Loss and Gain

Loss and gain: the story of a convert (1848) is a novel based on Newman’s undergraduate days at Oxford. It was among the first of the genre of university novels – and the first to directly link the protagonist’s personal growth to a university experience.  It was also the first coming-of-age novel or Bildungsroman to make the university the central or primary character.

Newman’s Oxford is a self-contained learning environment inhabited by earnest young men who are forming their life views, casting them into words, putting them on an intellectual basis, and testing them out on others. In describing how students mature both morally and intellectually, Newman draws the distinction between those who come to form a coherent ‘view’ and those who come to acquire an insubstantial ‘viewiness’, which perhaps remains with them all their lives.

‘When, then, men for the first time look upon the world of politics or religion, all that they find there meets their mind’s eye as a landscape addresses itself for the first time to a person who has just gained his bodily sight. One thing is as far off as another; there is no perspective. The connection of fact with fact, truth with truth, the bearing of fact upon truth, and truth upon fact, what leads to what, what are points primary and what secondary—all this they have yet to learn. It is all a new science to them, and they do not even know their ignorance of it.’

Some students develop a comprehensive perspective of the landscape of life by painstakingly piecing together fragments of vision, experience and action, and thereby construe a coherent picture of the world which gives them the possibility of living a coherent life. Others ‘have no consistency in their arguments’; they argue one way today, and another the next. ‘Their lines of argument diverge; nothing comes to a point; there is no one centre in which their minds sits, on which their judgment of men and things proceeds.’

Though Newman’s hero is less well-read and knowledgeable than a college friend, the friend turns out to be too quick to form a view, impatient to reduce things to a system and over-fond of argument, and ends up as glib and superficial; it is instead the protagonist who acquires a consistent and true view of things by means of patient questioning, the careful sifting of facts and discernment of principles, a refusal to take intellectual short-cuts or to make do with simplistic explanations.

Implicit in the story is that what makes this process possible is the residential nature of a university which provides for such formative opportunities outside the lecture hall; by means of the collegiate structure (of Oxford) and the human scale of domestic arrangements, the right conditions are provided for the flourishing of the individual student through the companionship and friendship nurtured there.

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