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From The National Review.
Plutarch has written "Parallel history, Lives;" and no less than drama, delights in contrast and coincidence. But seldom, perhaps, did it execute in this line a stroke so remarkable as when, in the month of October, 1845, and almost on the same day of the month it led John Henry Newman to the door of the Catholic Church while Ernest Renan was issuing thence, and bidding his early faith an everlasting farewell. We may figure to ourselves the 9th of October as a famous and a fatal day in that year, shining for Catholicism with brilliant light and setting in deep shadow. Who can draw up the balance of such loss and such gain? No one, so far as I am aware, has attempted it hitherto; yet if we knew how the account stood, we might see our way to resolve many of the questions which divide and torment us. For these two men, although never meeting in the body, nor acquainted with each other's writings, were in fact rivals and antagonists-parallel and opposed; each had fought the battle of belief and unbelief in his own bosom; together they summed up the tendencies of an age. And in variety of gifts, in personal romance, in the influence which went forth from them and subdued more than one generation, who shall say that they were greatly unequal?
The most striking resemblance between them is their mastery of style. Newman has long been recognized as one of the crowned and sceptred kings of English prose literature, without a competitor save Ruskin; but as a spiritual teacher, a light in the world of religious development, he is by far the greatest that has risen up during our century. On the other hand, which among illustrious French writers has excelled Renan? I speak of the supreme French achievement, again of prose not of poetry; and I call to mind
1 Letters and Correspondence of J. H. Newman, edited by Anne Mozley. London, 1891.
Chateaubriand, George Sand, Victor Hugo-these are the highest modern names-but can we praise them beyond the choice, and music-breathing, and exquisite, and endlessly cunning artist who, by a secret known to himself and none other, has combined the Celtic and the classic eloquence, stolen the hearts of friends and enemies, hidden the charm of his persuasiveness in words as simple as they are touching, and given to a phrase or an epithet power so strange, that once heard, it never will be forgotten? What a specious miracle is here, and how slight a value do we set on Hugo's chaotic splendors when this enchantment has taken hold of us! But such was Renan. He has wrapped himself in the cloak of the wizard Prospero, borrowing for the nonce his staff and magic volume, not unsuccessfully. Now, if we should think of Newman as Ariel, a spirit most delicate, detached, and filled with heavenly light, the terms of our comparison would not be wanting.
I propose to draw out briefly some of the resemblances and the contrasts which have been brought home to me in reading the remains, and especially what is now published from their correspondence, of these memorable persons. But I shall not pretend to do more than illustrate a large subject. Shall I accomplish even SO little as that? I cannot tell; but if the keen personal feeling which comes over me when I turn to either Newman or Renan be any proof that one has entered into their thought, their way of looking at the nature of things, their peculiar and individual spirit; if to be charmed is the secret of interpretation, and yet to be critical under so mighty a spell is some token of clear-sightedness, then I would take courage from the omens vouchsafed me. Perhaps it is impossible for those who never knew the Catholic Church by experience to understand how Newman came at last to join it, almost in his own despite; and still less, I am confident, will they, without some rare dramatic power, which it comprehend the attraction ceased not to exercise upon Renan, al
Lettres Intimes: 1842-1845, précédées par "Ma Sœur Henriette," par E. Renan. Paris, 1896.
though he had run to the opposite pole. I shall endeavor to keep clear of controversy; the situation, delineated as it was by the men themselves, out of which their final resolve issued, will point the moral of many arguments.
And now to begin. We must say, with Hamlet, though not disparagingly, "Look here upon this picture, and on this." See, amid the jostling crowd of mediocrities, in an age given over to commerce, politics, money-making, journalism, and vulgar enjoyment, these two men of genius-one French, one English-who pass by the whole scene of Vanity Fair as an empty stage-delusion. They are nothing if not idealists-dreaming their dream, perchance, while the many feast on good things; but a dream-in Newman contemplative, supernatural, in Renan Hegelian, concerned only with the process of the world, and a divinity still latent-which neither would exchange for all beside it. This unconquerable passion was breathed into them from the beginning by religion. They come down to literature as out of a higher sphere. The intense purity and clearness of style, the eloquence flowing in a stream so limpid, whereby each is marked off from his fellows and is classic, they have arrived at by no inducement from without, but in the effort to understand themselves. Each is alone, or regardless of his chance audience. Most instructive it is when Renan describes himself as the least literary of men, and marvels in his roguish innocence at the French Academics, who can write though they have nothing to say. From the first he was disdainful of the loud-tongued rhetoric which M. Dupanloup had set up as the very finest of the arts at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet. But Renan, who has written such inimitable prose. would have no mention made of style in training French scholars; let them study things and the words will come, he declares again and again. Newman wore himself out over his compositions; yet, at the age of sixty-nine, he could say with delightful simplicity, "I never have been in the practice since I was
a boy of attempting to write well, or to form an elegant style. I think I never have written for writing sake, but my one and single desire and aim has been to do what is so difficult, viz., to express clearly and exactly my meaning." Yes, he had a meaning, a conviction, which would not let him rest until it was embodied in language; and literature as a display of talent, or a thing which could be sold in the market, he no more dreamt of dealing in than he would have dealt in any other commodity and article of commerce. Yet-or shall we not rather say, hence?-there is a beauty and freedom of touch in all that either of these men published, the like of which no popular pen has to show. It is art, indeed, but disinterested, patient, and unconventional, addressing itself to those who can grasp its significance, not to the multitude. "I cannot make myself heard when I speak to the many, nor do the many care to hear me. Paucorum hominum sum," wrote the great oratorian. And Renan, in the preface to his "Drames Philosophiques," has these proud words: "Besides the volume which is destined for the circulating 11brary, there is the book of which the triumph consists in its being held of price by some few hundred connoisseurs." His own most cried-up volume had been read by tens of thousands, but still it was to the few and not the many that he appealed.
So frank a dismissal of the crowd argues in the speaker that he does not need them, nor has thought of them in the first place. He will teach, but only those that care to listen; his message has certain undercurrents; it is esoteric, ironical, a winged word that flies over common heads and pierces the heart at a distance. We can never be quite sure that we have caught the prophet's deepest meaning; and he smiles outright when we undertake to decide what he has been aiming at, or to refute a suggestion which has glided across the flow of his metaphors. Such a peculiar and indefinable spirit will be at once supremely truthful and as candid as snow in sunshine. But who will
dare to criticise, or pretend to exhaust, a philosophy which never can be resolved into another man's formulas?
The candor, the irony, the rare distinction, the transcendent egotism-I quote Newman's own word-and all this lighted up by an impersonal motive (by religion on the one hand, by science, or erudition, or philosophy, on the other), which are thus held forth as independent of the arts of rhetoric, and hostile, in a sense, to literature, cannot be denied to either of my heroes. Their writing is one long soliloquy; I doubt if a second person is ever much more to them than the mask of the Athenian actor, the speaking trumpet through which they hear their own voice. I am struck with the portentous solitude that each makes round about himself. Like the father of idealism, Berkeley, each must build the universe anew, and out of his own feelings; he cannot take it for granted or receive it upon hearsay, or by tradition; it is a problem to be resolved, not an axiom beyond discussion. This everlasting note of interrogation, I think it must be, which has led various well-intentioned writers to charge Cardinal Newman with scepticism; while in Renan we find an unqualified eulogy of Descartes and his methodic doubt as the beginning of wisdom. But let us never be hasty in our judgments concerning these subtle minds. For it is the privilege of genius to name all things afresh and, like Adam, to interpret creation with eyes enlightened but still untaught-the glances of a childman in Paradise.
Hume. Of the truths belonging to that moral order he says, "they cannot be directly affirmed or denied;" they fall into a sort of never-ending dialogue where every shade of opinion, surmise, and dubitation has its own place. An things here below-in the world of phenomena, which includes conscienceare, according to the dreamer of Pantheistic dreams, but symbols and imagery. Yet, ere the pen drops from his hand, when he is finishing the last page of "Ma Sœur Henriette," he too makes a confession such as we could hardly have expected from him. "I never have had any doubt," he tells us, "of the moral order; but I see now with evidence that the whole logical system of the world would be undone, were such lives," as that of his noble-hearted sister, "delusion and deceit."
What an orthodox scepticism, for example, is that which impels Newman to say, "While a man holds the moral governance of God as existing in and through his conscience, it matters not whether he believes his senses or not. For at least he will hold the external world as a divine intimation." To such a one the vital distinction between Hume and Berkeley turns upon this, which of them denied, and which acknowledged, the fact of conscience aboriginal and self-demonstrative. Renan would certainly have held with
The consent of these witnesses, Newman and Renan, in a point of capital importance, is very astonishing, and by no means to be overlooked. They may differ as regards the method of proof; they are at one as to the fact. Nor need we suppose that there is less conviction than there is irony-a growing disease with Renan as old age crept upon him-in those words of power which serve as an introduction to the "Prêtre de Némi;" "I believe with the Sibyl," he cries out while reflecting on the melancholy fate of the priest Antistius, "that justice will reign, if not on this planet, still in the universe at large; and that the virtuous man will at length be found to have been the well-inspired." Abate, I say, the halfmocking smile; remember that there is a Gascon of the joyous type in Renan, who will have his joke at all costs; and interpret his true thoughts by the language he has dedicated as an epitaph upon his sister's tomb; shall we not recognize here a great affirmation? But the lightness offends. It does, and with reason. There is a mortal difference between the teachers which tells utterly, at last, to Newman's advantage. We shall find ourselves returning to it ere we have done with them; and then, indeed, if we absolve Renan from the charge of scepticism, we cannot but
condemn in his declining years the Taine has called it, par excellence, the
We have not been told as yet nearly so many particulars touching the historical and family antecedents of Newman, as the Breton peasant-genius relates about himself. But we know that, though London born, he came of Huguenot blood; he was Calvinist on both sides; intensely religious, or "very superstitious," as he says, by temperament; and he had "a sense of the presence of the Supreme Being which never had been dimmed by even a passing shadow," which had dwelt in him ever since he recollected anything, and which he could not imagine his losing. This direct apprehension, or "image of an invisible being,"-the root of what some call mysticism,-it was which gave "a deep meaning to the lessons of his first teachers about the Will and Providence of God;" they were but drawing out, as in the Socratic experiment with Meno's young slave, truths implicit but really existing within his childish consciousness. Nor did he
ever cease to believe in them when once
they were apprehended. His Calvinism fell away; that first vital intuition not only survived all changes, but was their motive power and their justifica tion. He never lost his faith in "the reality of conversion, as cutting at the root of doubt," and "providing a chain between God and the soul with every link complete." From his earliest years "God's presence went up with him, and gave him rest."
Renan has left us his own Darwinian formula, mockingly but as if he laid stress upon it,-"Breton by the father's side, Gascon by the mother, in the remote distance, Lapp or Finnish." One constituent was not to be found in him-the Roman, Latin, South-Eastern French; we have no proper name for it in English, and our criticism, as well as our history, loses thereby; but M.