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By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 04, 2011

Perhaps I've already mentioned that, when I grow up, I want to be like John Henry. It is impossible to read the great Cardinal Newman’s writings even for a few minutes without seeing some important point expressed better than you’ve ever seen it expressed before. Newman is definitely a writer’s saint. It’s a vain dream, I know, but Blessed John Henry Newman is who I want to be when I’m big.

To take a case in point, I’ve just started reading the entirety of Newman’s The Idea of a University, of which I have read only excerpts in the past. I had to put several sticky-notes on key passages just in the first thirty pages. The delicious example I want to put before you today is Newman’s rejection of the perversion of authentic intellectual formation occasioned by the demands of journalism, which he expounds in the Preface to his book.

Newman is attempting to explain the way a student’s mind should be formed, so that by developing a certain suppleness of intellect firmly rooted in the basic disciplines of human thought, the student should emerge with a facility for reflecting upon and effectively turning his attention to the various issues which come before him in the course of his personal life and his life as a citizen:

Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.

But Newman sees at once that such “parti-coloured ingenuities” are one of the chief evils of the day, and “men of real talent are not slow to minister to them.” He goes on to explain that an “intellectual” as the world conceives the case is a person who is “full of ‘views’ on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism.” And, says Newman, “This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request.”

Newman points out that every day the public demands a supply of “new and luminous theories” on the subjects of “religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practiced on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers.” You get the idea. He is talking about bloggers, like myself, or perhaps even more about those in the secular media who seem to claim to know everything about everything all of the time, whereas we here at claim only to know some significant part of the issues that afflict us specifically as Catholics. (And Newman’s concern is a constant reminder to writers to base commentaries on firm principles, on what we know, and not on what we do not know.)

Try an experiment. It is axiomatic to me that if you read an article in a major newspaper (or its Internet equivalent) or hear a report on a generalized radio or television station, and it covers an issue on which you are quite knowledgeable, you will encounter laughable errors of both fact and logic. Yet too often this fails to give us pause when reading or listening to reports on those issues on which we are relatively ignorant. We fall into this trap regularly, mistaking the scheduled delivery of “views” for active intelligence. Thus Newman:

As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Newman has considerable sympathy for such writers, who must respond to the public’s incessant demand to treat of every subject, to make, in a singularly unfortunate sense, all things new. But of course his purpose in this particular discussion is to relate this problem to the idea of the university, and what he fears is that the authority which used to reside in universities now lodges mainly in this “literary world”, or what we might now call this world of instant communications. His conclusion:

This is not satisfactory, if, as no one can deny, its teaching be so offhand, so ambitious, so changeable. It increases the seriousness of the mischief, that so very large a portion of its writers are anonymous, for irresponsible power never can be anything but a great evil; and moreover, that, even when they are known, they can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment, and their happy conformity in ethical character to the age which admires them.

This was written 160 years ago, but it has become no less trenchant with the passage of time, fads and fashions. It is another reason why, when and if I finally do grow up, I want to be like John Henry.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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