“Spokesmen and Prophets of the Human Family:” St. John Henry Newman’s Defense

It is apparent our times are in need of St. John Henry Newman’s emphasis on persons, the personal nature of reality, life, and history. Anxieties abound over ‘systemic,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘economic’, and ‘historical’ forces, as if mankind were driven by impersonal semi-spirits rather than particular human choices. Thus, blanket accusations of various kinds are often levied without measured accounts of personal motive, intention, or meaning.

For example, many today are questioning the value of classic works of literature, and the classical heritage they represent, even accusing Western Civilization itself of racism.  Of what value is ancient antiquity, so far in the past, and riddled with mistakes and corruption? Rather than quickly dismiss or villainize the past, Newman asks us to approach the persons of the past with humility, gratitude, and docility. The heritage of classical antiquity, and of classic works of literature in particular, is a heritage of persons devoted to excellence of various kinds. When we study a classic work, we are at the feet of a master, whose excellent thoughts gave forth an excellent voice that has resounded across space and time, universal in its scope, depth, and influence. As in all places and times, our pursuit of excellence is marred by error and sin; but as God’s beloved creatures, and most especially by Christ’s grace, we are still able not only to overcome our sins by repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but can also produce work of profundity, universality, and beauty.

Newman’s interest in classic literature spans his entire life, from his young years as an Oxford student, to his life as a Catholic priest and founder of the Catholic University in 1854, to the founding of the Oratory School, and to the very end of his life His lecture “On Literature,” delivered to his Catholic University and collected at the end of Idea of a University, provides a compelling case for keeping the classics: classic works of literature are means by which we come in contact with the thoughts of past masters.

As a younger man, Newman wrote a brilliant essay on poetry titled “Poetry with Reference to Aristotle’s Poetics,” published in 1829 in the flagship edition of The London Review written by Blanco White. Newman offers his own unique argument about what makes for excellent literature. Whereas Aristotle focused on “scientific correctness of the plot” to portray an ideal, Newman thinks there is something else that makes literature truly excellent. He notes that, ironically, most of Greek poetry did not strictly follow Aristotle’s ideal of a meticulously structured plot, but that the power of Sophocles and Aeschylus arises from the pathos and mode of their diction, the emotive force of characters’ speech. In sum, Newman thinks that truly great literature that is read and re-read for generations, for centuries, arises from the character and genius of the author. He calls this the “originality of right moral feeling.” While fashioning a compelling plot and structure is the “material” of great poetry, he distinguishes its source as “a right moral state of heart,” which is the “formal and scientific condition of a poetical mind.” This does not mean that great poets are perfect. There are, indeed, celebrated poets who lived incredibly immoral lives. But it means that their poetic genius arises from having come close to, for however brief a moment, “right moral feeling” through perception of truth or beauty, however shadowy. 

He does not deny that practical skill and native talent is necessary. “Talent for composition” is necessary, but not essential. The essential source of beauty and eloquence in truly great literature is the character of the author cooperating with transcendent moral goodness, glimpsing truth and communicating, well, what he sees. This is why, interestingly, he cites “Revealed Religion” as the most “poetical”–the authors of Scripture and the Church are vehicles by which God’s eloquence speaks to man, a voice spoken by Him who is most truly good, beautiful, and true. 

In his essay “On Literature,” He begins by wondering what makes “Literature,” or “Letters,” distinct as an academic discipline. It can’t be just the study of books, since students in the sciences, history, and philosophy also use books. And it is not just about “composition,” or writing with “style,” as if it “were the result of a mere art or trick of words,” since authors in any discipline should use sound style, and beauty is naturally sought after in other arts and disciplines, and is not merely dispensable “prettiness.” Literature is primarily the manifestation of character. It is in the highest sense not an objective science that deals with “things,” but a subjective study of personal “thoughts,” like, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (literally in French, Thoughts), which are not only philosophical musings, but also stylistic revelations of Pascal’s personal character. The study of Literature is not a mere study of words, but a study of the great thoughts of a great person crafted with eloquence. 

Newman’s context was much different from our own. Today we hear arguments about the classics being out-dated, irrelevant, or now racist. Newman was writing against three other arguments, that Classic Literature is 1) just a matter of using fancy words, 2) impossible to translate, and 3) inferior to Scripture, which is possible to translate. The details of his response to these arguments are not important for our purposes so much as his conclusion, which hearkens back to his arguments about Aristotle’s Poetics, namely, that the study of Literature is not a mere study of words, but study of the great thoughts of a great person made eloquent in words. 

Newman reasons that, while Literature is written and not spoken, it is writing meant to be published; that is, it is an extension of the author’s voice across time and space, and thus is a “long course of thought” addressed to “the ear, not to the eye.” Further, speaking thoughts is “essentially a personal work,” proceeding from “some one given individual.” Literature is distinct from writing in “metaphysics, ethics, law, political economy, chemistry, theology” in that it is not subject to “severe scientific treatment” in the same degree, since it is more like hearing personal reflection or narration. For example, a pastor might study theology and write a theological treatise. But, when he turns to give a sermon, the expression of his unique character within and across the theological datum becomes “Pulpit Eloquence,” and may now rise (or not) to the level of Sacred Oratory, of rhetorical, spoken art. It now has the potential to carry a literary quality.

So, “Literature is the personal use or exercise of language.” Newman describes how a great author’s use of eloquent words becomes “the faithful expression of his intense personality,” in a passage fittingly show-casing his great personal style:

The throng and succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, aspirations, which pass within him, the abstractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so original in him, his views of external things, his judgments upon life, manners, and history, the exercises of his wit, of his humor, of his depth, of his sagacity, all these innumerable and incessant creations, the very pulsation and throbbing of his intellect, does he image forth, to all does he give utterance, in a corresponding language, which is as multiform as this inward mental action itself and analogous to it, the faithful expression of his intense personality, attending on his own inward world of thought as its vey shadow…

In reading literature, we not only read about great characters, but in the very process of reading, we come into the presence of the great character of the author, whose “thought and feeling are personal,” and “so his language is personal.” Reading literature is an intimate encounter with the person of the author.

This is rooted in the “inseparable” connection between “thought and speech,” a connection captured by the complexity of the Greek world Logos, which can mean both reason and speech. Accordingly, an author’s style is “a thinking out into language,” not mere words, but “thought expressed in language.” It is deep thought about great matter made intelligible, communicable, through the practical craftsmanship of writing. The reader discovers both what the author said and what he thought, a nearly incarnational encounter of idea and expression, thought and word, intention and meaning. The words are not mere ornamentation or external trappings, but integral to the meaning and thought of the author. Language is the “lawful wife in her own house” of reason, not reason’s “mere mistress.”

Therefore, it might be said that we should talk less about “Great Books” and more about “Great Authors”, or better yet, “Great Persons,” in the canon of Classical Literature. The poet T.S. Eliot, who was influenced by Newman’s thought, says in his essay “What is a Classic?” that a classic can occur only in a civilization that is “mature,” and must be the product of a “mature mind,” of a human person who has been thoroughly cultivated by a well-cultivated nation. Newman explains that the greatest writers, in company with Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare, produce mature work because they do not aim at “diction for its own sake,” but being “inspired with their subject” pour forth “beautiful words because they had beautiful thoughts.” The “fire within the author’s breast… overflows in the torrent of his burning, irresistible eloquence… the poetry of his inner soul.” Like Aristotle’s “magnanimous man,” the “lofty intellect” of the author intones in his voice, the great “elocution of a great intellect.” In reading the great classic works, the reader is at the feet of a master whose “language expresses not only his great thoughts, but his great self” in a flourish of detail that the “narrow critic will call verbiage, when really it is a sort of fullness of heart.”

Fittingly, then, Newman sees the exchange between great author and reader as a great heart speaking to hearts (his famous motto is Cor ad cor loquitur), a “gorgeousness of phraseology or diffuseness of style” that is more like the vocalized intimacy of lovers than wooden pedantry. A great work of literature is “the development of the inner man,” a subject so taken with his work, like Cicero, as to express “lofty sentiments in lofty sentences.” The reader is brought in contact with the “personal presence” of the author, in a manner unlike any other kind of writing or academic discourse. 

We should not so readily dispense with placing ourselves in the presence of these great masters of classical literature and history. If one seeks to excel at piano, she will seek the best teacher she can find. If one desires to perfect her painting, she will copy the masters, living and dead. If one wishes to be morally excellent, he will surround himself with like-minded morally excellent persons. The great abysses of time and space do not mitigate this natural human process of developing excellence in what poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow calls the “living present.” In pursuit of excellence, we must place ourselves at the feet of those who have mastered excellence. 

So, what is it that classical authors have mastered? Why are they worthwhile to listen to, linger with? They have mastered the “two-fold Logos, the thought and the word,” brought together in the “faculty of Expression.” They have mastered the art of having something to say and know how to say it. Throughout the ages, there are rare masterful geniuses of this art who have not only thought deeply of the deepest questions of human experience, but who then express that thought in a manner that “all feel, but all cannot say.” Through inquiring into the depths of human experience, of God, nature, others, and self, these great authors express their deep thought in a manner that becomes “a catholic and ecumenical character,” expressing what is “common to the whole race of man,” touching hearts in all places and all times with universal human thoughts and themes. Before these masters of such great achievement, the only proper response is the humility, gratitude, and docility of a learner, an auditor. 

The current fury to dispense with the classics as a symbol of all evil and oppression, like the slighted Juno chasing down Aeneas because her favored Carthage does not share Rome’s destiny, is motivated more by pride, envy, and bitterness. Those who want to cancel the classics are on a vendetta of historical revenge, knowing nothing of the forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility that Christianity taught the classical world. Yet even those on a mission for historical revenge are seeking what they, ironically would find in their great enemies: the real, not contrived, possibility for unity among mankind, a sense of brotherhood and solidarity between humans across all generations, in all times and places, fundamentally united by the same search for meaning, experience, goodness, beauty, and authenticity. Lacking a sense of true human unity, they seek to scrub out all that does not fit their own narrow and cramped sense of present justice, what Eliot calls “parochialism not of space, but of time.” They are vindictive against the past because they are cut off from it, ignorant of the merciful grandeur of what German scholar Theodor Haecker calls the great idea of “universal Man,” that all humans in all times and places can share a common bond. Newman’s conclusion to his essay is, again fittingly, a beautiful flourish on the human bond brought about by reading the great masters of thought and speech: 

If then the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named,–if the origin of language is by many philosophers even considered to be nothing short of divine,–if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,–if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,–if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,–it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become on our own measure ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,–who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.

Reading classic literature, in fact, puts us in the personal presence of great hearts, teaching us to ponder the same great thoughts expressed in great words, that we, in our measure, may also master thought and speech to become a source of good, consolidation, hope, wisdom, and charity to others. We read great authors to become great souls, great persons, great hearts. If this is not so, then why bother?

Further reading:

St. John Henry Newman “On Literature”

T.S. Eliot, “What is a Classic?”

Theodor Haecker, Virgil, Father of the West 

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