John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua is an excellent book that I would not recommend to most people. If I had attempted it in high school, I would have failed. Even if I had tried in college, I suspect I would have received very little benefit from it. But having become acquainted with Newman’s writings and his life, I became very interested in the controversy surrounding his entrance into the Catholic Church, and was very eager to follow the path which eventually led him to Rome.
The work I want to compare the Apologia with right away is St. Augustine’s book of Confessions, and the circumstances occasioning these works are quite different. The word “confession” as Augustine uses it, is not so much the penitential confession of sins committed, as it is a confession of the goodness God has worked in his life. Augustine is confessing to his readers the praiseworthy things God has done, so that his readers may in turn praise God. Newman’s work, on the other hand, is an Apologia, a defense of his own integrity. A certain writer accuses Newman of having pretended to be Anglican while he had already become Roman Catholic, and of having used his position as an Anglican clergyman to deceptively lead to the Roman Catholic Church. This accusation is made by putting together a number of his statements and giving them a peculiar interpretation. In order to answer this charge, instead of addressing each accusation one-by-one, he decides to give a positive response in the form of a history of his religious opinions, fully documented from his own writings and correspondence.
And the result is excellent. Newman appears as someone wholly dedicated to his commitment to the Anglican Church, even beginning the Oxford Movement so as to set the doctrine of the Anglican Church on an even firmer foundation. He endeavors to demonstrate that the Anglican Church is “Catholic” in the truest sense of the term, even more so than the Church of Rome. Eventually, he arrives at doubt concerning the position of these two Churches, as to which has more truly maintained the Apostolic faith. The tension between his dedication to the English Church and to truth reminds me of that other great English saint, who at his execution says, I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.
What is remarkable to me is how long the whole matter took. It is two years from his first doubts until he reaches a point where he can no longer preach honestly from an Anglican pulpit. And yet even from this point, it is another two years until he seeks to enter communion with the Roman Catholic Church. For Newman, it wasn’t a matter of hearing some one particular syllogism or receiving one key piece of evidence. It was, as he describes, an “aggregate of probabilities” and the gradual shape of his thought’s development seems to parallel his thought on the development of Christian doctrine as this occurs in the Church as a whole. He several times speaks of his distaste for syllogisms and logic: “All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I did.” The changing of his mind was something more integral and complete: “It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years, and I find my mind in a new place; how? The whole man moves; paper logic is but the record of it.”
The importance of this tendency in Newman was confirmed by comment made by someone overhearing me talk about Newman: “Newman is great to read; but if you are ever trying to quote the key line in an argument of his, you will have a miserable time!” Not that Newman is unreasonable, but that his thought takes in so much data and so many arguments, that the result is not reducible to a single syllogism. It is this quality of Newman that makes him at once excellent and difficult to evaluate.
At the end, I want to include here George Eliot’s appreciation of this work. She was an agnostic and no Christian, and yet her best characters are always aiming at an understanding that truly accounts for human experience. In one letter she said, “I envy you your opportunity of seeing and hearing Newman and should like to make an expedition to Birmingham for that sole purpose.” And in another, she gives her appraisal of the Apologia:
“I have been reading Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua with such absorbing interest that I found it impossible to forsake the book until I had finished it…I have been made so indignant by Kingsley’s mixture of arrogance, coarse impertinence and unscrupulousness with real intellectual incompetence, that my first interest in Newman’s answer arose from a wish to see what I consider thoroughly vicious writing thoroughly castigated. But the Apology now mainly affects me as the revelation of a life—how different in form from one’s own, yet with how close a fellowship in its needs and burthens—I mean spiritual needs and burthens.”
I have to confess that I started reading the Apologia many months ago, while I was also reading Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. While I was reading the childhood thoughts of Newman, I was also reading the backstory of the character Daniel, and the character of these two individuals lined up so well, that I cannot now sort out the details of the one from the other.
[This book is #11 of my classics challenge. I wrote most of this post before reading the last chapter on the time after his conversion. It is in this final chapter that his rhetorical power is most completely on display, and I could recommend this chapter beyond all the rest for anyone who only wanted a sense of the work.]
Edit: On the same day I posted this, I began reading Felix Holt by George Eliot. In the first pages, the narrator speaks of those who “were kept safely in the via media of indifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England.” Without the influence of Newman, I consider it unlikely that she would have written such a line!