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Thomas S. Hibbs

Why Rome Matters In Light of the Ideas of Blessed John Henry Newman

Thomas S. Hibbs, President of the University of Dallas

Cardinal John Henry Newman Portrait

Portrait of Cardinal John Henry Newman, oil on canvas by Sir John Everett Millais, 1881. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1832 at the age of 31, St. John Henry Newman took a Mediterranean journey with friends from England. After his friends departed home for England, Newman remained in Rome and then Sicily, where he suffered a serious illness that delayed his return to England. It is clear that one of the goals of the trip for Newman was to experience in a more intimate and more direct way the settings of the stories that had informed his own education. He read the Odyssey at the age of 10 (!) as well as the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. Allusions to these and other classical works abound in his reminiscences about this trip. At one point he observes: “I am full of joy to overflowing — for I am in the Greek Sea, the scene of old Homer’s song.” At Syracuse, the location of crucial battles in the Peloponnesian war, he writes, “I am on the spot. I am in his place, as it were, and see the vision for him. I am Thucydides — with the gift of second sight.”

For Newman, travel and education both offer an opportunity for expansion of mind. Of travel, he writes, “It takes one out of oneself and reduces in one’s eyes both the importance of one’s own particular station and of one’s own decisions in acting in it.” The sense of one’s own smallness in relation to vast reaches of space and time is humbling. Travel can also inform and shape one’s imagination. He observes that what he has seen in his travels will provide a “vision for my whole life” and “pleasure for many years to come.” The “sights of celebrated places are like seeds sown in the mind of man.”

Yet Newman sees dangers in mere expansion, in the filling of one’s mind with ideas or of one’s imagination with images. It is possible to contain in one’s mind a “vast multitude of ideas,” but with “little sensibility of their real relations toward each.” The impressions of travel, “like the shifting scenes of a show,” can “leave the spectator where he was.” In education as in life, we can be mere tourists.

For the University of Dallas, the Rome semester matters as an occasion for students to move out of comfortable and narrow horizons. It provides a perspective on the limits of one’s particular time and place, on one’s own life and its likely impact. But Rome also prompts an encounter with great thoughts and great deeds, both of which can inform our lives in the present. The art and architecture that students encounter express and inform a civilization as decisively as — indeed are often themselves instances of — words and deeds. In Rome (and Greece) students forage for the roots of things, the foundations of classical and Christian civilization, foundations now so often willfully ignored, or taken for granted, or acknowledged but deeply misunderstood.

The Rome curriculum will fail, however, if it is merely an occasion for filling our heads with ideas and memories. It is an invitation for us to take our bearings in relation to all that we know. To be more than well-fed spectators or tourists, we need to make our experiences and our knowledge “subjectively our own,” as Newman puts it. He adds, this knowledge “is a digestion of what we receive into the substance of our previous state of thought. It is a living organic knowledge. It forms a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near. And which has an insight into the influence of all these on one another, without which there is no whole and no center.”

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Cover page of the first edition of Newman’s Idea of A University, dated to 1852. Photo Credit: UNZ Review.

Newman turns out to be a remarkable guide for liberal education broadly construed, for the freeing of the mind and the heart through engagement in salutary activities inside the classroom and outside. He remains an important influence on our work at the University of Dallas. He is deeply traditional, rooted in the reading of classical philosophy and literature and especially in the work of the Church Fathers; yet in his rearticulation of traditional thought, he is very much a modern writer. He penned the most influential text on liberal education of the past two centuries, yet he was also an administrator, the first rector of the Catholic University Dublin, who struggled to implement pedagogical ideals in less than fortuitous circumstances.

He was acutely aware that many of the most important things that happen during a student’s time in a university happen outside the classroom, in impromptu conversations with teachers and fellow students, in the cultivation of lives of prayer and service, and especially in the friendships students develop with one another.

He also knew that travel was not always pleasant or fulfilling. On his own sojourn in 1832, he was alone, and, for some time on the trip, seriously ill. He was also plagued with doubts and anxiety about what his return to England would bring. He draws analogies between his own trip and the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas to the underworld. Drawn to a life of private leisure — of contemplation, learning and writing — he came to see that as a temptation for him. He had a public calling. Not long after his return to England, he would find himself at the center of a new and controversial movement within the Church of England, the Oxford Movement, that would ultimately lead to Newman’s own conversion to the Catholic faith. The sense that he was destined to play a role in events that would reshape English religious life began during what was intended at the time as an uneventful trip.

Who knows what sense of higher calling, what new and deepened friendships, and what greater appreciation of one’s place in the scheme of things await UD students as they travel to Rome? To fathom the mysteries of one’s life in such a place, with such friends and teachers, remains one of the glories of a University of Dallas education.