Newman on the individual and society.

Today I read the following from John Newman:

She contemplates , not the whole, but the parts; not a nation, but the men who form it; not society in the first place, but in the second place, and in the first place individuals…

…I bear my own testimony to what has been brought home to me most closely and vividly as a matter of fact since I have been a Catholic; … Oh, most tender loving Mother, ill-judged by the world, which thinks she is, like itself always minding the main chance; on the contrary, it is her keen view of things spiritual, and her love for the soul, which hampers her in her negotiations and her measures, on this hard cold earth, which is her place of sojourning. How easy would her course be, at least for a while, could she give up this or that point of faith, or connive at some innovation or irregularity in the administration of the Sacraments! …

The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything….


Newman was a convert to the Catholic Church in the 19th century. I think what he says here (from his “Social State of Catholic Countries No Prejudice to the Sanctity of the Church”) explains why most of us would rather buy bread or coffee or coffins or soap from monks than non-monks, all else being equal.

Even if we say out loud that there is no God and the monks’ prayers fly up to dissipate in the empty air of their vaulted Abbeys, we know in our minds that they are praying for us, and we sense in our hearts that either our conviction, which we hold as a diversion or a recreation or a hobby, that their prayers are vain, is itself vain, or theirs, that their work and prayer can help us to be saved by their God, which fills every moment of their lives from waking to sleeping, and not just their lives but the unbroken succession of lives of their order stretching like Ariadne’s rope glowing golden from this dark little room in the middle of our labyrinth back five hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred years to their founder Benedict, in all of its countless threads wound seamlessly together, the individual invisible but bright the totality, is rather itself vain.

It’s a proposition of diametrical opposites; the most fundamental logic demands only one can be true.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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