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

TAKING Influence and Law to be the two great principles of Government, it is plain that, historically speaking, Influence comes first, and then Law. Thus Orpheus preceded Lycurgus and Solon. Thus Deioces the Mede laid the foundations of his power in his personal reputation for justice, and then established It in the seven walls by which he surrounded himself in Ecbatana. First we have the “virum pietate gravem,” whose word “rules the spirits and soothes the breasts” of the multitude;—or the warrior;—or the mythologist and bard;—then follow at length the dynasty and constitution. Such is the history of society: it begins in the poet, and ends in the policeman.

Universities are instances of the same course: they begin in Influence, they end in System. At first, whatever good they may have done, has been the work of persons, of personal exertions; of faith in persons, of personal attachments. Their Professors have been a sort of preachers and missionaries, and have not only taught, but have won over or inflamed their hearers. As time has gone on, it has been found out that personal influence does not last for ever; that individuals get past their work, that they die, that they cannot always be depended on, that they change; that, if they are to be the exponents of a University, it will have no abidance, no steadiness; that it will be great and small again, and will inspire no trust. Accordingly, system has of necessity been superadded to individual action; a University has been embodied in a constitution, it has exerted authority, it has been protected by rights and privileges, it has enforced discipline, it has developed itself into Colleges, and has admitted Monasteries into its territory. The details of this advance and consummation are of course different in different instances; each University has a career of its own; I have been stating the process in the logical, rather than in the historical order; but such it has been on the whole, whether in ancient or medieval times. Zeal began, power and wisdom completed: private enterprise came first, national or governmental recognition followed; first the Greek, then the Macedonian and Roman; the Athenian created, the Imperialist organized and consolidated. This is the subject I am going to enter upon to-day.

Now as to Athens, I have already shown what it did, and implied what it did not do; and I shall proceed to say something more about it. I have another reason for dwelling on the subject; it will lead me to direct attention to certain characteristics of Athenian opinion, which are not only to my immediate purpose, but will form an introduction to something I should like to say on a future occasion, if I could grasp my own thoughts, about the philosophical sentiments of the present age, their drift, and their bearing on a University. This is another matter; but I mention it because it is one out of several reasons which will set me on a course, in which I shall seem to be ranging very wide of my mark, while all the time I shall have a meaning in my wanderings.

Beginning then the subject very far back, I observe that the guide of life, implanted in our nature, discriminating right from wrong, and investing right with authority and sway, is our Conscience, which Revelation does but enlighten, strengthen, and refine. Coming from one and the same Author, these internal and external monitors of course recognize and bear witness to each other; Nature warrants without anticipating the Supernatural, and the Supernatural completes without superseding Nature. Such is the divine order of things; but man,—not being divine, nor over partial to so stern a reprover within his breast, yet seeing too the necessity of some rule or other, some common standard of conduct, if Society is to be kept together, and the children of Adam to be saved from setting up each for himself with every one else his foe,—as soon as he has secured for himself some little cultivation of intellect, looks about him how he can manage to dispense with Conscience, and find some other principle to do its work. The most plausible and obvious and ordinary of these expedients, is the Law of the State, human law; the more plausible and ordinary, because it really comes to us with a divine sanction, and necessarily has a place in every society or community of men. Accordingly it is very widely used instead of Conscience, as but a little experience of life will show us; “the law says this;” “would you have me go against the law?” is considered an unanswerable argument in every case; and, when the two come into collision, it follows of course that Conscience is to give way, and the Law to prevail.

Another substitute for Conscience is the rule of Expediency: Conscience is pronounced superannuated and retires on a pension, whenever a people is so far advanced in illumination, as to perceive that right and wrong can to a certain extent be measured and determined by the useful on the one hand, and by the hurtful on the other; according to the maxim, which embodies this principle, that “honesty is the best policy.”

Another substitute of a more refined character is, the principle of Beauty:—it is maintained that the Beautiful and the Virtuous mean the same thing, and are convertible terms. Accordingly Conscience is found out to be but slavish; and a fine taste, an exquisite sense of the decorous, the graceful, and the appropriate, this is to be our true guide for ordering our mind and our conduct, and bringing the whole man into shape. These are great sophisms, it is plain; for, true though it be, that virtue is always expedient, always fair, it does not therefore follow that every thing which is expedient, and every thing which is fair, is virtuous. A pestilence is an evil, yet may have its undeniable uses; and war, “glorious war,” is an evil, yet an army is a very beautiful object to look upon; and what holds in these cases, may hold in others; so that it is not very safe or logical to say that Utility and Beauty are guarantees for Virtue.

However, there are these three principles of conduct, which may be plausibly made use of in order to dispense with Conscience; viz., Law, Expedience, and Propriety; and (at length to come to our point) the Athenians chose the last of them, as became so exquisite a people, and professed to practise virtue on no inferior consideration, but simply because it was so praiseworthy, so noble, and so fair. Not that they discarded Law, not that they had not an eye to their interest; but they boasted that “grasshoppers” like them, old of race and pure of blood, could be influenced in their conduct by nothing short of a fine and delicate taste, a sense of honour, and an elevated, aspiring spirit. Their model man, like the pattern of chivalry, was a gentleman, καλοκᾀγαθός;—a word which has hardly its equivalent in the sterner language of Rome, where, on the contrary,

Vir bonus est quis?

Qui consulta patrum, qui leges juraque servat.

For the Romans deified Law, as the Athenians deified the Beautiful.

This being the state of the case, Athens was in truth a ready-made University. The present age, indeed, with that solidity of mind for which it is indebted to Christianity, and that practical character which has ever been the peculiarity of the West, would bargain that the True and Serviceable as well as the Beautiful should be made the aim of the Academic intellect and the business of a University;—of course,—but the present age, and every age, will bargain for many things in its schools which Athens had not, when once we set about summing up her desiderata. Let us take her as she was, and I say, that a people so speculative, so imaginative, who throve upon mental activity as other races upon mental repose, and to whom it came as natural to think, as to a barbarian to smoke or to sleep, such a people were in a true sense born teachers, and merely to live among them was a cultivation of mind. Hence they took their place in this capacity forthwith, from the time that they emancipated themselves from the aristocratic families, with which their history opens. We talk of the “republic of letters,” because thought is free, and minds of whatever rank in life are on a level. The Athenians felt that a democracy was but the political expression of an intellectual isonomy, and, when they had obtained it, and taken the Beautiful for their Sovereign, instead of king or tyrant, they came forth as the civilizers, not of Greece only, but of the European world.

A century had not passed from the expulsion of the Pisistratidæ, when Pericles was able to call Athens the “schoolmistress” of Greece. And ere it had well run out, the old Syracusan, who, upon her misfortunes in Sicily, pleaded in behalf of her citizens, conjured his fellow-citizens, “in that they had the gift of Reason,” to have mercy upon those, who had opened their land, as “a common school,” to all men; and he asks, “To what foreign land will men betake themselves for liberal education, if Athens be destroyed?” And the story is well known, when, in spite of his generous attempt, the Athenian prisoners were set to work in the stone-quarries, how that those who could recite passages from Euripides, found this accomplishment serve them instead of ransom, for their liberation. Such was Athens on the coast of the Ægean and in the Mediterranean; and it was hardly more than the next generation, when her civilization was conveyed by means of the conquests of Alexander into the very heart of further Asia, and was the life of the Greek kingdom which he founded in Bactriana. She became the centre of a vast intellectual propagandism, and had in her hands the spell of a more wonderful influence than that semi-barbarous power which first conquered and then used her. Wherever the Macedonian phalanx held its ground, thither came a colony of her philosophers; Asia Minor and Syria were covered with her schools, while in Alexandria her children, Theophrastus and Demetrius, became the life of the great literary undertakings which have immortalized the name of the Ptolemies.

Such was the effect of that peculiar democracy, in which Pericles glories in his celebrated Funeral Oration. It made Athens in the event politically weak, but it was her strength as an ecumenical teacher and civilizer. The love of the Beautiful will not conquer the world, but like the voice of Orpheus, it may for a while carry it away captive. Such is that “divine Philosophy,” in the poet’s words,

“Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose,

But musical, as is Apollo’s lute,

And a perpetual feast of nectared sweets,

Where no crude surfeit reigns.”

The Athenians then exercised Influence by discarding Law. It was their boast that they had found out the art of living well and happily, without working for it. They professed to do right, not from servile feeling, not because they were obliged, not from fear of command, not from belief of the unseen, but because it was their nature, because it was so truly pleasant, because it was such a luxury to do it. Their political bond was good will and generous sentiment. They were loyal citizens, active, hardy, brave, munificent, from their very love of what was high, and because the virtuous was the enjoyable, and the enjoyable was the virtuous. They regulated themselves by music, and so danced through life.

Thus, according to Pericles, while, in private and personal matters, each Athenian was suffered to please himself, without any tyrannous public opinion to make him feel uncomfortable, the same freedom of will did but unite the people, one and all, in concerns of national interest, because obedience to the magistrates and the laws was with them a sort of passion, to shrink from dishonour an instinct, and to repress injustice an indulgence. They could be splendid in their feasts and spectacles without extravagance, because the crowds whom they attracted from abroad, repaid them for the outlay; and such large hospitality did but cherish in them a frank, unsuspicious, and courageous spirit, which better protected them than a pile of state secrets and exclusive laws. Nor did this joyous mode of life relax them, as it might relax a less noble race, for they were warlike without effort, and expert without training, and rich in resource by the gift of nature, and, after their fill of pleasure, they were only more gallant in the field, and more patient and enduring on the march. They cultivated the fine arts with too much taste to be expensive, and they studied the sciences with too much point to become effeminate; debate did not blunt their energy, nor foresight of danger chill their daring; but, as their tragic poet expresses it, “the loves were the attendants upon wisdom, and had a share in the acts of every virtue.”

Such was the Athenian according to his own account of himself, and very beautiful is the picture; very original and attractive; very suitable, certainly, to a personage, who was to be the world-wide Professor of the humanities and the philosophic Missionary of mankind. Suitable, if he could be just what I have been depicting him, and nothing besides; but, alas! when we attentively consider what the above conception was likely in fact to turn out, as soon as it came to be carried into execution, we shall feel no surprise, on passing from panegyric to experience, that he looks so different in history, from what he promised to be in the glowing periods of the orator. The case, as I have already remarked, is very simple: if beautifulness was all that was needed to make a thing right, then nothing graceful and pleasant could be wrong; and, since there is no abstract idea but admits of being embellished and dressed up, and made pleasant and graceful, it followed as a matter of course that any thing whatever is permissible. One sees at once, that, taking men as they are, the love of the Beautiful would be nothing short of the love of the Sensual; nor was the anticipation falsified by the event: for in Athens genius and voluptuousness ever went hand in hand, and their literature, as it has come down to us, is no sample or measure of their actual mode of living.

Their literature indeed is of that serene and severe beauty, which has ever been associated with the word “classical;” and it is grave and profound enough for ancient Fathers to have considered it a preparation for the gospel; but we are concerned here, not with the writings, but with the social life of Athens. I have been speaking of her as a living body, as an intellectual home, as the pattern school of the Professorial system; and we now see where the hitch lay. She was of far too fine and dainty a nature for the wear and tear of life;—she needed to be “of sterner stuff,” if she was to aspire to the charge of the young and inexperienced. Not all the zeal of the teacher and devotion of the pupil, the thirst of giving and receiving, the exuberance of demand and supply, will avail for a University, unless some provision is made for the maintenance of authority and of discipline, unless the terrors of the Law are added to the persuasives of the Beautiful. Influence was not enough without command. This too is the reason why Athens, with all her high gifts, was at fault, not only as a University, but as an Empire. She was proud, indeed, of her imperial sway, in the season of her power, and ambitious of its extension; but, in matter of fact, she was as ill adapted to reign in the cities of the earth, as to rule in its schools. In this world no one rules by mere love; if you are but amiable, you are no hero; to be powerful, you must be strong, and to have dominion you must have a genius for organizing. Macedon and Rome were, as in politics, so in literature, the necessary complement of Athens.

Yet there is something so winning in the idea of Athenian life, which Pericles sets before us, that, acknowledging, as, alas! I must acknowledge, that that life was inseparable from the gravest disorders, in the world as it is, and much more in the pagan world, and that at best it is only ephemeral, if attempted, still, since I am now going to bid farewell to Athens and her schools, I am not sorry to be able to pay her some sort of compliment in parting. I think, then, her great orators have put to her credit a beautiful idea, which, though not really fulfilled in her, has literally and unequivocally been realized within the territory of Christianity. I am not speaking of course of the genius of the Athenians, which was peculiar to themselves, nor of those manifold gifts in detail, which have made them the wonder of the world, but of that profession of philosophical democracy, so original and so refined in its idea, of that grace, freedom, nobleness, and liberality of daily life, of which Pericles, in his oration, is specially enamoured; and, with my tenderness, on the one hand, for Athens (little as I love the radical Greek character), and my devotion to a particular Catholic Institution on the other, I have ever thought I could trace a certain resemblance between Athens, as contrasted with Rome, and the Oratory of St. Philip, as viewed in contrast with the Religious Orders.

All the creations of Holy Church have their own excellence and do their own service; each is perfect in is kind, nor can any one be measured against another in the way of rivalry or antagonism. We may admire one of them without disparaging the rest; again, we may specify its characteristic gift, without implying thereby that it has not other gifts also. Whereas then, to take up the language which my friend Richard has put into my mouth, there are two great principles of action in human affairs, Influence and System, some ecclesiastical institutions are based upon System, and others upon Influence. Which are those which flourish and fulfil their mission by means of System? Evidently the Regular Bodies, as the very word “regular” implies; they are great, they are famous, they spread, they do exploits, in the strength of their Rule. They are of the nature of imperial states. Ancient Rome, for instance, had the talent of organization; and she formed a political framework to unite to herself and to each other the countries which she successively conquered. She sent out her legions all over the earth to secure and to govern it. She created establishments which were fitted to last for ever; she brought together a hundred nations into one, and she moulded Europe on a model, which it retains even now;—and this not by a sentiment or an imagination, but by wisdom of policy, and the iron hand of Law. Establishment is the very idea, which the name of Imperial Rome suggests. Athens, on the other hand, was as fertile, indeed, in schools, as Rome in military successes and political institutions; she was as metropolitan a city, and as frequented a capital, as Rome; she drew the world to her, she sent her literature into the world; but still men came and went, in and out, without constraint; and her preachers went to and fro, as they pleased; she sent out her missions by reason of her energy of intellect, and men came on pilgrimage to her from their love for philosophy.

Observe, I am all along directing attention, not to the mental gifts of Athens, which belonged to her nature, but to what is separable from her, her method and her instruments. I repeat, that, contrariwise to Rome, it was the method of Influence: it was the absence of rule, it was the action of personality, the intercourse of soul with soul, the play of mind upon mind, it was an admirable spontaneous force, which kept the schools of Athens going, and made the pulses of foreign intellects keep time with hers.

Now, I say, if there be an Institution in the Catholic Church, which in this point of view has caught the idea of this great heathen precursor of the Truth, and has made the idea Christian,—if it proceeds from one who has even gained for himself the title of the “Amabile Santo,”—who has placed the noblest aims before his children, yet withal the freest course; who always drew them to their duty, instead of commanding, and brought them on to perform before they had yet promised; who made it a man’s praise that he “potuit transgredi, et non est transgressus, facere mala, et non fecit;” who in his humility had no intention of forming any Congregation at all, but had formed it before he knew of it, from the beauty and the fascination of his own saintliness; and then, when he was obliged to recognize it and put it into shape, shrank from the severity of the Regular, would have nothing to say to vows, and forbade propagation and dominion; whose houses stand, like Greek colonies, independent of each other and complete in themselves; whose subjects in those several houses are allowed, like Athenian citizens, freely to cultivate their respective gifts and to follow out their own mission; whose one rule is Love, and whose own weapon Influence;—I say, if all this is true of a certain Congregation in the Church, and if it so happens that that Congregation, in the person of one of its members, finds itself at the present moment in contact with the preparatory movements of the establishment of a great University, then surely I may trust, without fancifulness and without impertinence, that there is a providential fitness discernible in the circumstance of the traditions of that Congregation flowing in upon the first agitation of that design; and, though to frame, to organize, and to consolidate, be the imperial gift of St. Dominic or St. Ignatius, and beyond his range, yet a son of St. Philip Neri may aspire without presumption to the preliminary task of breaking the ground and clearing the foundations of the Future, of introducing the great idea into men’s minds, and making them understand it, and love it, and have hope in it, and have faith in it, and show zeal for it;—of bringing many intellects to work together for it, and of teaching them to understand each other, and bear with each other, and go on together, not so much by rule, as by mutual kind feeling and a common devotion,—after the conception and in the spirit of that memorable people, who, though they could bring nothing to perfection, were great (over and above their supreme originality) in exciting a general interest, and in creating an elevated taste, in the various subject-matters of art, science, and philosophy.

But here I am only in the middle of my subject, and at the end of my paper; so I must reserve the rest of what I have to say for the next Chapter.

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