The Magazine

Cardinal Virtue

Style and substance in the voice of John Henry Newman.

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The present age is the very contrary to what are commonly called the dark ages; and together with the faults of those ages we have lost their virtues. I say their virtues; for even the errors then prevalent, a persecuting spirit, for instance, fear of religious inquiry, bigotry, these were, after all, but perversions and excesses of real virtues, such as zeal and reverence; and we, instead of limiting and purifying them, have taken them away root and branch. Why? because we have not acted from a love of the Truth, but from the influence of the Age.

Here, also, is a good example of the conversational character that Gerard Manley Hopkins commended in Newman’s work. “What Cardinal Newman does is to think aloud,” the poet discerned, “to think with pen and paper. .  .  . He seems to be thinking ‘Gibbon is the last great master of traditional English prose; he is its perfection; I do not propose to emulate him; I begin all over again from the language of conversation, of common life.’ ”  

This was an astute insight because, for all of his dazzling attainments, Newman paid very close attention to “common life.” It was an expression of his deep respect for the claims of reality. Consequently, the limpidity of his prose is of a piece with the naturalness, the sincerity, the humility of the man himself. Dean Church, the author of what remains the greatest history of the Oxford Movement, made a number of observations in his obituary of Newman in the Guardian—an Anglican paper in the 19th century—which nicely corroborate Hopkins’s point.  

It is common to speak of the naturalness and ease of Cardinal Newman’s style in writing. It is, of course, the first thing that attracts notice when we open one of his books; and there are people who think it bald and thin and dry. They look out for longer words, and grander phrases, and more involved constructions, and neater epigrams. They expect a great theme to be treated with more pomp and majesty, and they are disappointed. But the majority of English readers seem to be agreed in recognising the beauty and transparent flow of language, which matches the best French writing in rendering with sureness and without effort the thought of the writer. But what is more interesting than even the formation of such a style .  .  . is the man behind the style. For the man and the style are one in this perfect naturalness and ease. Any one who has watched at all carefully the Cardinal’s career, whether in old days or later, must have been struck with this feature of his character, his naturalness, the freshness and freedom with which he addressed a friend or expressed an opinion, the absence of all mannerism and formality; and, where he had to keep his dignity, both his loyal obedience to the authority which enjoined it and the half-amused, half-bored impatience that he should be the person round whom all these grand doings centred. .  .  . He was by no means disposed to allow liberties to be taken or to put up with impertinence; for all that bordered on the unreal, for all that was pompous, conceited, affected, he had little patience; but almost beyond all these was his disgust at being made the object of foolish admiration. He protested with whimsical fierceness against being made a hero or a sage; he was what he was, he said, and nothing more; and he was inclined to be rude when people tried to force him into an eminence which he refused. 

These are the qualities that make the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), Newman’s great spiritual autobiography, such a special book. Far from being an exercise in self-vindication, it is full of the most guileless honesty.  

If we recognize that Newman’s style is the natural efflorescence of his thought, we will also see that his thought is the expression of a very versatile personality. Editor Ian Ker does this versatility justice by distilling Newman’s vast output in terms of what he wrote as an educator, philosopher, theologian, preacher, and writer.