Support Site Improvements

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

I HAVE had some debate with myself, whether what are called myths and parables, and similar compositions of a representative nature, are in keeping with this work; yet, considering that the early Christians recognized the Logi of the classical writers as not inconsistent with the gravity of their own literature, not to mention the precedent afforded by the sacred text, I think I may proceed, without apology to myself or others, to impart to the reader in confidence, while it is fresh on my mind, a conversation which I have just had with an intimate English friend, on the general subject to which these columns are devoted. I do not say that it was of a very important nature; still to those who choose to reflect, it may suggest more than it expresses. It took place only a day or two ago, on occasion of my paying him a flying visit.

My friend lives in a spot as convenient as it is delightful. The neighbouring hamlet is the first station out of London of a railroad; while not above a quarter of a mile from his boundary wall flows the magnificent river, which moves towards the metropolis through a richness of grove and meadow of its own creation. After a liberal education, he entered a lucrative business; and, making a competency in a few years, exchanged New Broad Street for the “fallentis semita vitæ.” Soon after his marriage, which followed this retirement, his wife died, and left him solitary. Instead of returning to the world, or seeking to supply her place, he gave himself to his garden and his books; and with these companions he has passed the last twenty years. He has lived in a largish house, the “monarch of all he surveyed;” the sorrows of the past, his creed, and the humble chapel not a stone’s throw from his carriage-gate, have saved him from the selfishness of such a sovereignty, and the oppressiveness of such a solitude; yet not, if I may speak candidly, from some of the inconveniences of a bachelor life. He has his own fixed views, from which it is difficult to move him, and some people say that he discourses rather than converses, though, somehow, when I am with him, from long familiarity, I manage to get through as many words as he.

I do not know that such peculiarities can in any case be called moral defects; certainly not, when contrasted with the great mischiefs which a life so enjoyable as his might have done to him, and has not. He has indeed been in possession of the very perfection of earthly happiness, at least as I view things;—mind, I say of “earthly;” and I do not say that earthly happiness is desirable. On the contrary, man is born for labour, not for self; what right has any one to retire from the world and profit no one? He who takes his ease in this world, will have none in the world to come. All this rings in my friend’s ears quite as distinctly as I may fancy it does in mine, and has a corresponding effect upon his conduct; who would not exchange consciences with him? but still the fact remains, that a life such as his is in itself dangerous, and that, in proportion to its attractiveness. If indeed there were no country beyond the grave, it would be our wisdom to make of our present dwelling-place as much as ever we could; and this would be done by the very life which my friend has chosen, not by any absurd excesses, not by tumult, dissipation, excitement, but by the “moderate and rational use,” as Protestant sermons say, “of the gifts of Providence.”

Easy circumstances, books, friends, literary connexions, the fine arts, presents from abroad, foreign correspondents, handsome appointments, elegant simplicity, gravel walks, lawns, flower beds, trees and shrubberies, summer houses, strawberry beds, a greenhouse, a wall for peaches, “hoc erat in votis”;—nothing out of the way, no hot-houses, graperies, pineries,—“Persicos odi, puer, apparatus,”—no mansions, no parks, no deer, no preserves; these things are not worth the cost, they involve the bother of dependents, they interfere with enjoyment. One or two faithful servants, who last on as the trees do, and cannot change their place:—the ancients had slaves, a sort of dumb waiter, and the real article; alas! they are impossible now. We must have no one with claims upon us, or with rights; no incumbrances; no wife and children; they would hurt our dignity. We must have acquaintance within reach, yet not in the way; ready, not troublesome or intrusive. We must have something of name, or of rank, or of ancestry, or of past official life, to raise us from the dead level of mankind, to afford food for the imagination of our neighbours, to bring us from time to time strange visitors, and to invest our home with mystery. In consequence we shall be loyal subjects, good conservatives, fond of old times, averse to change, suspicious of novelty, because we know perfectly when we are well off, and that in our case “progredi est regredi.” To a life such as this, a man is more attached, the longer he lives; and he would be more and more happy in it too, were it not for the memento within him, that books and gardens do not make a man immortal; that, though they do not leave him, he at least must leave them, all but “the hateful cypresses,” and must go where the only book is the book of doom, and the only garden the Paradise of the just.

All this has nothing to do with our University, but nevertheless they are some of the reflections which came into my mind, as I left the station I have spoken of, and turned my face towards my friend’s abode. As I went along, on the lovely afternoon of last Monday, which had dried up the traces of a wet morning, and as I fed upon the soothing scents and sounds which filled the air, I began to reflect how the most energetic and warlike race among the descendants of Adam, had made, by contrast, this Epicurean life, the “otium cum dignitate,” the very type of human happiness. A life in the country in the midst of one’s own people, was the dream of Roman poets from Virgil to Juvenal, and the reward of Roman statesmen from Cincinnatus to Pliny. I called to mind the Corycian old man, so beautifully sketched in the fourth Georgic, and then my own fantastic protestation in years long dead and gone, that, if I were free to choose my own line of life, it should be that of a gardener in some great family, a life without care, without excitement, in which the gifts of the Creator screened off man’s evil doings, and the romance of the past coloured and illuminated the matter-of-fact present.

“Otium divos,” I suppose the reader will say. Smiling myself at the recollection of my own absurdity, I passed along the silent avenues of solemn elms, which, belonging to a nobleman’s domain, led the way towards the humbler dwelling for which I was bound; and then I recurred to the Romans, wandering in thought, as in a time of relaxation one is wont; and I contrasted, or rather investigated, the respective aspects, one with another, under which a country life, so dear to that conquering people nationally, presented itself severally to Cicero, to Virgil, to Horace, and to Juvenal, and I asked myself under which of them all was my friend’s home to be regarded. Then suddenly the scene changed, and I was viewing it in my own way; for I had known him since I was a schoolboy, in his father’s time; and I recollected with a sigh how I had once passed a week there of my summer holidays, and what I then thought of persons and things I met there, of its various inmates, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, all of them, except himself and me, now numbered with the departed. Thus Cicero and Horace glided off from my field of view, like the circles of a magic lantern; and my ears, no longer open to the preludes of the nightingales around me, which were preparing for their nightly concert, heard nothing but

The voices of the dead, and songs of other years.

Thus, deep in sad thoughts, I reached the well-known garden gate, and unconsciously opened it, and was upon the lower lawn, advancing towards the house, before I apprehended shrubberies and beds, which were sensibly before me, otherwise than through my memory. Then suddenly the vivid past gave way, and the actual present flowed in upon me, and I saw my friend pacing up and down on the side furthest from me, with his hands behind him, and a newspaper or some such publication in their grasp.

It is an old-fashioned place; the house may be of the date of George the Second; a square hall in the middle, and in the centre of it a pillar, and rooms all around. The servants’ rooms and offices run off on the right; a rookery covers the left flank, and the drawing-room opens upon the lawn. There a large plane tree, with its massive branches, whilome sustained a swing, when there were children on that lawn, blithely to undergo an exercise of head, at the very thought of which the grown man sickens. Three formal terraces gradually conduct down to one of the majestic avenues, of which I have already spoken; the second and third, intersected by grass walks, constitute the kitchen-garden. As a boy, I used to stare at the magnificent cauliflowers and large apricots which it furnished for the table; and how difficult it was to leave off, when once one got among the gooseberry bushes in the idle morning!

I had now got close upon my friend; and, in return for the schoolboy reminiscences and tranquil influences of the place, was ungrateful enough to begin attacking him for his epicurean life. “Here you are, you old pagan,” I said, “as usual, fit for nothing so much as to be one of the interlocutors in a dialogue of Cicero’s.”

“You are a pretty fellow,” he made answer, “to accuse me of paganism, who have yourself been so busily engaged just now in writing up Athens;” and then I saw that it was several numbers of the Gazette, which he had in his hand, and which perhaps had given energy to his step.

After giving utterance to some general expressions of his satisfaction at the publication, and the great interest he took in the undertaking to which it was devoted, he suddenly stopped, turned round upon me, looked hard in my face, and taking hold of a button of my coat, said abruptly: “But what on earth possessed you, my good friend, to have anything to do with this Irish University? what was it to you? how did it fall in your way?”

I could not help laughing out; “O I see,” I cried, “you consider me a person who cannot keep quiet, and must ever be in one scrape or another.”

“Yes, but seriously, tell me,” he urged, “what had you to do with it? what was Ireland to you? you had your own line and your own work; was not that enough?”

“Well, my dear Richard,” I retorted, “better do too much than too little.”

“A tu quoque is quite unworthy of you,” he replied; “answer me, charissime, what had you to do with an Irish undertaking? do you think they have not clever men enough there to work it, but you must meddle?”

“Well,” I said, “I do not think it is an Irish undertaking, that is, in such a sense that it is not a Catholic undertaking, and one which intimately and directly interests other countries besides Ireland.”

“Say England,” he interposed.

“Well, I say and mean England: I think it most intimately concerns England; unless it was an affair of England, as well as of Ireland, I should have sympathized in so grand a conception, I should have done what I could to aid it, but I should have had no call, as you well say, I should have considered it presumption in me, to take an active part in its execution.”

He looked at me with a laughing expression in his eye, and was for a moment silent; then he began again:

“You must think yourself a great genius,” he said, “to fancy that place is not a condition of capacity. You are an Englishman; your mind, your habits are English; you have hitherto been acting only upon Englishmen, with Englishmen; do you really anticipate that you will be able to walk into a new world, and to do any good service there, because you have done it here? Ne sutor ultra crepidam. I would as soon believe that you could shoot your soul into a new body, according to the Eastern tale, and make it your own.”

I made him a bow; “I thank you heartily,” I said, “for the seasonable encouragement you give me in a difficult undertaking; you are determined, Richard, that I shall not get too much refreshment from your shrubberies.”

“I beg your pardon,” he made answer, “do not mistake me; I am only trying to draw you out; I am curious to know how you came to make this engagement; you know we have not had any talk together for some time.”

“It may be as you say,” I answered; “that is, I may be found quite unequal to what I have attempted; but, I assure you, not for want of zealous and able assistance, of sympathizing friends,—not because it is in Ireland, instead of England, that I have to work.”

“They tell me,” he replied, “that they don’t mean to let you have any Englishmen about you if they can help it.”

“You seem to know a great deal more about it here than I do in Ireland,” I answered: “I have not heard this; but still, I suppose, in former times, when men were called from one country to another for a similar purpose, as Peter from Ireland to Naples, and John of Melrose to Paris, they did in fact go alone.”

“Modest man!” he cried, “to compare yourself to the sages and doctors of the Middle Age! But still the fact is not so: far from going alone, the very number they could and did spare from home is the most remarkable evidence of the education of the Irish in those times. Moore, I recollect, emphatically states, that it was abroad that the Irish sought, and abroad that they found, the rewards of their genius. If any people ought to suffer foreigners to come to them, it is they who have, with so much glory to themselves, so often gone to foreigners. In the passage I have in my eye, Moore calls it ‘the peculiar fortune of Ireland, that both in talent and in fame her sons have prospered more signally abroad than at home; that not so much those who confined their labours to their native land, as those who carried their talents and zeal to other lands, won for their country the high title of the Island of the Holy and the Learned.’ But, not to insist on the principle of reciprocity, jealousy of foreigners among them is little in keeping with that ancient hospitality of theirs, of which history speaks as distinctly.”

“Really,” I made answer, “begging your pardon, you do not quite know what you are talking about. You never were in Ireland, I believe; am I likely to know less than you? If there be a nation, which in matters of intellect does not want ‘protection,’ to use the political word, it is the Irish. A stupid people would have a right to claim it, when they would set up a University; but, if I were you, I would think twice before I paid so bad a compliment to one of the most gifted nations of Europe, as to suppose that it could not keep its ground, that it would not take the lead, in the intellectual arena, though competition was perfectly open. If their ‘grex philosophorum’ spread in the medieval time over Europe, in spite of the perils of sea and land, will they not be sure to fill the majority of chairs in their own University in an age like this, from the sheer claims of talent, though these chairs were open to the world? No; a monopoly would make the cleverest people idle; it would sink the character of their undertaking, and Ireland herself would be the first to exclaim against the places of a great school of learning becoming mere pieces of patronage and occasions for jobbing, like the sees of the Irish Establishment.”

My friend did not reply, but looked grave; at length he said that he was not stating what ought to be, but what would be; Irishmen boasted, and justly, that in ancient times they went to Melrose, to Malmesbury, to Glastonbury, to East Anglia, to Oxford; that they established themselves in Paris, Ratisbon, Padua, Pavia, Naples, and other continental schools; but there was in fact no reciprocity now; Paris had not been simply for Frenchmen, nor Oxford simply for Englishmen, but Ireland must be solely for the Irish.

“Really, in truth,” I made answer, “to speak most seriously, I think you are prejudiced and unjust, and I should be very sorry indeed to have to believe that you expressed an English sentiment. I am sure you do not. However, you speak of what you simply do not know. In Ireland, as in every country, there is of course a wholesome jealousy towards persons placed in important posts, such as my own, lest they should exercise their power unfairly; there is a fear of jobs, not a jealousy of English; and I don’t suppose you think I am likely to turn out a jobber. This is all I can grant you at the utmost, and perhaps I grant too much. But I do most solemnly assure you, that, as far as I have had the means of bearing witness, there is an earnest wish in the promoters and advocates of this great undertaking to get the best men for its execution, wherever they are to be found, in England, or in France, or in Belgium, or in Germany, or in Italy, or in the United States; though there is an anticipation too, which is far from unreasonable, that for most of the Professorships of the University the best men will be found in Ireland. Of course in particular cases, there ever will be a difference of opinion who is the best man; but this does not interfere at all, as is evident, with the honest desire on all sides, to make the Institution a real honour to Ireland and a defence of Ireland’s faith.”

My companion again kept silence, and so we walked on; then he suddenly said: “Come let us have some tea, since you tell me,” (I had told him by letter,) “that you cannot take a bed; the last train is not overlate.”

As we walked towards the house, “The truth is,” he continued, speaking slowly, “I had another solution of my own difficulty myself. I cannot help thinking that your Gazette makes more of persons than is just, and does not lay stress enough upon order, system, and rule, in conducting a University. This is what I have said to myself. ‘After all, suppose there be an exclusive system, it does not much matter; a great institution, if well organized, moves of itself, independently of the accident of its particular functionaries.’ … Well now, is it not so?” he added briskly; “you have been laying too much stress upon persons?”

I hesitated how best I should begin to answer him, and he went on:—“Look at the Church herself; how little she depends on individuals; in proportion as she can develop her system, she dispenses with them. In times of great confusion, in countries under conversion, great men are given to her, great Popes, great Evangelists; but there is no call for Hildebrands or Ghislieris in the nineteenth century, or for Winfrids or Xaviers in modern Europe. It is so with states; despotisms require great monarchs, Turkish or Russian; constitutions manage to jog on without them; this is the meaning of the famous saying, ‘Quantulâ sapientiâ regitur mundus!’ What a great idea again, to use Guizot’s expression, is the Society of Jesus! what a creation of genius is its organization; but so well adapted is the institution to its object, that for that very reason it can afford to crush individualities, however gifted; so much so, that, in spite of the rare talents of its members, it has even become an objection to it in the mouth of its enemies, that it has not produced a thinker like Scotus or Malebranche. Now, I consider your papers make too much of persons, and put system out of sight; and this is the sort of consolation which occurs to me, in answer to the misgivings which come upon me, about the exclusiveness with which the University seems to me to be threatened.”

“You know,” I answered, “these papers have not got half through their subject yet. I assure you I do not at all forget, that something more than able Professors are necessary to make a University.”

“Still,” said he, “I should like to be certain you were sufficiently alive to the evils which spring from overvaluing them. You have talked to us a great deal about Platos, Hephæstions, Herods, and the rest of them, sophists one and all, and very little about a constitution. All that you have said has gone one way. You have professed a high and mighty independence of state patronage, and a conviction that the demand and supply of knowledge is all in all; that the supply must be provided before the demand in order to create it; and that great minds are the instruments of that supply. You have founded your ideal University on individuals. Then, I say, on this hypothesis, be sure you have for your purpose the largest selection possible; do not proclaim that you mean to have the tip-top men of the age, and then refuse to look out beyond one country for them, as if any country, though it be Ireland, had a monopoly of talent. Observe, I say this on your hypothesis; but I confess I am disposed to question its soundness, and it is in that way I get over my own misgiving about you. I say that, may be, your University need not have the best men; it may fall back on a jogtrot system, a routine, and perhaps it ought to do so.”

“Forbid it!” said I; “you cannot suppose that what you have said is new to me, or that I do not give it due weight. Indeed I could almost write a dissertation on the subject which you have started, that is, on the functions and mutual relations, in the conduct of human affairs, of Influence and Law. I should begin by saying that these are the two moving powers which carry on the world, and that in the supernatural order they are absolutely united in the Source of all perfection. I should observe that the Supreme Being is both,—a living, individual Agent, as sovereign as if an Eternal Law were not; and a Rule of right and wrong, and an Order fixed and irreversible, as if He had no will, or supremacy, or characteristics of personality. Then I should say that here below the two principles are separated, that each has its own function, that each is necessary for the other, and that they ought to act together; yet that it too often happens that they become rivals of one another, that this or that acts of itself, and will encroach upon the province, or usurp the rights of the other; and that then every thing goes wrong. Thus I should start, and would you not concur with me? Would it not be sufficient to give you hope that I am not taking a one-sided view of the subject of University education?”

He answered, as one so partial to me was sure to answer; that he had no sort of suspicion that I was acting without deliberation, or without viewing the matter as a whole; but still he could not help saying that he thought he saw a bias in me which he had not expected, and he would be truly glad to find himself mistaken. “Do you know,” he said, “I am surprised to find that you, of all men in the world, should be taking the intellectual line, and should be advocating the professorial system. Surely it was once far otherwise; I thought our line used to be, that knowledge without principle was simply mischievous, and that Professors did but represent and promote that mischievous knowledge. This used to be our language: and, beyond all doubt, a great deal may be said in justification of it. What is heresy in ecclesiastical history but the action of personal influence against law and precedent? and what were such heterodox teachers as the Arian leaders in primitive times, or Abelard in the middle ages, but the eloquent and attractive masters of philosophical schools? And what again were Arius and Abelard but the forerunners of modern German professors, a set of clever charlatans, or subtle sophists, who aim at originality, show, and popularity, at the expense of truth? Such men are the nucleus of a system, if system it may be called, of which disorder is the outward manifestation, and scepticism the secret life. This you used to think; but now you tell us that demand and supply are all in all, and that supply must precede demand;—and that this is a University in a nutshell.”

I laughed, and said he was unfair to me, and rather had not understood me at all. “We are neither of us theologians or metaphysicians,” said I; “yet I suppose we know the difference between a direct cause and a sine quâ non, and between the essence of a thing and its integrity. Things are not content to be in fact just what we contemplate them in the abstract, and nothing more; they require something more than themselves, sometimes as necessary conditions of their being, sometimes for their well-being. Breath is not part of man; it comes to him from without; it is merely the surrounding air, inhaled, and then exhaled; yet no one can live without breathing. Place an animal under an exhausted receiver, and it dies: yet the air does not enter into its definition. When then I say, that a Great School or University consists in the communication of knowledge, in lecturers and hearers, that is, in the Professorial system, you must not run away with the notion that I consider personal influence enough for its well-being. It is indeed its essence, but something more is necessary than barely to get on from day to day; for its sure and comfortable existence we must look to law, rule, order; to religion, from which law proceeds; to the collegiate system, in which it is embodied; and to endowments, by which it is protected and perpetuated. This is the part of the subject which my papers have not yet touched upon; nor could they well treat of what comes second, till they had done justice to what comes first.”

I thought that here he seemed disposed to interrupt me, so I interposed: “Now, please, let me bring out what I want to say, while I am full of it. I say then, that the personal influence of the teacher is able in some sort to dispense with an academical system, but that the system cannot in any sort dispense with personal influence. With influence there is life, without it there is none; if influence is deprived of its due position, it will not by those means be got rid of, it will only break out irregularly, dangerously. An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else. You will not call this any new notion of mine; and you will not suspect, after what happened to me a long twenty-five years ago, that I can ever be induced to think otherwise. No! I have known a time in a great School of Letters, when things went on for the most part by mere routine, and form took the place of earnestness. I have experienced a state of things, in which teachers were cut off from the taught as by an insurmountable barrier; when neither party entered into the thoughts of the other; when each lived by and in itself; when the tutor was supposed to fulfil his duty, if he trotted on like a squirrel in his cage, if at a certain hour he was in a certain room, or in hall, or in chapel, as it might be; and the pupil did his duty too, if he was careful to meet his tutor in that same room, or hall, or chapel, at the same certain hour; and when neither the one nor the other dreamed of seeing each other out of lecture, out of chapel, out of academical gown. I have known places where a stiff manner, a pompous voice, coldness and condescension, were the teacher’s attributes, and where he neither knew, nor wished to know, and avowed he did not wish to know, the private irregularities of the youths committed to his charge.

“This was the reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality. And then again, I have seen in this dreary state of things, as you yourself well know, while the many went their way and rejoiced in their liberty, how that such as were better disposed and aimed at higher things, looked to the right and to the left, as sheep without a shepherd, to find those who would exert that influence upon them which its legitimate owners made light of; and how, wherever they saw a little more profession of strictness and distinctness of creed, a little more intellect, principle, and devotion, than was ordinary, thither they went, poor youths, like St. Anthony when he first turned to God, for counsel and encouragement; and how, as this feeling, without visible cause, mysteriously increased in the subjects of that seat of learning, a whole class of teachers gradually arose, unrecognised by its authorities, and rivals to the teachers whom it furnished, and gained the hearts and became the guides of the youthful generation, who found no sympathy were they had a claim for it. And then moreover, you recollect, as well as I, how, as time went on and that generation grew up and came into University office themselves, then, from the memory of their own past discomfort, they tried to mend matters, and to unite Rule and Influence together, which had been so long severed, and how they claimed from their pupils for themselves that personal attachment which in their own pupillage they were not invited to bestow; and then, how in consequence a struggle began between the dry old red-tapists, as in politics they are called, and—”

Here my friend, who had been unaccountably impatient for some time, fairly interrupted me. “It seems very rude,” he said, “very inhospitable; it is against my interest; perhaps you will stay the night; but if you must go, go at once you must, or you will lose the train.” An announcement like this turned the current of my thoughts, and I started up. In a few seconds we were walking, as briskly as elderly men walk, towards the garden entrance. Sorry was I to leave so abruptly so sweet a place, so old and so dear to me; sorry to have disturbed it with controversy instead of drinking in its calm. When we reached the lofty avenue, from which I entered, Richard shook my hand, and wished me God-speed,

“portâque emittit eburnâ.”

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved