A Primer on Newman's Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated

By Edward Jeremy Miller
Published in Education
March 21, 2024
32 min read
A Primer on Newman's <em>Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated</em>

Over the years, John Henry Newman’s famous book on the nature of a university, referred to simply as Idea, has invited observations from many writers, as indeed it did even during his lifetime. This essay identifies and locates in it those well-phrased remarks he makes, some of which having acquired wide familiarity. To this end, I will reference Idea often, using the pagination of the Uniform Edition.1

Origin of the Book

In 1845, the British government established the secular Queen’s University in Ireland to provide an alternative to the Anglican-based Trinity College Dublin with the hopes of enticing Catholic undergraduates to join Protestant youths. The government opened campuses in Belfast, Cork, and Galway. (In the Roman Catholic parlance of that day, both Queens Colleges and Trinity College itself were considered mixed education because Catholic youth would mix with non-Catholics in attending them.) Under pressure from the Vatican, the Irish bishops at the Synod of Thurles (1850) prohibited matriculation at Queen’s colleges, though some Irish bishops and many Catholic laity had been favorably disposed to them because they were non-sectarian. The Vatican enjoined the bishops to establish a Catholic University in Ireland, modelled on Louvain, and a funding drive was begun by Archbishop Cullen of Dublin in 1851. Cullen, who first met Newman in Rome in 1847 when Newman was preparing for ordination as a Catholic priest, wrote him in April of 1851, inviting him to lecture in Dublin on education in general and “against Mixed Education” in particular, as Newman observed in his journal.2 In a subsequent personal visit to Newman in Birmingham during the summer of 1851, Cullen offered him the job of rector of the new university, which Newman later, and with misgivings, accepted.3

Newman first conceived a trilogy of lectures, but the scheme grew into five public lectures in Dublin, which he offered in the spring of 1852.4 Later that summer and autumn in Birmingham, Newman wrote five more discourses, and these ten discourses were published at year’s end as Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, addressed to the Catholics of Dublin.5 After Newman was formally installed as rector on 4 June 1854, he gave occasional lectures at the University over the next four years. These lectures as well as some articles he wrote for the school newspaper, The Catholic University Gazette, were brought together as “Lectures and Essays on University Subjects” and published as a companion volume to the 1859 edition of those 1852 discourses; Newman deleted his original fifth discourse because he feared it went against the thinking of the pope.6 In 1873 he brought both segments into one volume, calling it The Idea of a University defined and illustrated. Minor changes were made up until his last edition of 1889, and this is the Uniform Edition text now known as Idea.7

Newman wrote other essays for that university newspaper which are often overlooked by investigators, yet they are very important for concretely illustrating his conception of a university. He published these articles in 1856 under the title of Office and Work of Universities, and they are now tucked away in the third volume of his Historical Sketches. In addition to all of these “textual materials,” one needs to be aware of Newman’s pertinent correspondence and of various memoranda he wrote about the Dublin university venture.8 Consider them complements to this Primer on Idea.

Newman on Education: The Testimony of Idea

What aim lay behind Newman’s educational writings? There is no single fundamental objective. Newman had different audiences and goals in mind, and this fact invites confusion as he moves, both rhetorically and argumentatively, between goals. For example, many claim somewhat too readily that Newman wanted fundamentally to justify the place of theology in the curriculum. That goal, I am convinced, was a secondary preoccupation. Newman surely had a primary concern to urge the value of Catholic education, “unmixed education” as he called it, since some of the Irish bishops and many of the laity saw no harm in the secularized Queen’s colleges. Theology was to have its rightful and necessary place, as a discipline among disciplines, but more overarching was to be the “idea” that makes an institution to be a genuine university. This idea was possible, indeed strengthened in Newman’s view, within a Catholic institution if the rights of the institution and the church were mutually respected by each other.

Another major aim was to justify university education in the Oxford style, that is to say, the cultivation of intellect by what is called liberal arts education today. In one sense the first eight discourses of Idea recapitulate the turn-of-the-century argument between Oxford and the “Edinburgh party,” answering the latter’s charges that 1) religion is not a suitable intellectual endeavor since religion at best is a matter of private opinions, and 2) the only knowledge that matters is practical and that which serves wider society. The liberal arts are simply not useful. I believe Newman used these discourses to state the Oxford case in his words, and along the way sufficiently distanced himself from those aspects of Oxford, earlier and in the 1850s, that troubled him.9

One of those troubling matters was not developed in Idea but came under sustained treatment in Historical Sketches. It was the college or tutorial system in contrast to the professorial or university system. In Newman’s assessment, the German schools educated through a system of lectures from university professors without benefit of college residence. Oxford/Cambridge education, on the other hand, was sequestered into resident colleges, the university itself having a less important role, save for a few public lectures and for final examinations for degrees and rankings (First Class, Second Class, etc.). The professor/college contrast, or the metaphors Athens/Rome, which Newman develops at length in these essays as illustrative of the contrast, are meant to describe the tension between freedom and regulation, inquiry and structure, in the education of students. After ably describing their characters and their competing aims, Newman’s option is for both, if they are allowed to interact dialectically. To this important feature of dialectics I return at the conclusion. (Newman, as Oriel fellow, tutored his students to achieve “Firsts” when they graduated.)

In the preface to the Discourses in Idea Newman states his thesis that a university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge.”10 After eight of the Discourses, he flatly states that everything to this point has been considering a university in itself, not a university as Catholic. The latter is treated in the Ninth Discourse. For the moment, however, I wish to note the linchpin of every other discourse in Idea. It is Newman’s supple use of the word knowledge. He emphasizes knowledge, not truth.

To sense his own struggle with the word and its correct notion, he uses other terms at times though they are not quite synonymous. Knowledge rightly taught by professors is “mental cultivation,” it is “enlargement,” it is “philosophy.”11 Newman strains to describe the perfection of a disposition, just as virtue is the word to describe a cultivated disposition toward ethical choice, and health describes bodily well-being. Newman wishes to describe a cultivated mental excellence, and at one point in the second half of Idea he calls it “the philosophy of an imperial intellect.”12 Furthermore, and if I may speak philosophically, he uses the word knowledge materially and formally depending upon his aim at the moment. Knowledge, materially, refers to what is being known, and thus Newman argues that no branch of knowledge, no academic discipline as it were, can be a priori excluded from the curriculum, for example, religion or theology. Knowledge, formally, refers to the mental capacity by which what is known is properly known. It is the capacity to discriminate facts and ideas, to order them, to perceive relations between them, and ultimately to judge them and act upon them. In this respect, perhaps, Newman’s greatest protégée is Bernard Lonergan, if one can sense this impress of Newman’s educational psychology within the chapters of Lonergan’s Insight.13

A reader of Idea might well object: Newman has much to say about theology, indeed about Catholic theology, in those first eight discourses, and therefore he has much therein that would affirm what constitutes a university as Catholic. I stand my ground. Every discipline, even theology, is subsumed under the more important discussion of what constitutes knowledge, both in its material and formal senses.14 In these discourses, theology needs to be justified as an academic discipline as does any other subject of studies, and Newman argues its justification on the non-dogmatic grounds of educational philosophy, not on the imperatives of revelation nor on a teaching episcopal magisterium nor on the precisely Catholic nature of the Dublin university as such.

As noted, Newman began the discourses with the flat statement that a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. He emphasized teaching in order to assert two matters: 1) The university is an intellectual service to students, not a moral or indoctrinating enterprise as might occur in a seminary, and 2) It is a pedagogical enterprise and not in itself a research endeavor. In Newman’s day there were academies and royal societies whose business it was to extend the frontiers of knowledge through scientific research, and he noted the quandary that obfuscates many contemporary tenure discussions: “To discover and to teach are ... distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person.”15 Teaching, in other words, involves students in its very notion, and having asserted only this much in the opening pages of Idea, he leaves aside until the essays in Historical Sketches the fuller discussion of what he terms the “professorial system” to describe the art of teaching. The remainder of Idea focuses on that elusive and supple word, knowledge.

The notion of knowledge is described variously. From one angle it is the very aim of the university, and in this respect he calls it “the cultivation of mind,” “the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect,” and having “a connected view or grasp of things,” which allows entry into a subject with comparative ease.16 All such depictions of knowledge refer not to the accumulation of facts and ideas but rather to the digestion of them and the making of them into a mental pattern or ordered configuration, into what may simply be called a view. If we today are inclined to term someone possessed of many facts and ideas a knowledgeable person, Newman is rather thinking of what we would call an insightful person.

Care needs to be taken of the word view. There is a spurious knowledge that Newman termed “viewiness” and which he thought to be a chief evil of his day. “An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of ‘views’ on all subjects ... of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question.”17 Periodical literature catered to this tendency, and it served up superficial knowledge for genuine knowledge. He called such viewiness “nutshell truths for the breakfast table.”18

The genuine knowledge that university education engenders, and which Newman at times simply calls philosophy, is an active and formative power of the mind that reduces to order and meaning the sundry things that someone learns.19 He likens it to arriving at a center of thought or to “first principles,” such first principles being practically a signature of Newmanian thinking.20 In the essay “Discipline of Mind” found in the second part of Idea, he writes:

The result is a formation of mind,—that is, a habit of order and system, a habit of referring every accession of knowledge to what we already know, and of adjusting the one with the other; and, moreover, as such a habit implies, the actual acceptance and use of certain principles as centres of thought, around which our knowledge grows and is located. Where this critical faculty exists, history is no longer a mere story-book, or biography a romance; orators and publications of the day are no longer infallible authorities; eloquent diction is no longer a substitute for matter, nor bold statements, or lively descriptions, a substitute for proof.21

Newman draws an analogy with a blind person to whom sight miraculously returns and into whom pours a confusing world of colors, lines, hues and shapes, without drift or meaning, and “like the wrong side of a piece of tapestry or carpet.”22 Only by degrees and through trial and error does that person arrive at ordered and meaningful perceptions. In similar fashion must the arduous task of intellectual cultivation proceed.

Some implications follow from this vision of knowledge as centered thought or philosophy. First of all, the individual mind cannot grasp the whole at once; it progresses by grasping aspects of the whole and arranging those aspects into ever more connected views that approach the understanding of the whole in itself. Discourse Three of Idea transposes this personal mental law to the communal mind of a university and portrays the aspects of holistic knowledge as akin to disciplines: history, physics, theology, etc.

Second, to ignore an aspect (i.e., a discipline) leads to deficient knowledge, much as if Newman’s man-born-blind chose to ignore a particular color in describing a rainbow, and here of course is situated Newman’s famous argument for the necessity of including theology in a university’s purview. One cannot understand the total universe without reference to its Creator any more than one can view a muscle and call it an explanation of motion without considering free will. Indeed, the a priori exclusion of any discipline invites not only deficient knowledge but, more alarmingly to Newman, erroneous pontification, for wherever there is an excluded discipline, other disciplines will encroach on its land and opine on its issues from their own inadequate-in-themselves principles. The psychologist will play the ethicist, the physicist will play the theologian of nature.

A third implication follows that is particularly germane to the issue of religion. The knowledge of which Newman speaks, and which is described in terms of moving ever closer to centers of thought, is of its very nature a progressive and unfolding coming to know. It is not ready-made insight; it is not without false steps; and there ought not to be sanitized topics that are avoided for the sake of students with overly pietistic dispositions. Concerning the latter apprehension of avoiding certain topics, one recalls Newman’s famous statement in setting up a syllabus that “it is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.”23

Such knowledge in university education, whether considered formally as a mental habit to be attained or considered materially as subject matter to be retained, enjoys within the university context the freedom to set out on the wrong foot, if I may so put it. Newman did not wish erroneous knowledge to be sure, but he wished the free play of ideas to have elbow room in the interest of getting at truth.

“It is the very law of the human mind in its inquiry ... to make its advances by a process which ... is circuitous. There are no shortcuts to knowledge; ... in scientific researches error may be said, without paradox, to be in some instances the way to truth, and the only way.”24

Such faith in the merits of open and free inquiry, I am contending, is best provided for by setting up the discussion on the word knowledge rather than truth, and this is what Newman did.

Universities with a religious heritage are tempted to talk about truth, in the sense of religious doctrine. If there was anyone who appreciated doctrine and wrote about it, it was Newman. But doctrine and truth are not the lynchpins of Newman’s book; it is the word knowledge in all its liberating elasticity. Reaching truth is the goal of attaining knowledge in the university, but it is not its starting point as if something already possessed. A professor may work from settled truths in her mind, but they are not matters to be imposed on the student. This would be indoctrination, not education.

Newman has many other things to say about the nature of a university. In Historical Sketches the university

“is the place to which a thousand schools make contribution; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.”25

Is one to fear this collision of knowledge with knowledge? In describing the “imperial intellect,” hear him again:

“If he [the true university person] has one cardinal maxim in his philosophy, it is, that truth cannot be contrary to truth; if he has a second, it is, that truth often seems contrary to truth; and, if a third, it is the practical conclusion, that we must be patient with such appearances, and not be hasty to pronounce them to be really of a more formidable character.”26

Furthermore, if there is any academic discipline which from its sovereign position ought to bear calmly the collision of knowledge with knowledge, it is the realm of theology. Newman claims that an objection posed to Christian faith could be 1) not proven in the end, 2) turns out not to be contradictory, or 3) is not contradictory to anything really revealed. Yet, if at this moment it appears contradictory, then one “is content to wait, knowing that error is like other delinquents; give it rope enough, and it will be found to have a strong suicidal propensity.”27

For those who would envision a Catholic university founded on dogmatic “givens” and where the truth is already known, as happens in a seminary, Newman’s language is awkward. His vision is more readily in line with the contemporary notion of academic life and the guidelines for academic freedom. His supple and confident use of the word knowledge provides the necessary elbow room for university endeavors, a phrase indeed which Newman in other situations calls upon.28

Mention must be made of Discourse Nine that describes the church’s role in a Catholic university. Although the leitmotif running through Idea remains knowledge and not truth, the “Duties Of The Church Towards Knowledge” is the discourse’s title. Having earlier argued that the completeness of academic inquiry requires theology’s contribution, Newman here addresses the de facto tendency of human inquiry on rationalistic principles alone to “measure and proportion it [revelation] by an earthly standard ... to tune it, as it were, to a different key, and to reset its harmonies.”29 Lest the university become a rival of the church in theological matters, the church “breathes her own pure and unearthly spirit into it, ... and watches over its teaching, ... and superintends its action.”30 The church, then, has an active role to play in a Catholic university.

Newman appears to contradict himself. A true university allows “elbow room” and freedom of research in its disciplines, including theology. But the church has a role to superintend its action. This point requires explanation.

It is so typical of Newman to consider matters in their existential propensities—for example, his constant references to sinful beings such as we are—that he is aware of the myopias of “reason alone” in judging matters of revelation. The methodology of physical science urges a privately-held view of revelation—the scientist may be a believer but beliefs cannot enter into scientific method—and literature fosters an explanation of the human condition without dogmatizing about it.31 While these contentions are argued with greater nuance and with allowable exceptions in part two of Idea, they frame the contention of Discourse Nine that revelation is safeguarded by an agency greater than reason alone, the agency of God-given church authority. It would be strange indeed to find Newman speaking in Idea on this matter differently than in his other major works, as in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, where the church is appointed by God to be the teacher of the revelation in Christ, a teaching that in cases of dogma is aided by the protection of infallibility.

Discourse Nine, therefore, carries a caveat about the work of theology in the academy, and it is simply this: that the academy’s canons of verification and reasoned warrants can never measure the mystery of God’s revealed word. The only warrant for God’s unerring word is God alone, and for a Roman Catholic such as Newman, God’s spirit guides the church’s hold on that revealed word.

However, the question remains: How is the church to superintend the functioning of the university, granting that for Newman it indeed enjoys this role?32 Everything he mentions of freedom of inquiry, of necessary elbow room, of giving error sufficient rope, must also be taken into account, and indeed grasped in a dialectical fashion to do justice to inquiry and authority. “Athens and Rome,” to speak metaphorically as he often does, work off each other in his scheme.

One must reread the fifth chapter of Newman’s Apologia, perhaps the most subtle of his writings, to sense the conflict between the “restless [human] intellect” and due weight for church authority. Newman’s dialectical, almost paradoxical, contention is that they are sustained by conflict with each other. Furthermore, one must recall that he dropped his original Fifth Discourse from the 1859 edition, not because he agreed with the Pope Pius IX’s position that Catholic doctrine condition every discipline to be taught in the university—he noted that his “idea” about the matter was otherwise—but because of tact, often called the “principle of reserve” in his writings. Lest this interpretation seem contrived, note this letter of 1868 to Fr. Bartholomew Woodlock who succeeded Newman as university rector: “It is essential that the Church should have a living presence and control in the action of the University. But still, till the Bishops leave the University to itself, till the University governs itself, till it is able to act as a free being, it will be but a sickly child.”33

Distinct from the issue of the church’s active role in the work of a Catholic university is how Newman views the manner in which theology is taught undergraduates in Dublin. They are not being taught dogmatics but rather what today would be called religious studies. The latter is a phrase he would not have known but the idea of it fits his view.

“I would exclude the teaching … of pure dogma from [our schools], … and content myself with enforcing such a broad knowledge of doctrinal subjects as is contained in catechisms. … I am professing to contemplate Christian knowledge in what may be called its secular aspect, as it is practically useful in the intercourse of life and in general conversation.”34

This aim comports so well with Newman’s vision of Catholic laity equipped to witness their faith and defend it in the public sphere, without having to run to their pastors or theologians for the right answers. The latter would obtain if the laity were expected to be professing the intricacies of dogmas.35

Newman’s other caveat regarding religion and academia merits brief mention. It is the crux of Discourse Eight. Liberal education creates the “gentleman,” he said, the “cultivated person.” This person looks religious. Refinement holds passions in check, makes discourse civil and even affable, and urges a benevolence toward the commonwealth. Would not Catholicism be proud of such an undergraduate? Newman, however, cautions: Liberal education does not necessarily mend the heart; only repentance can achieve it, supported by the voice of conscience. The Gentleman’s religion is about honor and nobility, but it is not about the cross and revering God’s voice from within. Detection and not the deed itself become the real sin. The chief fault becomes being judged ungentlemanly. Newman thus cautions that liberal education, in the form he experienced it, ought to be at the service of a religious life but can often be a screen concealing it.

The Role of the Professor

In Newman’s essay on “Christianity and Letters” the key question is posed: “how best to strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers?”36 The question brings together two aspects of what he is calling “the idea,” to again use the distinction between the material and formal aspects of knowledge: What subjects beget the genuine habit of mental cultivation, when viewed materially? But behind this aspect focusing on subject matter is the more important question of how this subject matter is to be taught. It is the formal aspect. It involves the professor, in other words.

Regarding subject matter, Newman’s ready answer is the Classics (Homer, Virgil, and other authors of repute, read in the original languages) because their track record in mental cultivation has been proven. But other subjects could provide that selfsame exactness and suppleness of mind if they were properly taught, which brings us to the role of the professor. In his essay “Discipline of Mind,” Newman mentions various subjects that can work.

"Consider what a trial of acuteness, caution, and exactness, it is to master, and still more to prove, a number of definitions. Again, what an exercise in logic is classification, what an exercise in logical precision it is to understand and enunciate the proof of any of the more difficult propositions of Euclid. ... And so of any other science,—chemistry, or comparative anatomy, or natural history; it does not matter what it is, if it be really studied and mastered.”37

One can read this sentence and focus on the student mastering these subjects. But the more important implication of Newman’s sentence refers to the university professor assigned to teach these subjects. Can he or she bring students to master the subject matter using necessary teaching skills? Can he or she select appropriate primary materials, effectively conduct discussions, and clearly pose thoughtful and provocative questions?

The pedagogical process of educating students is more important than specific academic texts, granting that Newman preferred the Classics as texts.38 Recall Newman’s very opening sentence in the preface of Idea: “The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following: That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge.”39 Some readers of Idea focus on the idea of knowledge. I think the focus should be on teaching. Earlier and in another context, I emphasized the word knowledge to distinguish it from truth because knowledge implies a process of coming to it and the possibility of making false starts. Truth, on the other hand, can suggest settled truths from the outset such as happens in seminaries and in catechetical classes where religious truths, known from the outset, are taught.

His fuller analysis of a university teacher is in the extended discussion of the “professorial system” in Historical Sketches where it is distinguished from the “college system.” By the latter he means the structured residential life of the university (the realm of administrators, the deans, the governing polity, the student organizations, etc.). While Historical Sketches is less familiar territory than is Idea, it throws more light on the professor. (These essays appeared originally in the Catholic University Gazette when he was rector of the University in Dublin.). They are not inappropriate to what Idea contends, as Newman himself avers: “The following illustrations of the idea of University originally appeared in 1854.”40 Consequently, Historical Sketches does not sidetrack from the intention to write a primer on Idea nor from the man who wrote it.

The professorial system compares to the college system as “Athens” to “Rome.” It is individuality compared to structure; it is freedom compared to law; it is influence compared to system. Although many things are needed to constitute a university in its fullness, essentially a university is “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse.”41 (It is helpful to imagine how Newman was taught at Trinity College, and how he taught students at Oriel College. Imagine the role of fellows, the Oxford dons, who met weekly in small groups to discuss written assignments.) While one may learn from books, “the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”42 It is the ability of the professors to enter into the mental life of a few assigned students, an ability Newman simply calls personal influence, which fundamentally achieves the aim of the university.

“It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. ... It is a seat of wisdom, ... an Alma Mater of the rising generation.”43

How would Newman’s ideal professor teach? We catch a glimpse in his essay, “Elementary Studies,” where he demonstrates how he himself would teach Greek or Latin to an undergraduate. Readers of Newman understandably jump these pages with their forbidding sections of Greek and Latin texts, yet one would perceive here how the professor prods and pushes the student to accuracy of judgment and to integration of new insight from what is previously known. The mist, as Newman says, “clears up ... and the rays of light fall back upon their centres. It is this haziness of intellectual vision which is the malady” of the current age.44

In Newman’s vocabulary, one might even say that a particular curriculum (for a business degree, for a nursing degree) is a “structure” compared to the “personal influence” of the professor, and of this distinction he noted poignantly: “With influence there is life, without it there is none. ... An academical system without personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.”45 In this text, admittedly, Newman was viewing academic residences as the structure, the material aspect, as opposed to the work of Oxford fellows in them, the formal aspect. Yet, his idea holds for the structured credit distributions found in catalogues today if considered only in themselves. Current academia has drifted far from Newman’s idea of university education when the assessment of a student for graduation amounts to calculating whether she or he has taken all the necessary courses with a passing grade.46

How Newman’s Mind Worked

I conclude with a sort of mini primer on how Newman’s mind worked, both in Idea and in his other books. Notice that Newman analyzes a topic in terms of its inner tensions that he often calls the aspects of a concrete reality being imagined. Liberal education serves the religious life but can also camouflage it. Theology requires freedom of inquiry, yet revelation requires a God-given authority. The personal influence of the professorial system requires university structure but is not without tensions, as happened in Newman’s Oriel College life when the provost removed him as fellow by not assigning students to him.

It is well known that to analyze complex questions Newman tended to describe competing forces, giving each force its full and just due. As mentioned above, the Apologia’s fifth chapter describes the ever-recurring conflict between human inquiry [in religious matters] and the constraints of church authority, citing the need for both. Moreover, there is a certain value to the conflict itself. When Newman, in a newly written preface, analyzed in 1877 abuses in the Catholic Church in his re-edition of his 1837 Prophetical Office, he described the tendencies of the laity’s devotional life (which left to itself could lead to superstition), the tendencies of theology (which left to itself could lead to rationalism), and the tendencies of church authority (which left to itself could lead to tyranny.) Only in the counterbalancing interplay of these three tendencies is genuine Christian life preserved. Newman’s 1859 essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine47 argued for the role of the laity in witnessing to revelation, which role being meant to complement other sources of revelation such as church traditions, the teaching of bishops, and the liturgy. In these three pieces of writing, Newman was describing a process of dialectics, or more properly, dialectical unfolding leading to a discernment of the correct manner in which to fathom a complex issue. There was no better way for him to depict the complex realities of the tension than in this dialectical dance of competing interests. The process is meant to play itself out, and it may take time. For readers familiar with other works of Newman, the dialectical unfolding dovetails with the working of how the illative sense, in the Grammar of Assent, concludes to a correct decision.

Newman’s dialectical penchant also operates in his vision of the university.48 There is, as we have seen, a collision of knowledge with knowledge, in which genuine insight may initially lurk within a wider error. The university, moreover, is a composite of inquiry and received tradition, of freedom and structure, of professor and administrator. In Historical Sketches he focused on the competing and at times clashing aims of university—he is thinking of the teaching fellows—and residential college, and his answer was not to make an easy harmony of them but to describe their counterbalancing contributions.

“A University embodies the principal [sic] of progress, and a College that of stability; the one is the sail, and the other the ballast; each is insufficient in itself for the pursuit, extension, and inculcation of knowledge; each is useful to the other. … The University being the element of advance, will fail in making good its ground as it goes; the College, from its Conservative tendencies, will be sure to go back, because it does not go forward.”49

Unlike contemporary college catalogues, Newman does not give step-by-step answers to how the university achieves its aims. On the contrary, he describes an unfolding dialectical process mentioned above, assuming the benevolent will of an entire university community to engage one another with a civility of discourse “and in a neighbourly way.”50 Fine advice in an age of polarizations, in the academy, in politics, and in churches.

1 The Uniform Edition of all Newman’s books, reflecting modifications he made life long, was produced by Longmans, Green and Company (London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta) and was continually reprinted until the printing plates were destroyed during World War II. It had the great advantage of universally recognized pagination. Subsequently, numerous scholars have produced their own editions of Idea but in each case the pagination of Newman’s text differs. I will reference the Uniform Edition unless otherwise noted.

2 Newman, AW, 280. See LD xiv, 57n2.

3 Newman, AW, 280–83. See LD xiv, 315, which masks his hesitations.

4 They were delivered on 10, 17, 24, 31 May and 7 June 1852, each being published a week after delivery by a Dublin publisher. Newman clearly intended an eventual “library edition.” See LD xv, 83.

5 These were actually published on 2 Feb. 1853, but backdated to the dedication date of 21 Nov. 1852, and they were henceforth known as the 1852 edition of Idea.

6 Newman deleted the Fifth Discourse so as not to offend papal sensibilities. In the Papal Brief of 20 March 1854, concerning the university, Pio Nono stated that Catholic doctrine was to be intrinsic to the lectures in all the subjects. Newman notes in AW, 323, that his discourses, and especially the fifth, were based “on a different idea.” The deleted Fifth Discourse can be found in Idea of a University, ed. Ian Ker, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), Appendix 1, 419–34.

7 The University that Newman helmed for four years, whose official name was The Catholic University of Ireland—Newman preferred it be called in Ireland to attract international students—struggled to stay alive; only the School of Medicine flourished. In 1879, the British government established The Royal University and agreed to pump money into The Catholic University provided it agreed to have all degrees issue from the Royal and that its name be changed to University College Dublin. This happened by 1882. In its early years Gerard Manley Hopkins taught in UCD, and in 1898 James Joyce matriculated there. In 1908 UCD received its own Charter to grant degrees, and it became a constituent college of “the National,” the popular shorthand in the twentieth century for The National University of Ireland. In 1997 UCD became an autonomous university.

8 In addition to many letters in LD and AW, see also My Campaign in Ireland, papers of Newman posthumously and privately printed by the Birmingham Oratory in 1896. Most recently in LD xxxii, “Supplement,” editor Frank McGrath has printed for the first time Newman’s “My University Journal, Private,” supplementing AW, about his experiences as rector of the University. See LD xxxii, 73–144 passim.

9 Opposition to the Oxford reform was led by pamphleteers from Edinburgh who argued for utilitarian studies. Cf. Idea, 2, 153. Some years later they also championed the ideals of the newly-founded University of London as distinct from Oxford’s espousal of liberal arts and theology. In the expurgated Fifth Discourse, Newman refers to the Edinburgh Review of February, 1826. See Ian Ker’s edition of Idea, 420.

10 Newman, Idea, ix.

11 See Newman, Idea, 113, 121, 125 (especially), 134, 151.

12 Newman, Idea, 461. Imperial refers to a knowledge that directs and balances interests.

13 Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Harper and Row, 1978). In Lonergan’s A Second Collection, ed. W. Ryan and B. Tyrrell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), he acknowledges Newman’s influence. See pp. 38, 263.

14 These philosophical distinctions are useful in understanding Newman’s ideas, but Newman himself did not write philosophically. He even claims that he did not write theologically, but this is hardly the case.

15 Newman, Idea, xiii.

16 Newman, Idea, xv, xvi, xvii.

17 Newman, Idea, xx.

18 Newman, Idea, xx

19 In that expurgated Fifth Discourse, Newman described how science itself can be called a philosophy, provided “it is knowledge which has undergone a process of intellectual digestion. It is the grasp of many things brought together in one.” See Ian Ker, ed., Idea, 423.

20 For an analysis of first principles in Newman’s thinking and for the pertinent references, see Edward Jeremy Miller, John Henry Newman on the Idea of Church (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos, 1987), 9–20.

21 Newman, Idea, 502. See also p. 134.

22 Newman, Idea, 495. See also the analogy with an infant on p. 332.

23 Newman, Idea, 229.

24 Newman, Idea, 474.

25 Newman, HS iii, 16.

26 Newman, Idea, 461.

27 Newman, Idea, 467.

28 Newman, Idea, 476 reads: “Great minds need elbow-room, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought. And so indeed do lesser minds, and all minds.” Another palmary text is in his “Letter to Pusey”: “Life has the same right to decay, as it has to wax strong. This is specially the case with great ideas. You may stifle them; or you may refuse them elbow-room; or again, you may torment them with your continual meddling; or you may let them have free course and range, and be content, instead of anticipating their excesses, to expose and restrain those excesses after they have occurred.” Cf. Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. 2, 79.

29 Newman, Idea, 217

30 Newman, Idea, 216. On page 214 Newman summarizes the gist of the first eight discourses.

31 See Newman, Idea, 221–22 for how the work of theology and the work of empirical science proceed differently.

32 See Edward Jeremy Miller, “The Church ‘Superintends’ the University: ‘What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean.’” Newman Studies Journal 10, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 56–67, where every use of superintend and its cognates in Newman’s letters and books is examined. Newman uses the word variously and does not usually mean “to compel.” Its use in Discourse Nine is more akin to an intervention when orthodoxy has been breached.

33 LD xxiv, 46. When Archbishop Manning attempted his own Catholic university at Kensington in 1873, Newman refused the invitation to cooperate, knowing the venture would be overly controlled and lacking in academic freedom. Manning’s university was modeled on a seminary. Earlier, on 1 July 1860, Newman confided to Robert Ornsby that “Dr Cullen wishes well to the University, but while he is as ignorant as any one how to do it, he has not the heart to have perfect confidence in any one. … Here is the origo mali, an Archbishop without trust in any one. I wonder he does not cook his own dinners.” LD xix, 379.

34 Newman, Idea, 376–77.

35 “What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is. … I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.” Present Position of Catholics, 390.

36 Newman, Idea, 263.

37 Newman, Idea, 501–502.

38 “The Classics, and the subjects of thought and the studies to which they give rise … have ever, on the whole, been the instruments of education which the civilized [world] has adopted, ... enlarging the mind, and cultivating the intellect, and refining the feelings, in which the process of Civilization has ever consisted.” Likening him to Saints Peter and Paul, Homer “may be called the first Apostle of [Western] Civilization.” See Newman, Idea, 256–57.

39 Newman, Idea, ix.

40 See the Advertisement Newman wrote for HS iii.

41 Newman, HS iii, 6.

42 Newman, HS iii, 9.

43 Newman, HS iii, 16.

44 Newman, Idea, 333 and the subsequent pages where Newman, acting as fellow, questions a student, prodding the student to think.

45 Newman, HS iii, 74.

46 In another publication I asked the question whether Newman’s Idea was applicable to universities today. See Edward Jeremy Miller, “Newman’s Idea of a University: Is it Viable Today?,” in Discourse and Context: An Interdisciplinary Study of John Henry Newman, ed. Gerard Magill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 109–25.

47 This hard-to-obtain yet immensely important essay can be found at On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, ed. John Coulson (London: Chapman, 1961).

48 For an analysis of dialectics in Newman’s ecclesiology, see Edward Jeremy Miller, “Newman’s Idea of a University,” chapter 4.

49 Newman, HS iii, 228–29.

50 Newman, Idea, 465.

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Edward Jeremy Miller

Edward Jeremy Miller

Edward Jeremy Miller studied at Louvain under distinguished Newman scholar Jan Hendrik Walgrave and has written on Newman for over forty years.  His recent book, It's About Eternal Life After All, is meant for laity and explains key Catholic doctrines and practices.


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