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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

I HAVE it in purpose to commit to paper, time after time, various thoughts of my own, seasonable, as I conceive, when a Catholic University is under formation, and apposite in a publication, which is to be the record and organ of its proceedings. An anonymous person, indeed, like myself, can claim no authority for anything he advances; nor have I any intention of introducing or sheltering myself under the sanction of the Institution which I wish to serve. My remarks will stand amid weightier matters like the nonofficial portion of certain government journals in foreign parts; and I trust they will have their use, though they are but individual in their origin, and immethodical in their execution. When I say anything to the purpose, the gain is the University’s; when I am mistaken or unsuccessful, the failure is my own.

The Prelates of the Irish Church are at present engaged in an anxious and momentous task, which has the inconvenience of being strange to us, if it be not novel. A University is not founded every day; and seldom indeed has it been founded under the peculiar circumstances which will now attend its establishment in Catholic Ireland. Generally speaking, it has grown up out of schools, or colleges, or seminaries, or monastic bodies, which had already lasted for centuries; and, different as it is from them all, has been little else than their natural result and completion. While then it has been expanding into its peculiar and perfect form, it has at the same time been by anticipation educating subjects for its service, and has been creating and carrying along with it the national sympathy. Here, however, as the world is not slow to object, this great institution is to take its place among us without antecedent or precedent, whether to recommend or explain it. It receives, we are told, neither illustration nor augury from the history of the past, and requires to be brought into existence as well as into shape. It has to force its way abruptly into an existing state of society which has never duly felt its absence; and it finds its most formidable obstacles, not in anything inherent in the undertaking itself, but in the circumambient atmosphere of misapprehension and prejudice into which it is received. Necessary as it really is, it has to be carried into effect in the presence of a reluctant or perplexed public opinion, and that, without any counterbalancing assistance whatever, as has commonly been the case with Universities, from royal favour or civil sanction.

This is what many a man will urge, who is favourable to the project itself, viewed apart from the difficulties of the time; nor can the force of such representations be denied. On the other hand, such difficulties must be taken for what they are really worth; they exist, not so much in adverse facts, as in the opinion of the world about the facts. That opinion is the adverse fact. It would be absurd to deny, that grave and good men, zealous for religion, and experienced in the state of the country, have had serious misgivings on the subject, and have thought the vision of a Catholic University too noble, too desirable, to be possible. Still, making every admission on this score which can be required of me, I think it is true, after all, that our main adversary is to be found, not in the unfavourable judgments of particular persons, though such there are, but in the vague and diffusive influence of what is called Public Opinion.

I am not so irrational as to despise Public Opinion; I have no thought of making light of a tribunal established in the conditions and necessities of human nature. It has its place in the very constitution of society; it ever has existed, it ever will exist, whether in the commonwealth of nations, or in the humble and secluded village. But wholesome as it is as a principle, it has, in common with all things human, great imperfections, and makes many mistakes. Too often it is nothing else than what the whole world opines, and no one in particular. Your neighbour assures you that every one is of one way of thinking; that there is but one opinion on the subject; and while he claims not to be answerable for it, he does not hesitate to propound and spread it. In such cases, every one is appealing to every one else; and the constituent members of a community one by one think it their duty to defer and succumb to the voice of that same community as a whole.

It would be extravagant to maintain that this is the adequate account of the sentiments which have for some time prevailed among us as to the establishment of our University; but, so far as it holds good, this follows, viz.: that the despondency, with which the project is regarded by so many persons, is the offspring, not of their judgment, but mainly (I say it, as will be seen directly, without any disrespect) of their imagination. Public Opinion especially acts upon the imagination; it does not convince, but it impresses; it has the force of authority, rather than of reason; and concurrence in it is, not an intelligent decision, but a submission or belief. This circumstance at once suggests to us how we are to proceed in the case under consideration. Arguments are the fit weapons with which to assail an erroneous judgment, but assertions and actions must be brought to bear upon a false imagination. The mind in that case has been misled by representations; it must be set right by representations. What it asks of us is, not reasoning, but discussion. In works on Logic, we meet with a sophistical argument, the object of which is to prove that motion is impossible; and it is not uncommon, before scientifically handling it, to submit it to a practical refutation;—Solvitur ambulando. Such is the sort of reply which I think it may be useful just now to make to public opinion, which is so indisposed to allow that a Catholic University of the English tongue can be set in motion. I will neither directly prove that it is possible, nor answer the allegations in behalf of its impossibility; I shall attempt a humbler, but perhaps a not less efficacious service, in employing myself to the best of my ability, and according to the patience of the reader, in setting forth what a University is. I will leave the controversy to others; I will confine myself to description and statement, concerning the nature, the character, the work, the peculiarities of a University, the aims with which it is established, the wants it may supply, the methods it adopts, what it involves and requires, what are its relations to other institutions, and what has been its history. I am sanguine that my labour will not be thrown away, though it aims at nothing very learned, nothing very systematic; though it should wander from one subject to another, as each happens to arise, and gives no promise whatever of terminating in the production of a treatise.

And in attempting as much as this, while I hope I shall gain instruction from criticisms of whatever sort, I do not mean to be put out by them, whether they come from those who know more, or those who know less than myself;—from those who take exacter, broader, more erudite, more sagacious, more philosophical views than my own; or those who have yet to attain such measure of truth and of judgment as I may myself claim. I must not be disturbed at the animadversions of those who have a right to feel superior to me, nor at the complaints of others who think I do not enter into or satisfy their difficulties. If I am charged with being shallow on the one part, or off-hand on the other, if I myself feel that fastidiousness at my own attempts, which grows upon an author as he multiplies his compositions, I shall console myself with the reflection, that life is not long enough to do more than our best, whatever that may be; that they who are ever taking aim, make no hits; that they who never venture, never gain; that to be ever safe, is to be ever feeble; and that to do some substantial good, is the compensation for much incidental imperfection.

With thoughts like these, which, such as they are, have been the companions and the food of my life hitherto, I address myself to my undertaking.

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