The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

XII. The Oxford Movement

§ 13. His later works

In the rest of Newman’s work there is an obvious division drawn by his submission to the see of Rome. Yet there is little apparent difference in his manner of writing. He never surpassed, in the way of pure exposition, the clarity and distinction of his style in Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837). But, later books were, at least at the time of their publication, more generally influential, notably The Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), The Grammar of Assent (1870) and perhaps, also, the earlier Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). This last, begun while he was still in the English church, became a justification of his secession. It explained how modern Rome, widely different from the church of the Fathers, could yet claim to represent the original Christianity, not as identical but as consistent with it, as being in fact the full fruit of which the seed only was seen at first. In his theory, Newman was not so far away from the Darwinism which was to exert a far greater influence on English thought, and he certainly expressed the heart of the science of comparative religion. Something of the same kind may be said of lectures on University Education. They represent, if they do not indeed anticipate, some of the most powerful ideas of the later nineteenth century in regard to the true functions of a university and the motive force of university reform. Knowledge for its own sake, as enlargement of the mind, is the object of a university education; but such knowledge is impossible apart from a theology. All knowledge is, ultimately, a defence of the Christian faith. A university is, must be, impartial; but it can only be impartial if it includes theology in the sciences which it studies. The Grammar of Assent carried the argument of probability, the corner-stone of his master Butler, on to new ground. The argument was, to him, “an accumulation of probabilities,” and he reached these by a study of the mental processes which lead to apprehension and assent. “In any enquiry about things in the concrete,” he wrote, “men differ from each other not so much in the soundness of their reasoning as in the principles which govern its exercise,” and those principles were not general but personal. “The validity of proof is determined not by any scientific test but by the illative sense.” It is easy to relate such thoughts as these to much later philosophy, both English and German. And, in fact, what is characteristic of all Newman’s writing is that form of genius which seizes upon the floating tendencies of nascent thought and points the way towards unforeseen conclusions.

It is only within very narrow limits that Newman’s thought here or elsewhere can ever be called reactionary. No doubt he, as one of the latest and clearest of his critics and admirers has said, had, indeed, an “abhorrence of doctrinal liberalism.” In 1835, he vigorously protested against “the introduction of rationalistic principles into revealed religion” in a tract which described rationalism as “a certain abuse of reason; that is, a use of it for purposes for which it never was intended and is unfitted,” and “a rationalistic spirit” as “the antagonist of Faith; for Faith is, in its very nature, the acceptance of what our reason cannot reach, simply and absolutely upon testimony.” But it has of recent years again and again been asserted that he was the intellectual parent of a modernism which he would have abhorred. A partial study of his writings might give some ground for such a view; a complete one refutes it. It could, indeed, hardly be held by any who did not, perhaps unconsciously, identify the wider catholicism of orthodox Christianity with the narrower presentment of it in modern Roman theology which Newman never set himself very seriously to defend. His intellectual standpoint, however much during his long life it may seem to have varied, never really departed from the three bases on which it had been founded. He was an Aristotelian. He distrusted much of modern metaphysic. He regarded the actual facts of human life as the ultimate basis of reason. He was, like many of the most earnest English thinkers of his time, a convinced disciple of Butler. His reading of The Analogy of Religion was, as he said, an era in his religious opinions. Starting from probability as the guide of life, he never fancied that the limitless area of things human and divine could be fully mapped or the ultimate mystery more than “imperfectly comprehended.” But he found reality in the religious facts of the world, as the philosophers of his time found them in the moral facts, and the men of science in the physical; and, herein, he may be said to have anticipated modern psychology. Yet also, and with at least as much strength, he was a historian; very often, not an accurate historian in detail, but a historian of illumination and genius. If much that he wrote as history has long been cast aside, the interpretation that he gave of early—not the earliest—Christian centuries remained as an inspiration to the students who made Oxford history famous, to Stubbs and Freeman, Creighton and Bryce, and remains still. When he wrote his different studies he was loyal to his principles, whether, at the time, he was an English or a Roman churchman, but he never surrendered the scholar’s independence. No doubt, he loved narration more than interpretation, character more than institutional life; but, what he wanted to find, and believed he could find, in history was truth: and in that he never deserted the fundamental principle of the tractarian company. As a historian, his affinities were with the French school which was coming into existence in his middle age, never with the purely German, where vast collections of facts were often used to support an unverifiable theory. But, if his passion throughout was catholicism, his preconception was truth.

Newman must ever remain the central figure in the literature of the movement of which he was the most conspicuous figure. But Pusey, it would be true to say, represented far more entirely its most prominent characteristics; its basis in history and tradition, its via media, its determination stare super antiquas vias. And it may well be that, if Newman appealed to the wider circle, Pusey and Keble influenced more directly the general literature of English religion. The Oxford movement certainly belongs to the history of English religion more definitely than to the history of English literature; but it had great influence, outside its own definite members, on the literary taste of its age. It spoke from the first for a certain purity, directness and severity of style: later, the historical influences which attached themselves to it, through the study of ancient legends, and liturgies, and hymns, produced a richer vein of prose, a more florid touch in poetry. No one can think that Tennyson was wholly unmoved by its manner; but Dolben and Pater were the undoubted issue of its later life.