Newman’s Rhetorical Strategies in Idea of a University

To appreciate Newman’s Idea of a University, it is necessary to discuss his rhetorical maneuvers and intentions.

Francis Newman highlighted the rhetorical ability of his cardinal brother. “From Cicero he had learned the art of pommeling broadly… He urgently needed a thesis to attack or defend, some authority as the goal of his eloquence… then he had a start” [1]. John Henry Newman’s rhetorical acumen is evident throughout his works. However, in the discourses published under the title The Idea of the University, Newman’s rhetorical tactics and goals may easily go unnoticed. Unlike his more formal works (e.g. essays like Grammar of Assent or Development of Christian Doctrine), Idea began as disparate speeches to various audiences over months. For this reason, Martin Svaglic characterized Idea as “deliberative rhetoric” [2] In these discourses, Newman was not offering a precontemplated, already-matured theory of liberal education. Rather the speeches gave Newman the opportunity to work out, mature, and refine his educational views. Furthermore, Newman’s educational vision is not a disinterested statement for its intrinsic value. Newman’s rhetorical acumen hides his intention to grapple with particular pressing issues and to persuade his audience of his own approach.

To appreciate Newman’s Idea of a University, it is necessary to appreciate his rhetorical maneuvers and intentions. In order to help open up this appreciation, this short essay will approach these discourses from two of their occasional contexts and with a view for his argumentative strategies vis-à-vis the theses he wanted to attack or defend. First, the question of the role of theology and religion in education plays in the context of the “mixed education” controversy over the proposed secular colleges in Ireland that motived a desire to make the Catholic University. Secondly, Newman took the opportunity to take up an older challenge that criticized Oxonian education as useless and unpragmatic. Through both contexts, Newman navigated a careful and measured course and articulated notions. Rather than dating and trapping Newman’s thought in the past, these contexts shed light on some of the chief ideas of these discourses that many have found persistently compelling and that have had long influence.

Mixed Education and the Role of Theology for the University

Newman’s Idea of a University famously argued that theology must be included in a university. A university can only fulfill its function if it offers a full “circle of sciences.” If theology is the study of God and of Creation’s relationship with God, such a vast field of knowledge could not be excluded without great loss to the other sciences and so to students and the university as a whole. While Newman’s argument for theology, so briefly referenced, may be grasped independently, recognition of the balance and care of his comments require the occasional context of the controversies surrounding denominational education. The great centers of British learning, including Newman’s beloved Oxford, were largely closed to Roman Catholics until the end of the 19th century. Anglican religious tests would be excused in 1854, but the Catholic hierarchy’s ban on these schools was only lifted in 1896 [3]. The situation was more urgent in Ireland where the only institution was the University of Dublin (with its single Trinity College). Trinity College moreover was Anglican, whose religious tests and expected communion long prohibited the school in the eyes of many Irish Catholics. A few decades prior (in 1794), Irish grievances allowed Catholics and Presbyterians to gain degrees at Trinity [4]. As another response to Irish complaints, Prime Minister Peel proposed in 1845 to found three so-called secular colleges in a new university (in Belfast, Cork, and Limerick). These colleges were to be “mixed,” that is, without religious denomination or affiliation. Unlike other colleges, there would be no religious oaths, tests, or expected Anglican communion. But the proposal went further. The new colleges (called “Queen’s Colleges”) would provide no religious instruction and no religious topics would be treated in classes. Their teaching meant to excise religion completely so as to be non-sectarian, non-proselytizing. Instead of ecclesiastical or academic governance, the Queen’s Colleges were to be under governmental control. Peel’s plan for a non-denominational university reflected the progress in France and Germany of state-controlled institutions [5].

Peel’s secularizing proposal was unsatisfactory in the eyes of most Anglicans and Catholics. High Church Anglican (and Member of Parliament) Robert Inglis voiced opposition to these “godless colleges” [6]. The Irish Catholic response to the Peel plan for the mixed-education colleges was as unfavorable as the Anglican response. To counter the governmental colleges, Irish bishops organized in 1845—at papal impetus—efforts to found a Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin [7]. Prominent in this effort was the newly ordained Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and Dublin, Dr Paul Cullen. Cullen imagined the Catholic University on the model of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium [8]. In April, 1851, Cullen asked Newman to aid the effort by advising on appointments as well as whether he “could spare time to give us a few lectures on education” [9]. Newman responded enthusiastically and Cullen took Newman on board the effort and appointed him President and Rector of the proposed university. Newman asked for more details on the requested lectures and Cullen replied, “What we want in Ireland is to persuade the people that education should be religious” [10].

The context of the controversy surrounding religious or secular education clarifies the prevalence of Newman’s treatment of theology and religion. Circumstances thrust Newman found himself amidst a controversy. Cullen and his allies sought a specifically religious university. Peel and his liberal supporters pressed the secular proposal. In this light we see Newman’s treatment balanced and careful. Instead of simply siding with Cullen and polemically attacking Peel, Newman articulated a third option on the relationship of religion and university. University education aimed at a perfection that implicated religion but need not be religious. Theology (studying God and creation) must take its place in the circle of knowledge, otherwise the other sciences would pass their natural limits to fill theology’s void and distort by so transgressing they would distort themselves. Not just the integrity of the sciences, but whole education and effort of scholarship would diminish for the lack: scholars and students must learn from each other. Without Theology’s regard for Creator and creation, then, the university cannot fulfill its primary task, that is, to furnish the balanced, universal, “science of sciences” (that he called ‘Philosophy’) for the “perfection of the intellect” [11].

Newman’s argument rejected the temptation to secularize the university, yet, on the other hand, theology’s inclusion did not remake the university as an organ or wing of the Church. The perfection of intellect that Newman saw as the university’s goal was not intrinsically religious. Liberal education is “to open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression” [12]. These perfections are broad and diverse but, one notes, morally neutral. Newman went further and explicitly denied that perfection of intellect to be moral perfection or virtue [13]. By limiting its scope to intellectual refinement, the university could not be an instrument or appendage of the Church. Right reason leads to the faith and cultivated minds rise Newman “almost says, half way to Heaven” [14]. Yet the university only indirectly aids religion; it is not a seminary or organ of the Church. Neither is it hostile to nor intended primarily to propagate revealed truth. By threading this path, Newman sought to persuade his Irish audience of a moderated aim. While Cullen wanted an attack upon ‘mixed education;’ yet Newman deftly drew the analogy to ancient Christians at pagan schools. Ancient Christians sometimes found it necessary to resort to pagan schools and teachers. The faithful, Newman wrote, have tolerated greater circumstantial evils than attending a non-Catholic university [15].

Useful but not Utilitarian

In navigating the question of mixed education, Newman faced friendly and contemporary interlocutors. The second context that shaped his discourses was the larger criticism of liberal education in favor of a more pragmatic, utilitarian education. The challenge to liberal education arose decades earlier in an attack on his beloved Oxford. In 1809-1810, a series of articles in the Edinburgh Review attacked the value of Oxonian, classical education. Writer and public figure Sydney Smith led the movement that criticized the laborious study of Latin and Greek, the usage of faulty classical texts, and the aim to inculcate “a style of elegant imbecility.” Rather than offering an education cosmopolitan, open, and democratic, Oxford’s culture was narrow, monolithic, and parochial [16].
Smith’s attack was directed specifically against Oxford’s prestige (and also aimed to promote Scottish education). Oxford found a defender in 1821 in Oriel College’s Edward Copleston [17]. But Newman’s approach to this attack was not to defend Oxford itself but to uncover the philosophical root of the pragmatic criticism and to articulate a principled response. For Smith (et al.) doubted whether the language of the Romans would help anyone in a trade; but Newman detected behind the “Edinburgh Reviewers” the Lockean principle of utility as criterion for studies [18]. By that test, “no education is useful which does not teach us some temporal calling, or some mechanical art, or some physical secret” [19]. In response, Newman strongly defended the notion that the university was neither to serve professional or practical utility narrowly understood but goods of a higher sort. Law, medicine, and other pursuits of ready application naturally find their places in the circle of knowledge; yet no university could be composed solely of such studies in their practical aspect. For Newman, theology and medicine alike as liberal studies ought to aim at advancing intellectual ends, not merely professional purposes [20]. In this way, Newman fell back on an Aristotelian line of defense: While professional studies are for ends outside themselves, the end of liberal arts lies within itself, that is, in the perfection of the cultivated intellect. Yet though intellectual perfection is an intrinsic good, it also bears great utilitarian value: “…The 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” [21]. After cultivating their mind, Newman argues, students will be far more useful than if they had just studied “useful” or practical matters. Rather than offering a strong defense of liberal education and repudiating utilitarian concerns, Newman articulated a broader version of utility and then argued that an educated mind fulfills that utility.

Between Newman’s modification of the relation of a university to religion and his response to the utilitarian threat, a rhetorical pattern emerges. Newman avoids rhetorical extremes and instead articulates a third, nuanced position that conciliates the extremes. Regarding religion, theology is a necessary part of a liberal university but it does not aim at practical, moral aims, such as preaching or pastoral care but something contemplative [22]. Newman did not intend the Irish university to be a school of morality or virtue or to be at the service of the Irish bishops per se.

Newman’s handing of the question of utility also displays this careful, rhetorical navigation. Newman did not advance liberal education as useless, but perhaps conceded a usefulness of a different, higher sort. Rather than private utility, liberal education may serve a public or “the community at large” [23]. If a “practical end must be assigned” to liberal arts, it is the “training of good members of society:” “raising its intellectual tone, cultivating the public mind, purifying national taste, supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm” [24]. Universities are not for geniuses, but to prepare one for life. The benefits of that citizenry-formation appear in Newman’s famous description of the intellectually refined “gentleman.” On account of Newman’s rhetorical conciliatory tactics, his notion of liberal education can find unexpected common ground with John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian criterion. Mill’s Utilitarianism (published a decade later, in 1863) posited the minimization of pain and maximization of pleasure yet not just any kind of pleasure, but the pleasures of the higher, nobler, and refined capacities. Mill envisioned a moral standard in which “nobleness of character” would enjoy and unselfishly promote higher pleasures for others [25]. Despite the easy contrast between Newman and the Lockean utility criterion, Newman’s conciliatory rhetorical offers more common ground with Mill through Newman’s notion of the gentleman: “It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain” [26]. Newman’s gentleman is the refinement of civilized, social manners: He avoids jars, jolts, removes obstacles, he soothes clashes and collisions, gloom and resentment, he keeps his eyes on the future and his present company. His liberal cultivation keeps him for discourteous blunders and obstinacy. All these qualities gain their value not from themselves, but from their benefits or utility in social interactions. By serving to cultivate such pain-minimizing “gentlemen” who also provide benefits for the “community at large,” Newman’s notion of the university may come surprisingly close to serving Mill’s moral standard [27]. The end of the University is not merely cultivation of intellects for own activity but also for the benefits such refined individuals have in society at large and in converse with them. In this way, we see again how Newman maintained a careful rhetorical balance, avoid extremes and marking out an original, nuanced third position.

To conclude, this paper has taken a brief view of two contexts in which Newman worked out and delivered his discourses of Idea of a University. First, Newman faced the pressing and political “mixed education” controversy and secondly the theoretical and long-standing utilitarian criticism of liberal education. Both contexts reveal Newman’s discourses not as systematic, formal definitions but careful rhetorical articulations that navigated between parties and extremes toward a third, nuanced position.


[1] Francis W Newman, Contributions to the Early History of the Late Cardinal Newman, (London: K Paul, Trench, Trübner & co, 1891) 44; Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2009) 24
[2] Martin Svaglic, “Introduction,”Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, [1960]) xvi
[3] Albert Stacpoole, OSB, “The Return of the Roman Catholics to Oxford,” New Blackfriars
67 (1996) 221-232, 222
[4] Fergal McGrath provides useful background to the educational challenges faced in Newman’s University: Idea and Reality (London: Longmans, Green, & Co, 1951) 1 - 42.
[5] McGrath, Newman’s University, 77 - 78.
[6] Colin Barr, Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic University of Ireland, 1845 - 1865 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) 27 - 28.
[7] McGrath, Newman’s University, 84 - 87.
[8] Colin Barr’s work is valuable in fleshing out the impressive personality of Cullen. See: Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic University of Ireland, 1845 - 1865, 88 - 89.
[9] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 376 - 377.
[10] Ian Ker, Newman, 377.
[11] For Newman on theology, see Idea of a University, Discourse II.1 - 3; Discourse III.8; for philosophy, Discourse V.9.
[12] Idea, Discourse V.9
[13] Newman distinguished them this way: “Knowledge is one thing, virtue another… Philosophy, however, enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman (Idea, Discourse V.9).”
[14] Idea, Discourse VIII.2, 3.
[15] Idea, Discourse I.3.
[16] James Arthur, Guy Nichols, John Henry Newman, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014): [unpaginated], see: “Liberal Education: The Ability to Think”
[17] See: Edward Copleston, A Reply to the Calumnies of the Edinburgh Review Against Oxford (Oxford: 1810). Newman certainly took Copleston’s side and indicated his admiration for him in his Apologia pro vita sua (Part IV).
[18] Idea, Discourse VII.4.
[19] Idea, Discourse VII.6;
[20] Idea, Discourse VII.6.
[21] Idea, Discourse VII.6;
[22] Idea, Discourse V.4.
[23] Idea, Discourse VII.4.
[24] Idea, Discourse VII.10.
[25] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism § 2.
[26] Idea, Discourse VIII.10.
[27] The purpose of the essay is not to reconcile Newman and Mill — no such task! Rather it is to point out the qualities of Newman’s rhetorical positioning.