Newman and Lewis on the Limits of Education

The philosophical map has altered. We live in a world wholly different from the world known by C. S. Lewis, or by John Henry Newman before him, or by Francis Bacon in the Renaissance or Robert Grosseteste in the Middle Ages. Whether we wish to locate the wellspring of this latter change in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, or much earlier; it is a truism to point out that hardly a single one of our suppositions about the universe has remained unaltered.

It is hard to steer clear of platitudes when we speak of this enormous change from the world of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, to the world we call modern, and even postmodern. We have got rid of the gods; we are not sure where to find truth; we are not sure that there is such a thing; there are no fixed values; there are no absolutes; human existence is a conundrum, and so forth.

The experience of this sea change has been scrutinized in a thousand novels, dramas, and paintings. Everyone from Dostoyevsky to Kafka to Updike, and from Gustav Courbet to George Braque to Claes Oldenburg, and from Pinter to Ionesco to Becket— our own epoch is rich in the artistic exploration of what it is like to be human when the very category “human” is itself problematic.

Obviously all of this is going to have its effect in the university. After all, the whole job of the university is to… is to… and there is the focus of the question. What is the job of the university? John Henry Newman thought he knew:

This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each others, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They 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. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects…. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts…. Hence it is that his education is called “liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.

Various phrases through Newman’s lectures catch our wary attention like small magnesium flares: “a pure and clear atmosphere of thought”; “an intellectual tradition”; “the principles on which knowledge rests”; and the notion that the branches of knowledge together form a whole. Is there any sense in which we would agree that “a pure and clear atmosphere of thought” presides in Cambridge or Ann Arbor or Slippery Rock? Does “a certain intellectual tradition” preside, say, in these English Departments, or in these Departments of Religious Studies? What, exactly, are the “principles on which knowledge rests,” so serenely invoked by Newman? And what is that whole formed by all the branches of knowledge?

A certain embarrassment would descend over any forum today if such phraseology were put forward. On the other hand, it is often a salutary exercise to challenge our own most prized suppositions by testing them against alien ideas. Hence we should welcome gauntlets thrown at our feet from the likes of Newman and Lewis—from university scholars, that is, whose certainties were so vastly removed from our own certainties.

Some will wish to adjust the record here by pointing out that our particular hallmark is that we disclaim certainty. There can be no question of putting our certainties over against Newman’s. The lines must be drawn, rather, between certainty and uncertainty. It is the mark of your modern, liberally educated, and therefore urbane man that he has jettisoned any hankerings after certainty, and has learned to live, like Albert Camus, soberly and pensively, with bottomless uncertainty.

Our lines, then, should be drawn between the modern university, with its sovereign skepticism, and the old Western tradition represented by John Henry Newman and C. S. Lewis.

In an essay entitled “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis canvasses the question about the rival claims of religion and culture, with Matthew Arnold, Benedetto Croce, I. A. Richards, and others carrying the torch for culture’s having supplanted religion as the agency for the betterment of mankind. Lewis marshals Aristotle, Plato, the Buddha, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Thomas, and Milton, as testifying to the inadequacy of culture alone to make us better people, that is, to make us virtuous. If it seems to have entailed a jump here, from education, or culture, to virtue, we may recall that the ancient tradition of education held that the telos, so to speak, of all tutelage was the virtuous man.

Finally I came to that book of Newman’s … the lectures on University Education. Here at last I found an author who seemed to be aware of both sides of the question; for no one ever insisted so eloquently as Newman on the beauty of culture for its own sake, and no one ever so sternly resisted the temptation to confuse it with things spiritual. The cultivation of the intellect, according to him, is “for this world”: between it and “genuine religion” there is a “radical difference”; it makes “not the Christian … but the gentleman,” … he “will not for an instant allow” that it makes men better.

Lewis here is considering Newman’s claim “To perfect the mind is ‘an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.'”

Do Lewis and Newman mean to insist that I will be no further along in the virtue sweepstakes after having immersed myself in the wisdom of Plato, or opened myself to the force of Oedipus Rex or Lear, or learned all about Freud and Jung? To acquire knowledge with any trace of integrity—surely this is to hone my sensibilities and my perceptions, and to broaden my sympathies, and to develop greater sensitivity and discrimination, and to take on that gravity, moderation, and generosity that is the mark of the truly educated mind. And do not these qualities in some sense constitute virtues—or at least do they not contribute to the growth of virtue in me? It is nettlesome, really, to be told that I am no better a man for having gained this bachelor’s or master’s or doctor’s degree.

When I lived in New York in the 1960s, I used to go to the New York Film Festival. Here was cinema that was serious, we told ourselves. The films probed our sensibilities and our values. Consciousness had been quickened, or so we felt. We were somehow chastened, purged, purified. As I was leaving Lincoln Center one night after a particularly heavy-duty film, I overheard a woman behind me in the emerging crowd effusing over how powerful it had all been, and what a purgative experience it was.

I wanted to agree with her. But then had I been purified? In order to purify my inner man from all the venality and cravenness and duplicity and pusillanimity and parsimony and vindictiveness and vanity—not to mention concupiscence—in order to cleanse my innermost being from all of that, a very strong anodyne would be needed. The intensity that is visited upon one sitting under the spell of good cinema or good theater is a strong elixir, we might say; and we do feel chastened, at least emotionally.

Here is the problem. What is the connection between strong emotions and virtue? Intense emotions and insights do not always translate into an increase of actual virtue in us. The poor lecher dribbling into his scotch at the bar may admire virtue, and may well have been deeply moved by the evening’s performance, but somehow none of it empowers him to rise up, put one foot in front of the other, and head toward the virtuous life.

The university is the place where, at one remove from the hurly-burly of the marketplace, so to speak, we mortals have the task and the luxury of addressing ourselves to knowledge and culture—to the arts and sciences, to all that constitutes human endeavor, and to all that presents itself to our gaze. Astrophysics, psycho-linguistics, economics, computer technology, sculpture, logic: no region of inquiry is excluded. The increase of knowledge, the pursuit of data, the preservation of tradition, the passing on of the deposit—all of this and more is what courses through the corridors of the university.

But does it make us better? More informed, yes. But better? More able to control our environment, yes. But better? More powerful, and more urbane, more discriminating, and more aware, and more literate. But better? It is an awkward question.

Some such questions as these do, in fact, seem to tease us when we mull over this matter of the university. Are universities good places? I can remember thinking to myself, as I was working on my dissertation, “Now by rights all of us here in this English Department ought to be the best people around. After all, we have read Gawain, and Proust, and Edmund Spenser, and John Donne, and Emerson and Henry James. We are enormously civilized people here. We know sentimentalism when we see it. Our sensibilities are Olympian in their exaltedness.”

Yes, I thought. But are we good? What does that professor there do about disorderly lust, for example? What do I do about it, for that matter? And vanity: has the reading of Piers Plowman made this tutor humble and generous and pure? Has it made me humble and generous and pure? Has the reading of Beowulf or Mrs. Dalloway or The Song of Roland made us all noble and brave and true?

Which brings us back to Newman and Lewis. Newman insists that liberal knowledge is an end in itself and that we need no ulterior rationale for the perfecting of the mind. But he will “not for an instant allow” that any of this makes us better. Lewis, in the same essay quoted earlier, ventures the notion that culture is a storehouse of the best sub-Christian values:

These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honor resembles virtue.

Lewis, being himself a university man, defends the university, and the pursuit of culture, on the grounds that any good and true work on the part of us mortals is worthy. Here is how he puts the matter:

Most men must glorify God by doing to His glory something which is not per se an act of glorifying but which becomes so by being offered. If, as I now hope, cultural activities are innocent and even useful, then they also … can be done to the Lord. The work of a charwoman and the work of a poet become spiritual in the same way and on the same condition.

There is something vexing about these remarks if we wish to urge some special dignity for the university and its work, since Lewis’s apologia on our behalf puts our work on the same footing as the work of the janitor and the woman with the mops. There is something perverse about such an apologia, surely?

We find Lewis’s point in a sermon he preached in 1939 at Great St. Mary’s in Oxford.

A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves … into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war.

Lewis then goes on to draw the analogy of Nero fiddling while Rome burns and points out that, from the Christian point of view, all times are like that: that is, at every moment of our lives we mortals have a question hanging over our heads that dwarfs even so urgent a situation as cities in conflagration. It is the question of heaven and hell. He acknowledges that university people can scarcely be asked to take seriously categories like heaven and hell, which seem to be the stock in trade of stump preachers and zealots. But, says Lewis, neither he himself, nor St. Paul (who often gets the blame for talk of hellfire) is responsible for raising such a specter. It is the Lord, Jesus Christ himself, who rings the changes on the topic:

Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself…. Men propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds … and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature…. We have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this. That is, we have always to answer the question “How call you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?”

He then points out the obvious, namely, that war or no war, hell or no hell, so to speak, we mortals are going to have to get on with the ordinary quotidian activities of eating and drinking and working and living.

It is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs … Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church … learning and arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is of course well known to you. “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God … Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials…. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space.

And then Lewis weighs in with a remark that might ruffle our scholarly feathers. He says,

I reject at once the idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious—as though scholars and poets wee intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and boot blacks…. The work of Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman becomes spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God.

What we encounter in the attitude of Newman and Lewis is the outlook that sees everything sub specie aeternitatis. On this view God is not one among a number of topics or headings. He is the topic. All topics crowd towards him. All data imply God. There is nothing in this universe, from the Christian point of view, that is not summoned by that great bidding in the ancient canticle, Benedicite, omnia opera Domini.

We find a paradox in the view of the university put forward by Newman and Lewis. On the one hand, both deny any special cachet to intellectual and cultural pursuits and would hence seem to grant less dignity to the university than we ourselves might wish to grant. But, on the other hand, given their Christian point of view, this locating of the university and its tasks in the same category with all work, as that which may be made into an oblation to the Most High—this crowns the enterprise with a dignity and sacred character that exalts it far above the futility that mocks work stained with the motive of career advancement and destined for oblivion.

Both Newman and Lewis saw the whole human drama as positively humming with rumors of the divine drama. They believed that we mortals are never more royally ourselves than when we bow and offer the diadem of our humanity as an oblation at the Sapphire Throne. Because they believed this, they were able to speak of the university and its work as an activity most fitting to us mortals who owe our work and our very being to the God who is himself the source of all truth.


  • Thomas Howard

    Thomas Howard is the author of Evangelical is not Enough and C.S. Lewis, Man of Letters: A Reading of His Fiction.

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