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52 Authors: Week 31 - Newman

I am not a Newman enthusiast. I find his prose to be dense, difficult, and often obtuse, not to mention unnecessarily long-winded. This is probably one of those differences in sensibilities between 19th century Victorians and 21st century blog readers. I find much more pleasure reading Lewis.

That being said, Newman is one of the most important authors in my intellectual formation and spiritual development. First of all, he was a major influence on several authors that been crucial to me—Tolkien, de Lubac, Pieper, and Giussani. And, of course, many people say Vatican II was “Newman’s Council.” I wrote my dissertation on Vatican II (Gaudium et spes).

Besides that, a handful of key ideas taken from a reading of Newman’s works have substantially changed my intellectual makeup. I have read four books by Newman. Three of the four contained ideas that forever changed the way I look at very important realities in my life and in the life of the Church and the world. I have read almost none of his other, occasional writings, poetry, or his fiction.

The four books are An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent, The Idea of a University, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Looking at each one in turn, I will focus on the idea that has affected me rather than giving a general overview of their structure and content. I trust that even if these particular ideas aren’t life-changing for you, there is something in these works that will be. Newman is that important.

Note: the quotations are going to be long. You have to put up with that with Newman. He says in 20 lines what might be said in 5. There is a reason for this, which has to do with the method proposed in Grammar.

Grammar of Assent

Grammar was written in response to Humean skepticism. It was an apologetic work, the final chapter being a defense of theism and Catholic faith.

The main point is that certainty and assent do not come from formal inference—logical syllogisms—because in any formal inference (logical argument) you also had disputable premises, leading to an infinite regress of controvertible premises. Logic therefore only produces probabilities. Also, formal inferences tend to produce notional assent to abstract concepts. Real assent, which is always about individuals and particulars, is much more easily able to impel the affections and passions.

For Newman, certainty is achieved through an informal process of accumulating evidence, a “mass of probabilities” (233), from all kinds of sources, including experience, reliable reports from trusted authorities, and logical arguments, which then are united in our minds by what Newman called the “illative sense,” a synthesizing faculty which functions quasi-unconsiously. While each of the individual pieces of evidence is only probable, the conclusion has the character of certainty.

And to this conclusion he comes, as is plain, not by any possible verbal enumeration of all the considerations, minute but abundant, delicate but effective, which unite to bring him to it; but by a mental comprehension of the whole case, and a discernment of its upshot, sometimes after much deliberation, but, it may be, by a clear and rapid act of the intellect, always, however, by an unwritten summing-up, something like the summation of the terms, plus and minus of an algebraical series” (232)

The concept of the illative sense freed me from any temptation to require Cartesian clear and distinct ideas or mathematical certainty before assenting to a truth. What is necessary is a convergence of probable evidence and an absence of any substantial opposing evidence.

One of the consequences of Newman’s thesis is the impact it has on education. As Newman states, the affections are moved by the concrete, the image, rather than the abstract concept. Combining the Thomist affirmation that the will is only moved to act by the passions associated with the image (phantasm) properly informed by reason, one can find a theoretical basis for Christopher Dawson’s contention that a renewal of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition should focus not so much on Thomistic philosophy and scientific theology, on which a consensus is now gone, but rather history, literature, and the arts.

The Idea of a University

I read Idea of a University at the same time as I was reading St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium (Mind’s Road to God). I wrote a paper coordinating the two. I wish I still had that paper.

Newman famously asserts that the purpose of the university is not moral or spiritual formation, but universal knowledge. In other words, its purpose is to cultivate the intellectual virtues, not the moral or supernatural. It is not enough for Newman that the University provides a home for a large variety of sciences; the ultimate purpose is to cultivate a coordinating intellectual activity he calls the “philosophical habit,” a.k.a. the habitus philosophicus. Sciences, even theology, are incomplete and subservient to “philosophy” as such. Here is his description:

[A]ll knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction; and then again, as to its Creator, though He of course in His own Being is infinitely separate from it, and Theology has its departments towards which human knowledge has no relations, yet He has so implicated Himself with it, and taken it into His very bosom, by His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it, that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without in some main aspects contemplating Him. Next, sciences are the results of that mental abstraction, which I have spoken of, being the logical record of this or that aspect of the whole subject-matter of knowledge. As they all belong to one and the same circle of objects, they are one and all connected together; as they are but aspects of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves, though complete in their own idea and for their own respective purposes; on both accounts they at once need and subserve each other. And further, the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all, one with another, this belongs, I conceive, to a sort of science distinct from all of them, and in some sense a science of sciences, which is my own conception of what is meant by Philosophy, in the true sense of the word, and of a philosophical habit of mind, and which in these Discourses I shall call by that name. (Discourse 3)

To cultivate this habit is the central purpose of the university.

An important quality of the university is participation in a community of scholars from a large circle of disciplines who are engaged in philosophical discussions about the relationship between the sciences.

An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. (Discourse 5)

God knows university life is often not like this!

The effect of this habit properly cultivated is to somewhat lesson the temptation to prejudice, ideology and relativism:

To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire, in the way of intellect; it puts the mind above the influences of chance and necessity, above anxiety, suspense, unsettlement, and superstition, which is the lot of the many. Men, whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and {138} are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or in transport. Those on the other hand who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, or occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another. (Discourse 6)

This does not free the recipient of such an education from the distortions and blindness that come from moral and spiritual poverty.

I’m no expert on the British education system, but I think the residential college and tutorial in the Oxbridge system serve the purpose of providing this kind of community and cultivation of a philosophical habit. The colleges are also are supposed to provide for the cultivation of non-intellectual habits, such as religion and morals, I guess, although Brideshead and the life of Thomas Merton make me doubt how effective they are.

On the Development of Christian Doctrine

This essay did not influence me concerning the main thesis about the integrity of doctrine in its development. That has always seemed to me to be obvious and common sense even before I read the essay.

The essay most directly influenced my spiritual life, especially my devotion to Our Lady. The usual response to a Protestant objection to our veneration of Mary is to say we don’t “worship” her, but give her honor not unlike we give special people honor and we don’t pray to her, but ask her to pray for us. All well and good, but that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. In fact, Catholics do treat Mary as a kind of divinity.

Newman helped me see why this is the case and why it is not really a problem. Specifically, the honors paid Mary are paid to a creature just as the Arians considered Christ a creature, although far above us. Mary is above us because she has experienced transforming power of the resurrection of the body known as theosis or divinization. She participates in the divine nature in a way that we only will at the second coming, but even so to a greater degree.

And as containing all created perfection, she has all those attributes, which, as was noticed above, the Arians and other heretics applied to our Lord, and which the Church denied of Him as infinitely below His Supreme Majesty….Christ is the First-born by nature; the Virgin in a less sublime order, viz. that of adoption. Again, if omnipotence is ascribed to her, it is a participated omnipotence (as she and all Saints have a participated sonship, divinity, glory, holiness, and worship). (Ch. 11, Section II.10)

Newman asserted that Arius had opened up for the Church a “place” in her thinking for an exalted creature like that which Arius ascribed to Christ. That place was filled in her speculation and piety by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And thus the controversy opened a question which it did not settle. It discovered a new sphere, if we may so speak, in the realms of light, to which the Church had not yet assigned its inhabitant..…Thus there was "a wonder in heaven:" a throne was seen, far above all other created powers, mediatorial, intercessory; a title archetypal; {144} a crown bright as the morning star; a glory issuing from the Eternal Throne; robes pure as the heavens; and a sceptre over all; and who was the predestined heir of that Majesty? Since it was not high enough for the Highest, who was that Wisdom, and what was her name, "the Mother of fair love, and fear, and holy hope," "exalted like a palm-tree in Engaddi, and a rose-plant in Jericho," "created from the beginning before the world" in God's everlasting counsels, and "in Jerusalem her power"? The vision is found in the Apocalypse, a Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The votaries of Mary do not exceed the true faith, unless the blasphemers of her Son came up to it. The Church of Rome is not idolatrous, unless Arianism is orthodoxy. (Chapter 4)

Newman’s sense was that the common devotion to Christ, though nominally orthodox, was de facto Arian or worse:

Yet it is not wonderful, considering how Socinians, Sabellians, Nestorians, and the like, abound in these days, without their even knowing it themselves, if those who never rise higher in their notions of our Lord's Divinity, than to consider Him a man singularly inhabited by a Divine Presence, that is, a Catholic Saint,—if such men should mistake the honour paid by the Church to the human Mother for that very honour which, and which alone, is worthy of her Eternal Son. (Ch. 4, Section II.9)

I]t must be asked, whether the character of much of the Protestant devotion towards our Lord has been that of adoration at all; and not rather such as we pay to an excellent human being, that is, no higher devotion than that which Catholics pay to St. Mary, differing from it, however, in often being familiar, rude, and earthly. Carnal minds will ever create a carnal worship for themselves; and to forbid them the service of the Saints will have no tendency to teach them the worship of God. (Ch. 11, Section II.3)

This leads them to mistake the Catholic devotion to Mary for idolatry. All the early heresies, and the Protestant practical Arianism tended to underestimate the potential of the creature to be a vessel of Glory. Orthodoxy established the absolute transcendence of the Divinity of Christ, thus making room for the affirmation of the exalted destiny of the creature, esp. after the resurrection of the dead as exemplified in Mary (Ch. 4, Sec. II.10).

Chapter 4 contains a very long enumeration of patristic witnesses to the glories of Mary, especially starting at Section II.11. Chapter 10.4 and Chapter 11, Section II give detailed explanations of the history and dogmatic justification for Catholic devotion to Mary as exalted Queen.


The Apologia, from what I remember of it, is a defense against that accusation that Newman as a Catholic condoned the use of an “economy” to explain or defend the Catholic faith. An “economy” is a nominal distortion of the truth so as to have the desired good effect in the mind of the hearer.

The accusation is that this is the normal modus operandi of the Catholic Church (the putative Jesuitical dissembling). He wrote it not because he was worried about his reputation, but because he was concerned that such a vice in so public a figure would unnecessarily mar the reputation of the Church. True to the method of Grammar, he does not simply argue abstractly using syllogisms, but rather argues by giving a detailed account of his entire life, thereby hoping that the convergence of an avalanche of evidence would convince the reader that it was impossible that, precisely because he had become a Catholic, he could use lies to promote the truth.

Still, for me, the Apologia cameoff as whiny. It has been a long time. Maybe I would have a different experience now.


I don’t know Newman’s poetry very well, but one of his verses have long been a part of my personal spiritual life. I turn to it when my habitual melancholy threatens to sweep hope away:

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
    Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
    Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
    Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
    Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
    Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
    The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

At Sea.
June 16, 1833.

—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary.  He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.


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I read Grammar of Assent many years ago and really didn't get it, and don't remember much of it now. I should read it again--I think it would be a lot more useful to me now. The Apologia on the other hand I read even longer ago, enjoyed, and still remember pretty well.

This is a fabulous entry to "52 Authors". Thank you. Newman is someone I have always been meaning to read but never gotten around to. Your post should help guide me to the best way of approaching this great Catholic thinker.

Yes, it is a really good piece.

Re the Apologia as "whiny"--I remember thinking that it sounded angry. I think he had reason to be. For some reason these words have stuck with me: "Never meant it? I maintain that I never said it."

Some interesting light on the controversy in this online facsimile of a 1913 edition: https://archive.org/stream/a599543500newmuoft#page/n19/mode/2up

How clear and concise his writing is in that explanation of his use of strong or "sharp" language. If only he'd been able to do that elsewhere, instead of his usual "dense, difficult, and often obtuse, not to mention unnecessarily long-winded" style.

About Vatican II being “Newman’s Council": I saw mention somewhere a few days ago of a 2014 book, Newman on Vatican II by Ian Ker -- has anyone here read it?

Fr. Ian Ker "...is generally regarded as the world's authority on John Henry Newman, on whom he has published more than twenty books." Wow.


I don't really agree with Robert's characterization of Newman's prose. I would describe it rather as complex but clear. At least that's how I remember it. Sometimes I have difficulty with his language which I think was sometimes a bit antique even in its time. For instance, the use of "despond" as a verb (apparently) in the quotation from Idea of a University. I emailed Robert to ask him if that was meant to be "despondent". Apparently not.

For about the 20th time in this 52 Authors series, I really want to go and read (or re-read) something by the author of the week.

Mac, I think some of it is more like what you say and some of it is like what I say. Maybe it also depends on how the I an when I read him.

I thought the point about people turning into Arians when they do not have the created and divinized humanity of Mary to venerate is brilliant. I need to re-read the Essay on Development of Doctrine

Me too, to that point about Arianism.

Robert, my view of Newman's prose is probably somewhat shaped by the fact that I first read him in a literature class, in excerpts that were undoubtedly chosen for the quality of their prose. Also, it's the Apologia that I most remember, and it's probably less dense than the philosophical-theological works.

It had occurred to me that the latria/dulia distinction does have the effect of making you realise how much your worship of God falls short; it hadn't occurred to me that this makes you a semi-Arian, which is a bit worrying. I tend to have a hard time conceiving of latria except as dulia with the volume turned up to 11, but that's simply the definition of hyperdulia. Though writing this comment has forced me to go looking for a definition - per the Catholic Encyclopaedia, "[adoration] formally consists in self-abasement before the Infinite, and in devout recognition of His transcendent excellence", which makes sense. (All hail google! (With the dulia due to created things, of course.))

Regarding "despondent", "-ent/-ant" is a suffix in Old French that turns a verb into an adjective equivalent to the "-ing" participle in English. So if you see it on the end of a word it usually implies a corresponding verb, e.g. "repellent" -> "repel" (note that a verb ending in "-ate" has that ending replaced, e.g. "arrogate/arrogant"); though there are cases where the original verb has gone by the wayside, e.g. "patient". But examples can be multiplied - absorbant, dependent, apparent, effervescent, cromulant, etc.

I don't mind Newman's prose in the Grammar, which I love, but I find it pompous in the Idea of a University, which I find soporific

I'm going to confess that I start getting drowsy when I see words like "latria" and "dulia", and think it's good that we have theologians to worry about such things. But that second paragraph of the two that Robert quotes on the subject is just a killer, as much in style as in substance.

I recognized the use of "despond" as a verb as reasonable, but I don't think I had ever encountered it before. It occurs to me now to wonder if it's meant to be taken as a verb in "Slough of Despond"--the place where one desponds, rather than "Slough of Despondency", which is how I'd always taken it.

By the way, El Gaucho, you're welcome.

I've always loved the phrase "Slough of Respond." If there were nothing else good in PP, that would be worth the price of the book. Of course, the are other good things.



Pilgrim's Progress. That's where the Slough is.


That's the Slough of Despond. The Slough of Respond is where you are when you get so far behind on your correspondence that you just give up.

I've read PP, but don't remember details. I remember phantom tollbooth much more. :)

Oh dear. What an idiot I am.

Anyway, Robert, I remember Phantom Tollbooth better, too, but there are a couple of things in Pilgrim's Progress that have been really helpful to me.


I thought that was probably just auto-correct messing with you again.:-)

You know, it might have been. I can't remember which machine I was using.

If I had my Kindle at work, I would try it and see.


Slough of Respond.

Yep. It was autocorrect.


My introduction to Newman was a very funny essay, in a collection of humorous writing. I've often had the feeling subsequently that his prose is not quite as advertised. I really enjoyed Loss and Gain, though. There are some very funny moments in that.

There are a couple of nicely observed scenes of academic conversation over breakfast. Mentioning the novel now brings to mind how years ago I invited an American student that I'd just met to have breakfast with me the next day, and was baffled by her snapping "No!" (The bafflement makes the occasion memorable.) We never spoke to one another after that. I had no interest in associating with such a boor. I don't know what she thought of me. Only very recently, watching some tedious American comedy show, it struck me that she probably took it for a pick-up line, and that she might not have responded the same way to an invitation to lunch or tea. Then again, she might just have had no manners.

That's rather funny, Paul. If a bit baffling.

I am also laughing at the Slough of Respond, which I hadn't seen 'til now.

When Bill was working at the museum, he asked a new employee if he could sit with her in the breakroom and she told him no. Fairly soon she figured out he was an okay guy, though.


It makes you wonder what people have been through, that they should be unable (or unwilling) to be civil in an ordinary human interaction.

I can't think of any idiosyncratically American slant on meeting for breakfast that would account for the reaction. She must have thought you meant "would you like to spend the night with me?"

But then again she may have just been a boor.

Well yes, that's what I think. But it never occurred to me at the time.

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