In a previous essay I presented John Henry Newman’s view that a university’s immediate purpose is to form students’ minds, not their morals. Any professor, Newman says, who claims competence to form virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude, or temperance is like a “political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy.”
But Newman does not mean that intellectual virtues give no help to moral ones. The better our knowledge of the good, the more attractive it is to our will, and the more we have a “taste” for it. The more we appreciate intellectual delights, the less we are tempted by sensuality—something conscience alone cannot achieve. And when enough citizens are well-educated, all of society benefits from greater peace and civility, and demagogues find it harder to seduce the population.
And yet, Newman thinks, a person with a cultivated mind will not necessarily be moral. Otherwise, character would increase in direct proportion to one’s schooling, and test scores alone might qualify one to make moral and political decisions. Many contemporary American elites might think having a college degree certifies one’s prudence, but Newman does not.
But does his view, thus stated, perhaps seem indifferent to the moral life? What of the arguments of Nathanael Blake and others that intellectual inquiry cannot happen apart from certain moral conditions? Newman in fact would agree with them. Once again, his Idea of a University can help us, this time to consider the role of the moral life in the university.
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Law, Virtue, and Friendship
To start, any community, including a university, needs some level of decency in order to exist. As Blake puts it, “if people are to inquire about the good together, [t]hey must . . . be able to trust the other members of the community to be honest. They must be able to trust that their fellow inquirers will not inflict harm on them by theft, assault, and so on.” People can hardly engage in rational discourse and contemplation of truth if they live in fear of physical violence, fraud, or other crimes. That is why they are subject to the ordinary laws of civil society, which civil authorities rightly defend by force if needed.
Once exterior order is secured, students must secure basic “natural virtue” within themselves to succeed in their studies. One cannot pay attention to lectures or reading assignments unless one controls one’s imagination. One cannot pass a class unless one patiently perseveres through long hours of homework and review.
If one’s knowledge is to be truly philosophical, one also needs social virtues. As Aristotle notes, human beings reason by speaking with others. We must therefore learn to be civil with our interlocutors, at least to acknowledge that they might know something we don’t. Students need to respect their teachers so the latter can help them avoid “eccentricity of opinion, . . . confusion of principle,” and being “ignorant of what everyone knows and takes for granted.” They need to socialize with peers so that, by encountering different points of view in conversation, their minds can be stimulated and their prejudices checked.
Love of Transcendent Truth
But most important are what Newman considers the “moral” virtues that deal with love, namely, humility and love for Truth. These are the capital virtues of the will, or in biblical language, the heart.
Humility means that the truth-seeker see himself as he really is, recognizing especially that he is not the center of the universe. This is one of the hardest virtues because, as human history and everyday experience make clear, each of us tends to set his own interests above everything else. If not corrected, the deep-seated, morbid, and excessive love of the self, which we usually call pride or hubris, absurdly makes one’s own reason “the measure of all things.”
Love of Truth is the other side of humility and the end toward which it aims. By it the truth-seeker devotes himself to the transcendent Being on which all reality in fact depends. Whether one calls this Being “God” as Newman does, or Truth, or the Unmoved Mover, one must take him into account. Newman insists: “[B]y His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it,” God’s being intimately suffuses the whole universe—the university’s object of study—so “that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without in some main aspects contemplating Him.”
The university, therefore, should include the study of God—theology—in its curriculum, but that is not enough. Unless one also wills to give one’s life to God, in true religion, reason makes a religion of itself—“the Religion of Philosophy.” Even if it pays lip service to God, in fact it dethrones him, mistaking a part of the truth—man—for the Truth. One never penetrates the depths of reality, because the will, enamored with itself, keeps the intellect focused on the truths that confirm the will’s emotional attachments and not the ones that contradict them. Unless it gives God his due, philosophy, which began by pointing man toward sublime, timeless things, ends up reducing truth to mere sentiment and self-interest, and radically undermines itself.
The same will happen to any discipline that ignores God for too long. Empirical science, lacking confidence in the universe’s intelligibility as God’s wise creation, will give up looking for order in the endless complexity of matter. Or, lacking appreciation for creation as a free act of God, according to designs that human reason alone cannot deduce, science will devolve into ideology—asserting how we think the universe “ought” to be rather than observing and modeling nature as it is in fact.
Political theory, not setting God above the state, will be unable to resist the attraction of totalitarianism: it will subsume the person into the collective and abandon the common good, in a never-ending struggle for power.
Moral philosophy without God will decay into hedonism: if man is subject to no lawgiver but himself, he will live by no law but what pleases him. Virtues will be reduced to the external appearance of goodness (or beauty) instead of qualities of the will like justice and holiness. And vice will become only ugliness or mere weakness, never deliberate sin. Martyrdom for the truth will be folly; shame for sin against a loving Creator will decay into proud self-reproach; and there will be no reason in principle to love one’s neighbor as oneself, if his origin and end be not in God.
The Power of Moral Witness
Reason cannot become right reason unless the will is in love with the Truth; intellectual formation requires moral formation. But as my earlier essay argued, the university—the teacher of the intellect—cannot impart moral principle of itself. Yet moral communities do know something about how to live well. Such societies, therefore, whether Newman’s own Catholic Church or others, naturally complement the university’s work.
Newman thinks that, ideally, a university should cooperate formally with a moral community, as in a Catholic university. There the Church should have no say over the instruction of science, but it has a right to oversee the teaching of its own theology. Newman suggests the Church might also help decide which humanistic works, or passages thereof, are too intrinsically morally seductive to be assigned for general study. But it should not monitor readings in a university as closely as in a seminary or convent, because, as my previous essay discussed, college is precisely “a place to fit men of the world for the world.”
Besides, morality enlivens a university not primarily through institutional oversight but through the personal lives of professors and students. The most persuasive argument for good character—which also most reliably respects others’ freedom—is the attractiveness of a life well lived. And when students need one-on-one moral advice, such conversations happen best outside the classroom, where students are not concerned about grades or reputation. An institution that tried to impart morality through class instruction and codes of conduct, more than through friendships and mentorship, might be trusting in worldly power rather than the inner power of the good, and could end up alienating many young people.
Leavening from Within
In the end, leading people to the good life does not require institutional intervention. Hence Newman encouraged the Church in his day not to shun non-Catholic schools or agitate for stronger censorship in them; it was enough rather to seek “her own admission to them,” so that her members could leaven universities from within. Such was the approach of Philip Neri, a priest in Rome during the late Renaissance whom Newman greatly admired (he founded the society of priests that Newman joined). By his humble and winsome conversation and friendship, Neri converted the decadent elites of his time through “the great counter-fascination of purity and truth,” without recourse to formal censure. Such, we could add, was also the approach of the early Christians, who converted their fellow citizens even as the latter persecuted them.
Indeed, if a moral community gains too much institutional power, it runs the risk of weakening. It may become lazy, or try to coerce the commitment of the heart in defiance of its natural freedom. Such tactics may inspire a reaction against the community—just as the heavy-handedness of some ostensibly Catholic French governments motivated the propagandists who stirred up anti-Catholic French Revolutionaries—or as the overreach of cultural Marxists and transgender activists in our own day has provoked political backlash.
If moral communities want to impart their ideals to the broader culture in our time, they might even be better off sending some of their best-prepared students to existing prestigious schools, which graduate a disproportionate share of society’s elites. By their friendship and example, those youth will convert their schoolmates—many of them future leaders in politics and business—to the good life more effectively (and at less financial cost) than if their elders set up an independent university. And those same young people will become better leaders for those moral communities, thanks to their education, and to their learning to deal with talented peers from across the social spectrum.
It may be better for many young people to attend a university formally allied with a sound moral institution—but it’s not necessary for everyone. It is more important that, wherever we go, we try to love the Truth, befriend others who do likewise, and win over those who do not by showing concern for them more than for what they think.
Mind and Heart: Inseparable but Distinct
Let not academics think they can be indifferent to morality. The more they live by higher principles and not just their own interests, the better they will pursue truth and lead their students to it. Professors should encourage students to befriend each other; they should offer them mentorship; and they should advance their own moral stance outside the classroom. But in the classroom, they should grade students on their knowledge, not their character.
Moral communities, however, should beware not to overstep their own bounds in universities. Moral virtue is a condition of intellectual formation, but it does not do the actual work of training students to think—that is the domain of professors. Moreover, just as professors must respect the moral freedom of their students (within the bounds of basic civility), so must moral mentors. After all, friends and mentors can provide example, advice, and exhortation, but they do not directly make men moral: that is the task of each person himself, by the choices he makes, in cooperation with—or rebellion against—his Maker.
Both intellectual and moral formation are necessary for every human being, both in and outside the university, but we ought not to confuse them. The more we appreciate Newman’s insights into how the mind and heart relate, the better we will see their true place in the life of the person and society. Then we will be able to think and choose better, and to the extent that we can, help others do the same.