Newman on Enlargement of Mind

Newman says that education should aim at “true enlargement of mind.” He discusses what this “enlargement” might be through a series of experiences — what does one experience the first time he discovers something new — not necessarily through reading alone but through the other senses such as by traveling, looking in a telescope, beholding strange animals, meeting peoples from other cultures, abandoning religious views, acquiring religious views. Newman’s prose induces in the reader that primary sense of wonder. Travel from England to the mountains, the Alps perhaps; travel from a quiet village to a bustling metropolis; one is “borne forward and find[s] for a time that he has lost his bearings.” Or again, he says in viewing the heavens through a telescope one may experience something to make the mind “almost whirl around and make it dizzy.” Strange animals in their “strangeness and originality” may “throw us out of ourselves into another creation.” Physical science in revealing “exuberant riches and resources” elevates, excites, “almost takes away his breath.”I think of Newman’s contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins who writes in “Hurrahing in the Harvest” :

SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
  Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
  Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?
I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,         5
  Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
  And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?
And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
  Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—         10
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
  Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
  And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

There is an ecstatic dimension to Newman’s idea of enlargement — and of faith as well. He uses images of being thrown forward or upward. Surprisingly Newman examines both the loss of religious belief and the acquisition (conversion) of religious belief as experiences of enlargement — wonder at the mystery of the things and the sense of liberation from narrowness and confines of previous settled opinion. Both allow one the opportunity to examine opinion and make an ascent.  But the examination, the new seeing, the envisioning of possibility, but be further worked over — “the enlargement consists not merely in passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas.” (VI.5).
Liberal education requires the “action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements.” This means that  for enlargement to occur, this knowledge must be made our own.  But this is no mere subjective appropriation; its requires that dialectical ascent — there  must be “comparison of ideas with another.” It is not the “mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental center, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates.”

Newman names the great intellects of mankind (the likes of Aristotle, Aquinas, Newton, Goethe) as having a mind which could take a “connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, no center.”  (VI.5). Newman criticizes then those who merely memorize facts — they are like a dictionary with no grammar; antiquarians, annalists, naturalists — all of whom have fact with no philosophy, or knowledge of relation and connection. And to add a concluding note, Newman proposes for our thought a humorous but profound counterpoint — that of  seafaring men (with due respect to the Navy officer) who

range from one of the earth to the other; but the multiplicity of external objects, which they have encountered, forms no symmetrical and consistent picture upon their imagination; they see the tapestry of human life, as it were on the wrong side, and it tells no story. They sleep, and they rise up, and they find themselves now in Europe, now in Asia; they see visions of great cities and wild regions; they are in marts of commerce, or amid the islands of the south; they gaze on Pompey’s Pillar, or on the Andes; and nothing which meets them carries them forward or backward, to any idea beyond itself. Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Everything stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leaves the spectator where he was. (VI.5)

Is this not a parable describing our student in the midst of contemporary higher education, experienced and jaded beyond their years by multi-culturalism or reduced to mere spectators at the latest deconstructive sport of their professors? They view the tapestry from the wrong side (reductionism) and have no story. Nothing has history or promise; these are Bloom’s souls without longing. They have no formative power; they have no center; they cannot even begin to recollect and trace the lines of the great circle of knowledge which Newman sees as the joy of liberal arts education.  He goes on to say you may be near such a man and

expect him to be shocked or perplexed at something which occurs; but one thing is much the same to him as another, or, if he is perplexed, it is as not knowing what to say, whether it be right to admire, or to ridicule, or to disapprove, while conscious that some expression of opinion is expected from him; for in fact he has no standard of judgment at all, and no landmarks to guide him to a conclusion. Such is mere acquisition, and, I repeat, no one would dream of calling it philosophy.

Again can we not see the contemporary educated teacher and student? There is no standard of judgment. There is no capacity to disapprove, no capacity to truly admire. We ridicule everything, and become cynics; or we admire everything and become facile.  The way to enlargement of mind is to find the center. The center is God; it is through theology one is ultimately educated in liberal arts. Paradoxically, the embrace of dogma leads to the true enlargement of mind..

1 Comment
  1. Your comment about the current college liberal arts student being like the sea farer with no real bearings is brilliant. It describes the writer of this comment when I was a young student in a state university. I thought simply being a liberal arts major, and a well read one, was in itself enough. Even though I was painfully aware that some of my most brilliant teachers often said things that my heart told me were empty and worse. There was no center holding it together.
    There is an arrogance to that kind of liberal arts learning that is actually more unbearable than the arrogance of the "scientist" who is sure he has the only truth.

    Thanks again for a great post.

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