Cardinal Newman’s Gentleman

cardinal-newman-oulessNewman’s Gentleman by Ronald J. Snyder, D.D.S.

Evidence of the respect for Blessed John Henry Newman’s unsurpassed 19th century treatise of higher education is his frequently referenced gentleman; who forms “the beau-ideal of the world”. [1] Newman’s gentleman, when taken in isolation, appears as an exemplary product of an educational ideal. In Discourse 8 of The Idea of a University Newman described the gentleman in no less than 812 words; he is refined, gentle, makes others at ease, tender, merciful and “never inflicts pain.” The description is so packed with superlatives that scholars have compared Newman’s gentleman with Aristotle’s “magnanimous man.” A cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a dispassionate mind and a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life are recognized as essential qualities in the make up of an educated gentleman.

Newman’s work, however, must always be taken in context. His gentleman is actually limited to the description of the natural man whose highest aspirations hinge solely on the four human virtues of prudence, justice, self-control and courage. When the gentleman is presented by educators, governing boards and administers as the highest aim of higher education they fall short of Newman’s true end; rooting the human virtues in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love “which adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature.”[2] A proper reading of Newman always insists on the Divine as the first and final motivating force.

Newman’s gentleman appears with regularity in his massive literary work but he presents the Christian as one who has been raised by grace to the supernatural practice of faith. Throughout his work the Christian resists the spirit of liberalism, rather than politely avoiding controversy or causing pain:.

Liberalism is “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. Liberalism teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”[3]

The eight volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons collected from Newman’s Anglican homilies consistently present the gentleman as this reference point.

In a young adult Newman discussion group in St. Paul, Minnesota we have reviewed 18 sermons, and identified what we call Newman’s man of the world. The sermon “Faith and Private Judgment” presents this contrast where Newman defines faith as a complete submission to the voices of God simply “because God is true, because God has spoken.”[4] This surrender to a living authority, where there is no room for a subjective private judgment, is no different than the faith at the time of the Apostles. Private judgment thus contradicts the very notion of believing, denying that human messengers come from God. Faith, instead, “is made the foundation and commencement of all acceptable obedience.” Facing an age of private judgment Newman asks “has faith changed its meaning, or is it less necessary now?” Without surrender there is no faith, no assent to the Divine; only the gentleman;

“in spite of so much good in the Gospel, in spite of their sense of duty, their tenderness of conscience on many points, their benevolence, their uprightness, their generosity, they are under the dominion (I must say it) of a proud fiend; they have this stout spirit within them, they determine to be their own masters in matters of thought, about which they know so little; they consider their own reason better than any one’s else; they will not admit that any one comes from God who contradicts their own view of truth.”

The gentleman admired by the world, without obedience or a sense of duty to a living authority is left with the religion of the world; “in every age of Christianity, since it was first preached, there has been what may be called a ‘religion of the world’ which so far imitates the one true religion, as to the deceive the unstable and the unwary.” [5] Students, parents, educators, administrators and governing boards must all be wary of this counterfeit that replaces a living authority with a superficial religion of the day blocking participation in Divine life.

When left to our own devices we fall prey to the orthodoxy of the age where religious pluralism, tolerance and diversity are the highest aims; the only accepted intolerance is against those who stand in faith with orthodoxies found through obedience to the Divine. This is the “gentleman” that the world admires and accepts.

In his closing of Discourse 8 of The Idea of a University, Newman invites us to distinguish between a worldly gentleman and a Christian gentleman;

“Such are some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will form, apart from religious principle. They are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate; they form the beau-ideal of the world; they partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic. They may subserve the education of a St. Francis de Sales or a Cardinal Pole; they may be the limits of the contemplation of a Shaftesbury or a Gibbon. Basil and Julian were fellow-students at the schools of Athens; and one became the Saint and Doctor of the Church, the other her scoffing and relentless foe.”

The worldly gentleman is insufficient for the Christian: “liberal education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.”[6] In classic Victorian prose Newman describes this insufficiency:

“knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense in not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith…Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”

Newman reminds us that our insufficient natural, gentlemanly gifts need to be transformed by faith: “when a Christian mind takes up (the virtues of the gentleman) they cease to be secular, they are sanctified by their processor, and become the instruments of spiritual good.”[7]

Newman’s gentleman distinction is truly a call to holiness, a call to the fullness of the gentleman:

Perfection is the power or faculty of doing our duty exactly, naturally, and completely, whatever it is, in opposition to a performance which is partial, slovenly, languid, awkward, clumsy, and with effort. It is a life faith, hope and charity elicited in successive acts according to the calls of the moment and to the vocation of the individual. It does not consist in any specifically heroic deeds; it does not demand any fervor of devotion; but it implies regularity, precision, facility, and perseverance in a given sphere of duties. He is perfect who does the duties of the day perfectly…It immediately depends upon acquired habits formed in the soul by means of past supernatural acts, or contemporaneously with their exercise.”[8]



[1] Newman, John Henry, The Idea of the University, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 180-181.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992, paragraph 1812.

[3] Newman, John Henry, Biglietto Speech, May 12, 1879.

[4] Newman, John Henry, Discourses Addressed to
Mixed Congregations, “Faith and Private Judgment,” Discourse 10.

[5] Newman, John Henry, Parochial and Plain Sermons, “The Religion of the Day,” Volume 1, sermon 24.

[6] Idea, 110.

[7] Newman, John Henry, Oratory Papers, 214.

[8] Ibid, 328.

3 Comment(s)
  • Joseph C Matonic Posted July 16, 2015 4:18 pm

    Thank you for this ‘portrait.’ I certainly strive to be such a gentleman, but I am more of a conservative than a liberal. Wonderful ‘portrait’ none the less.

  • Ron Snyder Posted July 20, 2015 7:08 pm

    Thanks for the comment. For a further understanding of religious liberalism take a look at Newman’s speech upon being informed that he would become a Cardinal – “The Biglietto Speech.” Here the Cardinal says “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” Later he continues; “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.”

  • Pablo Lopez Herrera Posted February 7, 2016 1:27 pm

    In a book I am writing on Cardinal Newman I have a chapter on this subject. I begin with the following paragraph:
    In Discourse 8 of The Idea of a University, Newman penned an elegant and attractive description of a refined man of culture. In time the world at large would come to regard this as Newman’s definition of an ideal gentleman. It must be stated at the outset, however, that this assumption is in error due to a misreading of Newman’s text, and in reality does not portray Newman’s “ideal gentleman” – all of which will be discussed further here.

    Still, this portrait, has praiseworthy elements. Thank you for posting it.

    Newman’s portrait of the gentleman:

    It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder. [The Idea of a University, 1852]

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