges his critics to exert themselves as persons and not to hide behind a show of reasons and arguments that is really an escape from thinking. Those who rise to Newman’s challenge and really think with him about the Catholic claims are liable not only to contract an intellectual debt to him but also to be personally influenced by him.
Informal reasoning is so connected with the individual that each person will do it differently, even as each is a different person. Here is a well-known passage in which Newman strives to harmonize the universal validity of all truth with the highly personal path to truth that persons take when they reason informally.
I begin with expressing a sentiment, which is habitually in my thoughts whenever they are turned to the subject of mental or moral science . . . viz., that in these provinces of inquiry egotism is true modesty. In religious inquiry each of us can speak only for himself, and for himself he has a right to speak. His own experiences are enough for himself, but he cannot speak for others: he cannot lay down the law . . . .
He proceeds to acknowledge the unicity and universality of truth, saying, “He knows what has satisfied and satisfies himself; if it satisfies him, it is likely to satisfy others; if, as he believes and is sure, it is true, it will approve itself to others also, for there is but one truth.” But then he reaffirms the “egotism” that he takes to be true modesty, saying, “However, his own business is to speak for himself.”
Newman’s practice illustrates his personalist ideal of modesty. In his many writings he never claims for his conclusions “an acceptance or a scientific approval which is not to be found anywhere,” but he prefers to state “what are personally his own grounds for his belief.” This is part of the reason why Newman is so present in all that he writes. Our natural interest in the personal and the autobiographical makes us take a particular interest in his writings. Of course, it is not that Newman thinks his teachings are mere opinions, or that they are only “true for him”; nor is it that he is content to let mere autobiography substitute for real arguments. No, he thinks that every right-thinking person will agree with him. But he does not want to coerce you into agreeing with him; he wants to draw you in by personal influence.
Let us examine more closely Newman’s power of making himself present in his writings. Whoever reads Newman with sympathy and understanding cannot fail to be fascinated by the way he lives in his writings and speaks to his readers through them. If we think of St. Thomas Aquinas we right away notice the contrast to Newman. St. Thomas remains hidden behind the issues of which he treats; he practices a sober objectivity whereby he keeps his person out of his discourse; he wants to yield entirely to the truth that he serves and to let it speak for itself after he has presented it. But Newman serves truth in a different way; in addition to speaking the truth, Newman is also present in his words as a witness to truth. The reader not only finds penetrating arguments and telling rebuttals, he also finds Newman solemnly bearing witness. And if the reader is deeply influenced by Newman, the experience of Newman’s witness is always a large factor in that influence.
Now there are many different ways of departing from the sobriety and objectivity of a St. Thomas. Many people do not let their reasons simply speak for themselves but they put themselves into their discourse in all kinds of often disagreeable ways. But Newman’s witnessing is authentic, real, and utterly convincing. Perhaps this is because it is free of any “bad faith.” That is, Newman never suppresses the difficulties he feels in making his commitments, he never pretends that it is easier to believe than it is, he never “makes a case” that he is not himself willing to live by. He never shuts his eyes to the scandal of unavenged evil in the world, to signs of historical conditioning in the Church, to awkward gaps in the evidence for Church claims, to ambiguities in the character of some saint. Julian Huxley once said he could produce a primer of unbelief out of the writings of Newman. He is referring to all the passages in which Newman expresses empathetic understanding for unbelievers and for their view of the world. Of course these passages never stand alone, apart from Newman’s response to unbelief and his own ardent affirmation of faith. If Newman lives personally in his writings in an exceptional way, it is in part because of this unconditional truthfulness.
In mentioning Newman’s unusual capacity for understanding unbelievers we touch upon another aspect of his power of exercising personal influence. I refer to his almost preternatural capacity for sympathy with other persons. I will let a Protestant contemporary of Newman who heard him preach describe this power:
A sermon of Mr. Newman’s enters into all our feelings, ideas, modes of viewing things. He wonderfully realizes a state of mind, enters into a difficulty, a temptation, a disappointment, a grief . . . . To take the first instance that happens to occur to us . . . we have often been struck by the keen way in which he enters into a regular tradesman’s vice”avarice . . . . This is not a temper to which we can imagine Mr. Newman ever having felt in his own mind even the temptation; but he understands it, and the temptation to it, as perfectly as any merchant could. Nay, he enters deeply into what even skepticism has to say for itself; he puts himself into the infidel’s state of mind, in which the world, as a great fact, seems to give the lie to all religions . . . and he goes down into that lowest abyss and bottom of things, at which the intellect undercuts spiritual truth altogether. He sets before persons their own feelings with such truth of detail, such natural expressive touches, that they seem not to be ordinary states of mind which everybody has, but very peculiar ones; for he and the reader seem to be the only two persons in the world that have them in common. Here is the point. Persons look into Mr. Newman’s sermons and see their own thoughts in them.
Perhaps we can explain this sympathetic power of Newman’s like this. It is possible to write about avarice and infidelity in an “objective” way, characterizing the essence of these vices, bringing in their opposites for contrast, and so forth. When this objective approach is successful, the reader says, “Yes, that’s just the way it is with these vices, congratulations to the author for getting them right. Now I can think more clearly about them.” But the reader feels no particular bond of sympathy between himself and such an author. Yet Newman’s talk about the same vices has a “subjective” ring, for he is trying to understand these vices in himself , to understand how he himself has these vices, or vices similar to them, or at least has the full potential for having them, and so to understand what it is like to be subject to them. This is what creates the bond of sympathy with the readers who are struggling with these vices. They receive from Newman not only intellectual clarification about their sin but also the immeasurable personal benefit of being visited in their solitude by Newman, who shares with them his secret and thereby reveals to them their own secret.
In a sermon Newman ascribes to St. Paul just this “gift of sympathy.” Newman writes, “Human nature, the common nature of the whole race of Adam, spoke in him, acted in him, with an energetical presence, with a sort of bodily fulness . . . . And the consequence is that, having the nature of man so strong within him, he is able to enter into human nature, and to sympathize with it, with a gift peculiarly his own.” This is also the way it is with Newman; for all the solitariness of his inner life, he too possessed the capacity to associate himself with others to the point of speaking of them and himself as one. Sometimes Newman acknowledged his gift of sympathy, as when he chose for his cardinal’s motto cor ad cor loquitur , heart speaks to heart.
We can enter more deeply into Newman’s theory and practice of personal influence if we consider his power of realizing the concrete and of awakening in others what he called a real assent . Newman loved the specific individual and in fact he sometimes verges on extreme nominalism in his affirmation of the individual. He is always warning against universals and their tendency to drain the concreteness out of things. He is always leading his readers and listeners beyond mere notional assent, or purely intellectual assent, and towards real assent, which he also called imaginative assent, and sometimes also experiential assent”an assent born of the encounter with the world in all its concrete reality.
Newman had a definite pastoral reason for his fascination with real assent. He realized that we human beings are so constituted as to be moved to action much more through the imagination than through the intellect. If our apprehension of the world is mediated too much by universals and general notions, we are left in the position of spectators. But the more we apprehend the world and other persons in their concreteness, the more engaged we become with them, the more capable of acting towards them, and so the more we live as persons. Thus in one well-known passage he says that
deductions have no power of persuasion. The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.
Take the fact that I will one day die. I can assent to this either notionally or really. If notionally, then I assent above all to the fact that everyone dies, and I include myself in the mortality of all human beings. But if I give a real assent to my death, then I experience myself not just as a logical part of “everyone” but almost as if I were the only human being; I experience my death as something of supreme concern to me personally. Then my assent shakes me to the roots of my being, “piercing the heart” and raising my personal existence to an intense pitch, whereas, in contrast, the notional assent leaves me unmoved, almost as if I were just a spectator of my own future death.
We have here, then, another reason for Newman’s uncanny power of exercising personal influence in his sermons. If he had spoken more abstractly and had aimed mainly at mediating universal knowledge, he would disappear from his words, and his influence on us would be only intellectual, not personal. In fact, his influence is highly personal because he has this rare gift of affecting us with the concrete reality of God and the soul. As we realize truth in a new way under his influence, we come alive as persons in a new way.
Newman could never warm to the God of the philosophers. He kept his distance from the traditional cosmological arguments for the existence of God. He did not deny their validity or their legitimate place in the Church, but he said that they “do not warm me and enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice.” He was instead at home with the God of religious men and women, the living God, the God who calls you and me by name, who reveals Himself, who acts unpredictably. And the reason is clear: the living God affected Newman’s imagination and touched his heart and in this way elicited from him a profound real assent.
The metaphysical necessities of the natural theologian tend to block the view of the living, personal God, who reveals Himself not just in what He necessarily is but also in what He unpredictably does. In one early sermon Newman exults in the fact that Christianity discloses to us not a divine principle but a Divine Agent. “Here, then, Revelation meets us with simple and distinct facts and actions , not with painful inductions from existing phenomena, not with generalized laws or metaphysical conjectures, but with Jesus and the Resurrection.” These are just the kinds of facts and actions that awaken a real assent and affect the imagination. By eliciting the sight and sound of them in us readers Newman can do what he could never do with rational proofs—namely, take away the winter of our desolation and make our moral being rejoice.
At this point some readers who had begun with some sympathy for Newman’s personalism may object that Newman is guilty of subjectivism, of making too much of religious feeling and experience. By putting himself into his discourse and declining to make strong universal claims, he ends being more concerned with religious experience than with the truth about God. Education needs more law and order than Newman allows, so does religious life, and so does our activity of reasoning. Newman seems to assert the personal at the expense of organization, authority, objectivity, universality.
To this line of criticism, one can only respond: everything the critic is looking for can be found in abundance in Newman. Newman makes as strong an argument for authority and objectivity in religion as he does for the principle of personality. In fact, the first thing I grasped years ago about Newman was his opposition to religious subjectivism and to theological liberalism; only much later did I begin to do justice to his principle of personality. Indeed, many admirers of Newman think of him mainly in terms of his antiliberalism.
Newman was passionately committed to what he called “the dogmatical principle,” which he memorably expresses in the following:
That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature . . . that it is to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or rejection is inscribed—this is the dogmatical princple.
Here Newman is concerned not with our imaginative grasp of truth, not with the barrenness of a merely notional grasp of it, but with truth’s sovereignty.
One cannot even begin to understand Newman without grasping the depth of his commitment to this principle, which was absolutely central to all of his thought and to his whole life’s work. Consider its place in his conversion, which he underwent at the age of fifteen. He tells us that he was drifting towards unbelief, when a powerful experience of God overcame him, which he describes in the following terms: “I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.” Newman almost describes his conversion as his discovery of the dogmatical principle.
This attachment to dogmatic truth continued through his early thirties, when he began to lead the Oxford Movement of reform in the Church of England. In the Apologia , in the course of explaining the three foundational commitments of the movement, he writes, “First was the principle of dogma: my battle was with liberalism; by liberalism I meant the antidogmatic principle and its developments. This was the first point on which I was certain.” In another place he explains more fully the liberalism that he so abominated. Liberalism teaches
that truth and falsehood in religion are but matters of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing . . . .
And when towards the end of his career he surveyed his life’s work he frequently explained its unity in terms of the defense of the dogmatical principle. In 1879, for instance, he said in Rome on the occasion of his being elevated to the cardinalate: “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.”
There are also other principles of Newman’s religion that protect him from subjectivism. From the beginning of the Oxford Movement he was wedded with his whole being to the idea of a visible church with its divinely ordained structures; he laid particulýr stress on the “sacramental system” and on “episcopal authority.” To see just how seriously Newman took these matters one has only to recall the years of intellectual and spiritual agony that preceded his reception into the Catholic Church. Newman never had anything to do with that religious inwardness that would escape from history and dwell alone with God. Nor was his love of the Athenian spirit ever developed in an antiauthoritarian way.
Thus the turn to the personal and the subjective in Newman had nothing to do with subjectivism. Newman’s “principle of personality” coheres entirely with his “dogmatical principle.” In fact, these two principles enrich and perfect each other. As we have seen, Newman gives witness by the way he personally lives in his writings; this belongs to the subjective side of Newman. But what he witnesses to is nothing other than the dogmatical principle and the whole creed of the Church. We have seen as well that he leads us to realize concretely revealed truth, and this too belongs to his subjective side. But in doing this he leads us to venerate truth better by the very fact of apprehending it, not only in a purely intellectual way, but with the full engagement of the whole person.
Edward Sillem, editor of The Philosophical Notebook of John Henry Newman (1970), aptly summarized the man and his significance when he concluded that Newman “stands at the threshold of the new age as a Christian Socrates, the pioneer of a new philosophy of the individual person and personal life.”
John F. Crosby is Professor of Philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
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?