The idea of a university: defined and illustrated is endlessly cited, typically by those who take a high view of a university education and see Newman as the most inspiring advocate of a liberal education.
The ten public lectures that Newman composed in 1852 are rightly considered masterpieces, for they have inspired debate on the nature and purpose of a university education like no other work in the English language – or indeed in any language. The leading Newman expert Ian Ker describes the Idea as the one educational classic.
The Idea has been described by a well-known historian of university education as ‘unquestionably the single most important treatise in the English language on the nature and meaning of higher education’; in it Newman transforms a legalistic description of the university into a thrilling, emotion-laden, higher order conception of education. (S. Rothblatt, ‘An Oxonian “idea” of a university: J. H. Newman and “well-being” ’, The history of the University of Oxford, vol. vi, ed. M. G. Brock & M. C. Curthoys (Oxford, 1997)).
The idea of a university: defined and illustrated comprises two parts: a series of lectures composed in 1852 to prepare the ground for the opening of the Catholic University in Dublin; and occasional lectures given at the University while Newman was rector. They were published individually at first, then in two separate collections in the 1850s, and only in 1873 were they were brought together (after heavy editing) under the title by which they are now known.
Newman delivered the first five lectures to the general public in Dublin on five successive Mondays, starting on 10 May 1852; the rest were ready by the autumn, but never given. All ten were published the same year, first separately and then together in a single volume under the title Discourses on the scope and nature of university education. Most people are familiar with the Discourses as the first part of The idea of a university: defined and illustrated.
The second half of the Idea comprises occasional pieces composed in the period 1854–58, most of which appeared in the Catholic University Gazette, before they were published together in 1859 as Lectures and essays on university subjects. It was only in 1873 that the two parts were brought together to form The idea of a university.
The fifth lecture was omitted in the abridged 1859 edition of the Discourses, which involved over 800 textual changes, and from the Idea of a university, which retained most of these alterations to the text. Further editions of the Idea appeared, concluding with the ninth edition of 1889, a year before Newman’s death.
For an authoritative introduction to and commentary on the Idea, see Ian Ker’s critical edition (1976). Unless otherwise stated, the citations from the Idea on this website come from the first edition of 1873.
Why read the Idea?
In the Idea of a university Newman identifies many of the central functions of a university and gives lasting literary form to an argument which still captivates readers and inspires reflections on what a university ought to be.
The Idea provides an attractive alternative to the shapeless, relativistic and uninspiring alternatives of many contemporary universities.
The concept of a university as an institution of unique purpose has all but dissolved, and contemporary universities increasingly function as performance-oriented, heavily bureaucratic, entrepreneurial organisations committed to a narrowly economic conception of human excellence.
In attempting to recover a sense of purpose for the university, several modern critiques use the Idea as a key point of reference, such as:
- Maskell & I. Robinson, The new idea of a university (2001)
- Graham, Universities: the recovery of an idea (2002)
- MacIntyre’s God, philosophy, universities (2009)
- Collini, What are universities for? (2012)
- Higton, A theology of higher education (2012).
Some use Newman as the pivotal figure in their analysis, such as:
Jaroslav Pelikan, The idea of the university: a re-examination (1992)
Sheldon Rothblatt, The modern university and its discontents: the fate of Newman’s legacies in Britain and America (1997).
Criticisms of the Idea
Inevitably the Idea of a university has been criticised, and it is useful to bear in mind these criticisms – and the responses to them.
- By advocating an acquaintance with all disciplines and a deep study of a few or one, Newman has been accused of wanting the best of both worlds but of proposing a scheme that would foster neither.
- In attempting to import Oxford into Ireland and by offering a liberal education instead of a professional training, Newman has also been accused of serving Ireland badly.
- Some have argued that Newman was obsessed about the humanities and had no real interest in science or more vocational subjects.
- Everyone who reads the Idea of a university delights in Newman’s elegant prose, but many react by claiming that his ideas are largely impractical.
- And some have deduced from the institutional failure of the Catholic University in Dublin that Newman’s Idea must have been fundamentally flawed.
- Most commentators would argue that in fact Newman managed to solve the problem of how to combine the interests of all parties at the Catholic University: a balance between protecting the initial years for a liberal education and some degree of specialisation in line with future professional studies; preparing those soon to be engaged in the business of life, yet without sacrificing the definiteness and completeness of the academic system or its demands for those to whom knowledge itself is a profession.
- The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that Newman did not give the Irish bishops the university they wanted but one he thought they needed.
- Newman set up a medical school which opened in time for the university’s second academic year, and it proved to be the most successful faculty. He tried but failed to set up a school of agriculture; he managed to establish an engineering school; and he laid the foundations of a science faculty. Furthermore, Newman’s understanding of the dynamics of science and its need for autonomy and ‘elbow room’ are illustrated in four of the ten lectures which make up the second half of the Idea.
- Newman grappled with the nuts and bolts of education while he was a Fellow and tutor in Oxford and, even more, when he was the founding rector of a new university in very difficult circumstances. He found ways to apply his ideas and was ready to make concessions and to adapt to circumstances in order to do so. He was thus a man of action and business as well as being a gifted writer and coiner of fine phrases.
- There is no evidence that the Catholic University was institutionally flawed, rather its early history shows that Newman had to battle against odds which no-one could have overcome.
Failure of the Catholic University
When told that the authorities in Dublin were beginning to unravel the constitution he had fashioned so carefully for the Catholic University, Newman told a friend: ‘I never have been wedded to any view of mine – the great question always is whether a paper constitution will work — and it costs me no trouble to believe that much has to be altered in mine. […] Internal dissension is the only real evil.’ (Newman to Ornsby, 1 August 1859)
As if to console Ornsby, he wrote soon afterwards to reassure him: ‘It does not prove that what I have written and planned will not take effect sometime and somewhere because it does not at once. […] When I am gone, something may come of what I have done at Dublin’. (Newman to Ornsby, 15 December 1859)
The Dublin ‘disaster’ fitted a pattern that was not man’s, but of a higher order: ‘It is the rule of God’s Providence that we should succeed by failure.’(Newman to Lord Braye, 29 October 1882)
Reading the Idea
The ten public lectures that Newman composed in 1852 (which form the first part of the Idea) are rightly considered educational masterpieces, for they have inspired debate on the nature and purpose of a university education like no other work in the English language. Nevertheless, readers need to be made aware of the background context if they are to make full sense of his arguments and enter into his vision of higher education.
The lectures themselves were not composed as an exhaustive exposition or systematic study of their subject matter but as an exploration of a theme; and they were written to deal with particular problems which Newman faced in the 1850s in his attempt to win over and bring together various factions within Irish society. Thus they were not meant to be an exhaustive account of Newman’s educational ideas.
The historical context is vital: the purpose of the lectures was not to inspire or guide future generations, but the much more immediate task of winning over his audience in Dublin to the type of university he was about to set up.
The Idea is really two books in one, the lectures of 1852 and the occasional papers of 1854–58, published separately in the 1850s and together only in 1873. The third volume of Newman’s educational writings, The rise and progress of universities, does not form part of the Idea, but it is needed to fill out Newman’s idea of the university because it brings out the pastoral dimension.
The Idea is about the essence of a university, not its fullness and well-being, and to discern what Newman meant by its integrity we need to look at the idea illustrated in history – at the Rise and progress of universities – and in practice – at the Catholic University in Dublin.
Readers need to be made of Newman’s prose style, as vital distinctions are so embedded in the text that the reader can become absorbed by the magnificent prose and distracted from the underlying theme. For those prepared to give his arguments the sort of critical attentiveness they call for, the lectures prove how deeply Newman thought about such matters as the relation of college to university, teaching to personal development, and the importance of new knowledge and its limitations in the formation of the human mind.
Rise and progress of universities
In 1854 Newman wrote twenty articles for the Catholic University Gazette which were like historical snapshots telling the tale of the organic growth and development of the university over two millennia. These ‘university sketches’ were published as Rise and progress of universities, and they form the third volume of Newman’s three works on ‘University Teaching’.
It was never Newman’s intention for the Dublin lectures to be taken in isolation from what he saw as three companion volumes on university education: the Dublin lectures (1852); the occasional lectures and essays (1859); and the university sketches (1856). While only the first two constitute the Idea of a university, all three examine the idea of a university: the first as the idea defined, the second as the idea illustrated, and third as the idea lived out in history.
The sketches are not intended to be historically rigorous essays about the development of the university, but a work of historical imagination. Composed in an age when the writing of history was frequently used to instruct or edify, the historical purpose of the sketches is subordinated to the didactic function of opening minds to the world of the university.
The two sketches which bring out Newman’s pastoral idea of a university are:
Some celebrated themes
Amongst many other themes from Newman’s classic text are:
The direct end of the university
The direct end of a university is knowledge or ‘cultivation of mind’, just as the direct end of hospitals is bodily health; neither of them is directly intended to make men religious or to serve some immediate practical purpose.
In arguing that the end of a university was intellectual culture, Newman was defending the university against those who burdened it with some other end, such as practical utility or religious training and morality. Following Aristotle’s argument that everything has its own perfection, whether intellectual, aesthetic, moral or practical, Newman held that,
To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible […] as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it. (Idea of a university)
Defending what he maintained was the proper business of a university, Newman wrote:
‘Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances.’ (Idea of a university)
Newman argued that ‘A University is not ipso facto a Church Institution’; like a hospital, it ‘has no direct call to make men Catholic or religious, for that is the previous and contemporaneous office of the Church’. Nevertheless the indirect effects of a university can be religious; ‘As the Church uses Hospitals religiously, so she uses Universities’. In order ‘to secure its religious character, and for the morals of its members, she has ever adopted together with it, and within its precincts, Seminaries, Halls, Colleges and Monastic Establishments’. (First draft of an Introduction to Discourse VI, 16 July 1852)
Culture of the intellect
Newman identifies the main advantage of a university education as culture of the intellect or mind. ‘Our desideratum is, not the manners and habits of gentlemen’, which can be supplied by various means besides a university, ‘but the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us’, which is usually gained only with ‘much effort and the exercise of years’. This is what Newman calls ‘real cultivation of mind’. (Idea of a university)
Newman does not deny that a university education also fosters ‘the characteristic excellences of a gentleman’, as a liberal education at university manifests itself ‘in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form’. (Idea of a university)
A trained intellect
Among the intellectual infirmities of the untrained intellect that Newman lists are those of (unconscious) self-contradiction; the inability to see difficulties in difficult subjects; mental obstinacy and prejudice; and the intemperate holding of opinions. When the intellect has been ‘properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things’, it results in ‘good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view’. In some it might develop the habits of business and the power of influencing people; in others, the talent of intellectual research. But in all ‘it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession’. (Idea of a university)
Newman develops this line of reasoning as follows: ‘It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has a sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect. He has the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world, and which has resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad. He has a gift which serves him in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.’ (Idea of a university)
Newman’s point is illustrated succinctly by the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who recalled a classics lecturer at Oxford who began his second-year lecture course by reminding them, that, apart from the few who would become teachers or dons, ‘nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest use to you in after life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view is the main, if not the sole purpose of education’ (‘Oxford Remembered’, The Times, 18 October 1975).
Enlargement of the mind
Enlargement of the mind is ‘the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements; it is a making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought’. (Idea of a university)
This organic, living knowledge, not just of things themselves, but of their mutual relations, enables the intellect to gain, ‘a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.’ (Idea of a university)
Acquiring this overview or ‘philosophical habit of mind’ is one of the chief goals of a university education. By this means a lawyer, physician, geologist, or economist studying at a University, ‘will just know where he and his science stand, he has come to it, as it were, from a height, he has taken a survey of all knowledge, he is kept from extravagance by the very rivalry of other studies, he has gained from them a special illumination and largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession, and he treats his own in consequence with a philosophy and a resource, which belongs not to the study itself, but to his liberal education’. (Idea of a university)
Knowledge and the university
The university is ‘a place of teaching universal knowledge’, which implies that its principal object is in the first place intellectual, not moral, and in the second that it entails the diffusion of knowledge rather than its advancement. This means that, in its essence, a university is neither a seminary or centre of religious training, as this would hardly make it a ‘seat of literature and science’; nor is it a research institute, because otherwise it need not have students. (Idea of a university)
‘It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies, which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those, who represent the whole circle.’ (The scope and nature of university education)
The great benefit of a university is that it brings together in one place learned men from different disciplines who, through dialogue and for the sake of peace, were forced to adjust the claims and relations of their respective subjects, and in this way ‘learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.’ (The scope and nature of university education)
In this way the student is able to grasp the ‘great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little’, even though they do not form part of his immediate studies. (Idea of a university)
‘All that exists, as contemplated by the human mind, forms one large system or complex fact, and this of course resolves itself into an indefinite number of particular facts, which, as being portions of a whole, have countless relations of every kind, one towards another.’ (Idea of a university)
A university is the ‘high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experiment and speculation; it maps out the territory of the intellect, and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected, and that there is neither encroachment nor surrender on any side’. (Idea of a university)
Newman regarded the promotion of original research as the responsibility not of universities but of academies such as the Royal Society, while at the time he upheld the idea that learning and intellectual scholarship was the distinctive vocation of the academic.
When he reminds academics that teaching rather than research is the central function of a university, he anticipates the situation described by the gentleman scholar G. M. Young, that by the 1860s and 1870s England had marched ‘through the gateway of the Competitive Examination […] out into the Waste Land of Experts each knowing so much about so little that he can neither be contradicted nor is worth contradicting’. (Victorian England: portrait of an age)
Specialisation and obsession with research and publication are not only present today but more accentuated than ever – which is why Newman’s advice is so prescient and of such pressing interest.
Michael Oakeshott has articulated Newman’s sentiments better than most in the face of the contemporary research ideology:
‘A university will have ceased to exist when its learning has degenerated into what is now called research, when its teaching has become mere instruction and occupies the whole of an undergraduate’s time, and when those who come to be taught come, not in search of their intellectual fortune but with a vitality so unroused or so exhausted that they wish only to be provided with a serviceable moral and intellectual outfit; when they come with no understanding of manners of conversation but desire only a qualification for earning a living or a certificate to let them in on the exploitation of the world.’ (‘Idea of a University’, 1950)
Nevertheless, Newman felt that research had a crucial part to play in the life of a university.
The role of research
Though Newman saw research as having its part to play in the university, he stressed that the primary function of a university is to teach rather than to undertake research. But he was careful not to draw the line too closely.
‘A professor is not to be overburdened with lectures, that he may have time for the steady pursuit and thorough mastery of his department of science or learning. […] Nor are his duties confined to the lecture hall: in this day, especially, he may be quite as usefully employed with his pen as with his tongue’ (Scheme of Rules and Regulations of the Catholic University, 1856).
Newman saw to the publication of Atlantis, a register of literature and science conducted by members of the Catholic University, which was launched in January 1858 as a biannual journal for the scholarly output of the teaching staff. As a heavyweight academic journal under the editorship of the Dean of the Faculty of Science, Atlantis provided an outlet for those academics who had few students to challenge, and it served to raise the academic tone of the University and set its sights high. Each number was about 200 pages in length and included articles of a literary and scientific nature, largely the latter.
Overall, however, Newman felt that the proper home of research lay outside the university, albeit in institutions closely connected with it. In distinguishing between the tasks of teaching and researching, Newman argues in the Idea of a university that the capacities for undertaking both are not commonly found in one and the same person, since research demands isolation and concentration, and teaching an external involvement.
Newman wrote when pressure for research was just beginning to mount – and long before it had been raised to the level of an ideology. He insisted in his lectures on the central teaching function of the university and the wider emphasis on character development.
While Newman made a certain provision for research, others such as his close friend Edward Pusey insisted that the formation of the mind should be given not only pride of place but an absolute monopoly in university life:
The object of Universities is […] not how to advance science, not how to make new discoveries, not to form new schools of mental philosophy, not to invent new modes of analysis, not to produce works in medicine, Jurisprudence or even Theology, but to form minds religiously, morally, intellectually. It would be a perversion of our institutions to turn the University into a forcing-house for intellect. (Collegiate and professorial teaching and discipline, 1854)
A famous paradox
John Henry Newman famously declared that if he ‘had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years’, as Oxford used to do at the end of the eighteenth century, then he would have no hesitation in opting for ‘that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun’. (Idea of a university)
What did he mean? Newman was speaking about which ‘was the better discipline of the intellect’, that is, which was ‘the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity’. (Idea of a university)
But he was not saying which was morally the better, because it was obvious that ‘compulsory study must be a good and idleness an intolerable mischief’. (Idea of a university)
A simpler version of the paradox runs, ‘residence without Examinations comes nearer to the idea of a University Education than examinations without residence’. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)
So what exactly is a university education, then? Newman says, ‘University Education has, properly speaking, no equivalent; what is most like an equivalent in its effect, is for a youth to be well read, well travelled, and well introduced’. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)
We shall know what University Education is by considering what School is for a boy. Parents send their sons to school because they are in the way, because home instruction is expensive, in order that there may be method in their instruction, — that they may be submitted to discipline — that they may have the stimulus of emulation — and that they may be introduced into the society of their equals, both as a moral preparation for the world, and a formation of character, and also as a means of making acquaintances and friendships which may last through life. It is these latter benefits, so needful for young men, which are provided for by a University. It is a place of residence where youths are brought together from various quarters, and brought into familiar intercourse and perpetual collision of intellect with a sufficient number of able Professors and Tutors, and of numerous fellow students, candidates together with them for examinations and degrees. (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1873)
A superficial omniscience
Newman argued that precise and accurate reading, rather than merely wide reading, is the key to educational progress, and it encapsulates the approach that he championed against those who urged a superficial omniscience.
His maxim was ‘ “a little, but well”; that is, really know what you say you know’. Applied to the teaching of classics, it was better to have a thorough understanding of how Latin syntax works, ‘how the separate portions of a sentence hang together’, than to have read through many classical authors. Newman’s principle (applied to higher studies) was that ‘A thorough knowledge of one science and a superficial acquaintance with many, are not the same thing; a smattering of a hundred things or a memory for detail, is not a philosophical or comprehensive view.’ (Idea of university)
In his sixth Dublin lecture Newman argued that ‘the practical error of the last twenty years’ was that of ‘distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not; […] All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly.’ The likely result was to ‘produce a generation frivolous, narrow-minded, and resourceless’; students would ‘leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness’. (Idea of university)
The paradox was that someone who never studied at a university might well gain a more genuine education than a university graduate.
The great teacher of Newman’s undergraduate days was Edward Copleston who was the first to live out what became the Oxford ideal, multum, non multa. One meaning of the Latin (often given in the form, non multa, sed multum) is ‘much, not many’, though the looser translation ‘depth, not breadth’ gives the sense better. The fuller form of the Latin proverb is multum non multa scire sapientis est, which can be translated as ‘it is wise to know something deeply, rather than to know many things’. Copleston’s abiding claim was that ‘to exercise the mind of the student is the business of education, rather than to pour in knowledge’.
Knowledge, an end in itself
In arguing that knowledge was as distinct from morality as it was from utility, Newman was not denying that benefits would accrue from intellectual activity pursued for its own sake; this becomes clear when he writes of the effects and indirect benefits of a university education. ‘If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.’ (Idea of a university)
This amounts to saying that intellectual virtues are substantial goods which are inseparable from their economic and social usefulness, even if this usefulness is not their main aim. Newman’s attitude is summed up in his working principle that ‘though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful’. (Idea of a university)
Likewise, while maintaining the theoretical autonomy of knowledge from morality, Newman maintains that in practice a link exists between them and that there is no clear division between the natural and supernatural orders: ‘We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.’ In both cases education entails benefits which extend beyond the purely intellectual. (Idea of a university)
Newman’s high aspirations for the role of the university as regards what we now call culture are elaborated in the Idea, where he asserts that a university training,
‘is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.’ (Idea of a university)
This sort of service to society might seem improbable in a world where the university has been all but side-lined from the public conversation; but even if this function had not been superseded by the media, it is likely that the university would have merely contributed to the lack of unity in culture and paved the way for post-modernism owing to its own loss of direction. Instead, universities have new roles assigned to them: witness government obsession with the university as an agent of knowledge creation and, in the West, with social mobility. To the extent that the university neglects its role of nurturing well-formed and educated citizens, it will form adults incapable of participating in the institutions of social and political organisation: and that failure is tantamount to an invitation to government abuse, or, worse, tyranny.
‘The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.’ (Idea of a university)
What the gentleman is not
Newman had an ambivalent attitude to the figure of the gentleman, as he was at one and the same time both the best product of a liberal education and an imperfect being – at least when compared with the beau ideal of a specifically Christian education. In one of the most dramatic shifts in the Idea, Newman concludes his lengthy delineation of the excellences and charms of this attractive figure by showing how it falls short of that higher form of excellence which results from grace: sanctity.
‘Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.’ (Idea of a university)