St. John Henry Newman and the Scandal of Catholic Classical Education

Saint John Henry Newman, speaking of the unique status of Western Civilization in the history of the world, emphatically asserts,

I think it has a claim to be considered as the representative Society and Civilization of the human race, as its perfect result and limit…I call then this commonwealth preeminently and emphatically Human Society, and its intellect the Human mind, and its decisions the sense of mankind, and its disciplined and cultivated state Civilization in the abstract, and the territory on which it lies the Orbis Terrarum, or the World.

Now if it wasn’t for the fact that this Cardinal was just canonized, I think we could all brush this statement off as an overly zealous defense of Western Civilization. After all, sometimes people get carried away and say things that they don’t really mean. For example, I will often say things like,

I think 100% arabica coffee beans may be considered as the representative coffee bean of civilization and of the human race. Nay even the preeminent coffee bean and even the bean in virtue of which all other beans merit the name “coffee bean.”

To the extent that other beans measure up or fall away from the arabica bean, that is the exact measure in which each bean may be called a coffee bean.

Or perhaps about the music of Mozart,

I think it has a claim to be considered as the representative music of the human race, as its perfect result and limit…I call then this music preeminently and emphatically Human Music, and the mind of Mozart is par-excellence the musical mind!

Mozart’s music is the music of mankind and in the abstract, his music and the territory in which it is heard is the Orbis Terrarum, or the World.

Ha! That is a wonderful statement.

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I love the bravado. And what’s more, I completely agree with it.

As a matter of fact- with apologies to Newman, I think I will lay claim to this statement as being perhaps the very clearest statement ever made about the worth and value of Mozart’s musical contributions.

Did you ever hear him praised more highly?

I think not!

In the future, I plan on making a similar statement about Shakespeare so prepare yourselves.

But in the meantime let me return to the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and his statement about Western Civilization.

Can there be a clearer or more forceful statement about the value of Western Civilization that flies more in the face of the current attitude of cultural relativism?

My old teacher Dr. Jack Neumayr, a philosopher and professor at Thomas Aquinas College, commenting on Newman’s statement writes:

Some who regard all culture as empirical, as we have seen, will defend liberal education because it is good to know our origins; not that our culture is normative, but it is ours. Others will insist on the utility of knowing the roots of the good and evil in our society. Still others, thinking it well to know the works of man, urge us to scan the achievements of western thought. None, however, under the pressures of egalitarianism and skepticism, dares assert it is the measure of the human mind.

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Indeed, few in our day see the value of liberal education so clearly. This education, which arises from western society, is none other than the education which is the measure of the human mind. It is the education that fulfills the nature of man; it is the education that disposes man for the life of grace.

Liberal education is a scandal to the modern world. Liberal education is a scandal because it presents itself in direct opposition to the prevalent educational philosophy of our day; it is a stumbling block to the aspirations and goals of modern education. Those goals include no more than what is thought necessary to equip the student with the particular knowledge that will further a specific career.

Liberal education …a boulder in the road of establishment educational philosophy! (Admittedly, that boulder is a little more than a “scandal”)

Thus liberal education is a scandal to modern ears for at least two reasons. It is a scandal to those who are themselves ‘proponents of liberal education’ for the wrong reasons; reasons that amount to no more than a sort of cultural relativism and ultimately deny that liberal education is the education for the human mind.

It is also a scandal to those who propose the purpose of education is to equip man for this world; for some career.

As Cardinal Newman writes elsewhere,

“This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education…”

About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in education, liberal education, Mozart, Newman, truth for its own sake and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to St. John Henry Newman and the Scandal of Catholic Classical Education

  1. Ted says:

    “I think it has a claim to be considered as the representative Society and Civilization of the human race, as its perfect result and limit…I call then this commonwealth preeminently and emphatically Human Society, and its intellect the Human mind, and its decisions the sense of mankind, and its disciplined and cultivated state Civilization in the abstract, and the territory on which it lies the Orbis Terrarum, or the World.”

    I somehow doubt that Newman would have made such a claim had he lived to see the “representative Society and Civilization” destroy itself (i.e. “Christendom”) along with its moral authority in WWI.

    • marklangley says:

      Well, this raises an interesting question. I have grown used to thinking of Western Civilization as existing in the music of Mozart (and Casicolini and Palestrina) and the writings of Euclid and Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas ….. and finally in the hearts and minds of all those who treasure these things …..I am not certain that Newman was speaking about the civilization that he saw immediately and concretely in his own time.

  2. William Knox says:

    This is not meant as an exception to your bravado with respect to Mozart, but …
    the Palestrina and Casciolini I heard at Mass this morning in Cleveland weren’t bad either.

  3. Joseph Fernando says:

    I don’t think a saint would have made such a chauvinistic statement. However, it is appalling to see the Western civilization crumbling and hijacked by nihilism. St.John Henry Newman, pray for us.

    • marklangley says:

      This is precisely why I used the word ‘scandal’. That a saint did, in fact, make such a statement is incontrovertible. (as you may see by clicking on the reference- or by acquiring a copy of his Idea of a University) But that it is ‘chauvinistic’ depends upon whether Newman is exaggerating when he claims that western civilization is indeed the “perfect limit” of human society. Are you saying that he is? Is Newman unreasonable in his assertion that western civilization is “Civilization”…. and is the “representative society” for mankind?

      • Joseph Fernando says:

        Newman’s statement is unfortunate and an insult to other civilizations. Given his intellectual and spiritual acumen, I wish he transcended the typical British/Western ill-informed snobbery!

  4. Jim Dean says:

    I have never understood why two “miracles” should be the qualification for sainthood. It is obviously impossible to prove that the blessed one has interceded from beyond the grave in response to the prayers of a sufferer, however much he or she claims it to be the case rather than it being just a happy coincidence. None of the multitude of our early saints had to demonstrate their healing powers to qualify for canonisation. It would be far better and more logical to look at the known lives of potential saints to determine whether they are worthy of canonisation. It is also somewhat hubristic on our part to declare that good souls now dead have the capacity to perform miracles that are surely only the prerogative of almighty God.

  5. Miracles are the cherries on top of the sundae of sainthood–what is a sundae without the cherry, and is not two better than one!? The church does have a first sense for a saint not by the miracles, but as you say, by the holy works of his/her life. Miracles perfect our knowledge of the fact that so-and-so is a saint.

    Nor is it impossible for a miracle to occur by the hands of a man, good or bad–to our surprise! (To say that God is almighty is not to say that he alone has power but that he has perfect power and all power comes from him.)

    • The following text from The Church’s Theologian broadens the understanding of who can work miracles, and clarifies why miracles exist. The second paragraph is most relevant here.

      “True miracles cannot be wrought save by the power of God, because God works them for man’s benefit, and this in two ways: in one way for the confirmation of truth declared, in another way in proof of a person’s holiness, which God desires to propose as an example of virtue. In the first way miracles can be wrought by any one who preaches the true faith and calls upon Christ’s name, as even the wicked do sometimes. In this way even the wicked can work miracles. Hence Jerome commenting on Mt. 7:22, ‘Have not we prophesied in Thy name?’ says: ‘Sometimes prophesying, the working of miracles, and the casting out of demons are accorded not to the merit of those who do these things, but to the invoking of Christ’s name, that men may honor God, by invoking Whom such great miracles are wrought.’
      In the second way miracles are not wrought except by the saints, since it is in proof of their holiness that miracles are wrought during their lifetime or after death, either by themselves or by others. For we read (Acts 19:11,12) that “God wrought by the hand of Paul . . . miracles” and “even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs . . . and the diseases departed from them.” In this way indeed there is nothing to prevent a sinner from working miracles by invoking a saint; but the miracle is ascribed not to him, but to the one in proof of whose holiness such things are done” (Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, q.178, a.2).

      On the point of attributing a miracle to a particular deceased soul, we are probably in most cases looking at a preponderance of evidence connecting one thing to another, rather than a causal demonstration (but isn’t that the life of the empiricist? and has not grand scientific progress been made in this way?).

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