Newman’s Three Ideas of a University

The basic idea of John Henry Newman’s great work, The Idea of a University, is one of those brilliant arguments that take your breath away for its simplicity and power.   A university, he says, as its name implies, is a place of universal learning.  Therefore, an institution that failed to teach about God, the central reality, the origin and end of everything else, whatever its other merits, simply could not be called a university.  It would be a sham university, like a dodgy place that on principle excluded chemistry or physics.  With devastating logic, Newman then traces out the disorders that must afflict an academic community that has plucked out its very heart.

It’s an audacious idea, that our most prestigious universities are, most of them, not genuine universities at all.

Trouble is, there’s a second and different idea in Newman’s work.  He also describes a university as a place where the distinctive beauty of the intellect is imparted, just for its own sake:

There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect. . . .The artist puts before him beauty of feature and form; the poet, beauty of mind; the preacher, the beauty of grace: then intellect too, I repeat, has its beauty, and it has those who aim at it. 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, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible. . .as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.

This too is an audacious idea.  Sure, we’re used to the argument that a university should emphasize the “liberal arts,” not simply offering specialized or pre-vocational disciplines.  But Newman’s critique is much broader. If you are thinking about a university in terms of grades, programs, and majors, he is saying, and not (so to speak) the intellectual personalities you are forming, then you are missing the mark entirely.  It’s not clear whether any existing university at all has the right goal, on Newman’s view.

For a long time, I wondered what the connection was, between these two rather different ideas.  Recently, I discovered it, in a passage from Newman’s congenial novel about university life at Oxford, Loss and Gain.

The protagonist of that work, Charles Reding, begins his studies supposing that “it was a duty to be pleased with everyone.”  His working principle is relativism, really, the same relativism which American students carry along with them.  But then he has an intellectual conversion.  First, he realizes that “Contradictions could not both be real: when an affirmative was true, a negative was false.  All doctrines could not be equally sound: there was a right and a wrong.”  Second, he comes to see that “it is our duty to hold true opinions” and, thus, it is disfiguring to believe something false:

it was not respectable in any great question to hold false opinions. It did not matter that such false opinions were sincerely held,—…He might redeem and cover this blot by a thousand excellences, but a blot it would remain; just as we should feel a handsome man disfigured by the loss of an eye or a hand. . . .if a professing Christian made the Almighty a being of simple benevolence, and He was, on the contrary. . .a God who punishes for the sake of justice, such a person was making an idol or unreality the object of his religion, and. . .so far [Charles] could not respect him.


Newman writes, “Thus the principle of dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles’s religious views.”

So here is the link between the two ideas.  The beauty of intellect, which a university should aim to impart, is not attainable by someone who holds false views in deeply important matters, in “great questions,” as Newman calls them.  But whether God exists, and what his attributes are, including whether he has revealed himself, and how, are surely “great questions.”  Thus, if a university is to impart beauty of intellect, it must at least provide the opportunity for students to seek the truth about God.

Alternatively, beauty of the intellect, like all beauty, implies unity and proportion.  But students cannot attain these in what they learn unless a similar unity and proportion are found in the subjects that are taught, which will not be the case in a “university” which excludes teaching about God.

What links the two ideas – the “third idea” – is just the “principle of dogmatism,” that we have a duty to seek the truth and reject strenuously what is false, in the “great questions.”

Many Catholics are aware that Newman, in his famous Biglietto Speech, reflected back over his life and observed that “for thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.”  By “liberalism” he meant relativism and indifferentism.  The opposite of liberalism, then, is this very “principle of dogmatism” that Charles Reding came to embrace.  No doubt the young Newman at Oxford embraced that principle too.

We admire Newman and, I hope, want to be like him.  We love the beauty of his intellect.  Yet, chances are, when we look at the Biglietto Speech, we are merely grateful that Newman, for his part, opposed liberalism.  However, if we take Newman’s three ideas of a university seriously, we too should sincerely embrace the principle of dogmatism, and be satisfied with nothing less than an education equally opposed to “liberalism” – which prompts students to be relentless in pursuing truth in “great questions,” and tenacious in latching onto the truth when found.


*Image: Bust of Newman by Richard Westmacott (the younger), 1841 [Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, England]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk