Countdown to Newman: “The Danger of Accomplishments”

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Newman two years before his death in 1890.

To prepare a bit for the Pope’s imminent visit to England, I made John Henry Newman, Fr. Ian Ker’s literary and intellectual biography of the great English Cardinal, one of my few constant traveling companions over the summer.  I found so many provocative passages in the reading that it’s hard to know where to begin relating them.  However, since students across the country are returning to school during these weeks, I thought I might begin modestly by highlighting a single sermon that Newman preached—while still an Anglican—on the Feast of St. Luke: “The Danger of Accomplishments.” It might be aptly retitled today, “The Danger of Higher Education.”

Newman begins “The Danger of Accomplishments” with a reflection on the literary reputation of St. Luke the Evangelist, whose Gospel he reckons “superior in composition to any part of the New Testament,” and whom Newman therefore imagines to have had the “advantages of a liberal education.”  Rather than assume, however, that St. Luke’s artistic temperament and liberal education represented an unambiguous boon to his vocation as Evangelist, Newman imagines instead that they exposed him to strong, anti-evangelical temptations.

For Newman, the chief danger of all “accomplishments” is their tendency to “separate feeling and acting.”  Of themselves, they teach us to

think, speak, and be affected aright, without forcing us to practise what is right. I will take an illustration of this, though somewhat a familiar one, from the effect produced upon the mind by reading what is commonly called a romance or novel, which comes under the description of polite literature, of which I am speaking. Such works contain many good sentiments (I am taking the better sort of them): characters too are introduced, virtuous, noble, patient under suffering, and triumphing at length over misfortune. The great truths of religion are upheld, we will suppose, and enforced; and our affections excited and interested in what is good and true. But it is all fiction; it does not exist out of a book which contains the beginning and end of it. We have nothing to do; we read, are affected, softened or roused, and that is all; we cool again,—nothing comes of it. Now observe the effect of this. God has made us feel in order that we may go on to act in consequence of feeling; if then we allow our feelings to be excited without acting upon them, we do mischief to the moral system within us, just as we might spoil a watch, or other piece of mechanism, by playing with the wheels of it. We weaken its springs, and they cease to act truly. Accordingly, when we have got into the habit of amusing ourselves with these works of fiction, we come at length to feel the excitement without the slightest thought or tendency to act upon it; and, since it is very difficult to begin any duty without some emotion or other (that is, to begin on mere principles of dry reasoning), a grave question arises, how, after destroying the connexion between feeling and acting, how shall we get ourselves to act when circumstances make it our duty to do so?

An interesting question to be sure.  One wonders what Newman would think about the religious value of watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion in the comfort of one’s living room …

Newman would perhaps also have seen dangers in the typical undergraduate requirement of position papers, especially those assigned with the express purpose of devloping ‘critical thinking.’  For Newman,

the art of composing, which is a chief accomplishment, has in itself a tendency to make us artificial and insincere. For to be ever attending to the fitness and propriety of our words, is (or at least there is the risk of its being) a kind of acting; and knowing what can be said on both sides of a subject, is a main step towards thinking the one side as good as the other. Hence men in ancient times, who cultivated polite literature, went by the name of “Sophists;” that is, men who wrote elegantly, and talked eloquently, on any subject whatever, right or wrong. St. Luke perchance might have been such a Sophist, had he not been a Christian.

For Newman, it’s not so much that composing is bad.  It’s that the professional composer invariably tends to see reality at a remove: before the event or encounter is even complete, his already scheming to use it to his intellectual advantage.  I would wager that nearly everyone who has tried to maintain a blog has felt the pressure toward this sort of sophistry.

A final point on Newman: Fr. Ker drives home again and again that our English convert was constitutionally incapable of leaping to unnuanced conclusions or of seeing but a single side of any issue.  It is typical of Newman’s character that, at the same time he was unmasking the “danger of accomplishments” from the pulpit, he was dedicating his life to the liberal education of his Oxford students.  This was not waffling inconstancy on his part.  For Newman, the danger of abuse never took away the proper use.  And, as I hope to show later, he carried over this same complex and discerning attitude into his evaluation of authority in the Catholic Church (to be continued…)

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2 Responses to Countdown to Newman: “The Danger of Accomplishments”

  1. Joe Johnson says:

    good questions for artists.

  2. Marc says:

    Another good post Arron…opps, I mean “not bad.”

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