The Tamworth reading room

In his address on opening a reading room at Tamworth in 1841, several months before he was re-elected prime minister, Sir Robert Peel suggested that reading would not only lead people to appreciate the wonders of creation, but also make them good and virtuous citizens. Newman probed the fallacy here: Peel was implicitly replacing religion with secular knowledge when he asserted (in Newman’s words) that ‘Useful Knowledge is the great instrument of education. It is the parent of virtue, the nurse of religion; it exalts man to his highest perfection, and is the sufficient scope of his most earnest exertions.’

Newman took issue with the idea that ‘a man “in becoming wiser will become better” ’, because it was based on an inadequate account of the relationship between knowledge and virtue – based, that is, on a false understanding of human nature; in Peel’s account, there was no place for conscience or moral development. And he advised Peel: ‘If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms’. (‘The Tamworth reading room’, letters to The Times)

Share This: