4. Secular Knowledge not the Antecedent of Moral Improvement

{277} HUMAN nature wants recasting, but Lord Brougham is all for tinkering it. He does not despair of making something of it yet. He is not, indeed, of those who think that reason, passion, and whatever else is in us, are made right and tight by the principle of self-interest. He understands that something more is necessary for man's happiness than self-love; he feels that man has affections and aspirations which Bentham does not take account of, and he looks about for their legitimate objects. Christianity has provided these; but, unhappily, he passes them by. He libels them with the name of dogmatism, and conjures up instead the phantoms of Glory and Knowledge; idola theatri, as his famous predecessor calls them. "There are idols," says Lord Bacon, "which have got into the human mind, from the different tenets of philosophers, and the perverted laws of demonstration. And these we denominate idols of the theatre; because all the philosophies that have been hitherto invented or received, are but so many stage plays, written or acted, as having shown nothing but fictitious and theatrical worlds. Idols of the theatre, or theories, are many, and will probably grow much more numerous; for if men had not, through many ages, been prepossessed with religion and theology, {278} and if civil governments, but particularly monarchies," (and, I suppose, their ministers, counsellors, functionaries, inclusive,) "had not been averse to innovations of this kind, though but intended, so as to make it dangerous and prejudicial to the private fortunes of such as take the bent of innovating, not only by depriving them of advantages, but also of exposing them to contempt and hatred, there would doubtless have been numerous other sects of philosophies and theories, introduced, of kin to those that in great variety formerly flourished among the Greeks. And these theatrical fables have this in common with dramatic pieces, that the fictitious narrative is neater, more elegant and pleasing, than the true history."

I suppose we may readily grant that the science of the day is attended by more lively interest, and issues in more entertaining knowledge, than the study of the New Testament. Accordingly, Lord Brougham fixes upon such science as the great desideratum of human nature, and puts aside faith under the nickname of opinion. I wish Sir Robert Peel had not fallen into the snare, insulting doctrine by giving it the name of "controversial divinity."

However, it will be said that Sir Robert, in spite of such forms of speech, differs essentially from Lord Brougham: for he goes on, in the latter part of the Address which has occasioned these remarks, to speak of Science as leading to Christianity. "I can never think it possible," he says, "that a mind can be so constituted, that after being familiarized with the great truth of observing in every object of contemplation that nature presents the manifest proofs of a Divine Intelligence, if you range even from the organization of the meanest weed you trample upon, or of the insect that {279} lives but for an hour, up to the magnificent structure of the heavens, and the still more wonderful phenomena of the soul, reason, and conscience of man; I cannot believe that any man, accustomed to such contemplations, can return from them with any other feelings than those of enlarged conceptions of the Divine Power, and greater reverence for the name of the Almighty Creator of the universe." A long and complicated sentence, and no unfitting emblem of the demonstration it promises. It sets before us a process and deduction. Depend on it, it is not so safe a road and so expeditious a journey from premiss and conclusion as Sir Robert anticipates. The way is long, and there are not a few half-way houses and traveller's rests along it; and who is to warrant that the members of the Reading-room and Library will go steadily on to the goal he would set before them? And when at length they come to "Christianity," pray how do the roads lay between it and "controversial divinity"? Or, grant the Tamworth readers to begin with "Christianity" as well as science, the same question suggests itself, What is Christianity? Universal benevolence? Exalted morality? Supremacy of law? Conservatism? An age of light? An age of reason?—Which of them all?

Most cheerfully do I render to so religious a man as Sir Robert Peel the justice of disclaiming any insinuation on my part, that he has any intention at all to put aside Religion; yet his words either mean nothing, or they do, both on their surface, and when carried into effect, mean something very irreligious.

And now for one plain proof of this.

It is certain, then, that the multitude of men have neither time nor capacity for attending to many subjects. If they attend to one, they will not attend to the other; {280} if they give their leisure and curiosity to this world, they will have none left for the next. We cannot be everything; as the poet says, "non omnia possumus omnes." We must make up our minds to be ignorant of much, if we would know anything. And we must make our choice between risking Science, and risking Religion. Sir Robert indeed says, "Do not believe that you have not time for rational recreation. It is the idle man who wants time for everything." However, this seems to me rhetoric; and what I have said to be the matter of fact, for the truth of which I appeal, not to argument, but to the proper judges of facts,—common sense and practical experience; and if they pronounce it to be a fact, then Sir Robert Peel, little as he means it, does unite with Lord Brougham in taking from Christianity what he gives to Science.

I will make this fair offer to both of them. Every member of the Church Established shall be eligible to the Tamworth Library on one condition—that he brings from the "public minister of religion," to use Sir Robert's phrase, a ticket in witness of his proficiency in Christian knowledge. We will have no "controversial divinity" in the Library, but a little out of it. If the gentlemen of the Knowledge School will but agree to teach town and country Religion first, they shall have a carte blanche from me to teach anything or everything else second. Not a word has been uttered or intended in these Letters against Science; I would treat it, as they do not treat "controversial divinity," with respect and gratitude. They caricature doctrine under the name of controversy. I do not nickname science infidelity. I call it by their own name, "useful and entertaining knowledge;" and I call doctrine "Christian knowledge:" and, as thinking Christianity something {281} more than useful and entertaining, I want faith to come first, and utility and amusement to follow.

That persons indeed are found in all classes, high and low, busy and idle, capable of proceeding from sacred to profane knowledge, is undeniable; and it is desirable they should do so. It is desirable that talent for particular departments in literature and science should be fostered and turned to account, wherever it is found. But what has this to do with this general canvass of "all persons of all descriptions without reference to religious creed, who shall have attained the age of fourteen"? Why solicit "the working classes, without distinction of party, political opinion, or religious profession;" that is, whether they have heard of a God or no? Whence these cries rising on our ears, of "Let me entreat you!" "Neglect not the opportunity!" "It will not be our fault!" "Here is an access for you!" very like the tones of a street preacher, or the cad of an omnibus,—little worthy of a great statesman and a religious philosopher?

However, the Tamworth Reading-room admits of one restriction, which is not a little curious, and has no very liberal sound. It seems that all "virtuous women" may be members of the Library; that "great injustice would be done to the well-educated and virtuous women of the town and neighbourhood" had they been excluded. A very emphatic silence is maintained about women not virtuous. What does this mean? Does it mean to exclude them, while bad men are admitted? Is this accident, or design, sinister and insidious, against a portion of the community? What has virtue to do with a Reading-room? It is to make its members virtuous; it is to "exalt the moral dignity of their nature;" it is to provide "charms and temptations" to allure them {282} from sensuality and riot. To whom but to the vicious ought Sir Robert to discourse about "opportunities," and "access," and "moral improvement;" and who else would prove a fitter experiment, and a more glorious triumph, of scientific influences? And yet he shuts out all but the well-educated and virtuous.

Alas, that bigotry should have left the mark of its hoof on the great "fundamental principle of the Tamworth Institution"! Sir Robert Peel is bound in consistency to attempt its obliteration. But if that is impossible, as many will anticipate, why, O why, while he is about it, why will he not give us just a little more of it? Cannot we prevail on him to modify his principle, and to admit into his library none but "well-educated and virtuous" men?

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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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