J. H. Newman

Center of  Studies

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Complete Biography: John Henry Newman

By Ricardo Aldana Valenzuela

Translated by Kassandra Portillo and Danielle Castlehow.

The Humanism of which the Univeristy Lives According to J. H. Newman

1. Newman and the University: experiences and writings.

The leading figure of John Henry Newman has that unquestionable attractivity of a man that gathers in himself virtues and commitments that seem to be incompatible. And thus, he was able to dedicate his life to different activities such as theology, cultural and social debates, poetry, novels, and in a special way, education. In his mature years, the education of children in the school he founded in Birmingham with the rest of the members of the Birmingham Chapel was his focus. However, at his core was university education, since his incorporation as a fellow to the Oriol College, in the University of Oxford. If his conversion to Catholicism moved him away from Oxford, that was in that moment an Anglican institution, that did not stop him from always carrying the ideal of the university tradition, especially the Oxonian, in his heart. 

After becoming an octogenarian, he was invited in 1880 again to visit Oxford, now as a very distinguished son of the University (the previous year, in 1879, he had received the naming of Cardinal of the Catholic Church 1879). Ian Ker, in his authorized biography of Newman, wonders which one of the two honors would have resonated more personally in the elderly man of God. [1] On the one hand, the Cardinal title implied a recognition from the Pope León XIII of the achievements of his work and the honor of seeing himself especially associated to the ministry of Peter's Successor. But of equal value, the recognition of Oxford internally reverberated his chosen dedication to education, the ancient friendships and the unique purity of Oxford Movement, in which Newman and his colleagues and pupils tried to connect the University with its most profound roots. It can be seen in the aching article from 1838 Medieval Oxford up to what point a still young Newman carried in his heart the ideals of the University, at the same time that he recognized the danger of ruin that threatened him [2].

A couple of years after his dismissal from Oxford, Newman was requested to take charge of the Catholic University of Dublin as a founder and first dean. He was in charge of the University for eight years, which was a constant sacrifice for the continuous coming and going between Birmingham and Dublin, but also of certain lack of understanding of what he considered the academic task, as well as that of a Catholic University. In any case, the experience in Ireland opened the door to his most known work about University education, which he published later under the title “The idea of a University”. This work was made up of two parts, the first with the 9 conferences he gave before the foundation of the institution as a preparation for it, the second with 10 speeches as the dean. In addition, during these same years of Dublin, the Catholic University of Gazette published 20 of his articles about the history of the University idea, that he himself collected later in the third volume of the “Historical Sketches” with the title Rise and Progress of Universities [3]. We will especially follow here this less known work of Newman. As well as the erudition and the seriousness of the speech, we find in it a more intuitive disposition and a conversational tone, like he says himself in the initial warning, that differs it from the “Idea of a University”. It is a real story, not much about the University Institution but of what he himself denominates as the “University principle”, and that was found active for the first time in Ancient Athens, long before the foundation of the universities of the Middle Ages.

Newman has the capacity of the great English thinkers, the secret that the philosophers search for, the one of the universale concretum. He is always a realistic and definite man, contemplative and practical at the same time; someone that never loses sight of the transcendence of the singular in the universal nor the presence of the universal in the singular. To Newman, the term “idea” has the same weight as to Plato - the most valuable party of reality and the most real of it, but not residing in the world of ideas but dwelling, as the vital principle, in the spirit of the great men of the University. The “University principle” we can consider equivalent to the “idea of the University”, since as principle or as idea it has required and has met over the centuries, great personalities that have made it their own and have put themselves at its service. This is what we mean with the title “the humanism of which the University lives”: this humanism is not an ideology nor is it a project, it is a big and simple institution that some embrace and others do not. It requires what Newman would call “heart”, that is to say, intimate contact with a truth that is bigger than the own person and that deserves the vitality of one’s own blood. So what does the University live of? Of men who embrace the University principle personally and only secondarily demand it to the University institution.

As an institution, the University begins with the medieval Stadium Generale or universal knowledge school, that requires teachers of all the sciences and students interested in the diverse fields of knowledge. The University seems to be “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country” (6). These are the elements that make up the institution, they are personally demanding of ability for communication, opening for the circulation of ideas and for interacting with others. It is a place of mutual education, but not in first place through books, because as much as we can learn from them about knowledge, “the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already” (9).  The places of human coexistence, Newman recognizes, in which it is given a mutual education from those involved, are more than one, to the point that the city itself can be considered some kind of virtual University (14); they are places where written teaching does not prevail, but the living word and the attentive listener, the encounter of people and the mutual attention. The University, however, adds to this continuous education of noble human and elegant treatment, the purpose of serving the students that reach it looking for every kind of knowledge. Newman describes with all his soul what distinguishes the University as a human space:

[It is] the place in which a thousand schools donate their contributions; in which intelligence can oscillate and speculate, sure of finding its equal in any antagonistic activity and its judge in the court of truth. It is a place in which inquiry is favored and leads the way, and the discoveries are verified and perfected and precipitation becomes innocuous, and mistake is shown through a collision of one mind with the other and one knowledge with other one. It is a place where the teacher becomes eloquent and is a missionary and preacher, that exposes its science in its most complete and conquering way, offering it with the zeal of enthusiasm and lighting up its self-love for it in the chest of its listeners…It is a headquarter of wisdom, a light of the world, a ministry of faith, an Alma Mater of the generation that evolves (16).

Most likely, a lot of University professors skeptically smile facing a description like this. They could ask if the experience of Newman in the University is realistic or if the University back then was so drastically different to what we now know. The already mentioned article of 1838, Medieval Oxford, is extremely critical with respect to the vitality of the institution. It is worth mentioning once again that, for him, the disappointing situation of the institutions, does not cause harm to the university’s principle health as long as there are hearts that embrace it. That is why Oxford joined to the ruin described in this article, and and was the first intellectual spring of Newman that unfolded specially in the 8 years (1833-1841) of Oxford’s Movement. In other words, a few friends amongst the teachers and students were enough to feel all the vitality of the university principle and to serve it with the amazing energy that England admired then and that we continue admiring nowadays [4].

But it is becoming necessary to try to give an answer to the question of what this university principle consists of. Newman answers in Rise and Progress of Universities with the historical tour that we mentioned, stopping first in a topographical consideration about the place where a university should be built. Because not any place works out well the university tasks. It must be a “liberal and noble” location (24). The consideration is not vain in any way. The pages dedicated to this subject are of a first range from a literary point of view because of its imaginative and evocative strength of the historical locations of the big universities and it is precisely that literary form that transmits in itself an image on the world on which the university principle has to count: the world as a cosmos, like a beautiful and calm order, that deserves the grateful attention of those who live in it. Without this fundamental peace, that awakens with the admired gratefulness by the things of this world, the university principle cannot be embraced and instead power would be laid down as first word. There is no alternative: either the gift of being is thanked or power will be accumulated to become. 

2. University principle in history.

In the historical tour of the university principle that contemplates, Newman does not recognize a pure progressive evolution. The method of evolution, by its own inertia, goes from period to period with a kind of systematic degradation of what is being left behind. This is because real interest is always located in the last phase of progress, in which all the value of previous stages is concentrated. These disappear when not suitable for the present and, deep down, have no other meaning to explain and give way to the current day, as not relevant anymore. This purely evolutionist method or ideology of the progress wanted to be naturalized for all the fields of knowledge by the Illustration, under the supposition that precisely in the actual period humanity reaches a maturity that the previous periods, unable yet of the bold knowledge that does not take in its hands what was previously attributed to superior spirits and the human spirit. Today it is evident that the perspectives of the Illustration of a perpetuated peace and a universal justice have not been fulfilled. But in its period, facing this evolution method of all the human phenomena, Newman prefers the method that we can call, with H.U. Von Balthasar [5], of integration, so that the progress wont contradict nor make the previous experience unnecessary, in a way that the progress is at the same time a tradition affirmation. The vision that this method ensures allows to value each period in its originality and its own greatness, without having to dissolve everything while moving forward.

That is why, the successive periods of history of the university principle do not disappear as irrelevant after its moment but are still eloquent and deserving of admiration. That way, Newman traces magnificent historical frames in what each of them has had as unique and the way they have provided basis and life to the university principle. In this method it is not each phase the one that is constituted in individual, but on the great figures of the teachers or thinkers or legislators or governors that have embraced said principle and have served its realizations.

In Athens begins the tour of the life of the University, considering the city in a wide frame of time, from the big teachers of the fourth century before Christ, to the young Cappadocians students Basil and Gregory from the fourth century after Christ. Here the university principle is called philosophy, and the University that is Athens is being drawn by Newman’s pen following the simple procedure of the great thinkers that have visited Athens for its training or for staying in it as teachers. The names multiply not in chronological order, but according to a narrative reconstruction that combines creativity and erudition: Cleanthes, Cicero, Horace, Eunapius, Thucydides, Anaxagoras, Carneades, Protagoras, Gorgias, Sophronius, Eusibius of Caesearea…arrived to Athens attracted by the desire of knowledge. An example of the historical narrative of Newman: In the fourth century before Christ, a young foreign student, that lives closely, finds himself in the presence of Plato. He does not listen to a word said to him, nor is he worried about listening; neither does he question about the subject of the speech or the discussion; what he sees is a whole in itself, that won’t grow by addition…It will be a point in his life’s history; a permanent spot in his memory to rest on it, an ardent thought on his heart, a bond of union with men of that mentality…but Plato is not the only wise man, nor is his vision the only lesson to learn in that amazing suburb. It is the region and kingdom of philosophy… We have learned to follow our student in his strolls from the Acropolis to the Via Sacra; and now he is in the schools zone… Epicurus leans back in his garden, Zenon seems like a deity in his porch; the tireless Aristotle, in the other side of the city, like antagonizing with Plato, is making his disciples walk in his lyceum…Our student has decided to enter himself  as a disciple of Teophrastus, a teacher of an extraordinary popularity, that had at the same time two thousands students from everywhere in the world (41-43).

The chapter ends with the meaningful mention of the coincidence of the Julian in Athens, the future Emperor apostate of Christianity and the saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzen, considered Doctors of the Church. The University, evidently, does not schedule the liberty of its students.

The presence of the Sophists in Athens is meaningful for the university principle. About this there is a chapter of our book of eloquent title: “Free Trade in Knowledge: The Sophists” (47). The University certainly consists in the demand of knowledge and offer of the same, in communication of knowledge that bonds the teachers with the students through a moral attraction between each other. A University is alive only by name and has lost its essence when there is a lack of attraction between the people. Newman, since his days as tutor in Oriel College, always insisted on the fact that personal and sacrificed dedication from teachers to students is the essence of a university task [6]. The prestige, dignity, power, money, can accompany the services borrowed in the education, but they “come second, not first; they must not presume, or make too much of themselves, or they had better be away. First intellect, then secular advantages, as its instruments and as its rewards; I say no more than this, but I say no less” (49).

What is left forever to us from Athens is the search for knowledge model because of itself, search that possesses its own open universality to the totality of the truth. Athens leaves us this inheritance thanks to the unique brilliance of its teachers, the mentioned ones and also the previous ones, the ones that made possible the blooming of great moments. But if the University is the influence of teachers, it is also an educative system, and in this Athens was weaker, Newman maintains. Newman uses the word “influence” in a strong sense, almost equivalent to inspiration. Is most decisive the influence than the system, because the first one could exist without the second one, but the second one would not exist without the first one. “With influence there is life, without it there is none…An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else…This was the reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality” (75-76). Newman refers then, discretely, to the state of things in which the Oxford Movement appeared by action of the teachers decided to influence with their thought in their students’ thought. “they tried to mend matters, and to unite Rule and Influence together, which had been so long severed” (77). From Athens to the Oxford Movement, it can be recognized, none less than the vitality of the university principle.

It has been introduced then a decisive subject: “The Universities…  they begin in Influence, they end in System. At first, whatever good they may have done, has been the work of persons, of personal exertions; of faith in persons, of personal attachments. Their Professors have been a sort of preachers and missionaries, and have not only taught, but have won over or inflamed their hearers. As time has gone on, it has been found out that personal influence does not last for ever… The system has of necessity been superadded to individual action” (77-78). The University becomes an institution, with its rules and authorities. The university principle that begins in Athens with the influence of its great teachers, found in the organizational capacity of Macedonia first, and of Rome, after, the complement of the system. In Ireland, for the Catholic University of Dublin Newman writes, son of Saint Philip Neri, the saint of the kind spontaneity, does not believe that he himself will be able to consolidate the University, for which it would be better the organizational gift of Saint Dominic or Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Instead, he certainly believes that he will be able to open the breach and lay the foundations, introducing the great idea in the minds of men and making it understandable and love by them, and have hope and faith in it and zeal for it; gathering various intelligences for working together for it, teaching that each one understands others and how to treat with them and move forward together, not by rule but by a mutual sense of kindness and reciprocated devotion…stimulating a general interest and creating an elevated taste in the referent to diverse matters of art, science and philosophy (89).

The university principle was embraced in Athens by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian emperor, to whom his talent for the military and for governing did not stop from recognizing the greatness of Athens and knowing diverse sciences. One of his generals, Ptolemy, benefiting from the influence of Aristotle, founded in Alexandria the famous library. Then, he executed a plan for the permanent maintenance of studies, resolving to make Alexandria the headquarter of a Studium Generale, the famous Museum (place of the Muses) of Alexandria, making room for it and giving it means for its maintenance. If the library was later object of the famous trial of Caliph Omar, the school still existed in the twelfth century in which Benjamin of Tudela visited it. 

The Museum of Alexandria already anticipates the roman schools, the ones that made most immediate way to the foundations of Medieval Universities. Although there is the difference of dedicating the schools of the Roman Empire to the education of the young ones and not directly to the advancement of science, like the Alexandrian Museum. In the centuries that go from Augustus to Justinian the ordinance of the elements of knowledge to transmit was created, like the Trivium and Quadrivium. After this teaching, some continued the oratory study, philosophy, math or law. Teaching was public and provided law to the Empire and its order. In the same hill of the Capitol was the headquarter of the school in the City, and all through different cities of the Empire were also founded schools, in Gaul, Britain and Spain.

The Christians were also educated in these schools of the Empire, because the role of Church on education did not begin to be determinant but after the great tragedy of the ending of the ancient civilization: the invasion of barbarian nations. Newman documents his admiration for the work of Greece and Rome, passing through Alexandria, for what it refers to culture and public order.

But if the violence of the Empire was unleashed on the Christians, it was in vain because the danger was coming from somewhere else. The Goths, Huns and Langobards brought the ruins and humiliation of Rome. It is difficult to imagine what this implied as a destruction of the system of education. We present a quote of Saint Gregory the Great, that assisted the destruction:

Wherever we see sobbing, wherever we hear groaning; the cities destroyed, the camps damaged, desert the fields, devastated is the land, there is no one to cultivate the fields, there is barely any inhabitant  in the cities; and, however, this little relics of humankind are being hurt daily and continuously…We see that ones are taken hostages, others remain mutilated and others dead. We are seeing how Rome is left, the same that other time seemed Lady of the World: broken multiple times with immense pain, with the devastation of its citizens, with the attacks of its enemies and frequent ruins… Where is now the Senate? Where is now the town?... We, the few ones that still remain, are enclosed by weapons and each day are surrounded by tribulations without tale… Where are the ones that one day celebrated its glory? Where is their splendor? Where the arrogance? Where the frequent and unmoderated enjoyment?...Now nobody turns to Rome to prosper in this world, there is no one powerful left… And this which we say about the devastation of the city of Rome, we know it has happened in all the cities of the world; because some places have been left so desolated with death toll, others have perished under the blade of the sword, others have been tormented by hunger and others have been swallowed by the Earth>>. » (In Ez II 7; cit. en 110-111; we took the translation from other source).  

In this state of things, it could not be talked about education anymore. From Rome an ecclesiastic Synod writes to Constantinople that the only sustenance left is the faith that allows for a death with hope. There is no way of fighting the growing ignorance. But in this situation of ruin, the British Islands are beyond the continent’s misfortunes. The university principle will go over there, towards Britain and Hibernia, towards the Celtic Christians and the Anglo-Saxon Christians. The sixth and seventh centuries are those of the Irish culture splendor, that will educate its neighbor, England, for the eighth and ninth centuries of its own splendor. Here the university principle coincides with the monastic principle, that Newman evocates with such intensity in Medieval Oxford. “The schools in the Irish cloisters were at this time (6th Century) the most celebrated in all the West… The strangers, who visited the island, not only from the neighbouring shores of Britain, but also from the most remote nations of the Continent, received from the Irish people the most hospitable reception, a gratuitous entertainment, free instruction, and even the books that were necessary for their studies” (125). In Ireland, English and European monks are trained under the instruction of the Irish that will carry again the university principle to the continent, going through the foundation of the episcopal headquarters and English abbeys, that will also contribute with educators for Europe, the most famous one Alcuin from York in the Parisian school of Charlemagne.

Education is now Christian, which does not prevent it from having the same shape of the seven liberal arts, inherited from Rome. The task is enormous, to the point where “the revival of letters by the energy of Christian ecclesiastics and laymen, when everything had to be done, reminds us of the birth of Christianity itself, as far as a work of man can resemble a work of God” (164). Newman closely follows the development of schools up to the blooming of the thirteenth century in which properly said Universities are born. “No such movement could happen, without the rise of some deep and comprehensive philosophy; and, when it rose, then the existing Trivium and Quadrivium became the subjects…and next the curiosity and enthusiasm, which it excited, attracted larger and {158} larger numbers to places which were hitherto but local centres of education. Such a gathering of students, such a systematizing of knowledge, are the notes of a University” (157-158). The members increase and the sciences multiply, which leads to the changes that result in a consummated distinction between public schools and Universities. They differ because the first ones only teach the Trivium and Quadrivium, while the others add medicine, law and theology. The first ones are still numerous and are in many places; the Universities are fewer and are found in big cities. The founders are the Popes, Emperors and Kings, that also sponsor and reward them.

Once again, the offer of big teachers can be seen, which attracts students from all over Europe. But, under the ecclesiastic authority, these teachers are also sent as missionaries from Rome, where they leave for Paris, Pavia, Bologna, Padua, Ferrara, Pisa, Naples, Vienna, Leuven, Oxford…In the University the Trivium and Quadrivium are still the center, now constituted in the Liberal Arts Faculty, the seven contained in the ancient inheritance. “But the life of Universities lay in the new sciences, not indeed superseding, but presupposing Arts, viz., those of {171} Theology, Law, Medicine, and in subordination to them, of Metaphysics, Natural History, and the languages” (170-171). The movement is European, always with the driving force of the search for teachers. Noticeable examples of traveling students are Lanfranco, Vacario, Saint Thomas, Saint Anselmo, John of Melrose. From the English John of Salisbury, Newman remembers a significative page, that we quote here from another source:

While still being an adolescent, I migrated to Gaul to study, the year after the death of King Henry of England and I went straight to the Palatine Peripatetic (Peter Abelard), eminent doctor in Saint Genevieve that stood out above everyone. There, at his side, I received the first dialectic instruction and I went to the master Alberico [in Chartres], that was very considerate as a dialectical, and radically opposed to the nominalists sect. That way, during two years I had Alberico and Roberto Meludense, who was from England, as teachers… There were no more keen dialectics than them… With them I was for 2 years…After, taking into account my virtues and consulting my preceptors, I went to study with the grammarian of Conches, and was his auditing student during three years. Meanwhile, I read so many books and never regretted this activity. Next, I continued to study with Bishop Ricardo, not a specialist in any specific discipline, that had more heart than science. With him I revised what I had already studied, and I was also introduced to some subjects of the Quadrivium from which I had already received some notion from Hardewino the Teutonic. I also revised the rhetoric, that I had seen moderately before with the teacher Theodoricus and have assimilated very little. Later, I was able to dominate it with Pedro Elías. Due to my uncertain economy, many friends gave me the opportunity to be able to afford it by giving classes to the children from nobles, which required my knowledge update…After triennium I met the teacher Gilberto, with whom I studied theology and logic. After him, it was Roberto Pullo, interesting for his science and attitude…This way I was occupied with my studies during twelve years. It was agreeable for me to visit my old classmates that were still on the hill (Saint Genevieve) dedicated to the dialectics, and talking with them of the youthful experiences, to comfort us. There I found many from before. They have not progressed not even a little bit. They discussed the same matters of our youthful moments… I saw myself deeply disappointed. I confirmed myself something that I had very clear: just like dialectics is very interesting to progress in other wisdoms, if it encloses in itself, turns out sterile and empty, it does not fertilize the soul for philosophy [7].

In the 13th century, Paris and Oxford’s schools shared teachers and students in one happy period for science and theology, that supported each other mutually. Newman gives us the numbers he has at disposition. But in no way does he dream of coming back to the state of these things. Today’s University cannot be like that one, as the next centuries evidence with the feud between England and France. But “if we keep great principles before us, and feel our way carefully, and ask guidance from above for every step we take, we may trust to be able to serve the cause of truth in our day and according to our measure, and in that way which is most expedient and most profitable, as our betters did in ages past and gone” (178).

But the university principle needed a little order for the students. The enthusiasm for great teachers was not enough. Colleges were needed for student life. “The Professorial system fulfils the strict idea of a University, and is sufficient for its being, but it is not sufficient for its well-being. Colleges constitute the integrity of a University” (182). There were enough teachers and students moved by the thirst of knowledge. But very easily, it is known in all the periods, students do not find the habit of retreatment and consistency in the study and the enthusiasm for the novelty of science and the wise teachers dissipates. The teacher falls into certain dangers, “pride of intellect, the aberrations of reasoning, and the intoxication of applause.” (185). Certainly, the teacher represents the science to his students, which does not separate the person from knowledge, at least in principle. Equilibrium is needed, so it is given by the College, it should not substitute the teaching system, as it has unfortunately happened in Oxford (chapter 19). Colleges are a lucky continuation of previous schools to the University, a lot of them monastic or for priests, always under a rule, which did not exclude the seculars’ admission. In fact, monastic schools remained inside the University’s territory, at the beginning as something factual, but as time went by the religious Orders wanted to be in the University for the education of its own members and had representants in the academic group. With the seculars’ admission, college life began, it gave a roof, food, books and regular order. University life was then held by the Faculties with its teachers and by Colleges with its tutors, in a delicate balance, that it is lost when it turns into a battle for power. It reaches an extreme where Colleges are not places for education, but merely clubs. The critical evil of the English University is “not that the Colleges are strong, but that the University has no practical or real jurisdiction over them” (235).

The case of Abelardo is treated in a separate chapter, because it illustrates the strength and weakness of the communication of knowledge principle by itself, that is the university principle. This principle as subjective attitude has to be suitable for the discovering of a wonderful world, whose totality is represented by the seven Liberal Arts: “The calm philosophical mind, that contemplates the parts without denying the whole, and the whole without denying the parts, is clearly, little prepared for action; while the singular and simple visions stop the mind and hasten it to put them into practice. Then, man of an idea and not another, whatever it is their merit, have to be up to a certain point, of narrow mind; and it is not a wonder that Abelardo’s devotion for the new philosophy made him undervalue the Seven Arts in which he had grown up…He could not stand that the Arts had its own applications, because he had found a new instrument for a new purpose. Therefore, he was against the reading of Classics…He did not recognize in the ancient poets any merit other than providing an assembly of elegant phrases and figures; and in consequence he questions why those shouldn’t be expelled from God’s city, like Plato did of his own commonwealth (197). Now the students are promised “truth in a nutshell; they intended to get possession of the sum-total of philosophy in less than two or three years; and facts were apprehended, not in their substance and details, by means of living and, as it were, personal documents, but in dead abstracts and tables. Such were the reclamations to which the new Logic gave occasion” (198). Here there is no admiration for reality, here science is not awakened for the world that the poet sees in its dept. Now the method is everything, promises everything, contains everything beforehand.

One last step of the university principle is recognized by Newman through the sacerdotal education, launched in the last moments of the seminaries. It can be said that the Universities were born out of the seminaries, of the institutions for the clergy preparation. With the growing separation of a secular culture and an ecclesiastic culture in the European continent, up to the outspoken opposition, it has been developed again, also on a level that surpasses the necessities of the pastoral practice. “The never dominating cause of truth in this world has its flow and ebb tide. It is pleasant to live in a day where the wave is coming. That is how ours is” (251), Newman thinks, well aware of the dangers and threats that are growing against the Christian faith. The first dean of the Catholic University of Dublin is sensitive to any sign of vitality that can present the university principle and recognizes many in different countries, that is why he has decided to represent it in Ireland. “This is our hour, whatever be its duration, the hour for great hopes, great schemes, great efforts, great beginnings.” (251). Seeing the scarce results, one could ask if Newman is not a little naïve. But really such thing cannot be thought if one does not lose sight of what was said about his conception of the university principle, born out of his Christian faith and his university experience, originated, for saying it once more, from a love that, from transcendent origin, never declines in the face of difficulties, limitations and miseries. The “University Idea” will be safe in some hearts.

3. Humanism and University

The university principle is, as we have seen, a human attitude that leads to seek knowledge because of knowledge itself. But, being more precise, knowledge is at the same time the discovery that man makes of himself, because he cannot know the world and its transcendence without knowing himself at the same time. Humanism is the perception of the man’s position in the whole, he is not everything, but he is connected to everything. When this becomes the interest for universal knowledge itself, we have the university principle. Man is not God, but in image of God, so the Bible says. The human soul is, in certain way, everything, so Aristotle says. Or, more poetically expressed, the man-poet is the one in charge of saying the word that things mean, according to Paul Claudel. Every piece of knowledge has an anthropological something, implicit or explicit. But anthropological is not the same as anthropocentric, because it is precisely not centering in itself but in the how man can find his place.

Newman settles a very simple principle, that is appropriate to classic philosophy and the university principle: life is bigger than the thought [8]. This is fertile as long as it does not lose the joy and admiration for this bigger greatness. In common admiration, we would say better yet, in common gratitude, solidarity rises between university teachers that cannot help but feel as servers of a surpassing totality. During the encounter with teachers that admire the real world and serve its knowledge, students are educated, not only instructed in a science, but educated in the opening of the whole.

Newman widely elaborates about these attitudes in the first part of Idea of a University. One can be instructed in different disciplines, but instruction becomes an education only when from particular science human mind is opened to the whole. Only the perception of the whole from the fragments, educates [9]. That is why Newman supports that in the University, that has a task the intelligence education from the young ones, every teacher, whichever its scientific dedication might be, is a philosopher [10]. Such is the difference between University and a research center of a particular science.  If the University gives up on this primacy of education over research, the University abandons its main function. This does not weaken in any way the university research; rather it promotes and orients it. It promotes it because education in knowledge of a bigger world that our science requires recognizing that the efforts of knowledge do not stop, but the search is always open. For Newman not having questions is a sign of intellectual lethargy. Hence as a Christian he exposed his famous conviction that ten thousand difficulties do not make a question [11]. The university principle cannot be recognized in this idea, because it consists precisely in the search of knowledge, not in the replaying of convictions, at the same time that perception of the truth is not to be put in doubt. The driving force of science is not the doubt, but the certainty of having seen something so undoubtedly big that carries the conviction that the development of science will never be enough. At this point a characteristic of the university comes up, animated for its authentical principle: good humor. One cannot know without playing, without celebrating not the own merits but the reality that surrounds us, without laughing about its own incapacity of catching the entire reality in science [12]. In that moment, the scientist feels very close to the poet that sings, that celebrates the act of being. Newman is a tireless enthusiast, enthusiast of his reading, of his colleagues, of his students. Enthusiast of music, of the maritime landscapes, of the traces from the past… In everything there seems to be a possibility of starting with the rigorous, sacrificed knowledge from the honor of being able to do it. That enthusiasm is what prevents the institutions’ mediocrity to destroy the university principle.

This takes us to another aspect of the university principle: knowledge that is searched for itself is called by the Greeks “theory”, which means, contemplation [13]. How could it be any other way when one has gotten an interest in the greatness of what is bigger than us? The program of a science that does not contemplate the world but creates its object of knowledge, has never been carried out, and the authentic scientist always finds itself with a mouth and eyes wide open, just like Thales of Miletus or Hippocrates, or the medieval monks, cultivating in its gardens medicinal herbs. This contemplative knowledge is worth by itself, it is not “servile” but “liberal”, because it looks for itself, not as a mean for another thing. Contemplation keeps this order between the frui and the uti, whose loss according to Saint Augustine is a sin.

But then, at last, the university principle obtains a unique space for friendship. Because friendship is precisely that, not looking at each other but two looking in the same direction, opening the eyes admired, giving each other a comprehensive look and, most likely, starting a discussion.

Nobility, admiration, humility, gratitude, friendship: here is what the university principle contains as attitude. But this principle has another side, besides the human attitude that it requires. It is the aspect of content. The knowledge, we said, is open to the whole, because truth is linked in a totality that is always inaccessible to men. And the university principle has known how to philosophically represent itself in the whole. Philosophy means perception of the whole without exhausting it. Or, as it has been said, philosophy is a radical knowledge, but not an exhaustive one, and this is what the name means: friendship with wisdom, not wisdom properly.

The content of the university principle is the whole, the totality of knowledge [14]. An inaccessible totality but noticeable if one has the sufficient art of totality. From Rome, being the first systematist known, Varro inherited the Seven Liberal Arts University, organized in Trivium and Quadrivium, as an ensembled totality art. When the properly said University began to exist, different Faculties, we already mentioned, came together in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, later called the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy [15]. In no way was this a mere specialty, but everybody’s methods, the access to the whole by everyone. Today it is not easy to understand the firm adhesion of centuries and centuries of indisputable primacy of the Seven Arts. In the Middle Age, some poet attributed them to non-less than Homer, father of Western culture. Of course, not for Newman, for which we will not stop in it.

The Trivium was composed of grammar, rhetoric and logic, the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Today it might seem that the line-up is very incomplete. In reality, the ancients knew that these disciplines did not constitute all knowledge; they were in its ensemble of seven liberal arts, not servile, the art for the perception of the whole.

The Trivium was the world of the Logos, the word and science, the word in the meaningful sense, which means the recognition that the science is a mysterious speech with a superior Wisdom to the human. Obviously, the meaning of these disciplines has changed a lot. Grammar, for example, in a classic sense, is not grammatical rules, but the knowledge of “canonical” literature, if we may talk like that, the knowledge of the classics, that have the task of teaching us the most decisive of education: the use of the word. The rhetoric is the art of well expression, according to this classic use and the logic in the art of rigorous thinking.

The Quadrivium was the world of nature. It can seem reductive, again, the line-up of the disciplines of the Quadrivium to represent nature. But it is worth repeating that it did not pretend to be exhaustive, but only the complete design of the method to access the nature. If we were told that the Quadrivium contains what we now call mathematics, we will have to agree, only noticing the difference with the ancient conviction about the numbers as figures of the being, for the game between the one and the multiple. The number of the arithmetic and the dimensions of geography, the division of space as astronomy and time and movement ruled like harmony and rhythm, like music: these four disciplines open and prepare us for the totality of nature, that has an admirable unity in its diversity.

The word and perception of nature are unfolded in Seven Liberal Arts, Trivium and Quadrivium. The continental University has not followed this model since a long time ago, and it is not about proposing it as such, despite its survival in the Anglo-Saxon world, with its excellent educative resources. But, in reality the double interest for the Word and for the world of Nature have not disappeared and cannot disappear in the educative task of the University. Trivium and Quadrivium are suitable for the ancient image of the world, of the world as a cosmos, which means as a beautiful and divine order. Our image of the world is certainly not this one anymore, but is it not in absolute? The idea of a real order in the world not produced by man but that possesses consistency, vim and vigor, intelligibility on its own, does not contradict nor Newton’s quantum physic, nor modern chemistry or math nor current biology. The idea that a science that discovers an order and by doing it can create order, can research, can follow the steps of the real order, always bigger than an order created by human science, is not contrary to the ideals of modern times. Such an idea contradicts some of the skeptical postulates of modern philosophy of science, but it cannot be forgotten that these postulates of skepticism are not a scientific conclusion, but a metaphysical motivated decision, isn’t it still a dialogue with the real world, whose intelligibility deserves respect and attention? It is to be noted that we are not talking here directly of the “intelligent design” of nature. We are simply talking about the daily duty of the scientist that is both creative and contemplative, contemplative of what he does not give himself and creative of a path of truth knowledge. 

That is why, if we are certainly not going to organize anymore the education of human mind in Trivium and Quadrivium, the use of the word and the interest for all the nature, bigger than our science will continue being the basis of our education, while we dedicate ourselves to educate. The Trivium has been substituted for the modern languages’ studies and languages themselves. To this knowledge it is linked almost naturally the necessity of educating the mind for a coherent speech, that won’t disproportionate what is known, but remaining in the right dimensions to get to know what is still unknown. The correct use of language, the ability to transmit through language the acquired knowledge and elaborating a reasonable speech that can be followed through others, all this is understood by itself, before a specialty is a common heritage of the entire University. The fact that there is a Philosophy and Letter faculty, where logic and language are studied, won’t ever mean that there is a luminous word and coherent reasoning only there. The ancient classic institution will continue to be truth: the center of the University and education is the use of the word. But not without the complement of the look over the world. The Quadrivium has been substituted by modern mathematics and by non-Euclidian geometry, and by the development of sciences that in the medieval University were found in nuce. But this situation and this development keeps the ancient conviction that the relationship between the one and the multiple, which means, mathematics in its origin, is the language of nature. And this is not the heritage of the Faculty of Sciences, but of the entire thought and university education: it is one and multiple the scientific concept, is one and multiple the laboratory experimentation, is one and multiple in word the unity of the speech.

If the center of medieval University, in coherence with the history of university principle was the Faculty of Liberal Arts or Philosophy and Letters, the center of the University keeps on being the answer until today, always partial to two questions: What is the word and what is the nature of the world. The teacher is the one who asks and answer in conversation with its colleagues and students. These three facts, professors, students and the search of knowledge itself, shape the humanism from which the University lives, thanks to which it can achieve its noble function of educating the intelligence of young people.

The punishment of the oversight of the Word and its educative importance would be the real uncommunication or the communication through dead words, that do not transmit anything real in the knowledge of purely technical data. And it is truth that psychology warns us today from the unusual danger of a cultural autism, with fanatic expressions that can discard the University in its legalist formalism as an only resource of order, because the words can come to lose their real content. Or, in Newman’s words, the “notional knowledge” should not separate, if the methods require abstraction from the “real knowledge” [16]. On the other hand, the punishment of the oblivion of Nature would radicalize the fanatism of power, because if there is not an order to contemplate and a wonderful world that is worth knowing, there is only the reduction of knowledge fpr power, according to which the world is nothing but the object of our scientific speech at the services of our own interests [17]. One thing without the other is not possible either, the Word without Nature or Nature without the Word; the absolutization of one of those two would block the task of the University. If the Word is everything, the world is only the result of our verbalization; if everything is Nature, we are lacking the task of knowledge, we are nothing more than an epiphenomenon of Nature.

But it cannot be like that. An ancient myth reminds us that the Muses, goddesses of art and science and word, were created when at the end of the ordination of the world the gods noticed that something was missing. Then the father created the Muses’ gods, because Nature is not complete without the celebration of it through the Word inspired by the Muses. Privilege of the myth is to say it in depth-filled images.

The same could be said, even more deeply still and Newman does it in Medieval Oxford, when he recognizes that he calls the “university principle”, the “monastic principle”: love to the truth like praise of God.

[1] Cf. Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, Oxfor, New York 2009, 694ss.

[2] In Historical Sketches III, London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta, 1909, as it is found with the same pagination, http://newmanreader.org/works/historical/volume3/universities/index.html

[3] As it continues, we quote repeatedly this work indicated in parentheses the page, according to the edition found in the edition of Historical Sketches III in the just quoted web page.

[4] Cf. Ian Ker, o. c. 54-101. More succinctly but always luminous for the essential, cf. Charles Stephen Dessain, Life and thought for the Cardinal Newman, Madrid 1998, 73-96. With a cordial comprehension, smart in a feminine way, Meriol Trevor, John Henry Newman, chronicle of a love of truth Salamanca, 2010, 67ss.

[5] Herrlichkeit III 1. Im Raum der Metaphysik. 1. Altertum, Einsiedeln 1965, 20ss; Epilog, Einsiedeln-Trier 1987, 11ss.

[6] Cf. especially Meriol Trevor, o.c., 33ss.

[7] It is about an autobiographical page of Salisbury in its Metalogicon, quoted by César Raya Dafonte, Salisbury, Madrid 1999, 59-60.

[8] ]In the first part of The Idea of a University, Newman has demonstrated how, if the truth is a total unit, our knowledge has necessity of abstraction, so that each science makes a certain abstraction to have  its subject of study, which is not negative provided that the scientist does not forget that an abstraction has been made. This first part has been published in Spanish more than once. C.f. John H. Newman, Discourses about the purpose and nature of university education, Pamplona 1996. <<Everything that exists, as it is contemplated by human mind, composes a wide system or total complexity…However, it is not surprising that, with all its capacity, human mind cannot understand this global fact with just one look, or immediately possess it…The mind covers around, it first notices one thing and then another as best as possible under different aspects, , as a way of moving forward to dominate it all. Therefore, by grades and circular approximations, the mind elevates to achieve a certain knowledge from that universe on which it was born… These diverse partial views or abstractions, by means of those which the intellect considers its object, are denominated sciences (76-77). <<Sciences are the result of that mental abstraction which I have mentioned, being the logical registration of this or that aspect of the totality of knowledge. Given the fact that all sciences belong to a unique and same circle of objects, found connected between each other…turn out one way or another incomplete in its own idea and in order to their respective purposes. In both senses, all sciences need each other mutually and help one another>> (82). At this point, Newman helps us recognize the need of Philosophy for the existence of the University: <<The comprehension of the influx of one science over another one, and the use of each one of those makes of the other ones, as well as the situation, limitation, adjustment and the proper appreciation as a whole belongs, to my judgment, to some kind of different science, a sort of science of sciences, that is my idea of Philosophy in the meaningful sense of the word, and also belongs to a philosophical habit of mind, that in these discourses I will refer to with that name>> (Ibid.) The abstraction is not incorrect, but the scientist <<makes a mistake by considering its discipline like the key to everything that happens on Earth…by making the concrete system of the world identical with a scientific personal analysis, organized over one particular aspect, this teacher that I have imagined demonstrates scarcity of philosophical depth and ignorance of what must be a university teaching. It has stopped being a teacher of knowledge liberal-humanistic and has become a fanatic, narrow-minded man>> (87). The controversial tone of these pages has to do with Newman defending the necessity of Theology in the context of sciences. And for the good of themselves, because without Theology sciences tend to alter it and become a bad theology (c.f 104ss.)

[9] <<Even though the students cannot study all, in the University they will uplift themselves by living amongst them and under those who represent the entire circle of knowledge. This is, to my judgement, the advantage of a universal knowledge headquarters, considered as a place of education. An ensemble of wise men, jealous about their respective sciences, and mutually opponents, are driven by familiar treatment in favor of intellectual peace to harmonize ambitions and relations of its disciplines. And thus, they learn to respect themselves, take each other into account, help each other. As a result, a clear and pure atmosphere of thought is caused, also breathed by the students, even though they only pursue determined sciences from a crowd. The student beneficiates from an intellectual tradition, independent from individual teachers…They apprehend the great lines of knowledge, the principles under which it rests, the proportions of their various parts, its lights and shadows, its big and little points…It forms…an habit of the mind that lasts forever, and whose characteristics are liberty, sense of justice, serenity, moderation and wisdom. Is what I have dared to denominate philosophic habit. This is what I consider the singular result of the education provided in a University>> (Discourses o.c. 125)

[10] <<The genuine, adequate purpose of intellectual entertainment and of a University is not just the instruction or acquisition of knowledge, but the thought or the reason, exercise about knowledge or what we can call philosophy>> (Discourses, o.c. 155). A description of this task of “liberal education”: <<Widening the mind, correct it, polish it, train it for knowing, assimilating, dominating, regulating and using its knowledges, giving it power over its own faculties, and application, flexibility, method, critical accuracy, resources, ability and eloquent expression>> (Id. 142).

[11] Apologia pro vita sua, Oxford University Press, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Bombay, 1913, 239. En http://www.newmanreader.org/works/apologia/part5.html

[12] For example, to the solemn catholic apologists of Ireland, Newman says: Who believes in the Revelation with that absolute faith that is the prerogative of a catholic, is not a nervous creature, that startles to each sudden noise and is agitated with every strange or original appearance that impresses its eyes. It does not have this kind of apprehension, it laughs at the idea that any other thing can be discovered by any scientific method can contradict some of the dogmas of its religion…It knows that if there is any science that, from its sovereign position and beyond every assault, can bear with calm such unintentional collisions by the children of the Earth, is Theology…If any other thing can be proven…in contradiction to the faith dogmas…is happy with waiting, knowing that the mistake is like other criminals; if given enough power, it will be proven that there is a strong propensity to suicide>> (The Idea of a University II. In Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University, London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta 1907, 466-467. En http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/article8.html).

[13] C.f. Discourses, o.c. 102s; 123ss.

[14] About the universality of knowledge to which the University aspires, in the second part of the Idea of a University, Newman recognizes in first place the necessity of the inheritance of Greece as universalism of Philosophy. Newman never understands by Philosophy the technical knowledge of a specialist, but the science of the opening to the whole from the depth that includes everything, and for that the poet and the philosopher are required: <<the world had to have certain intellectual teachers and no others; Homer and Aristotle, with the poets and philosophers that surround them, they had to be the teachers of school of all generations>> (The Idea of a University II, o.c. 260). Besides it has been required the universality of Rome’s imperialism to include all the regions of knowledge (Id. 260ss. Also, 458ss.) In third place it has been required the universality of Christian faith, because the greatness of Greece and Rome could not bring the ultimate foundation of the world. Christianism, from the heights of divine revelation, positively penalizes all the studies. It does not fit in concurrence with them, but it holds them and blesses them. That is why in the first of its University Sermons, of Oxford, Newman maintains the <<philosophical temper>> it is a contribution of the Gospel: <<Science and Revelation agree in supposing that nature is regulated by standardized and fixed laws. The Writing, properly interpreted, is decisive for eliminating all those causes or abnormal beings that many imagine interrupt as they want the order of the universe…making every hope disappear of obtaining some real information about the system that rules the universe>> (Faith and reason. University Sermons, Madrid 1993, 60).

[15] <<It is not unnoticeable that, despite the special historical connection of the institutions of the University with Sciences and Theology, Law and Medicine, one University, after all must be formally based… and decidedly should live in the Arts Faculty. That faculty exists before other Faculties, the Arts teachers where the body of the rector and leader…When Colleges started and became the way and instrument of action of the University, they did not do but confirm the pre-eminence of the Faculty of Arts. And the, up until our days, in those academic corporations that more than the others have conserved marks of its medieval origin -I mean, Oxford and Cambridge Universities- we hear little of Theology, Medicine or Law and almost everything about Arts>> (The Idea of a University II, o.c. 249-250.)

[16] Cf. An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, London, New York and Bombay 1903, 36ss.


[17] The alternative to the contemplative disposition of knowledge is just that of knowing as a utility, which means, as power. Cf. Discourses, o.c. the fifth speech, “Knowing as a purpose in itself” (123-142), quoted here several times.



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