Chapter 1. His Genuineness and Greatness

{1} IT is a strange and not a discreditable characteristic of the days in which we live, that, in spite of the ardour with which the English people have devoted themselves to material progress and the scientific studies which have ministered to material progress, one man at least has been held to be truly great by the nation, who has crossed all its prejudices and calmly ignored all its prepossessions; who has lived more than half his life in what Protestants at least would call a monastery,—for his home at Littlemore as well as at Edgbaston was more than half monastic;—who has loved penance, who has always held up the ascetic life to admiration, who has haunted our imaginations with his mild and gentle yet austere figure, with his strong preference even for superstition as compared with shallow, optimistic sentiment; and has impressed upon us even more by his practice than by his teaching, that "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are {2} not of the Father but of the world." Cardinal Newman has not been the more popular for being a Cardinal, but the Church of Rome has certainly been less unpopular in England since a man of such plain and simple life as he, was ranked among the princes of the Roman Catholic Church.

I suppose that one may safely regard it as a standard of true greatness to surpass other men of the same calibre of culture and character, men with whom comparison is reasonable, in the ardour and success with which any purpose worthy of the highest endeavour is prosecuted. Measuring by this standard, it would be hard to fix on any man now living in England who could rival Cardinal Newman in the singleness, the devotion, the steadfastness, and the nobility of his main effort in life. I say this, though I cannot adopt for myself his later conception of the Church of Christ, hardly even that earlier conception which led so inevitably to the later. But that is nothing to the purpose. What is perfectly clear to any one who can appreciate Cardinal Newman at all, is that from the beginning to the end of his career he has been penetrated by a fervent love of God, a fervent gratitude for the Christian revelation, and a steadfast resolve to devote the whole force of a singularly powerful and even intense character to the endeavour to promote the conversion of his fellow-countrymen, from their tepid and unreal profession of Christianity to a new and profound faith in it,—which new and profound faith in it could, in his belief, be gained only by the reorganization of the Christian Church, and its re-enthronement in a position of authority even greater than that which it held in the middle ages. I know that this conception of Cardinal Newman {3} as having devoted a singularly large and apprehensive intellect to the pure purpose of re-Christianizing a half-Christian, or less than half-Christian, people, is not frankly accepted by some of his keenest critics. Professor Huxley, for instance, has said quite lately [Note 1], "If I were called upon to compile a Primer of Infidelity, I think I should save myself trouble by making a selection from these works" (namely, Cardinal Newman's Tract 85 in the Tracts for the Times, and the Essay on the Miracles recorded in the Ecclesiastical History of the Early Ages)," and from the Essay on Development, by the same author." I do not suppose that Professor Huxley meant to suggest that these essays of Dr. Newman were written with the intention of undermining belief, though he thinks them so admirably adapted for that purpose. But unquestionably there is a very wide-spread suspicion, which I suppose Professor Huxley shares, that Cardinal Newman has all through his life been on the very brink of infidelity, and only saved from it by the deliberate exercise of a strong and sturdy will to believe. For my part, I utterly reject this view, and do not think that it can for a moment be held by any one who carefully studies and appreciates his career,—which very few of his critics do, Professor Huxley least of all, as he shows by his astoundingly unintelligent criticism of a very significant and very just passage from the Essay on Miracles, which almost immediately follows this observation on the sceptical tendency of Dr. Newman's writings. To my apprehension, the true theory of Dr. Newman's attitude of mind through a long life is the passage in his Apologia {4} pro vit‚ su‚ (so often quoted unintelligently by Roman Catholics who have never really discriminated between difficulties and doubts), in which Newman said, that "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate;" [Note 2] and which he illustrated by adding, "Of all points of faith, the being of a God is to my own apprehension encompassed with most difficulty, and borne in on our minds with most power." It might as well be said, that because a man sees with the most vivid and minute apprehension the difficulty of answering the necessitarian arguments against responsibility and free will, or the difficulty of proving the existence of any external world, he doubts the existence of his own responsibility and free will,—though nothing else in the world is so certain to him, not even the existence of the external world itself,—as that Cardinal Newman's subtle and individual appreciation of the various strong points of the sceptic's position, implies any inclination to doubt the truth, and not only the truth, but the certainty of the Christian revelation.

It is true, of course, that the greater part of Cardinal Newman's life has been given to the discussion of the question how such difficulties as beset the revealed Christian theology ought to be met. He himself has told us that he began the study of this class of difficulties quite in his boyhood by reading Paine and David Hume, and it is evident that no one ever entered into these difficulties with more genuine insight—into what they really prove and what they are really worth. It is just the same with a much more imposing class of {5} difficulties, the difficulties caused by the spectacle of the world's worldliness, misery, and sin. In the celebrated passage in the Apologia which has been so often quoted, the passage in which Dr. Newman contrasts the moral scenery of the actual world with that which he should have expected from his knowledge of the Creator, whose holiness is to him the deepest of all certainties—a certainty on a level with the certainty of his own existence—he shows the same profound apprehension of the obstacles with which the Christian theology has to grapple, and the same absolute confidence that, however incompetent it is to solve these difficulties, it can and will triumphantly surmount them. This is what makes Cardinal Newman a really great man. His whole life has been lived in the passionate confidence that these great, these apparently appalling difficulties, are not only not really insuperable, but are infinitely less than those which any man would encounter who, dealing honestly with his own conscience, should yet give up as false the belief in the Divine origin of the world and the Divine character of Christianity. He has treated the difficulties of faith in his own way, and I cannot but think, in relation to that considerable class of them for the treatment of which he relies absolutely on the authority of the Church, in a very unsatisfactory way; but he has never in the least ignored them, and he has devoted extraordinary learning, genius, and ardour of nature, through a long life, with the most perfect singleness of purpose, to the battle with them. If any man ever succeeded in anything, Cardinal Newman has succeeded in convincing all those who study his career with an approach to candour and discrimination, that the depth and luminousness {6} of his conviction that the true key to the enigma of life is God's revelation of Himself in Christ and in His Church, are infinitely deeper in him, and more of the intimate essence of his mind and heart, than his appreciation, keen as it is, of the obstacles which stand in the way of those convictions and appear to bar the access to them.

Now if the greatness of a man depends, as I have said, chiefly on the ardour and energy which he devotes to adequate objects, Cardinal Newman's life has certainly been a very great one. There are two lines of Wordsworth's—whose poetry, strange to say, never "found" Dr. Newman, though there is so much in his writings that seems like a paraphrase of some of Wordsworth's finest poetry—which delineate exactly the labour and strenuousness of the thinking aspects of his life—

"The intellectual power through words and things
Went sounding on a dim and perilous way."

This does not express that vividness of his faith in Divine guidance, that exultation in the wisdom and spiritual instinct of his Church, which has furnished him with his confidence, and guaranteed his success, but does exactly express the procedure of his intellect, as he has taken exact measure of the depths of the various channels by which he might safely travel to "the haven where he would be," the care with which he has buoyed the quicksands and the sunken rocks, and the anxious vigilance with which he has traced out the winding and often perilous passages in the way. But how this aspect of his mind, how the results of his arduous, intellectual explorations which he has so fully and frankly given to the world, can have concealed {7} from any man of large insight, the profound and passionate conviction which lay beneath all this delicate intellectual appreciation of difficulties, I cannot for a moment understand. The very terms in which Dr. Newman states his apprehension of the difficulties imply the most unhesitating confidence that these difficulties will vanish utterly away when viewed in the full light of the Christian revelation. Take the very first sermon of which there is any record amongst Dr. Newman's printed writings, one preached in Oxford in January, 1825, and entitled Temporal Advantages, when he can only have been twenty-four years of age, from the text, "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out; and having food and raiment, let us be therewith content," and consider if it be possible that that sermon could have been written by a man who did not feel to the full depth of his heart and soul the reality and power of the Christian faith: "What can increase their peace who believe and trust in the Son of God? Shall we add a drop to the ocean, or grains to the sand of the sea? ... It is in this sense that the Gospel of Christ is a leveller of ranks; we pay indeed our superiors full reverence, and with cheerfulness, as unto the Lord; and we honour eminent talents as deserving admiration and reward; and the more readily act we thus because these are little things to pay." [Note 3] Here the utterly unworldly nature of the man, the vivid spiritual feeling that the inward life in God is everything of the smallest consequence to the soul, spoke out plainly, and at a time when Dr. Newman had not reached anything like the full maturity of his power. {8} From that date onwards the vividness of his spiritual insight grew steadily, till it reached its highest point, and was recognized generally by the world when he wrote his religious autobiography in 1864. Writing of his own boyhood, when he was only just a man, he said of himself; "I used to wish that the Arabian tales were true; my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers and talismans; I thought life might be a dream and I an angel, and all this world a deception, my fellow-angels hiding themselves from me, and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world." And in the sermon on "The mind of little children" [Note 4] he speaks professedly from his own experience when he says, "This we know full well—we know it from our own recollections of ourselves and our experience of children—that there is in the infant soul, in the fresh years of its regenerate state, a discernment of the unseen world in the things that are seen, a realization of what is sovereign and adorable, and an incredulity and ignorance about what is transient and changeable, which mark it as the first outline of the matured Christian, when weaned from things temporal, and living in the intimate conviction of the Divine presence."

I quote these passages only to show how completely the spiritual reality of the Oxford preacher had its roots in his own past, how certain it is that Newman was speaking from the depths of his own experience when he said, that from a very early age he had rested "in the thought of two, and two only, supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator." It is simply ridiculous for any one who knows intimately {9} the whole series of his writings to suppose for a moment that Newman's nature is sceptical, and his mind kept only by force of will from toppling over into unbelief. On the contrary, his nature is profoundly and entirely penetrated by the Christian idealism. And had it been otherwise, I believe that he would have been much more likely to ignore the sceptical aspects of the religious problems of the day altogether, instead of giving them so profound a study. It was his absolute confidence that nothing could shake his faith in the truth of revelation that induced him to master so completely as he did the various aspects of the objections which led so many men to withhold their faith from Christianity. This then I regard as one certain test of Cardinal Newman's greatness, that throughout a long life he has followed with singular tenacity and concentration of purpose one grand aim—that of winning his fellow-countrymen from their tepid and formal Christianity to a Christianity worthy of the name, in spite of obstacles in the way which he has recognized with a candour and a vivacity that have strangely misled some of his critics into imagining that he appreciated even more the obstacles to belief than he did the spiritual power by which those obstacles were to be surmounted.

A second safe test of greatness is to be found in the unhesitating and unswerving consecration of great genius or talent—genius or talent of a calibre sufficient to detach a man from his original pursuit, and to secure him distinguished success in a different field of effort,—to the disinterested purpose with which he set out in life. It would be difficult to find a clearer case of this than is presented by Cardinal Newman's career. His literary power has been so great, and has shown itself {10} in a style of such singular grace and charm, as well as in irony of such delicacy and vivacity, that the highest literary eminence was easily within his reach, had he cared to win it, long before his name was actually known to the world at large; and he would have been a great power in literature had he cared to devote himself to literature in the wider sense, before the Oxford movement had begun to cause anxiety in the Established Church. But power of this kind is precisely what he never coveted, or indeed, in his earlier years, was so much as conscious of his ability to attain. It must have been some time before it dawned upon him that he had any such power at all. Perhaps when in the early part of 1833 Hurrell Froude and he chose at Rome a motto for the Lyra Apostolica from the words of Achilles when returning to the battle, of which the drift was, "You shall know the difference now that I am back again," he had some inkling of his literary genius, as well as of his force of character. But I think that the motto in question had much more reference then to his zeal than to his literary genius; and assuredly up to that time—when his history of the Arian heresy had not yet appeared—he seems to have shown no sort of consciousness of literary power, and to have hardly aimed, in his more serious work, at anything like literary form. The history of the Arian heresy is a very clear and accurate but a very homely, not to say dry, theological discussion. And for the next thirteen years at least, that is, from the thirty-second to the forty-fifth year of his life, it was only in a few short poems, and a few of the later University sermons, that he betrayed his strange mastery of literary effect.

All his many publications during this period of his life {11} are remarkable for a severe and business-like treatment of the theological subjects with which he dealt, It was not indeed till after he became a Roman Catholic that Dr. Newman's literary genius showed itself adequately in his prose writings, and not till twenty years after he became a Roman Catholic that his unique poem was written. The verses in the Lyra Apostolica are almost the only early evidence of his rare and vivid imagination. And as to that keen and searching irony of which he was afterwards a master, there was little trace of it till after he had nearly completed his fiftieth year. Now it is a striking test of his true greatness, that these great literary gifts should have remained in him all but latent for so long a period, and yet not quite latent, for they must have revealed themselves partially to himself in the remarkable though brief poems of which he wrote so many during his Mediterranean tour in 1883. What it shows is, that he really lost himself in his work of restoring, as he thought, the Church of England, and, as it proved, of convincing himself and a good many of his friends that the only true Church was the Church of Rome. But what was strictly speaking missionary work absorbed him so completely between 1883 and 1845 that he seems to have had neither time nor care for the development of his own literary powers, which he used almost without noticing them, and never used at all to the full till after he had found his goal in Rome. Yet the man who had shown such exquisite and almost ∆schylean genius as is betrayed in his poem on The Elements, and the weird analogy which he drew between the Jewish people and the Greek Œdipus in the Lyra Apostolica, cannot possibly have been quite ignorant {12} that there was in him a rich vein of literary power if he had only chosen to turn aside from his self-appointed task of restoring authority to the Anglican Church, to cultivate and exert it. I do not know any better test of true devotion to a mission than Dr. Newman showed in pouring out the Tracts for the Times, the lectures on Justification, or the essays elaborating the Via Media, as he called it, and the various and numerous contributions to Anglican divinity, with unremitting zeal, and without apparently the slightest regard for popular literary effect,—and this too for a long period of years,—after he had discerned in himself the power to write as he wrote in such poems as these:—

THE ELEMENTS (A Tragic Chorus).
Man is permitted much
To scan and learn
In Nature's frame;
Till he well-nigh can tame
Brute mischiefs, and can touch
Invisible things, and turn
All warring ills to purposes of good.
Thus as a God below, he can control,
And harmonize what seems amiss to flow
As severed from the whole
And dimly understood.

But o'er the elements
One Hand alone,
One Hand has sway.
What influence day by day
In straiter belt prevents
The impious Ocean, thrown
Alternate o'er the ever-sounding shore?
Or who has eye to trace
How the Plague came?
Forerun the doublings of the Tempest's race?
Or the Air's weight and flame
On a set scale explore?
{13}

Thus God has willed
That man, when fully skilled,
Still gropes in twilight dim;
Encompassed all his hours
By fearfullest powers
Inflexible to him;
That so he may discern
His feebleness,
And e'en for earth's success
To Him in wisdom turn,
Who holds for us the keys of either home,
Earth and the world to come. 

Yet I doubt if anything as powerful as that could have been written under any other than a strictly religious inspiration. At all events, there is no sign in Newman's career of the general exercise of high imagination for any other than a strictly religious purpose. It seems to have been elicited in him by his religious aims, and never to have been elicited by any other kind of aim. Would not ∆schylus himself, if he had lived again in our generation, have been proud to have written the following on the Jewish race?—

"O piteous race!
Fearful to look upon;
Once standing in high place,
Heaven's eldest son.
O aged blind,
Unvenerable! as thou fittest by,
I liken thee to him in pagan song,
In thy gaunt majesty,
The vagrant king, of haughty-purposed mind,
Whom prayer nor plague could bend;
Wronged at the cost of him who did the wrong,
Accursed himself, but in his cursing strong,
And honoured in his end."

There seems something appropriate in the fact, that the man who wrote these poems, and many like them {14} in his youth, should yet never have sought, or apparently have so much as thought of seeking, to cultivate his literary faculty for its own sake at all, but should have re-discovered it, as it were, from time to time, just when it was most needed for the main purpose of his life. His power of irony came out, for instance, for the first time in its full strength in the Lectures on Anglican Difficulties, and subsequently again in his Lectures on Catholicism in England, but assumed perhaps its most exquisite form in the short conversation in which he summed up the drift of his controversy with Mr. Kingsley on the supposed countenance which he had given to the view that cunning, and not truth, is the proper weapon of the Roman Catholic Church in her dealings with the world. But in spite of his singular command of imaginative eloquence, of the most rare and delicate pathos, and of a satire finer at once in its point and in its reserve than any satire of this generation, Cardinal Newman has never apparently felt the slightest disposition or desire to use these great gifts in any cause at all except that to which he has dedicated his whole life; and the finest bit of irony which he ever penned he suppressed in later editions of his work. Indeed, widely read as he is in general literature, there are probably fewer references to that literature in Cardinal Newman's writings (if we except perhaps the lectures on The Idea of a University, where such references were almost essential), than in those of any third-rate or fourth-rate theologian of his day. Perhaps the only glimpse which the English world has had of his purely literary tastes has been in the interest he has taken in adapting the plays of Terence for the acting of the boys of his Edgbaston school, and the skill with {15} which he has trained them to perform their parts on that little classical stage. But that was a mere fragment of his duties as head of a Roman Catholic school, in the administration of which he was concerned to show that the lighter play of children's minds was not to be neglected. For the most part, the long series of his works show very little trace indeed of the deep interest he takes in general literature, so completely has he subordinated all his thoughts and cares to the one great purpose of his life, and so averse has he been to allow himself to be even apparently diverted from the more serious of his tasks. I think there is hardly any other instance in our literature of so definite and remarkable a literary genius being entirely devoted, and devoted with the full ardour of a brooding imagination, to the service of revealed religion. For it has been definitely revealed religion, and no mere philosophy of religion, which has absorbed Cardinal Newman's attention from his earliest youth to his latest age. He has indeed thought much and subtly on the philosophy of faith, as a long series of his Oxford sermons, and the volume entitled The Grammar of Assent, sufficiently show. But with him the philosophy of faith has been purely subordinate to laying the foundation of faith in Christian doctrine and dogma, and not in one of those thin, speculative substitutes for a Christian creed which have so often been in vogue among rationalistic mystics. Whether tried then by the test of the nobility, intensity, and steadfastness of his work, or by the test of the greatness of the powers which have been consecrated to that work, Cardinal Newman has been one of the greatest of our modern great men.

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Notes

1. In the Nineteenth Century for June, 1889; note on p. 948.
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2. Apologia, p. 374.
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3. Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. vii. p. 73.
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4. Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. ii., Sermon vi.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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