Genius is not a rhetorical convention when applied to John Henry Newman, and Ian Ker, the preeminent biographer of this multiple genius, uses select passages of some of the subject’s most important works as evidence that, in the entire history of English letters, he was arguably “the very greatest writer of non-fiction prose in the language.” He cannot be confined to his own century, whose years he virtually spanned (1801–1890), for that would almost satirize him as the “Eminent Victorian” seen through the small lens of the cynical Lytton Strachey. He casts a shadow longer than Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Mill, and Ruskin. As Ker fairly judges, he was “one of those very few Christian thinkers who may be mentioned in the same breath as the Fathers of the Church.” I was taken aback by a headline in the Sun Sentinel of Florida: “Cardinal Gibbons Overpowers Cardinal Newman.” Now, Gibbons of Baltimore had been a champion of Newman in a famous libel case, and hardly one to assault his friend, but apparently the article in question was referring to a volleyball game between two high schools. While Newman is scandalously neglected in our present academe, the stones of many schools around the globe still cry out, at least through their sports teams.
A thousand years from now, two names of the nineteenth century are sure to be remembered as moral giants too large for their own splendid age, and both made their biggest mistake in estimating themselves. Lincoln’s poorest prediction was spoken in a cemetery: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. . .” Newman’s was a response to a suggestion that he might be holy: “Saints are not literary men; they do not love the classics; they do not write Tales.” Today, however, we still revere the Gettysburg Address, and Pope Benedict XVI broke his own precedent by personally beatifying the cardinal. When Newman is canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church, as he almost certainly will be, there will be fulfilled the eulogy preached by the angular Cardinal Manning who loved him more than he liked him: “whether Rome canonizes him or not, he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.”
A mind as inventive and experimental as it was eloquent made Newman suspect to plodding thinkers. Even in routine details, he was adventurous: he liked gadgets, was a violinist of near professional accomplishment, installed one of Oxford’s first shower baths in his own room, and did not cast a cold eye on Darwin, mindful that, as with theology, “science which exceeds its limits falls into error.” He is singular in being the only modern voice cited in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and so he has been called its prophet. Had he not been created a cardinal in his last years by Pope Leo XIII, he would still have been a symbol of unique prodigy. When he received the Red Hat in 1878, Punch magazine flourished: “’Tis the good and grey head that would honor the Hat / Not the Hat that would honor the Head.” The man himself, though, was satisfied by the papal act: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.”
That cloud of suspicion cast by lesser minds was nothing like the other cloud he hymned in one of his most famous poems, “The Pillar of Cloud.” Popularly known as “Lead Kindly Light,” it was recited at the deathbed of the woman for whom the Victorian Age is named, even though she never received the man who had forsaken the Anglican Establishment. If there is anything to regret in Ker’s fine work, it is the absence of some of Newman’s poetry. Most of it was not among his chief arts, but certainly “The Dream of Gerontius” would stand the test even without its musical setting by Elgar. In a kind of apotheosis of the best of the Empire, General Gordon’s annotated copy of “Gerontius” was found with him when he was beheaded by the Mahdi’s hordes in his defense of Khartoum in 1884. This deeply moved Newman, who had been following the course of the Egyptian campaign and kept a news clipping about Gordon on the wall of his room.
Newman’s logic was coruscating in its precision but it was not systematic, chiefly because he was a pragmatic humanist who wrote for immediate purposes, usually having to do with the care of souls, for he was above all a pastor. Of all his works (in addition to dozens of books, there are thirty-one volumes of correspondence yet to be fully published, all written by hand, much of the time by the light of a feeble oil lamp, itself a gift from Gladstone), the “Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent” was the only one written as a pure intellectual exercise. Father Ker may betray an innocent Anglo-Saxon bias by not including the later Catholic sermons by reason of their being “florid and Italianate.” The sermon on “Mental Sufferings” is rightly acknowledged as one of Newman’s “most powerful spiritual pieces,” but it is a great pity not to find the immortal “Second Spring” which is Wordsworth on steroids.
The distinctions between Newman as educator, philosopher, preacher, theologian, and writer are not easy to make as they so easily overlap. For instance, his sermons on “Faith and Reason” are early muses for the “Grammar of Assent.” Excerpts from “Grammar,” which addressed the Empiricism set in motion by Locke and Hume, rightly appear in Ker’s chapters on both philosophy and theology. Newman as historian might well have qualified as another chapter. Many of Ker’s resources had to be gathered anew, since the templates of the Newman corpus were lost in the Blitz.
Inevitably, as with any anthology, each reader will regret a favorite something left out. Happily, the first section deals with education and includes some of the choicest bits from Newman’s “Idea of a University,” which is perhaps the most seminal treatment of education theory since Aristotle. Liberal education, in contradistinction to technical training, cultivates a habit of mind whose attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom. His classic definition of the gentleman as one who “never inflicts pain” has widely been misunderstood, and is in fact a painful satire of the secular man whose outward manners lack the spark of the divine. He anticipates the rootless moralizing (i.e. “political correctness”) of the postmodern mind whose “philosophical Religion” is advanced in technical refinements but inwardly barbaric: “Deformity is its abhorrence; accordingly, since it cannot dissuade men from vice, therefore in order to escape the sight of its deformity, it embellishes it.”
A parishioner of mine in Pennsylvania, who owned the splendid Villa Capponi in Florence, told me that when her first son was born there, she held him by the window and felt sad that he would grow up taking for granted the sun rising over that gorgeous scene, and would never know the thrill she had at seeing it for the first time as a young woman. Likewise, any actor knows the danger of Shakespeare’s greatest soliloquies sounding like clichés. But coming across Newman’s finest lines in context, and not as a list of “quotable quotes,” can stun the reader. Ker says in one of his engaging commentaries, “the hallmark of the saint is not spiritual ardor but the unexpected quality of ‘consistency.’ The sermons are shot through with a sharp realism that can at times be alarming.” That sense of surprise strikes when some of Newman’s most familiar sentences are couched in fuller context:
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.
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Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.
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Basil and Julian were fellow-students at the schools of Athens; and one became the Saint and Doctor of the Church, the other her scoffing and relentless foe.
Newman thought that thought itself was “perhaps music,” and his Apologia, arguably the greatest and certainly the most melodic autobiography in the English language, was written in about the number of days that Handel took to compose Messiah.
To all this, one has to add the ritual complaint that the publisher provides no index. In fairness, an index for such fertile texts would be nearly as long as the book itself. What comes across most evidently is that Newman was to English letters what Cicero was to Latin, without the latter’s domestic inadequacies, and when Newman describes Cicero’s vernacular power in “The Idea of a University,” he is describing himself, as centuries to come will attest: “Neither Livy, nor Tacitus, nor Terence, nor Seneca, nor Pliny, nor Quintilian, is an adequate spokesman for the Imperial City. They write Latin; Cicero writes Roman.”