Congratulations to Madison Michieli for winning second place in our second annual Student Essay Contest. Below is her response to prompt #2.
Against the modern emphasis on truth’s relativity and emotion’s primacy, it is tempting to insist upon philosophic objectivity in the Church—the world has too much subjectivity as it is. Surely, if the truth is one, we can grasp it through reason; or, granted that God himself altogether surpasses our understanding, we can deduce everything we need from revelation’s principles. Yet in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman insists on the necessity of individual experience and weakness of theoretical knowledge in forming religion and morality: “many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a syllogism.” In the context of the larger work, this loving response to dogma, which Newman claims makes martyrs and confessors, is “real assent.” Coming from “peculiar and special” experiences, it is the motive factor for action—a role that theoretical abstractions, or “notional assents,” can never fulfill. Newman’s claim is firmly rooted in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle; it is also given us through the life of the Church. If we are to live fully Christian lives, to the point of shedding our blood, we cannot remain in the realm of intellectual discourse. We must dispose ourselves to the truth through our liturgical actions.
In real assent, according to Newman, the mind “is directed towards things, represented by the impression which they have left on the imagination.” Assent proceeds from our sensory perception, distilled from multiple memories of the same object into experience. Such experience no longer regards purely particular things as do the senses, but rather through intuition finds the universal genus behind them all—indeed, experience is “the universal now stabilized within the soul,” according to Aristotle in Posterior Analytics. When contemplating such universals, the mind thinks directly about what it knows, in the fundamental manner of its knowledge, pondering upon sensations until it assimilates them into general truths. In this is the basis of all proverbs: no matter how trite they sound, we recognize their truth once we have experienced them, known that “it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,” or that “it never rains but it pours.” Such knowledge, though now universal, still remains intimately tied to the realities themselves, not to their distant conclusions.
By contrast, a purely notional assent, such as my conception of the angle between a circle and its tangent or of Keats’ negative capability, consists of the mind’s deduction from a universal. “In its notional assents . . . the mind contemplates its own creations instead of things,” writes Newman, because in them we leave the realm of the immediately knowable. They are not on account of this inherently false; however, since they are the product of a mind incapable of taking all in at a glance, they are necessarily limited in their expression of reality. “Notions are but aspects of things,” and as such vary in their degree of truth, from mere otiose assertions (“Tomorrow will be fair”) to the steady, deliberate assertion of propositions as true (“Every triangle has two right angles”). Yet no matter what their degree of certainty, all notional assents agree in being farther removed from and dependent upon our direct knowledge of the world. Even scientific knowledge, which apprehends a thing exactly as it is in all its causes, depends for its truth entirely upon the primary premises given to it by experience (cf. Posterior Analytics 2.19).
Another caveat: Although experience is the basis of both deduction and belief, we should not assent to a proposition merely because it produces a vivid image in our imagination. If notional assents err in lacking reality’s check, experience can as well. Therefore, for an impression to ascend to the level of Aristotelian intuition or Newman’s assent, it must be true as situated within the entire sphere of truth, not appealing to us only through its brilliance. This being said, without a firm foundation in personal experience, it is still true that our ideas will never have the “force of the concrete” in our souls, which leads to action. “Till we have [real assents],” says Newman, “in spite of a full apprehension and assent in the field of notions, we have no intellectual mooring, and are at the mercy of impulses, fancies, and wandering lights, whether as regards personal conduct, social and political action, or religion.” Because we know our mind’s wavering creations far more imperfectly than we know things themselves, what we understand through experience moves us to act more readily than does that which we only know through deductions. We only love what we know, and we can only act out of love (for the proper object of the will is good.) Thus in Plato’s Republic the aspiring philosophers, although they have firm mental conceptions of solid geometry, music, astronomy, and dozens of other truths, are still at the mercy of the sycophants’ temptations to tyranny. They have not yet fallen in love with the Good through a direct encounter, and so still give ear to petty temptations. However, as soon as they have gazed upon it, they would “prefer ‘to work the earth as the serf to another, one without possessions,’” than to relinquish their knowledge; further, they must return and bring fruit from their experience through actions (cf. Republic 516d, 519e; Odyssey xi.489–90).
In a similar way, without the direct encounter of experience we are at the mercy of whatever “wandering lights” happen to strike us, no matter how detached they may be from the fullness of the truth. Our souls must be anchored in a love analogous to the Platonist’s love of the Form before we have an interior basis for action. With this primary foundation, we can abandon ourselves to the love of something exterior. Returning to our starting point with Newman:
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions. … Many a man will live and die for a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. … After all, man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise.
In this way, our happiness is based on what we directly know and love, since these two guide our actions. We live and die for realities: “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” Our reason assists this, checking one thing against another, but ultimately the will is a rational appetite and we only choose what we desire.
However, if this is the case, then the cynicism of Jane Austen’s Charlotte Lucas would appear correct: “Happiness … is entirely a matter of chance” when so contingent upon the particular experiences of the individual. If our primary knowledge is irreplicable and dependent upon accidents, how can we be sure of assenting to the truth? Surely it is a waste to toss my life away on the peculiar combination of my own experiences—unexpected conversations and mountain-top exhilaration, mixed with periodic headaches and a tablespoon of robin-song at dawn. Such things are unrepeatable, easily misconstrued, and contingent upon thousands of factors. Newman concedes this dilemma, saying that “we cannot make sure, for ourselves and others, of real apprehension and assent, because we have to secure first the images which are their objects, and these are often peculiar and special.” As regards our salvation, this difficulty is especially worrisome: How do we develop the capacity to live and die for love of Christ?
Well, it is just as impossible to ensure happiness as to constrain divine providence, which bestows each day upon us. Nevertheless, we can dispose ourselves to receive both, by removing impediments. As should be clear by now, Plato’s advice to “neglect all other subjects and be most concerned to seek out and to learn those which will enable us to distinguish the good life from the bad in every situation” will do us little good. To walk about endlessly discussing philosophy and theology, like Socrates in the forum, is by no means a bad life, but again it tends toward the purely notional assent. Each of these notions will inevitably fail to capture the fullness of a reality, and so they will continue to crash against each other until they fall into petty paradox. Such is especially the case in theology, where, if we wish to discuss who God is, we can only discuss who he is not—a most unsatisfactory basis for personal love! Still, according to the Republic, “If it’s rightly said that someone loves something, then he mustn’t love one part of it and not another.” We must cultivate our rational theological assents as a preliminary to our full love, even as the budding philosopher-kings cultivated the liberal arts before drinking the Good’s bacchic wine.
What is more essential if we are to shed our blood or “give a reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pet 3:15) is to reach out like Thomas and touch the side of Christ. When the angel appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he did not discuss with her the fittingness of the Resurrection, but rather called out, “Come and see the place where the Lord lay.” To devote our lives to our Lord, we must stoop down and see with our own eyes his folded linens, and place our hands in his wounds. On the literal level, of course, this is impossible. But in the Gospel narratives offer us a middle path between abstract syllogisms and daily intimacy: the mediated experience. “To the devout and spiritual,” Newman writes, “the Divine Word speaks of things, and not merely of notions.” It unites both the universality and particularity of true propositions by relating the singular experiences of others, so that we perceive the things as our own. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and have yet believed” (Jn 20:29), Christ tells Thomas, yet we believe alongside the apostle through hearing his story. We vicariously see the Cross with the eyes of St. John, and say with St. Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt 17:4).
And yet, our experience of such realities does not need to rest only in hearing stories of others’ real assents. We do not need to live beside Christ only imaginatively, through lectio divina; though he blessed those who do not see and have yet believed, he has also given us his Body. Like our real assents, “the liturgy is not a matter of ideas, but of actual things, and of actual things as they now are, not as they were in the past,” according to Sacred Signs, Romano Guardini’s short work on the liturgy. If we can dispose ourselves at all to happiness and contemplation of the truth, it must be through participating in the liturgy which has been handed on to us.
In cruce latebat sola Deitas, at hic latet simul et humanitas: On the cross divinity alone lay hidden, but here likewise hides thy humanity (“Adoro Te Devote”). And yet, we believe in both, seeing them through the Gospel narratives and eating the hidden realities themselves in the Eucharist. Again, to quote Guardini:
It is not liturgical scholarship that is needed—though the two things are not separable—but liturgical education. We need to be shown how, or by some means incited, to see and feel and make the sacred signs ourselves. … Doing is basic; it includes the whole human person with all his creative powers.
Liturgical scholarship, which tends to rely on nuanced timelines and obscure documents for its validity, remains on the purely notional level, whereas a true liturgical education seeks through deeds to reveal its mystery. It addresses the whole man—in his mind (in which he understands what the Sign of the Cross signifies), in his imagination (in which he perceives the crucified Christ), and in his physicality (in which each muscle stretches to bear the passion in his body). Thus, full participation in the sacred liturgy vivifies the abstract doctrine for the individual.
An immersion in liturgy, while not negating the reason, rushes past it to the heart, and gives us a means to understanding.
Rather than yielding to relativistic morality, Newman’s conception of real assent fortifies objective standards while embracing human nature. While it by no means assures salvation or the Christian life, the properly guided assent opens the heart to receive the right impressions. Thus the universal religion of the Church transcends even the goodness of notional theology and lives in the individual heart; and it is only through this means that we can be in any degree sure of falling in love with the truth to give it our real assent.
Madison Michieli grew up in Denver, Colorado and is currently a sophomore at Wyoming Catholic College, where she studies the liberal arts with a special interest in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. In her leisure time, she enjoys hiking in the mountains, reading poetry, and discussing the nature of things over coffee.
This essay was the second place winner of the First Things student essay contest.