Lesson 9: Gentleman Philosopher

Later scholars have certain advantages over the contemporaries of a thinker in that papers and letters that remained private during the author's lifetime come into the public domain with the passage of time and later students of a man's thought can rummage about in things that cast new light on the writings published during his lifetime. In the case of Kierkegaard, we have all the volumes of his Papers at our disposal, volumes which contain his diaries, notes on reading, first sketches of proposed works. And there are besides his letters. Mention has already been made of the enormous treasury of Newman's correspondence. But there is as well another precious source for understanding his thought that has been made available to us. I refer to The Philosophical Notebook edited by Edward J. Sillem and A. J. Boekraad, 2 volumes, published in 1970. This complements an earlier study on Newman's proof of God's existence based on conscience, written by Boekraad and Henry Tristam.

Attentive readers of the University Sermons will have noticed the way in which Conscience is introduced, e.g. in Sermon 2. It will loom large in Newman's thought to the end of his life, and it is in the notebook that we find an explicit effort to construct a proof for the existence of God on the basis of Conscience. This effort is late, in 1859, and 1864, but it may be taken to be a formal effort at which has been informally suggested earlier. The text of the notebook was first made public and commented on in The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God by Adrian J. Boekraad (with the assistance of Henry Tristram of the Oratory), published in Louvain by Editions Nauwelaerts in 1961. The notebook itself, edited by Edward Sillem and revised by Boekraad was published in the same city and by the same publisher in 1970. Actually, the last publication is in two volumes, the second of which provides the text of the philosophical notebook. Volume one is an exhaustive study by Sillem of Newman's philosophical formation, his sources, his library, that enables us to read both the notebook and the Grammar of Assent more intelligently.

Newman was not a professional philosopher - the species was more or less unknown in his day. University dons were not so specialized in what they tutored students in. Philosophy was learned as an element in a wider culture and of course in Newman's case theology - or divinity - would have provided the context for all his intellectual interests.

The Proof from Conscience

There is a God because there is moral obligation. That is the nerve of the proof. How does it go? "I should begin thus. I am conscious of my own existence. That I am involves a great deal more than myself. I am a unit made up of various faculties... " One does not believe that he exists - it is more fundamental than that. One is conscious of his existence. "Consciousness indeed is not of a simple being, but of action or passion, of which pain is one form. I am conscious that I am, because I am conscious of thinking (cogito ergo sum) or feeling or remembering, or comparing, or exercising a discourse" (P. 104).

The parenthetical appearance of the Cartesian maxim may surprise, but Newman will go on to question the apparent discursive move signified by ergo. One is aware of himself as existing insofar as he is aware of sensing, remembering, thinking, and of course all of these activities have objects. Being able to do these things is what one is aware of in knowing he exists. "This view of the subject brings us a step further, as revealing an important principle. Sentio, ergo sum. To call this an act of argumentation or deduction, and (to say) that it implies faith in that reasoning process which is denoted by the symbol of the 'ergo' seems to be a fallacy" (P. 105). The consciousness of thought and being, or sensation and being, "are brought home to me by one act of consciousness, prior to any exercise of ratiocination..."

Much of this preliminary discussion is a matter of taking exception to the position of W. G. Ward. On now to the employment of conscience.

Newman distinguishes two chief ways in which we use the word. "'By conscience I mean the discrimination of acts as worthy of praise or blame... Here then are two senses of the word conscience. It either stands for the act of moral judgment, or for the particular judgment formed. In the former case it is the foundation of religion, in the latter of ethics'" (p. 111). Newman wants to distinguish the voice of conscience, the fact that all have a primary consciousness of right and wrong, from particular judgments of right and wrong where men differ. That is, he is not proceeding from some such claim as this (however true) that everyone recognizes that murder is wrong, but rather from something more fundamental to and presupposed by such judgments, namely the sense that some things are right and others wrong. Particular injunctions give us conscience in the moral sense. "'In what I am going to say about conscience then, I put aside any question of the moral sense or moral law, as regarding particular decisions or informations, and an speaking of it only in that light in which, however we may differ in moral judgment from others, nay, from our former selves, one and all ever recognize it, I mean, as a sanction or command'" (P. 113). At this point, underscoring that he is returning to a favorite theme, Newman quotes a passage from the University Sermons, sermon 2. "'Conscience is the essential principle and sanction of religion in the mind. Conscience implies a relation between the soul and something exterior, and that mover, superior to itself; a relation to an excellence which it does not possess, and to a tribunal over which it has no power. And since the more closely this inward monitor is respected and followed, the clearer, the more exalted, and the more varied its dictates become, and the standard of excellence is ever outstripping, while it guides, our obedience, a moral conviction is thus at length obtained of the unapproachable nature as well as the supreme authority of that, whatever it is, which is the object of the mind's contemplation. Here then, at once, we have the elements of a religious system... Moreover, since the inward law of conscience brings with it no proof of its truth, and commands attention to it on its own authority, all obedience to it is of the nature of Faith.'" Because conscience commands - praises, blames, threatens, implies a future, witnesses the unseen "it is more than a man's own self." Newman uses "faith" here because, unlike our certainty of our own inner states, conscience is pointing to something beyond ourselves. "This is Conscience, and, from the very nature of the case, its very existence carries on our minds to a Being exterior to ourselves; for else, whence did it come?" (P.114).

Not only does Conscience make us aware of God, it also enables us to discern some of his attributes, and Newman goes on to discuss these. But we have the core of his argument before us now.


It is of course easy to imagine the psychiatric and sociological and anthropological dismissals of what Newman is saying here. Conscience would be called the internalization by the individual of the mores of the tribe. No doubt Newman would then wish to discuss the tribe's tendency to impose obligations - not this one or that one, but obligation tout court.

Reductionist efforts, in short, simply put off what they regard as the evil day, that is, the human creature's sense of his creatureliness and his answerability to someone greater than himself. Passing this off on tribal mores would then appear simply a misidentification of the source or perhaps a waystation on the recognition of the source.

Of course I am simply guessing as to how Newman would respond to such criticisms of his view. As he puts it forward, he clearly sees it as something universally recognized.

Should we draw attention to the difference between the so-called cosmological proofs of God's existence - from motion, efficient causality, etc - and Newman's more subjective approach. The several allusions to Descartes may make us think that Newman regards the inner world as primary, what we first know, with then the need to infer something beyond it. Isn't this what the proof from conscience does? The fact of conscience is immediate, not inferred, but the author of conscience is reasoned to, and Newman uses "faith" to indicate this transition from the inner to the outer.

Newman's apparent employment of Descartes is accompanied by remarks that indicate his quite special interpretation of it. The activities of the faculties are defined in terms of their objects and presumably it is the seeing of a color that provides the occasion for consciousness of seeing. Newman does not suggest that there are object-less activities of such faculties as seeing and touching. But the fact is that it is no simple matter to figure out Newman's epistemological position in all its amplitude. It is difficult to enlist him in the ranks of subjective idealists but one can wish for more clarity as to his positive view.

What should be stressed is the basic and chief interest of Newman, and that is the religious. It is no surprise that he will seek the sanction of the religious in the moral phenomenon of science, the latter involving the person as such, and not as a mere observer of the world. Moreover, the discussion of conscience seems to locate it in what Newman calls Natural Religion, a presupposition of Revealed Religion, something that can be subsumed into a supernatural role.

Letter to a Duke

This may be the place to mention a famous letter that Newman wrote to the Duke of Norfolk concerning his loyalty to the pope. If asked to give a toast, Newman wrote, he would happily toast the pope, but first he would toast his conscience. This letter has sometimes wrongly been taken to mean that Newman holds a Protestant view of conscience, such that the judgment of my conscience always validates acting in accord with it. That he could scarcely think that the particular judgment of conscience is thus its own warrant, is clear from the discussions that go into the proof of God's existence from conscience. The judgment of men differ on the morality of courses of action, and one's own judgment may alter. The judgment of conscience is not infallible.

In the wild wake of Vatican II dissenting theologians often sought to invoke Cardinal Newman as their ally. The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, with its strong defense of the judgment of conscience, was taken to justify the individual Catholic's rejecting teachings of the Church. Ian Ker's discussion of the letter makes clear what a distortion of it such attempted use is. For Newman, the judgment of conscience is the proximate decision as to what I ought do here and now in these contingent circumstances. Since, Newman writes, "conscience is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears on something to be done or not done" (Newman continues) "it cannot come into direct collision with the Church's or the Pope's infallibility; which is engaged on general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors" (Ker, p. 689). Newman concluded the letter to the duke with the following often quoted passage: "'I add one remark. Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink - to the Pope if you please - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.'" To find in this carefully phrased remark the seeds of rebellion requires inventiveness indeed. It was because he followed his conscience that Newman was loyal to the Pope.

Suggested Reading

Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

Suggested Writing

Outline and analyze the letter to the duke.


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