{ix} THE following Sketches, which, with two or three exceptions, appeared in the British Magazine during 1833 and the following years, do not, as the author is very conscious, warrant a title of such high pretension as that which was there prefixed to them and is here preserved. But that title will at least show the object with which they were written, viz. to illustrate, as far as they go, the tone and modes of thought, the habits and manners of the early times of the Church.

The author is aware what numerous imperfections are likely to attach to a work which is made up, in so great a measure as this is, of personal opinions and views, of minute historical details and of translations; nor would he expose himself to the criticisms which it inevitably provokes, did he not think that the chance of bringing out or recommending one or two of the characteristics of primitive Christianity was worth the risk of mistakes, which, after all, would be of a nature to affect himself rather than his readers. {x}

As to the translations, he is very sensible what constant and unflagging attention is requisite in all translation to catch the sense of the original, and what discrimination in the choice of English to do justice to it; and what certainty there is of shortcomings, after all. And further, over and above actual faults, variety of tastes and fluctuation of moods among readers, make it impossible so to translate as to please everyone; and, if a translator be conscious to himself, as he may well be, of viewing either his original or his version differently, according to the season or the feeling in which he takes it up, and finds that he never shall have done with correcting and altering except by an act of self-control, the more easy will it be for him to resign himself to such differences of judgment about his work as he experiences in others.

It should be considered, too, that translation in itself is, after all, but a problem; how, two languages being given, the nearest approximation may be made in the second to the expression of ideas already conveyed through the medium of the first. The problem almost starts with the assumption that something must be sacrificed; and the chief question is, what is the least sacrifice? In a balance of difficulties, one translator will aim at being critically correct, and will become obscure, cumbrous, and foreign; another will aim at being English, and will appear deficient in scholarship. While grammatical particles are followed out, the spirit evaporates; {xi} and, while an easy flow of language is secured, new ideas are intruded, or the point of the original is lost, or the drift of the context impaired.

Under these circumstances, perhaps, it is fair to lay down that, while every care must be taken against the introduction of new, or the omission of existing ideas, in translating the original text, yet, in a book intended for general reading, faithfulness may be considered simply to consist in expressing in English the sense of the original; the actual words of the latter being viewed mainly as directions into its sense, and scholarship being necessary in order to gain the full insight into that sense which they afford; and next, that, where something must be sacrificed, precision or intelligibility, it is better in a popular work to be understood by those who are not critics, than to be applauded by those who are.

This principle has been moreover taken to justify the author in the omission of passages, and now and then in the condensation of sentences, when the extract otherwise would have been too long; a studious endeavour being all along made to preserve the sense from injury.


As to the matter of these Sketches [Note], it is plain that, though mainly historical, they are in their form and character polemical, as being directed against certain Protestant ideas and opinions. This consideration must {xii} plead for certain peculiarities which it exhibits, such as its freedom in dealing with saintly persons, the gratuitous character of some of its assertions, and the liberality of many of its concessions. It must be recollected, that, in controversy, a writer grants all that he can afford to grant, and avails himself of all that he can get granted:—in other words, if he seems to admit, it is mainly "for argument's sake;" and if he seems to assert, it is mainly as an "argumentum ad hominem." As to positive statements of his own, he commits himself to as few as he can; just as a soldier on campaign takes no more baggage than is enough, and considers the conveniences of home life as only impedimenta in his march.

This being kept in view, it follows that, if the author of this work allows the appearance of infirmity or error in St. Basil or St. Gregory or St. Martin, he allows it because he can afford to pass over allegations, which, even though they were ever so well founded, would not at all interfere with the heroic sanctity of their lives or the doctrinal authority of their words. And if he can bear to entertain the idea of St. Antony being called an enthusiast without protesting, it is because that hypothesis does not even tend to destroy the force of the argument against the religion of Protestants, which is suggested by the contrast existing between their spirit and his.

Nor is this the sole consideration, on which an author may be justified in the use of frankness, after the manner {xiii} of Scripture, in speaking of the Saints; for their lingering imperfections surely make us love them more, without leading us to reverence them less, and act as a relief to the discouragement and despondency which may come over those, who, in the midst of much error and sin, are striving to imitate them;—according to the saying of St. Gregory on a graver occasion, "Plus nobis Thomę infidelitas ad fidem, quam fides credentium discipulorum profuit."

And in like manner, the dissatisfaction of Saints, of St. Basil, or again of our own St. Thomas, with the contemporary policy or conduct of the Holy See, while it cannot be taken to justify ordinary men, bishops, clergy, or laity, in feeling the same, is no reflection either on those Saints or on the Vicar of Christ. Nor is his infallibility in dogmatic decisions compromised by any personal and temporary error into which he may have fallen, in his estimate, whether of a heretic such as Pelagius, or of a Doctor of the Church such as Basil. Accidents of this nature are unavoidable in the state of being which we are allotted here below.

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home


Added in Edition of 1857.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Volume contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright © 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.