In the penultimate discourse of the “Idea of a University” on the relation between Knowledge and Religious Duty, Newman explains that knowledge by itself is only able to provide a superficial morality.
According to Newman, Lord Shaftesbury picks and chooses out of Christianity what he wishes, “he discards the theological, the mysterious, the spiritual; he makes selection of the morally or esthetically beautiful.”
For Shaftesbury “embellishment of the exterior is almost the beginning and the end of philosophical morality. This is why it aims at being modest rather than humble; this is how it can be proud at the very time that it is unassuming.”
Newman explains that humility is a virtue hard to achieve, one with many counterfeits. In fact it was not conceived as a virtue by ancient civilizations. It had no word to express it or rather conveyed a reproach.
Newman contrasts the meaning of humility for Christians and for the world. For Christians “It is the act of a superior, who protests to himself, while he commits it, that he is superior still, and that he is doing nothing else but an act of grace towards those on whose level, in theory, he is placing himself.”
For the world “the word, “condescension” is a stooping indeed of the person, but a bending forward, unattended with any the slightest effort to leave by a single inch the seat in which it is so firmly established.”
Newman then notes that since the English society of his time is not Pagan it will not cast off humility, but it cannot love it, and instead chooses modesty, which has the appearance of humility but is concerned primarily with outward deportment. Since this “modesty” is a superficial virtue “it admits of being associated with principles or qualities naturally foreign to it, and is often made the cloak of feelings or ends for which it was never given to us.” Even pride gets a new name; is called self-respect and ceases to be disagreeable. It is attired in delicacy and gentleness and becomes the driving force behind industry, frugality, honesty and obedience.
In this way, pride “becomes the safeguard of chastity, the guarantee of veracity, in high and low; it is the very household god of society, as at present constituted, inspiring neatness and decency in the servant girl, propriety of carriage and refined manners in her mistress, uprightness, manliness, and generosity in the head of the family.” This has an effect on society at large: “It diffuses a light over town and country; it covers the soil with handsome edifices and smiling gardens; it tills the field, it stocks and embellishes the shop.”
This “modesty” has a horror to exposure and a keen sensitivity to notoriety. It detests gross adulation although it does not shun flattery. And thus “vanity is changed into a more dangerous self-conceit.”