Today, argumentation and debate can be so unpleasant, combative, and even vengeful, it is tempting to assume that those who pursue knowledge and intellect are prideful, and that humility looks like not caring too much about being smart. It is important to do everything out of loving service, not desire to master or defeat others, but Newman would say it is in fact prideful to fail to pursue truth, and holds “intellectual perfection” as his ideal for students. Pursuit of knowledge, used rightly, is a deeply integrated aspect of our Christian discipleship and our service to the God who made us, our reason, and the Creation which we know with our reason.
Newman’s stress on pursuing truth with intellectual excellence is, in fact, a mark of humility. It is the prideful man who thinks he has arrived at the fullness of truth; it is the humble man who, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, remains a docile learner at the feet of his master and teacher. This humble posture is on display in both St. John Henry Newman, and in St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese called herself a “Little Flower” in God’s garden, or a pilgrim on the “Little Way,” living her life, in every small and hidden act, with great love and service to God. Her “apostolate of prayer,” her personal call to be a mighty intercessor, began on earth with her constant docility to others and to truth. St. John Henry Newman, as a young student at Oxford University, wrote a poem describing his love and thirst for knowledge, and his zealous desire for study, by calling himself a little “Snapdragon” flower growing out of his dormitory wall, content to glorify his Maker with his sweet fragrance in his “cloistered” cell by learning. (Read about the poem here). It is precisely Newman’s humility that makes him long for truth and zealous to study. Seeking “intellectual perfection” is, indeed, a humble path to holiness.
Just as the saint views all things from God’s vantage point, the student in liberal education must habitually take a higher vantage point from which to descend to more specific studies, having “taken a survey of all knowledge” and being “kept from extravagance by the very rivalry of other studies,” being given a “largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession.” Liberal education also gives one a better, more creative sense of each particular subject, a wider view that allows a better grasp of the particular subject at hand. In other words, the mathematician who also knows something about history, philosophy, letters, physics, chemistry, and so on, is not only more well-rounded, but will also be a much more excellent, creative, and innovative mathematician, because he can take stock of his mathematics in the context of the full range and scope of knowable reality. He can think, and think creatively and expansively, through analogies, comparisons, and realistic awareness of limitations. Newman may rightly be regarded as the patron saint of generalists.
Newman implies an ethical dimension, suggesting that we have a “duty” owed to “human society,” in all humility and good conscience, to fully mature our mental powers: “a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.” Ironically, here he twists and recycles a famous maxim of Benthamite pragmatism, that the greatest good is the maximum pleasure spread to the greatest number of people. Here, Newman does Bentham one better, arguing that the maximum of intellectual cultivation, of rational apprehension of truth, makes possible the highest usefulness, and therefore the greatest happiness, for the greatest number. But make no mistake, Newman thinks that the mechanistic, Benthamite approach to education, in which all traditional subjects would be replaced with or reduced to whatever is of practical use in society, is at stark odds with the wisdom of a classical Christian approach. The former treats human beings as units in a vast system, the latter as creatures of infinite value made in the image and likeness of God.
Newman’s star pupils, who devote themselves to intellectual excellence in humility, are also the best equipped to serve their fellow men, to be useful. They can
…fill any post with credit, and master any subject with facility. [A liberal education] shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is ever ready, yet never in the way…
Newman’s well-cultivated mind, humble before truth, is not unlike St. Therese’s Little Flower in God’s garden, accepting all gifts offered to her by the Father, including natural skills, honed intelligence, and generous knowledge. We must not mistake ignorance for humility, or massive intelligence for pride; but we must trust the Gardener, who gives to all his Little Flowers the nourishment they need and the fragrances that please Him, so they may be of best service to the world, all to the glory of God.