Literary Conceits

In a sermon for the Feast of St. Luke, Newman warned against overvaluing literature or the fine arts:

The refinement which literature gives, is that of thinking, feeling, knowing and speaking right, not of acting right; and thus, while it makes the manners amiable, and the conversation decorous and agreeable, it has no tendency to make the conduct, the practice of the man virtuous” (Genius of Newman, 154).

The impotence of literary pursuits for reforming human nature is a constant theme in Newman’s work. In The Tamworth Reading Room, Newman acidly remarks, “First shoot round corners, and you may not despair of converting by a syllogism” (Sec. 6). And again, in The Idea of a University: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man” (5.9).

This sermon, however, brings out a point of concern that Newman does not highlight so clearly elsewhere, namely, that literary pursuits not only aren’t useful for cultivating virtue, but in fact can often be a positive hindrance to its cultivation, by virtue of their “lead[ing] men to cultivate the religious affections separated from religious practice” (155). This concern is closely related to Augustine’s chief anxiety about poetry and the theater, namely that it tended to hive the spectator’s emotions off from the rest of his life: in the Confessions, he bitterly recalls how he wept for Dido but had no tears for his own sins: “what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love to Æneas, but weeping not his own death for want of love to Thee, O God” (1.13.21).

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