Book Review: Newman on the Church vs. secularist education
‘An Aristocracy of Exalted Spirits’ – The Idea of the Church
in Newman’s Tamworth Reading Room
by David P. Delio, Gracewing, 359pp, £17.99.
reviewed by Andrew Nash
Newman’s Tamworth Reading Room is one of his lesser known works, partly, I suspect, because its title doesn’t suggest what it is about, and partly because it is now tucked away in the volume Discussions and Arguments in which Newman brought together a number of his shorter occasional works in the standard edition he produced towards the end of his life. Also, even those people who do know what it is about - education – assume that the much better known Idea of a University will tell them more about Newman’s educational philosophy. But it is perhaps even more unusual for readers of Newman to go to the Tamworth Reading Room letters in search of his ecclesiology. And one has to say that ‘an aristocracy of exalted spirits’ - the quotation from the work which David Delio has chosen as his title, is not the most immediately appealing description of the Church. Out of context, it could look like an elitist, even Calvinist, view of the Church as consisting only of the perfect, which is not, of course, what Newman meant.
In due course Dr Delio explains what it does mean, but this only comes in the final chapters of this book. Before that, we are taken through the historical background to the Tamworth Reading Room letters. They were not really letters but newspaper articles, commissioned by The Times in response to a speech which the then Prime Minister, Robert Peel, gave at the opening of a Reading Room (a public library) in Tamworth, in the heart of the industrial Midlands of England, for which he was the Member of Parliament. Peel was a moderniser of the old Tory party, turning it into the Conservative party we know today.
In praising the new Reading Room, Peel unwisely adopted the new philosophy of education that had been enunciated by utilitarian thinkers like Henry Brougham. In this view education was not just about becoming more knowledgeable but was actually going to bring about moral improvement among working people. And it was explicitly going to do this without any religious influence – indeed, books on religion were specifically banned from the new Reading Room. It was the new gospel of secularism which now dominates educational thought throughout much of the Western world.
Newman, writing anonymously under the title ‘Catholicus’, made a highly effective critique of Peel. Readers who think of Newman as very serious will be surprised at how witty and satirical he could be. He ridiculed the idea that someone could be improved morally by reading about Physics or Chemistry, asking, ‘Can the process be analyzed and drawn out, or does it act like a dose or a charm which comes into general use empirically?’ Peel was reducing science and literature to the level of a palliative, like giving an alcoholic drink to someone who is feeling depressed. Newman commented, ‘Strong liquors, indeed, do for a time succeed in their object; but who was ever consoled in real trouble by the small beer of literature or science?’
In contrast, Newman argued that only religion can give consolation to the ills of the human condition and effect real moral improvement in people: ‘If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in libraries and reading rooms.’ This is the nub of Newman’s argument, which he was to expand and express more systematically in The Idea of a University over a decade later.
Role models or saints?
Brougham (and Peel following him) had suggested a secular ‘aristocracy of exalted sprits’ from history, a pantheon of thinkers and scientist who have been ‘drawn together out of all countries, ranks, and ages, raised above the condition of humanity, specimens of the capabilities of our race, incentives to rivalry and patterns for imitation’. These were to inspire the users of the Reading Room to become better people. This was in effect a secular version of the Communion of Saints. But of course such thinkers were not necessarily noble human beings, and the idea that they would act as role models to the industrial proletariat now looks naïve. Certainly, they cut no ice in our own celebrity-obsessed culture which now sees scientists and intellectuals generally as ‘nerds’. True saints, on the other hand, people of heroic dedication, inspired by the Gospel and transformed by grace, do inspire people. And this is where Delio finds Newman’s implicit theology of the Church in the Tamworth Reading Room.
Newman was still an Anglican at this time, but he had already developed a completely Catholic ecclesiology which he had learnt from his reading of the early Fathers. Delio brings this out from Newman’s sermons but sees him in the Tamworth letters as being more like ‘a modern street evangelist’ (p.242), using a different style of language to get a hearing from his contemporaries. Newman’s idea of the Church, says Delio, ‘arose from the variety of themes and images in The Tamworth Reading Room’ (p.253), and he summarises it as ‘the Church present in the world through good human beings weakened by sin, diverse yet unified, incarnate in various nations and cultures, and always divinely ordained and guided’ (p.256).
A systematic study
This study by Delio of a perhaps neglected Newman work is very thoroughly done. The bulk of the book comprises a
systematic and highly detailed analysis of the whole of The Tamworth Reading Room, and he records the letters’ reception
both immediately and later. In this sense, the title is a little misleading – readers expecting a book mainly about the Church should look elsewhere (Fr James Tolhurst’s The Church … a Communion makes an excellent introduction to this aspect of Newman’s thought). But Delio certainly gives the reader a really detailed account of one of Newman’s most readable shorter
works. I should add that it sometimes reads as if it is aimed at the American market: in his early chapters he takes his readers
through a great deal of British political and social history, telling us things which the British reader of Newman already knows,
such as what the Battle of Trafalgar was; but perhaps his students at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans aren’t so
familiar with European history. Overall, this is a workmanlike contribution to the vast corpus of writings about Newman,
who emerges more and more as a clear guide in our increasingly secular world.
Andrew Nash is the Book Reviews Editorof Faith; his critical edition of Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of
Catholics is published by Gracewing.