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The Ideas of St. John Henry Newman (Part 1)

Often when books rise to the level of “classics,” the author supports the conversation around their book with their own life and legacy. This is especially true in the case of St. John Henry Newman. At Notre Dame Press, we are proud to have published over twelve different works by Newman, spanning his entire journey from Anglican priest to Catholic cardinal.

In celebration of our 75th anniversary, we want to highlight St. John Henry Newman and his contribution to theology, in particular his focus on Catholic higher education. Newman was a leading figure in both the Church of England and, after his conversion, the Roman Catholic Church. He was known as “The Father of the Second Vatican Council” and was a prolific writer throughout his life, writing essays, sermon notes, even poems and novels. Canonized as a Saint in 2019, this is his fifth year of sainthood.

One of his pinnacle works is The Idea of a University, an “eloquent defense of a liberal education which is perhaps the most timeless of all [Newman’s] books and certainly the one most intellectually accessible to readers of every religious faith and of none,” in the words of introduction author Martin J. Svaglic. Below we have an excerpt from Svaglic’s introduction, explaining the important impact of Newman and his work.

Although the reputation of John Henry Newman as one of the great masters of English prose has never been seriously questioned and is perhaps higher today than ever, it is a reputation which has come to rest, for the average cultivated reader, on two above all of his more than forty volumes: on the Apologia pro Vita Sua, in which, to vindicate his good character, he gives a dramatic and poignant account of his journey from Evangelicalism through the Anglo-Catholicism of the Oxford Movement to the Roman Catholic Church; and on The Idea of a University, that eloquent defense of a liberal education which is perhaps the most timeless of all his books and certainly the one most intellectually accessible to readers of every religious faith and of none.

There must be few American collegians, surely, who do not, thanks to their freshman readers or their literature survey books, connect Newman at least hazily with the affirmation that knowledge is capable of being its own end or that a gentleman is one who never willingly inflicts pain. But only one who has read The Idea of a University in its entirety, especially the nine discourses, can hope to understand why its reputation is so high: why the first reading of this book has been called an “epoch” in the life of a college man; why Walter Pater thought it “the perfect handling of a theory”; why the historian G. M. Young has ranked it with Aristotle’s Ethics among the most valuable of all works on the aim of Education; or why Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch told his students at Cambridge that “of all the books written in these hundred years there is perhaps none you can more profitably thumb and ponder.”

To be sure, Sir Arthur gave his advice more than forty years ago; but in the United States, at least, where in the last few decades the aims of higher education have been the object of such intense critical scrutiny, there is good reason for thinking that it may seem more pertinent today than ever. And since the place of religion in education has recently become a matter of pressing concern in some of our leading universities and we have seen Catholic and Protestant scholars sit down together to discuss “the Christian idea of education,” it may even come to pass that Newman’s discourses on theology will receive more attentive consideration than many educators have hitherto been disposed to accord them. When Newman wrote The Idea of a University, higher education was in the early stages of its long trend toward secularism, on the one hand, and toward utilitarian specialization, on the other. While it would be untrue to say that these trends have since been reversed, they have at least been seriously challenged and partially checked; and those who have striven so hard to restore a balance to American education may find renewed inspiration in The Idea of a University, now that our country’s need for the specialist in science has posed a new threat to their humanistic aims.

In an age when, as Newman was frank to admit, the aristocracy of intellect was clearly on the side of unbelief, when “Hebrew old clothes” did indeed seem passe and the task of the religious thinker had more and more come to be viewed in Carlyle’s terms as the embodiment of the spirit of the old religion in a new “Mythus,” Newman gradually emerged as the chief defender in Victorian England of traditional Christianity: i.e., of a revealed religion established by Christ and imposing on its adherents a definite and essentially unchangeable set of credenda. Though his quest for the center of Christian authority took him in 1845 to Rome, he felt that in going there he was not so much breaking with as developing both his Evangelical and his AngloCatholic heritage; and when in 1879 Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal of the Roman Church, Newman epitomized his whole life’s work as a battle against “liberalism,” as he defined the term in his acceptance speech: the view that there was no substantive truth in religion, which was largely a matter of sentiment or feeling concerning which, therefore, one man’s opinion was pretty much as good as another’s. 

As both tutor at Oriel, the most intellectually active college at Oxford in the 1820’s, and minister of the Church of England, Newman was chiefly concerned with educating thinking men fit for the world whose lives were informed by Christian ideals and whose faith was held on better grounds than simple prejudice. Essentially this was the same ideal he was later to embody in The Idea of a University. In the wake of Gibbon, Hume, and the Enlightenment, however, and in face of the rising Biblical criticism, it was indeed a formidable task; and though his own faith was strong, Newman was too well acquainted with the problems of unbelievers (T. H. Huxley once claimed he could draw up a primer of infidelity from Newman’s writings) to dismiss them airily or to suppose that a pre-Humian, Deistically inspired apologetic could resist the solvent that threatened to destroy formal Christianity and to drive the intellect of the day into a rootless and paralyzing skepticism. What a thinking man was he had learned from his own rather frustrating experience as a Trinity undergraduate, from the intellectuals or “Noetics” of the Oriel Common Room, and from Aristotle: he was a man of informed intelligence who knew “the relative disposition of things.” This view he was to express once and for all in The Idea of a University. How such a man could be kept faithful in the nineteenth century to formal Christianity, however, was a thornier problem which engaged him from youth to age—from the University Sermons to A Grammar of Assent—and led to his most distinctive contribution to religious thought.

(excerpted from Svaglic’s introduction)

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