Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Dr. Newman and Liberalism

Review of:
History of my Religious Opinions (by John H. Newman, 1865).

The really interesting part of Dr. Newman's Apologia lay in the relation which it disclosed between the opinions of its author and the liberalism which, as he says, is the "creed of the bulk of the educated classes." In the Apologia itself, Dr. Newman said very little on the subject of liberalism. He did not even explain what he meant by the liberalism which he ascribed to a certain port of the University in his time, but said in general that the school to which he referred represented the anti-dogmatic principle. In a second and condensed edition of his work, which has just appealed under the title of History of my Religious Opinions, Dr. Newman has done something towards supplying this want. He has appended to his book a note, entitled "Liberalism," which is a remarkable composition, though it is rather historical than controversial. It throws more light on its author's position with respect to that which, avowedly or not, is by his own admission the creed of the bulk of the educated classes, than any other part of his writings. The whole subject is one of the deepest interest. No one doubts that Dr. Newman is a man of great ability of a certain kind. He has received an elaborate education, and has devoted every energy of his mind to the investigation of moral and religious questions. How does it happen that he arrives at conclusions fundamentally different from those of the bulk of his equals? How does it happen that he emphatically condemns all the principles on which educated Englishmen in general are in the habit of acting with unhesitating confidence? With all his frankness, Dr. Newman has not enabled his readers or critics to answer these questions. He has been before the world for many years, and always in the character of a teacher and preacher. The one object to which he hits devoted the labours of a lifetime has been the formation of his religious creed. He has exercised an influence more powerful over the thoughts of his generation on such subjects than almost any other living man. He is regarded by many people as an incarnation of what is called "remorseless logic;" and yet, after careful and prolonged study of all his principal writings, we find it impossible to understand what is the foundation of his whole structure, and what are the grounds on which he condemns what appears obvious and wholesome to the great majority of that part of his countrymen whose training has been at all similar to his own. Dr. Newman's system is like a town fortified in the most elaborate manner at the strong points, and utterly undefended at the weak ones. His sermons, his treatises, his autobiography, give endless reasons, of various degrees of ingenuity, why a man thoroughly determined not to give up particular opinions under any circumstances whatever should adopt other opinions which either are, or can be represented as being, complementary to those with which he sets out; but from first to lost he never, so far as we know, gives any clear .account of the reasons why he should hold with this desperate tenacity to the opinions which appear to lead to results which seem so strange. The question forces itself on a render of the Apologia at every page of that work, but it contains almost nothing to gratify his curiosity. He may find, in the most minute detail, a history of the reasons which induced Dr. Newman to become a Roman Catholic rather than cease to hold the views which had grown up in his mind between 1830 and 1845; but it is impossible to make out how he limited, how he defended, or why (unless it was because he liked them) he adopted the principles on which the whole superstructure of his history rests.

The note to which we have already referred throws some light on the question what Dr. Newman understands by liberalism, and it even contributes something indirectly to the question why he repudiates it so warmly; for it appears to us to show that liberalism is so alien to the whole frame of his mind that he not only fails to comprehend its principles, but is unable to argue correctly on what he supposes to be its principles. The latter part of the note contains seventeen or eighteen doctrines which he attributes to liberalism, together with inferences which he supposes to be their legitimate consequences. We do not think that this part of the note will contribute much to sustain his reputation for logic, or that the earlier and more important port will do much to persuade those who like his character and admire his style that he thinks with any considerable degree of force upon fundamental questions. We will begin by discussing Dr. Newman's general principle, and will then consider the propriety of some of his particular illustrations.

After some observations on the state of feeling at Oxford during the early part of his residence there, Dr. Newman proceeds to define liberalism, which he does as follows:—
‘By liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles, of whatever kind, and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of revelation. Liberalism, then, is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.’
This is the most definite of Dr. Newman's propositions on the subject of liberalism, but in other parts of his note he gives illustrations which throw considerable light on the view which he takes of it, and which ought to be read in connection with the passage just quoted, in order to make the matter plain. He gives an interesting account of Mr. Keble's early years, and observes upon them:—
‘Keble was a man who (raided himself and formed his judgments, not by processes of reason, by inquiry, or by argument, but, to use the word in a broad same, by authority. Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories; such are legal saws and State maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.’
After much more to the same purpose, Dr. Newman concludes his note by setting forth eighteen propositions, with their consequences, which he considers to be amongst the cardinal propositions of liberalism. The following we amongst the number:—
1. "No religious tenet is important unless reason shows it to be so.
"Therefore (e.g.) the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on unless it tends to convert the soul.''
2. "No one can believe what he does not understand.
"Therefore (e.g.) there are no mysteries in true religion."
5. "It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.
"Therefore (e.g.) a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment."
6. "No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.
"Therefore (e.g.) political economy may reverse Our Lord's declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind."
9. "There is a right of private judgment; that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents as they severally please.
"Therefore (e. g.) religious establishments requiring subscription are anti-Christian."
10. "There are rights of conscience, such that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.
"Therefore (e. g.) individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy."

These passages enable us to understand what Dr. Newman means by liberalism, and why he dislikes it. They also appear to us to prove, for reasons which we will proceed to give, that he not only utterly misunderstands it, but misunderstands it so completely as to fall into the double error of ascribing to Liberals principles which hardly any of them hold, and of drawing from those principles inferences which have nothing to do with them.

Let us begin with Dr. Newman's definition. Liberalism, be tells us, is the exercise of thought upon matters in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. First principles of all kinds are of this number, and especially the first principles of religion. There is an apparent clearness and symmetry about this which, as is often the case in Dr. Newman's writings, covers a fundamental confusion of ideas. "The exercise of thought" about first principles, especially about the first principles of religion, is a mistake. What does this mean? Does it mean that no subject is ever to be examined to the bottom? If so, how is any science at all possible? Does it mean that nothing proposed to you as a first principle is to be discussed? This is equivalent to saying that no existing opinion ought ever to be changed, except upon the ground that it is inconsistent with some other opinion which is protected from discussion. It can hardly be supposed that Dr. Newman means this. Does it mean that all argument, in the last analysis, consists in comparing the opinions about which we argue with certain facts of which we are assured by the direct testimony of the senses, or of faculties in the nature of senses, and that these facts are to us ultimate, and the tests of all subordinate belief? This is perfectly true; but, if it be true, it surely follows, not that thought ought not to be exercised on first principles, but that the process of ascertaining first principles is the highest exercise of thought of which the human mind is capable. Take geometry as the type of all accurate reasoning. One of its first principles is, that two straight lines cannot inclose a space. Is the discovery and statement of this first principle an improper exercise of thought? Is it not, on the contrary, one of its greatest triumphs? That the force of gravity varies inversely as the square of the distance is the first principle of the theory of gravitation. How, except by thought, was this ascertained and stated? "When such principles are discovered and stated, thought no doubt would be thrown away if any thinker refused to recognise and submit to their authority; but, as every one knows, their discovery is the highest and most legitimate exercise of thought. Dr. Newman's own definition puts all first principles on the same footing. He expressly condemns the exercise of thought on "first principles of all kinds," and especially on the first principles of religion. Therefore, it is to be presumed he would admit that, in whatever sense thought may properly be employed, on the first principles of mathematics, for instance, it may properly be employed on the first principles of religion. But in mathematics and other subjects thought may properly be employed in ascertaining and stating first principles, and in discovering by analysis, and rejecting as false, principles falsely claiming that character. Therefore, it may properly be employed in deciding whether or not religious principles, claiming the character of first truths, deserve that character or not. Thus, thought was properly employed in deciding that the supposed first principle, "nature abhors a vacuum," was not a first principle at all, but a delusive metaphor; and, by a parity of reasoning, it is properly employed in considering whether it is a first principle of religion that there is no God but God, and Mahomet is his prophet.

Thus much Dr. Newman ought in consistency to concede, and this is all that any Liberal ever claimed. Dr. Newman seems to think that the essence of liberalism consists in a denial that theology has any principles at all, and a refusal to admit their troth and to argue from them when they are stated. This is a complete mistake. Liberals insist upon nothing else than the necessity of determining, by the ordinary processes of thought, whether propositions put forward and proposed for their acceptance as first principles of religion are in reality entitled to that character. In short, they say that people ought to think about religion, and that they ought to think about it rightly and not wrongly, and that the common rules of logic and evidence are the rules by which people ought to think on religion as well as on other subjects.

This shows the great injustice of the second half of Dr. Newman's criticism on liberalism. He says it is "the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine, on intrinsic grounds, the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word." This is an ingenious and indeed courageous petitio principii. No sane man ever claimed to subject to human judgment doctrines which he admitted to be revealed by God as true. What Liberals say is—We must subject to our human judgments the question whether what you tell us is really a "revealed doctrine" or not, and, in considering that question, we must take into account the moral character of the doctrine itself. If we did not do this, we should be at the mercy of the first impostor who chose to claim our belief. It is possible to imagine a kind and degree of evidence which would induce the most sturdy Liberal to make his children pass through the fire to Moloch, but surely it is at least a respectable prejudice to think that the evidence ought to be carefully examined, and that nothing short of something approaching to a demonstration ought to be sufficient for such a purpose. The vilest of all practices—murder, human sacrifices, sexual iniquities of every sort—have been-presented to mankind as divine revelations. Nearly every form of idolatry is more or less cruel and licentious. Would Dr. Newman stigmatize as a Liberal every one who objected on moral grounds to the practices connected with the worship of Juggernauth and Bowanee, and who was so much shocked by them as to proceed to investigate somewhat strictly the question whether they were really revealed doctrines, or only the product of human passions and prejudices? If he allows this "exercise of thought”, where does he draw the line? May a man brought up as a Mahometan lawfully compare Christian and Mahometan morality as one part of the evidence bearing on the question whether either, and which, of the two sets of doctrines is revealed? May a Protestant properly exercise his thoughts on the question, whether the social or the ascetic theory of morals is the true one, as part of the evidence relevant to the inquiry whether the Protestant or Roman Catholic doctrines are revealed? Might a Pagan, when Christianity was first preached, consider the question whether it was true or false, and might he properly exercise his thoughts on its morality as part of the evidence for its truth? To answer all these questions in the negative involves, amongst other things, the consequence that there are no legitimate natural means by which Christianity itself can ever have been propagated. To answer them in the affirmative is to concede everything for which Liberals contend. The great majority of Liberals in the present day would admit, that they are perfectly willing to believe any doctrines which can be proved to their satisfaction to have been revealed to men by God. All that they contend for is, that the question whether, in fact, alleged revelations are real is a question of evidence, to be decided by the common rules of evidence, and that the moral character of the alleged revelation is one item of the evidence to be considered. Where is the error in this? Dr. Newman is so far from pointing it out that he never will state his opponents' case fairly, but always ascribes to them a view which is notoriously not held by the greater and most influential part of thorn.

The account of Mr. Keble's curious way of deciding questions and forming his opinions is a good illustration of Dr. Newman's inability to put strongly, and answer broadly, the view opposed to his own. "Keble," he says, "was a man who guided himself, and formed his judgments, not by processes of reason, by inquiry or by argument, but, to use the word in a broad sense, by authority"; and after giving instances of what he means by authority, Dr. Newman says that Mr. Keble used "argument mainly as a means of recommending or explaining what had claims on his reception prior to proof." The suggestion here is that Liberals decide on argument, and men like Mr. Keble on authority. How does Dr. Newman suppose a Liberal argues, or what does he suppose him to argue about? Whatever Dr. Newman may think, he argues about authority, or, what is the same thing, about evidence. What, again, is the sense of talking about the opinions which "had claims" on Mr. Keble "prior to proof"? The "claims" were derived from the Bible, the Church, antiquity, &c.—in a word, from authority; and what is this but another name for evidence or proof? "How does evidence differ from authority? I believe that Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel, because the Bible says so. I also believe that John Smith stole six silver teaspoons and a pair of sugar-tongs, the property of his master, because his master says he saw him take them, and the policeman says he found them in his box. What is the difference between the two operations? In each case I believe on evidence which I consider satisfactory—the evidence of the Bible in the one case, the evidence of the witnesses in the other. The difference between Mr. Keble and the Liberals is not that the one believes on authority and the other on argument, but that the one gives more credit to a particular class of witnesses than the other; and why does he do that? Because he believes them to be entitled to it for some reason satisfactory to his own mind. Each therefore bases his belief on argument, and the comparative value of their respective beliefs depends on the comparative soundness of their arguments. Mr. Keble, according to Dr. Newman, attached weight to "sentiments, presages, and prepossessions." Probably that was because he thought they were guides to truth. If so, he was just as guilty of liberalism and rationalism as if he had had the strongest turn for the critical weighing of evidence. Unless Dr. Newman means to say either that people ought to argue a little and argue feebly, or that Liberals recommend men to form their opinions independently of evidence, it is hard to see why he finds fault with them.

The truth appears to be that the liberal cast of thought is so unfamiliar to Dr. Newman that he cannot do it justice. Of the list of propositions which he ascribes to it, and of which we have given some specimens, hardly one would be held by the leading Liberals of the present day, and hardly any support the inferences which he assigns to them. We will go through a few of them, as instances of the logic on which Dr. Newman has been so frequently complimented with so little reason:—

1. "No religious tenet is important unless reason shows it to be so."
Can it be supposed that any reasonable human creature ever held this doctrine? All men might be, and most men are, ignorant of the unity of God or the immortality of the soul, and hundreds of millions are ignorant of any connection between religion and morals. What Liberals really do hold is, that unless a man has some reason for thinking a religious tenet important he has no reason for thinking it important; and that to think a thing important without any reason for doing so is capricious and foolish. If a person in whom you consider it reasonable to believe tells you that you will be eternally damned if you do not believe the Athanasian Creed, reason shows it to be important in the highest degree. If a man has absolutely no reason for attaching importance to the Athanasian Creed, if he has never heard of it (suppose, for instance, he is a day labourer in the heart of China), he would act absurdly if he did believe it, though he might be damned for not believing it.

2. "No one can believe what he does not understand."
“Therefore (e.g.) there are no mysteries in true religion."
In this case the inference does not follow from the proposition. The sense attached to the proposition itself by Liberals in general is, that unmeaning sounds cannot be the object of belief, although the person to whom they are addressed may have a belief about them. An ignorant person to whom the Apostles' Creed was repeated in Greek might believe that the sounds which he heard contained a statement of the chief truths of Christianity, but he certainly would not believe that Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate." It would be curious to know whether Dr. Newman thinks he would. But how does it follow from this belief that there are no mysteries in true religion? Surely it is open for a man to say, "I do not understand the Athanasian Creed, but on your authority I have no doubt that, whatever it means, it is all true, and that the truth which it contains is of great importance." An ignorant man believes that the differential and integral calculus are true and important, though they are mysteries to him. "Mystery" is a relative term, and means merely something which I, A. B., do not understand. Where is the inconsistency of saying, "I believe only what I understand, but I both believe and understand that there are and must be in all subjects thousands of important truths which I do not understand."

3. "No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.
"Therefore (e.g.) no creed as such is necessary to salvation."
This proposition is unmeaning, and the inference from it is illogical. What is the sense of saying that no doctrine is anything more than an opinion? It is like saying that no bird is more than a biped, or that no proposition is more than a portion of discourse. Every doctrine ex vi termini expresses an opinion. Some doctrines express true and others express false opinions, and no one ever denied that an opinion which is both true and important is "something more" than an opinion which is false or unimportant. Unmeaning as the proposition is, it does not tend to support the inference. A creed "as such" (whatever those words may mean) might be necessary to a man's salvation, just as a particular medicine might be necessary to his recovery from illness, though no theological or medical doctrine was more than an opinion. Some persons believe in homoeopathy, some do not; but if homoeopathy is the proper remedy in a particular case, the patient will not recover without it, whatever he thinks.

6. "No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.
This is not the Liberal proposition. The proposition is—No doctrine or precept which stands in the way of scientific conclusions can have been revealed, for that would be to make God contradict himself.

"Therefore (e.g.) political economy may reverse our Lord's declarations about poverty and riches."
Non sequitur. Political economy is the science which teaches us how to get rich. It does not say a word on the question whether we ought to get rich.

9. "There is a right of private judgment; that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents as they severally please."
Dr. Newman must surely know that the very conception of rights, in any other sense than that of legal right, is repudiated by the most influential school of Liberals. They would substitute for this proposition the following, or something like it:—The concession of a legal right of private judgment to all mankind is highly beneficial to the interests of truth.

"Therefore (e.g.) religious establishments requiring subscription are anti-Christian."
How does the existence of such a right of private judgment as the one described in the proposition prove that it can never be desirable to make the profession of particular opinions a condition to the enjoyment of certain advantages? Every one has the right of private judgment about a lawsuit, but that does not prevent the parties from giving fees to advocates who pledge themselves to support the view of their client. How does this differ in principle from a permanent endowment to support certain views, supposed by the person giving the endowment to be beneficial?

10. "There are rights of conscience, such that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right."
The remark as to rights made on the last proposition applies also to this one. Liberals in general would substitute for this the proposition that it is not expedient to restrain discussion on such topics by law, but that men are morally responsible for their opinions, and that there is generally some degree, though no human authority can say what degree, of moral guilt, or at all events of moral imperfection, implied in holding false opinions on matters religious, moral, and social.

"Therefore individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy."
Non sequitur. In the proposition, Dr. Newman does not say, and could not venture to say, anything about practice. The word "right" is so ambiguous that it is difficult to say what the admission of a "right of conscience " would or would not imply; but, according to all theories of morals, the duty of abstaining from fornication and polygamy (in countries where polygamy is forbidden by law) does not depend on the opinion of individuals.

We have examined Dr. Newman's views on these topics with some minuteness, because of his great reputation for logic. It always appeared to us to be somewhat over-rated. He is, no doubt, generally consistent. He believes things because he already believes something else more or less like them; but, if his logic is closely examined, it always falls to pieces. It is full of ambiguities and beggings of the question, more or less artfully concealed.

Saturday Review, June 24, 1865.

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