In “Choruses from the Rock,” poet T.S. Eliot asks, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” St. John Henry Newman helps us understand the problem Eliot notices in a civilization that has, in Eliot’s phrase, “Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.” Newman’s admirable prose in Idea of a University affords reflection on the role knowledge plays in human flourishing. As rational creatures made in God’s likeness, it is good for us to spend some time thinking about, and growing in, the way we glorify Him in our thoughts and words. While his argument is ultimately about what “intellectual training” ought to look like in a University, his insights are useful for men and women in all walks of life.

Newman makes an important distinction: cultivating true intellect is not mere acquisition, but is exercising thought or reason upon knowledge. He elaborates that, therefore, a sort of “ascension” above acquired knowledge is required, what he calls “generalization” or “method,” “principles” by which one might “shape” acquisitions of knowledge. Our minds are not mere encyclopedias of facts that grow by addition; they require a kind of complex multiplication, the cultivation of categories, forms, and outlines of the general scope of what is learned, such that all facts acquired may be truly understood, not merely obtained. This is what makes the difference, for example, between merely memorizing the words of a great Shakespeare sonnet, and understanding what the words, and the poem as a whole, mean. 

By analogy, Newman says that cultivating thought or reason, not merely acquiring knowledge, is like gaining a higher vantage point while traveling through a complicated geographical terrain of hills and valleys, or through a dense jungle, or through close winding city lanes. To find a view from a rising hill or a church tower or some higher ground allows one to survey the whole of a strange city. Indeed, even acquiring a map serves this purpose, literally giving one a bird’s eye view from which to deduce current location and infer possible routes of travel. This higher view gives you bearings, a sense of location, an understanding of where you’ve been and where you are going. It is to gain a glimpse of the whole by which the ceaseless and chaotic flow of new places makes sense. To fail to find a higher vantage is to condemn oneself to ignorance, a disconnected view, a blindness of the whole. It is to be lost.

When traversing the foreign field of new knowledge, failing to gain a higher knowledge of the whole—which is to exercise reason, judgment, thought, or generalize to gain mastery over particulars—makes one lost and blind. Newman’s analogy is forceful. He thinks that a “loss of control over the sequence of ideas,” or reading “without thinking,” or acquisition of objects of learning without the exercise of Reason, is in fact the definition of insanity. It is the mark of the “madman,” a human being who is failing to flourish. Those who “break up their subject into details” and analyze its parts without recognizing the generality of the whole, “destroy its life,” like Dr. Frankenstein, so intoxicated with mastering the secrets of life that he violates life itself and creates a monster. Such knowers and readers are “only possessed by their knowledge, not possessed of it.” Their knowledge masters them, and they become enslaved to it. These madmen who look to facts without reason have “over-stimulated the Memory.” Their “Reason acts almost as feebly and as impotently as in the madman,” and they become the obsequious votaries of a half-truth, a fragmented part of the whole. Truth is reduced to a broken stammering, a chaotic flow of random trivia, distorted by an unreasoning mind.

On the other hand, the mark of sanity is recognition of order and meaning, seeing parts in the whole and the whole with reference to its component parts. Applying reason to knowledge is the real mark of a liberal and universal knowledge, which is simply to be an intellectually healthy human. The business of the University, therefore, is to promote the intellectual health of the mind, the full flourishing of reason in man.

When Newman speaks about mere “acquisition” in contrast to true intellectual development, he has in mind the dangers of “over-education,” that is, saturation in facts without meaning. However, he admits the opposite danger, under-education, is more characteristic of his own time. In the frenzy to learn all things “at once,” nothing is learned well, but all is learned badly. This kind of anxious impatience of the instant expert is common today, and Newman’s voice is badly needed. Without any grounding patient thought there can be no true liberal learning. There might be many books, a proliferation of words, the clangor of loud voices, but there is no real advancement in intelligence. This is why, in his wonderful essay on elementary education, he exhorts children to learn “a little, but well.” Especially early on, learning habits of excellence and thoroughness is more important than volume of content.

In an odd twist, Newman concludes by suggesting that it may even be better to never go through formal education than to receive the poor formation of “mere acquisition.” Better, he thinks, to enter a library and read books off the shelf at random, following impulse and intuition but at least taking the time to think and learn, than to enter the treadmill of mere achievement. Better to be a real human being with an “independent mind” than to become a distorted mind with no real thought, no matter how elite or impressive the resumé. To learn, to think, to reason, is to be human, to glorify our Creator with our minds. In our various spheres of influence, we must remain grounded in this truth as we promote the cause of Catholic education. In the midst of a world over-saturated in mere information, proliferating and consuming words with no time for meaning, we must be patient to cultivate real knowledge and deep attention.

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Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

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We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

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About Cardinal John Henry Newman

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A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

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Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

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Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

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Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

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Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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