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Conscience and Taste: The Impact of Education

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 07, 2011

Before setting aside Newman’s The Idea of a University, I wish to take up one final point. The great English cardinal discusses the kinds of vices that tend to be rooted out by education as well as the kinds of vices which education very frequently implants and cultivates. This is one of several topics masterfully treated near the middle of the book, in the section on “Knowledge and Religious Duty”.

Newman understands, in complete agreement with his contemporaries and ours, that education typically plays an important role in moral improvement. At the very least, it is often a considerable moral gain to effect the substitution of intellectual studies for those activities into which the untutored are so likely to fall if left to themselves:

This then is the prima facie advantage of the pursuit of Knowledge; it is the drawing the mind off from things which will harm it to subjects which are worthy of a rational being; and, though it does not raise it above nature, nor has any tendency to make us pleasing to our Maker, yet is it nothing to substitute what is in itself harmless for what is, to say the least, inexpressibly dangerous? is it a little thing to exchange a circle of ideas which are certainly sinful, for others which are certainly not so?

This perception of the improving influence of education is still widespread, and lies behind the constant effort of civilized societies to provide libraries, schools, museums and other kinds of group learning and exploration activities for those who might otherwise almost inevitably fall into evil and even criminal associations and habits, if they never had a chance to consistently cultivate their minds.

The tendency of education, or the pursuit of knowledge, is precisely this:

to refine the mind, and to give it an indisposition, simply natural, yet real, nay, more than this, a disgust and abhorrence, toward excesses and enormities of evil, which are often or ordinarily reached at length by those who are not careful from the first to set themselves against what is vicious and criminal. It generates within the mind a fastidiousness, analogous to the delicacy or daintiness which good nurture or a sickly habit induces in respect of food; and this fastidiousness, though arguing no high principle, though no protection in the case of violent temptation, nor sure in its operation, yet will often or generally be lively enough to create an absolute loathing of certain offences, or a detestation and scorn of them as ungentlemanlike, to which ruder natures, nay, such as have far more of real religion in them, are tempted, or even betrayed.

Unfortunately, however, this moral fastidiousness is something of a two-edged sword. For Newman also perceives that this sort of disgust at certain kinds of vice “may have its root in faith and love, but it may not; there is nothing really religious in it.” It may be animated primarily by fear and shame and, indeed, one very common result of education without love and faith is that it can transform our sense of conscience from a standard of Divine law into a cultural standard or even merely a personal (if gentlemanly) taste. The result might well be men like those of Newman’s own day, who are:

possessed of many virtues, but proud, bashful, fastidious, and reserved. Why is this? it is because they think and act as if there were really nothing objective in their religion; it is because conscience to them is not the word of a lawgiver, as it ought to be, but the dictate of their own minds and nothing more; it is because they do not look out of themselves, because they do not look through and beyond their own minds to their Maker, but are engrossed in notions of what is due to themselves, to their own dignity and their own consistency. Their conscience has become a mere self-respect.

The reaction of such persons to a moral failure is not guilt but profound embarrassment. They apologize not to others but to their own character. They do not feel contrition but remorse. At their least pleasant, they are angry and impatient, rather than humble: “They call themselves fools, not sinners.” But Newman understands that some among them manifest this sort of conscience in a much more pleasing way. These exhibit their substitution of moral taste for conscience in their cultivation of a certain elasticity and grace, rooted in the idea that “virtue is nothing more than the graceful in conduct.” Such persons admit neither the fear of God nor reverence for absolute values in their grasp of moral truth; they dismiss such things as gloom or superstition. For the religion of a philosopher or a gentleman must be “of a liberal and generous character.” It is based not upon the fear of God but upon honor: “Vice is evil, because it is unworthy, despicable, and odious.”

We might add that what is regarded as unworthy, despicable, and odious tends to change with the shifting standards of particular times, places and cultures. In all such evaluations, the Christian notion of conscience seems not only foreign but base. As Newman concludes:

This was the quarrel of the ancient heathen with Christianity, that, instead of simply fixing the mind on the fair and the pleasant, it intermingled other ideas with them of a sad and painful nature; and it spoke of tears before joy, a cross before a crown; that it laid the foundation of heroism in penance; that it made the soul tremble with the news of Purgatory and Hell; that it insisted on views and a worship of the Deity, which to their minds was nothing else than mean, servile, and cowardly. The notion of an All-perfect, Ever-present God, in whose sight we are less than atoms, and who, while He deigns to visit us, can punish as well as bless, was abhorrent to them; they made their own minds their sanctuary, their own ideas their oracle, and conscience in morals was but parallel to genius in art, and wisdom in philosophy.

The Idea of a University, though bundled together as a single book, is really a collection of discourses and occasional writings, originating primarily in addresses to various audiences, which, taken together, outline Newman’s ideas about university education, Catholic education, the relationship between religion and knowledge, the nature of the various disciplines, and the proper role of each in a university that is Catholic.

As I have said elsewhere, the book is not for the faint of heart, but it is certainly full of its own wisdom and grace. Happily, it is Newman’s greatness that his wisdom and grace are rooted ultimately in the deepest reverence for the God whom so many other philosophers and gentlemen reject—those unfortunate members of the educated classes who, having been rescued from so many of the coarser vices, now find themselves unable to transcend their own exquisitely refined tastes.

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