This talk was delivered as part of the Newman Club Lecture Series at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on the occasion of the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman by Pope Benedict XVI in the Fall of 2010 and presented to the Newman Club of McNeese State University in February 2011.

The Idea of a University:
“A Grand Mysterious Harmony”

by Bishop Glen John Provost

In his Dream of Gerontius, Cardinal Newman describes the ascent of a soul accompanied by his angel.  The soul is to receive from God the judgment of salvation requiring purgation.  As he approaches the inevitable reckoning, the soul senses that he is fearless and that something has overtaken him, “like the deep and solemn sound/ Of many waters” (Gerontius).   It is “a grand mysterious harmony” (Gerontius).   Since Cardinal Newman was an amateur musician, the metaphor for the soul’s peace upon nearing God’s presence is a fitting one.  I would suggest, furthermore, that this metaphor represents the basic “harmony” that he felt should animate the pursuit of truth and give definition to the idea of a university. 

John Henry Newman was born in London, February 21, 1801.  When he died eighty-nine years later, his life had spanned virtually the whole of the Victorian Period.  At a very young age and influenced by a schoolmaster, he embraced Evangelical Christianity.  This leaning towards a Calvinistic and Fundamentalist Protestantism began to transition into a more structured religious approach.   He became intellectually engaged in studying Church history and doctrine and experienced a further religious conversion, although he remained suspicious of the papacy.  In 1816 and following upon these years of deep spiritual and intellectual change, he entered Trinity College, Oxford, and upon completion of his degree was elected a fellow of Oriel College at the same university.  In 1825 he was ordained to the Anglican priesthood and received in 1828 an appointment as Vicar of St. Mary’s, the University Church, a prestigious pulpit from which the eloquence of his sermons attracted avid attention and fame. 

Settled in his role as Anglican priest, scholar, and writer, at the university that had nourished his dreams, John Henry Newman began his career of research and study.  His participation in the Oxford Movement, fueled by the famous Assize Sermon of John Keble, an Oxford professor, in 1833, corresponded also with his increasingly serious study of the Fathers of the Church.  The Oxford Movement, as the name implies, originated within the University and the intellectual circles in the Anglican Church.   Its objective was to prove the historical continuity between early Christianity and Anglican beliefs and practices.  This period saw an increasing interest in Catholicism, which led Newman in part to retire in 1841 to Littlemore, where he and a small group of companions with like sympathies led a communal life of prayer and fasting.  In 1845 study for one of his most famous works, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, prompted his decision to enter the Roman Catholic Church in October of that year.  Having been encouraged by Bishop Nicholas P. Wiseman—later a Cardinal himself—John Henry Newman went on to Rome to prepare for the Catholic priesthood.  He was ordained on Trinity Sunday 1847 and celebrated his first Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi.  Having become a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rome, a society of priests living in community with an apostolate for lay intellectual formation, he returned to England the following Christmas Eve.   Two months later he established the first Oratory in that country at Birmingham. 

This move into Catholicism came with a price, for in 1850 Rome restored the Catholic hierarchy in England which occasioned serious antipapal feeling.   The next two years were troublesome, even involving a case of criminal libel brought against John Henry Newman by a former priest who had been promoted by the Protestant Alliance to discredit Catholicism.  At this time, he initiated lectures which developed his ideas on education. 

In 1851 Archbishop Paul Cullen in Ireland asked John Henry Newman to accept the position of rector for a new Catholic university in that country.  He accepted; however, the attempt failed, but the lectures he delivered in London in 1852 to fulfill his promise to the Archbishop became the first installment of discourses for The Idea of a University.  The work remained in fact a compilation of discourses, a “work in progress,” variously published and edited over a period of several years.  The 1873 edition is for all practical purposes considered definitive, although minor changes were made by Newman until his death on August 11, 1890. The Idea of a University is his essential statement on education.  Pope Benedict XVI made particular mention of his contribution in this field recently on the occasion of the Beatification of John Henry Newman.  “Firmly opposed to any reductive or utilitarian approach, he sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together” (Homily, Mass of Beatification, September 19, 2010). 

In John Henry Newman’s thinking all knowledge forms a coherent unit.  It is, as it were, a “circle,” from which each area of study concentrates on a segment but never to the detriment of another area of study.  Knowledge should be seen in its wholeness.  Only in this way can the integrity of the study be maintained.  To omit a segment of the “circle,” pretending it does not exist or merit consideration, is a substantial error that leads to dire consequences not only in the academic world but also in the world in which the student will later live and work.  It is in “Discourse V” that he summarizes his thesis: 

    I have said that all branches of knowledge are connected together,
    because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself,
    as being the acts and the work of the Creator.  Hence it is that the
    Sciences, into which our knowledge may be said to be cast, have
    multiplied bearings one on another, and an internal sympathy, and
    admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment.  They complete,
    correct, balance each other (“Discourse V,” Knowledge Its Own End, #1).

Of course, this thinking is not original to John Henry Newman.  It finds its roots in the writings of the philosopher who dominated Oxford’s curriculum until the mid-nineteenth century:  Aristotle. 

Neither time nor space allow an in depth discussion of how Aristotle, particularly in his Metaphysics, influenced John Henry Newman’s thought.  However, it suffices to say that in the Metaphysics, Aristotle offers a critique of Plato’s epistemology, his theory of what is known and how it is known.  While Plato would argue for a doctrine of “Ideas” and “Forms,” Aristotle would argue the importance of the visible universe.  For Aristotle there are various degrees of knowledge.  In his opening argument, the philosopher posits that someone may know that a particular medicine cured the sick person of his illness.  This is knowledge by experience.  However, to know that this particular medicine will cure all persons with this particular illness—“This is a matter of art” (Metaphysics, Book 1, 981a, 10).  Art here is understood in its classical sense, that is either as knowledge or skill.  “For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the ‘why’ and the cause” (ibid, 30).  This reminds me of my doctor who recently told me that the cholesterol medication I take works, but medical science does not know why.  My mother had many home remedies that cured ailments I had as a child.  She knew they worked but also did not know why.  They both operated at the level of experience.  The art must be left to someone else. 

There is much that could be said about this fundamental, Aristotelian approach, but it is important to note what it presumes.  Nothing can be omitted when it comes to inquiry from experience.  Knowledge pursues the universal.  “All men by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics, Book 1, 980a, 1).  With this sentence, Aristotle optimistically opens his Metaphysics.  With this same optimism, John Henry Newman can proclaim, “I say, then, that the systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether, and that, in proportion to its importance” (The Idea of a University, “Discourse III,” #4).  Thus, a university, by its very nature, implies an exchange of ideas that cannot exclude any segment of inquiry without injuring the whole. 

For this reason, John Henry Newman is highly critical of what we might call today, “compartmentalization.”  It is one thing for a professor in his field to expound on his subject with authority but quite another for that same professor to apply to other fields of knowledge a conclusion from his own field that dismisses them all.  In John Henry Newman’s argument, to do such a thing would be to deprive “an intellectual atmosphere… of some of the constituent elements of daylight” (ibid, #5). 

    Here are professors gravely lecturing on medicine, or history, or
    political economy, who, so far from being bound to acknowledge,
    are free to scoff at the action of mind upon matter, or of mind upon
    mind, or the claims of mutual justice and charity (ibid).

What Newman describes we encounter today when a biology teacher enters into a discussion of history to belittle a certain period, like the Middle Ages, or a particular body, like the Church, seeking to argue in favor of his own enlightenment.  The more comprehensive intellectual approach that Newman advocates, of course, leads to one of his primary concerns in The Idea of a University, which is the place of Theology in the curriculum.

The arguments for the inclusion of Theology into the curriculum occupy Discourses II through IV.  While “science” for John Henry Newman is simply an organized body of knowledge, “theology” is “the truths we know about God put into a system” (ibid, #7).  If the object of the pursuit of knowledge is “truth” and the object is integral or whole, then eyes cannot be shut to this field of knowledge without prejudice.  He suggests that the philosopher of his day might ask of the theologian, “Why cannot you go your way, and let us go ours?”  He answers, “… in the name of the Science of Religion, ‘When Newton can dispense with the metaphysician, then may you dispense with us’” (ibid, #4).  There remains an undeniable need for experiential knowledge to dialogue with theoretical knowledge.  In the final analysis, exclusivity produces something far more disturbing than “compartmentalization”—namely, bigotry—a strong word, but one that John Henry Newman uses himself.  In John Henry Newman’s words, for a professor to consider “his own study to be the key of everything that takes place on the face of the earth…, it would not be his science which was untrue, but his so-called knowledge which was unreal.”  He would be “no longer a teacher of liberal knowledge, but a narrow-minded bigot” (“Discourse III,” #6).  It is one thing to think that your field of knowledge is the most important.  It is quite another to think that your field of knowledge gives definition to everything else. 

In Discourse IV, John Henry Newman gives examples from his own day of where a field of knowledge can make inflated judgments.  He cites a number of examples, but one will suffice, that of Political Economy.  Here the economist maintains “'…that the pursuit of wealth, that is, the endeavour[sic] to accumulate the means of future subsistence and enjoyment, is, to the mass of mankind, the great source of moral improvement’” (“Discourse IV,” #12).  John Henry Newman responds that for an economist to speak of “moral improvement” proceeding from the accumulation of wealth is an exaggeration, to say the least. 

One can only speculate as to how John Henry Newman would react to present day exaggerations.  Quoting Aristotle, he maintains:  Qui respiciunt ad pauca, de facile pronunciant, i.e. “They who contemplate a few things have no difficulty in deciding” (ibid, #4).  One is reminded of the criticism leveled against Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, when they, in their recently published The Grand Design (2010), maintain that “philosophy is dead.”  Why “… open their book by picking a pointless disciplinary fight,” asks Sean Carroll, a Senior Research Associate at California Institute of Technology, in his review of The Grand Design (Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2010).   Dr. Carroll, himself a theoretical physicist and author of From Eternity to Here, continues, “Answers to the great ‘Why?’ questions are going to be subtle and difficult.  Our best hope for constructing sensible answers lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another” (ibid).   This critique echoes from John Henry Newman’s prescient observation made over 150 years ago:

    The human mind cannot keep from speculating and systematizing;
    and if Theology is not allowed to occupy its own territory, adjacent
    sciences, nay, sciences which are quite foreign to Theology, will take
    possession of it (ibid, #14).

A university is by its very name universal in scope.  Those who pursue investigation in their field enter into dialogue with those whose expertise is the pursuit of other fields.  Only in this way can a university be a community of scholars, sharing ideas and viewpoints, logically reasoning, pursuing truth and allowing ideas to grow.  This dialogue and intercourse are contagious, because the professors and researchers pass on their enthusiasm to their students.  As I heard one commentator on John Henry Newman express it, they are like “missionaries,” whose excitement for their message infects their students.  To quote Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know.”  Knowledge and its pursuit bring greater satisfaction to the student, when nothing is excluded in order to expand knowledge or its pursuit.    

This “grand mysterious harmony”—to quote The Dream of Gerontius again—is so contrary to exclusivity and academic exaggerations.  It also “flies in the face” of the positivistic world in which we live that relegates Theology into the same category as astrology and dismisses it as easily.  From the harmony that pertains to the pursuit of knowledge, that answers the deepest desire of human beings, John Henry Newman moves into an argument for the inclusion of Theology in the “Chairs of a University” (“Discourse IV,” #15).  He concludes with three points.  First, since the University’s “profession” is “to teach all sciences,” it cannot exclude Theology.  Second, he asserts that “all sciences being connected together, and having bearings one on another, it is impossible to teach them all thoroughly, unless they all are taken into account, and Theology among them.”  Newman’s understanding of science is very broad, for to him a science is any legitimate area of study and knowledge .  Theology has an “important influence… over a great variety of sciences, completing and correcting them.”  This is an essential component to the argument, because Theology “cannot be omitted without great prejudice to the teaching of the rest.”  And, finally, if Theology is not taught, then “its province will not simply be neglected, but will be actually usurped by other sciences, which will teach, without warrant, conclusions of their own in a subject-matter which needs its own proper principles for its due formation and disposition” (ibid).   This inclusive view of Theology is very much akin to the Medieval concept of Theology as the “queen” of the sciences.  She is a monarch, whose mission it is to unify all her subjects.  If she is unseated, not only will chaos ensue but also tyranny.  When that which ensures cohesiveness is abolished, then what takes its place usurps the prerogatives of what formerly unified the whole.  The latter becomes a mere parody of the former.   

The “grand mysterious harmony” is what animates The Idea of a University.  Here knowledge is whole because all of its parts complement one another.  Faith and reason are not seen in opposition, because being legitimate fields of study, neither can contradict the other because they pursue the same end—truth.  One might compare this design proposed by John Henry Newman to an ensemble of instruments in a string quartet, an image with which he would have been all too familiar.   In a quartet the composer has set forth the music to be played by four instrumentalists—usually two violins, a viola and a cello.  Each has its role to play.  The melody can from time to time pass from one to the other.  Sometimes they can play in unison, at other times as fundamental accompaniment to one of their partners.  For a cellist to perform his part in isolation from the others would be interesting but absurd, because it would not be the quartet at its fullest, nor would it be what the composer intended the listeners to hear. 

This “grand mysterious harmony” is what sustains the whole and is the object of the parts.  John Henry Newman saw God as the origin of all things, and this one origin gave everything its sense of belonging and unity.  “All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is beneficent, be it great or small, be it perfect or fragmentary, natural as well as supernatural, moral as well as material, comes from Him” (“Discourse III,” #8).  To suggest otherwise would be to divide, exclude, and ultimately distort.  The University was the quartet, each instrument contributing to an integral insight of the whole.  That cooperation and interaction conveyed the truth that the composer intended.  Without it the listener or student, as it were, was deprived of a knowledge that would be his or her desire.  The “harmony” was “grand” and “mysterious” because it left the listener or the student or the soul yearning for more.  I would conclude with this excerpt from John Henry Newman’s Oxford University Sermons:

    Is it possible that that inexhaustible evolution and disposition of notes,
    so rich yet so simple, so intricate yet so regulated, so various yet so
    majestic, should be a mere sound, which is gone and perishes?  Can
    it be that those mysterious stirrings of heart, and keen emotions, and
    strange yearnings after we know not what, and awful impressions from
    we know not whence, should be wrought in us by what is unsubstantial,
    and comes and goes, and begins and ends in itself?  It is not so; it cannot
    be.  No, they have escaped from some higher sphere; they are the
    outpourings of eternal harmony in the medium of created sound; they
    are echoes from our Home; they are the voice of Angels, or the Magnificat
    of Saints, or the living laws of Divine Governance, or the Divine Attributes;
    something are they besides themselves, which we cannot compass, which
    we cannot utter,--though mortal man, and he perhaps not otherwise
    distinguished above his fellows, has the gift of eliciting them (Sermon 15).