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Newman: On Writing Style, and on Original Sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 30, 2012

I said elsewhere that I wanted to be John Henry Newman when I grow up (see Newmanesque), although I realized the other night that, as an essayist, I wouldn’t mind also being Sigrid Undset. Anyway, in continuing to read through Fr. Saward’s anthology of The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England, I’ve just had the great pleasure of reading the Newman extracts.

What struck me, again, is not only the soundness of Newman’s thought but his stylistic brilliance. Part of this is the impeccable balance of his long and rolling sentences, where the emphasis always falls subtly on just the right points. But another part is Newman’s deliberate care to be concrete. This is a fundamental axiom of good writing, and a fundamental weakness of my own prose. I am interested in what we might call abstract concepts—principles and ideas—which do not lend themselves naturally to a concrete form of expression. One does not make the idea of liberty live in the mind in the same way as one recreates the impact on the senses of the proverbial babbling brook.

But Newman knew that we can achieve a similar result by multiplying the angles from which we view a question, or the instances in which we encounter its various forms. I’ll offer just one example here, the passage in which Newman explains why he is convinced of the reality of Original Sin.

To set the stage, let me explain first that I would have written something like this:

Given that we continually perceive both the world and ourselves as always falling just short of some deep harmony and satisfaction which we strongly sense should be present, is not the most likely explanation that everything was created in this essential harmony, but it has somehow been spoiled?

I have a son-in-law who used to proofread my early columns for CatholicCulture.org, especially when I was just getting back into the swing of regular writing after some years of programming. He would sometimes take a passage like that, draw an arrow toward it, and write “VAGUE!” at the stubby end of the arrow.

Not so with Newman, who says much the same thing through a surprisingly powerful multiplication of instances:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts, and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, ‘having no hope and without God in the world’,—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?

Here is prose that grips and propels, carrying us to the obvious solution, so that when Newman asks his question, we are almost fully prepared to shout the correct response. “I can only answer,” he says, now securely at one with his readers, “that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence.”

He then proceeds to an analogy, again extended through the multiplication of what we might call specific characteristics or angles of view:

Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connections, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world.

If there is a God, since there is a God,” Newman concludes, “the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.” Thus he is as certain of what is theologically called “Original Sin” as he is that both the world and God exist. And because he has written so well, we become more certain too.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: clinnickr5320 - Sep. 01, 2012 1:06 AM ET USA

    Ah. Newman. Yes indeed. One of God's gifts to the world.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 31, 2012 4:07 PM ET USA

    Don't beat yourself up too badly about not being Cardinal Newman. There was, after all, only one Newman.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Aug. 30, 2012 9:39 PM ET USA

    Blessed Cardinal Newman had a masterful grasp of the English language. There are few that can write like him. The best part is that he used his God given talent for preaching powerful sermons on the Faith. I would probably say his preaching is right on par with that of St. Bernard, another man of God who had a way with words and was deeply saturated with Holy Writ and Tradition.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 30, 2012 4:56 PM ET USA

    I myself enjoy meditating on the Blessed and the Canonized..., but not too much...! One must remember the admonition of God to Joshua on the Jordan, “Moses, my servant, is dead...” The Blessed, as much as they are still really “with us” have had “their time...” Now, “that time” is ours. I believe that the Blessed are good as “signposts..,” but not as destinations... Let us therefore rejoice in who God has truly made US to be..., Amen...

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