Thinking Aloud: In praise of a new critical edition of Newman’s essays

Andrew Nash, in his exemplary edition of the first volume of the collection for the Millennium Edition of Newman’s works, highlights the deep consistency and consonance of Newman’s thought.

Statue of John Henry Newman, by Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud, outside Brompton Oratory in London. (Image: Another Believer/Wikipedia)

I

When John Henry Newman published his Essays Critical and Historical in 1871, a collection he had written as an Anglican on topics ranging from rationalism and the American Episcopal Church to the liberal Anglican historian Henry Hart Milman and the catholicity of the Anglican Church, the Dublin Review ran a notice of the collection observing how

Fr. Newman speaks very touchingly in his Preface of his past position… that “from various circumstances he has been obliged through so many years to think aloud.” We believe he is one of the extremely few men recorded in history, to whose reputation this circumstance will prove beneficial rather than injurious.

Andrew Nash, in his exemplary edition of the first volume of the collection for the Millennium Edition of Newman’s works, points out that while Newman explained that his motive for publishing the essays was, as he said, “to reduce what is uncatholic in them,” he was nonetheless “far from defensive” about them, since they served, in part, to explain his eventual disillusionment with the Anglican Church. Since his choice to republish was made after his Apologia pro vita sua (1864) had regained him many new Anglican readers, “his strategy behind the republication,” as Nash notes, “was to influence this Anglican audience—to show them, as the Apologia had argued throughout, that his Tractarian principles led him to Rome and therefore should lead other Anglo-Catholics to Rome too.” In this regard, Nash is right to suggest that the essays can be read as an appendix to the Apologia.

Yet, for Nash, what is most remarkable about the essays is “how consonant” they are “with [Newman’s] later Catholic faith;’ indeed, “his critique of… Protestant Christianity… now looks strikingly perceptive, even prophetic;” and the insight they offer into “the consistency of Newman’s principles and the trajectory of their development…” makes them of particular interest now, when Newman is so soon to be canonized.

In republishing the essays, Newman was also sharing with his readers something of the Anglican difficulties with which he had to struggle in order to embrace what he referred to as “the one true fold of the Redeemer.” Once he had sorted these difficulties out and repudiated the Anglican for the Catholic faith, he could reaffirm the objectivity of truth because he had personified it in his own self-sacrificing conversion. This is clear in a letter that he wrote to Mrs. Froude, the wife of the man to whom he dedicated the collection (Hurrell Froude’s brother, William, the sceptical naval engineer), after the last of these Anglican essays had been written in 1844. “Surely,” he wrote, “the continuance of a person who wishes to go right in a wrong system, and not his giving it up, would be that which militated against the objectiveness of Truth—leading to the suspicion that one thing and another were equally pleasing to our Maker, where men are sincere.” In thus allowing himself to be shown thinking aloud, Newman could show that he had acted faithfully on his own long-held conviction, expressed so memorably in the speech he had given on being made a cardinal, that “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another,” a doctrine “inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.”

Nash’s point about the collection confirming the consistency of Newman’s thought is borne out nicely by a passage in the essay entitled Apostolical Tradition (1836), in which Newman reviews a book of letters between an Anglican clergyman and his Unitarian brother. There, he has occasion to observe:

We have said that the common ground, on which these disputants erect their arguments, admits of being used in behalf of error; but we must go further. Their first principle really is inconsistent with there being any certainties in Revelation whatever; for, if nothing is to be held as revealed but what every one perceives to be in Scripture, there is nothing that can be so held, considering that in matter of fact there is no universal agreement as to what Scripture teaches and what it does not teach: and why are one man’s opinions to be ruled by the readings of another? The right which each man has of judging for himself ipso facto deprives him of the right of judging for other inquirers. He is bound to tolerate all other creeds by virtue of the very principle on which he claims to choose his own. Thus ultra-Protestantism infallibly leads to Latitudinarianism.

Of course, this confirms one of the grounds on which Newman took issue with liberalism – its affinity with infidelity – but it is also interesting to note that this passage is not found in the original text, which is content to describe the common ground on which the brothers argued thus:

Both parties acquiesce in the fundamental position that truth of doctrine is to be gained from Scripture by each person for himself; and here lies the πρώτον ψευδος [‘primary misapprehension’] of the controversy, which in consequence becomes a trial of strength between the two individuals…

Here, the gist of the two passages may be the same, but the more detailed rewrite from 1871 is considerably more compelling. Nonetheless, both passages refute those tiresome detractors of Newman, who insist that his opposition to liberalism was neither coherent nor consistent.

II

Like most good writers with something to say close to their hearts, Newman is often autobiographical in these essays, albeit in an oblique way. For example, in his essay entitled “Poetry with reference to Aristotle’s aesthetics” (1828), he praises the poet George Crabbe (a favorite of James Joyce) by calling attention to his Tales of the Hall (1819), which clearly puts the reader in mind of Newman’s fraught relationship with his younger brother Charles, who, although brought up in the same Anglicanism as his brother, went on to embrace the utopian socialism of Robert Owen (1771-1858).

In the writings of [Crabbe] there is much to offend a refined taste; but, at least in the work in question, there is much of a highly poetical cast. It is a representation of the action and reaction of two minds upon each other and upon the world around them. Two brothers of different characters and fortunes, and strangers to each other, meet. Their habits of mind, the formation of those habits by external circumstances, their respective media of judgment, their points of mutual attraction and repulsion, the mental position of each in relation to a variety of trifling phenomena of every-day nature and life, are beautifully developed in a series of tales moulded into a connected narrative. We are tempted to single out the fourth book, which gives an account of the childhood and education of the younger brother, and which for variety of thought as well as fidelity of description is in our judgment beyond praise. The Waverley Novels would afford us specimens of a similar excellence. One striking peculiarity of these tales is the author’s practice of describing a group of characters bearing the same general features of mind, and placed in the same general circumstances; yet so contrasted with each other in minute differences of mental constitution, that each diverges from the common starting-point into a path peculiar to himself. The brotherhood of villains in Kenilworth, of knights in Ivanhoe, and of enthusiasts in Old Mortality, are instances of this.

Apropos this lively foray into literary criticism, Nash observes that it was included in a collection otherwise given over to theological issues because, “For Newman, the poetical and the spiritual are the same thing.” Indeed, in one passage in the essay, Newman says categorically, “With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty—we are bid to colour all things with hues of faith, to see a Divine meaning in every event, and a superhuman tendency.” Certainly, the historian in Newman saw how Gibbon’s inability to enter into this fundamental reality disabled him from writing any reliable history of the rise of Christianity.

For another instance of Newman’s introducing autobiographical sidelights into his texts, readers can consult his essay here on St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50 -98/117), written for the British Critic in January of 1839, which prefigures how the patristic scholar in Newman found the basis for his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) in the writings of the early Fathers. Newman always laid great stress on the need to bring a certain critical sympathy to the study of Christ and His Church. “One serious truth should be kept in view in judging of the Fathers,” he wrote, and that is that “they who come with modern notions will find in them no notions at all,” especially if “they are not willing to discern that their writings are Catholic.” He faults Gibbon severely for lacking this sympathy, even though as a young man he delighted in the historian’s orotund prose. As Nash shows, he also faults himself for misreading the Fathers when he first encountered them. In this regard, his criticism recalls something from one of G.K. Chesterton’s detective stories, “The White Pillars Murder” (1925), in which the shrewd detective Dr. Adrian Hyde observes: “Clumsy eavesdropping must be worse than the blind spying on the blind. You’ve not only got to know what is said, but what is meant. There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”

III

“On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion” (1836), which began life as Tract 73 of the Tracts of the Times is another proof of the long-standing consistency of Newman’s opposition to liberalism. Nash’s textual appendix shows that Newman only revised the very opening of the piece; the rest he left untouched. What he added is a witty swipe not only at Thomas Erskine (1788-1870), the Scottish Episcopalian theologian, whose writings teem with Socinianism, but James Fitzjames Stephen, the skeptical circuit court judge and litterateur, who had descended upon Newman at the Oratory in 1865 after abusing him in Fraser’s Magazine for falling short of what the judge superciliously referred to as the “canon of proof.” Newman’s addition to the opening is worth quoting at length.

That is, I cannot believe anything which I do not understand; therefore, true Christianity consists, not in “submitting in all things to God’s authority,” His written Word, whether it be obscure or not, but in understanding His acts. I must understand a scheme, if the Gospel is to do me any good; and such a scheme is the scheme of salvation. Such is the object of faith, the history of a series of divine actions, and nothing more; nothing more, for everything else is obscure; but this is clear, simple, compact. To preach this, is to preach the Gospel; not to apprehend it, is to be destitute of living faith. Of course I do not deny that Revelation contains a history of God’s mercy to us; who can doubt it? I only say, that while it is this, it is something more also. Again, if by speaking of the Gospel as clear and intelligible, a man means to imply that this is the whole of it, then I answer, No; for it is also deep, and therefore necessarily mysterious. This is too often forgotten.

A passage from this same essay, which Newman left untouched, bears out Nash’s claim that these Anglican essays often tally with Newman’s later Catholic faith. The proponent of the necessary complementarity between faith and reason in Newman may have enriched our understanding of this essential element of Catholic orthodoxy in many of his Catholic writings, but, first, as a conscientious Anglican, he had to disentangle reason from rationalism, a disentangling for which those who wish to dispute the accuracy of Newman’s opposition to liberalism have yet to account. If understanding any complex issue requires making precise distinctions where confusions might arise, no one was ever as adept at this as Newman. Here, one can see the true genius of the man.

As regards Revealed Truth, it is not Rationalism to set about to ascertain, by the exercise of reason, what things are attainable by reason, and what are not; nor, in the absence of an express Revelation, to inquire into the truths of Religion, as they come to us by nature; nor to determine what proofs are necessary for the acceptance of a Revelation, if it be given; nor to reject a Revelation on the plea of insufficient proof; nor, after recognizing it as divine, to investigate the meaning of its declarations, and to interpret its language; nor to use its doctrines, as far as they can be fairly used, in inquiring into its divinity; nor to compare and connect them with our previous knowledge, with a view of making them parts of a whole; nor to bring them into dependence on each other, to trace their mutual relations, and to pursue them to their legitimate issues. This is not Rationalism; but it is Rationalism to accept the Revelation, and then to explain it away; to speak of it as the Word of God, and to treat it as the word of man; to refuse to let it speak for itself; to claim to be told the why and the how of God’s dealings with us, as therein described, and to assign to Him a motive and a scope of our own; to stumble at the partial knowledge which He may give us of them; to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all; to accept one half of what has been told us, and not the other half; to assume that the contents of Revelation are also its proof; to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them, and then to garble, gloss, and colour them, to trim, clip, pare away, and twist them, in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them.

Nash’s gloss on this important essay is perceptive: “Through Abbot [an American Congregationalist with whose rationalism Newman took issue] and Erskine, Newman is in fact fighting a theological battle with opponents nearer home such as R.D. Hampden and others of the Liberal school of theology within the Church of England.” While there were many differences between these two groups – Erskine and Abbott being comparative lone wolfs, while Hampden had the support of liberal Oxford behind him – both men sensibly fled the field after encountering Newman’s polemical artillery, Abbott devoting himself to composing children’s books and Hampden to tending to his garden.

One of the most perceptive – and eloquent – of the pieces here is Newman’s essay on the American Episcopal Church, in which he sought to detect some signs of life at a time when he was beginning to despair of his own highly rarefied form of Anglicanism at home, though what he found was hardly reassuring. “To tell the truth,” he confesses, “we think one special enemy to which the American Church… lies open is the influence of a refined and covert Socinianism.” For Newman, what the Americans wanted, especially those smug, moneyed Americans, who made up the bulk of the Episcopal Church, was a religion “which neither irritates their reason nor interferes with their comfort.” Why?

Severity whether of creed or precept, high mysteries, corrective practices, subjection of whatever kind, whether to a doctrine or to a priest, will be offensive to them. They need nothing to fill the heart, to feed upon, or to live in; they despise enthusiasm, they abhor fanaticism, they persecute bigotry. They want only so much religion as will satisfy their natural perception of the propriety of being religious. Reason teaches them that utter disregard of their Maker is unbecoming, and they determine to be religious, not from love and fear, but from good sense.

Since the character and development of Newman’s principles have been deliberately misrepresented by those who wish to appropriate him and his work to advance the neo-Modernism now undermining the doctrinal, sacramental, moral and liturgical integrity of the Church, Nash’s elegant and discriminating edition will serve as a welcome reminder of the Servant of Truth in Newman.

Modernism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a program of heterodoxy that seeks to conform the Church to the intellectual, moral and social aberrations of the modern world. After Pius X released his encyclical condemning Modernism, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which he delivered on the Nativity of Our Lady in 1907, the Modernists responded by conceding that: “Our religious attitude is ruled by the single wish to be one with Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of the age.” The assiduous efforts of those within the present hierarchy to conform the Church to our own age’s mistaken views on homosexuality and concubinage will give readers a fair understanding of just how Modernist some of the hierarchy have become. When we refer to Newman’s prescience, it is to this that we must ultimately refer, since Modernism, of its essence, is the apotheosis of rationalism.

IV

Since the essay on St Ignatius abounds in arcane references, Nash’s notes are indispensable. Indeed, his annotations throughout the volume are enviably apt, combining as they do learning, precision, succinctness and wit. For example, after quoting a bishop in St. Ignatius’s time saying of heretics, “I warn you against wild beasts in human form, whom you ought not only not to receive, but, if possible, not even to fall in with; only to pray for…,” Newman remarks:

So speaks a bishop of the first century, — “wild beasts in human form;” have not such terms been done into English in the nineteenth by the words of “venerable men,” men of “inoffensive,” “uncontroversial” dispositions?

To which Nash appends the amusing note: “Newman is being ironic; these are the epithets given, by their supporters, to Anglican writers of liberal, unorthodox opinions.” As in his superb edition of Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics (1851), Nash is never unappreciative of Newman’s vigilant satirical sense.

With respect to a passage from Newman’s finely satirical essay on Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91), whose evangelical Methodism still flourishes in England today, Nash shows what a self-deprecatory critic of his former Tractarian allegiances – especially his via media — Newman could be. In his essay, Newman writes of the disciples of the Countess trying to hector their countrymen into subscribing to what became known as “The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion,” a hectoring about which Newman dryly remarks:

Here, if we mistake not, we see the meaning of the style of certain publications [i.e., the writings of the Tractarians], to which the last seven years have given birth, and which have been accused, though more so at first than now, of intemperance and harshness, of repelling people, instead of attracting them. We suspect their writers thought that the very first point to be secured in the controversy, was the inflicting upon all readers that theirs was a whole positive consistent objective system, which had to be mastered, not one which men already partly held and partly not, and from which they might pick and choose as they pleased, but one which they had to approach, study, enter upon, and receive or reject, according to their best judgment. They wished it to be recognized as a creed…

Nash’s gloss on this is marvelous: “Newman knows perfectly well what the writers thought, being one of them himself. His pose of the detached observer is thus ironic.” If Newman’s detractors obsess over what they imagine his penchant for self-vindication, Nash points, instead, to his delicate self-mockery, which was of a piece with his intellectual honesty.

The most well-known of Newman’s detractors, Frank Turner, the confused Yale professor, asserted that Newman only claimed to oppose liberalism to ingratiate himself with Rome’s theological conservatives: his real bète noir was Evangelicalism. Putting aside the derisory inaccuracy of such an assertion, we can see in Newman’s essay on the Countess of Huntingdon that while he might have had certain core objections to Evangelicalism, he had a soft spot for Evangelicals. Of the Countess herself, he says:

Lady Huntingdon… sets Christians of all times an example. She devoted herself, her name, her means, her time, her thoughts, to the cause of Christ. She did not spend her money on herself; she did not allow the homage paid to her rank to remain with herself: she passed these on, and offered them up to Him from whom her gifts came. She acted as one ought to act who considered this life a pilgrimage, not a home,—like some holy nun, or professed ascetic, who had neither hopes nor fears of anything but what was divine and unseen.

Lastly, in his essay, “Prospects of the Anglican Church” (1839), Newman shows with what fair and dispassionate generosity he could view the Oxford Movement after it had begun to fizzle out, another sign of how these essays look forward to the Apologia:

There will ever be a number of persons professing the opinions of a movement party, who talk loudly and strangely, do odd or fierce things, display themselves unnecessarily, and disgust other people; there will be ever those who are too young to be wise, too generous to be cautious, too warm to be sober, or too intellectual to be humble;—of whom human sagacity cannot determine, only the event, and perhaps not even that, whether they feel what they say, or how far: whether they are to be encouraged or discountenanced. Such persons will be very apt to attach themselves to particular persons, to use particular names, to say things merely because others say them, and to act in a party-spirited way… There is no warrant, however, for supposing that the agents themselves in the present revolution of religious sentiment partake in the fault we have been specifying; though, as is natural, it is the fashion to lay it at their door. It has been the fashion; though, in spite of a certain learned dignitary in the North, we hope it is a fashion going out, to accuse them of being simple Dominics, or men who contract their notion of religious truth to a narrow range of words, and would fain burn every one who scruples to accept it.

Nash’s notes here are not only informative but funny. Apropos the “certain dignitary in the North,” he points out, “As the 1839 text reveals, this was George Townsend (1788-1857), low church Anglican divine extremely hostile to the Oxford Movement… Strongly anti-Catholic, in 1850 he had an audience with Pope Pius IX and attempted to convert him to Protestantism.” As for Newman’s reference to ‘Dominics,’ Nash writes: “i.e. like St. Dominic (1170-1221), founder of the Order of Preachers, seen by Protestants as a fanatical heresy hunter.” It is commentary like this that gives Nash’s edition its sparkle.

In May of 1884, when he was 83 and feeling less than spry, Newman told a correspondent: “The weakness and stiffness of my fingers react upon my brain. I have thoughts and forget them, and lose my thread of argument and any vivid impression, before I can write it down. I never could think, never profitably meditate, without my pen and now that I cannot use it freely, I cannot use my mind.” This melancholy state of affairs certainly did not obtain when Newman was writing the brilliant essays that adorn this first volume of Essays Critical and Historical, a thinking aloud made all the more fascinating by Andrew Nash’s smart, incisive, revelatory editing.

Essays Critical and Historical, Volume I
by John Henry Newman
Newman Millennium Edition Volume XIII
Edited by Andrew Nash
Gracewing, 2019
Hardcover, 570 pages


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About Edward Short 17 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

4 Comments

  1. Newman endured opposition from what might be described as ‘suspicion of eloquence’. He was so articulate in both his sermons and in his essays that some of his detractors questioned his sincerity, suggesting that he was all about glib performance.

  2. Always informative articles from Edward Short. Anyone who would hire an Italian Catholic composer Felice Giardini to write Come Thou Almighty King [perhaps the best of all entrance hymns in the English speaking world] for her evangelical movement must have had something quite likable about her. Selina Countess of Huntingdon Methodist proves Christ’s grace is not constrained. Newman had that insight.

  3. Reading Newman’s “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” gives witness to a great mind following The Truth, no matter what the cost.

    Thank you, Father John Henry Newman, a holy father indeed.

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