Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Newman on First Principles.

[Since this quote is long, I have put it behind a break]

Now that there must be such things as First Principles—that is, opinions which are held without proof as if self-evident,—and, moreover, that every one must have some or other, who thinks at all, is evident from the nature of the case. If you trace back your reasons for holding an opinion, you must stop somewhere; the process cannot go on for ever; you must come at last to something you cannot prove; else, life would be spent in inquiring and reasoning, our minds would be ever tossing to and fro, and there would be nothing to guide us. No man alive, but has some First Principles or other. Even if he declares that nothing can be known for certain, then that is his First Principle. He has got his place in philosophy ready marked out for him; he is of the sect called Academics or Pyrrhonists, as the case may be, and his dogma is either "Nothing can be known in itself;" or "Nothing can be known even for practical purposes." Any one may convince himself of the truth of what I am saying, who examines his own sentiments; for instance, supposing, on meeting a particular person, you said you would have nothing to do with him politically, and gave as your reason, because he belonged to a certain political party. And, supposing, on being asked why you disliked that party, you answered, because their very principle was to stand upon their own rights; and then supposing you were asked why it was wrong to stand on one's own rights, and you answered again, because it was selfish and proud; and being asked once more, why selfishness and pride were wrong, supposing you answered that selfishness and pride were bad feelings, because they were the feelings of the bad angels, who stood upon their supposed rights against their Maker; or, to sum up the whole in Dr. Johnson's famous saying, because "the devil was the first Whig,"—why, in that case, you see, you would have come to a First Principle, beyond which you could not get. I am not saying whether your reasoning, or your First Principle, was true or false; that is quite another matter; I am but illustrating what is meant by a First Principle, and how it is that all reasoning ultimately rests upon such. It would be your First Principle, in the case supposed, a principle for which no reason could be given, that the bad angels are to be avoided; thence it would follow that what is like them is to be avoided; and from that again, it followed that pride and selfishness are to be avoided; and from that again, that the particular political party in question is to be avoided. This, I repeat, is what is called a First Principle, and you see what a bearing it has both upon thought and upon action.

It is a First Principle that man is a social being; a First Principle that he may defend himself; a First Principle that he is responsible; a First Principle that he is frail and imperfect; a First Principle that reason must rule passion.

I will set down one or two other instances of First Principles by way of further illustration.
The celebrated Roman patriot Cato stabbed himself when besieged at Utica, rather than fall into the hands of Cæsar. He thought this a very great action, and so have many others besides. In like manner Saul, in Scripture, fell on his sword when defeated in battle; and there have been those who have reproached Napoleon for not having blown out his brains on the field of Waterloo. Now, if these advocates of suicide had been asked why they thought such conduct, under such circumstances, noble, perhaps they would have returned the querist no answer, as if it were too plain to talk about, or from contempt of him, as if he were a person without any sense of honour, any feeling of what becomes a gentleman, of what a soldier, a hero, owes to himself. That is, they would not bring out their First Principle from the very circumstance that they felt its power so intensely; that First Principle being, that there is no evil so great in the whole universe, visible and invisible, in time and eternity, as humiliation.

Again, supposing a medical man were to say to his patient that he could not possibly get well unless he gave up his present occupation, which was too much for his health; supposing him to say, "As to the way of your doing this—how you are to make your livelihood if you give it up; or again, how you are to become a proficient in your present trade, or art, or intellectual pursuit; or again, how, if you take that step, you can keep up your religious connections; all these questions I have nothing to do with; I am only speaking to you as a medical man;"—nothing could be kinder or more sensible than such language; he does not make his own medical enunciations First Principles; he delivers his opinion, and leaves it to the patient to strike the balance of advantages. But it is just possible, to take an extreme case, that he might take another line. He might be so carried away by his love for his own science (as happens commonly to men in any department of knowledge), as to think that everything ought to give way to it. He might actually ridicule religious scruples as absurd, and prescribe something which would be simply unlawful to a religious man; and he might give as a reason for such advice, that nature required it, and there was an end of the matter. In such case he would be going so far as to make the principles of his own science First Principles of conduct; and he would pronounce it impossible that moral duty ought in any case to interfere with or supersede the claims of animal nature. [...]

I have said enough to show you what important, what formidable matters First Principles are. They are the means of proof, and are not themselves proved; they rule and are not ruled; they are sovereign on the one hand, irresponsible on the other: they are absolute monarchs, and if they are true, they act like the best and wisest of fathers to us: but, if they are false, they are the most cruel and baneful of tyrants. Yet, from the nature of our being, there they are, as I have said; there they must ever be. They are our guides and standards in speculating, reasoning, judging, deliberating, deciding, and acting; they are to the mind what the circulation of the blood and the various functions of our animal organs are to the body. They are the conditions of our mental life; by them we form our view of events, of deeds, of persons, of lines of conduct, of aims, of moral qualities, of religions. They constitute the difference between man and man; they characterize him. As determined by his First Principles, such is his religion, his creed, his worship, his political party, his character, except as far as adventitious circumstances interfere with their due and accurate development; they are, in short, the man.

One additional remark must be made, quite as important as the foregoing. I just now said that these First Principles, being a man's elementary points of thinking, and the ideas which he has prior to other ideas, might be considered as almost part of his mind or moral being itself. But for this very reason, because they are so close to him, if I may so speak, he is very likely not to be aware of them. What is far off, your bodily eyes see; what is close up to you is no object for your vision at all. You cannot see yourself; and, in somewhat the same way, the chance is that you are not aware of those principles or ideas which have the chief rule over your mind. They are hidden for the very reason they are so sovereign and so engrossing. They have sunk into you; they spread through you; you do not so much appeal to them as act from them. And this in great measure is meant by saying that self-knowledge is so difficult; that is, in other words, men commonly do not know their First Principles.

Now to show you that they have this subtle and recondite character. For instance, two persons begin to converse; they come upon some point on which they do not agree: they fall to dispute. They go on arguing and arguing perhaps for hours; neither makes way with the other, but each becomes more certain his own opinion is right. Why is this? How is it to be explained? They cannot tell. It surprises them, for the point is so very clear; as far as this they are agreed, but no further; for then comes the difference, that where one says yes, the other says no, and each wonders that the other is not on his side. How comes each to be so positive when each contradicts the other? The real reason is, that each starts from some principle or opinion which he takes for granted, which he does not observe he is assuming, and which, even if he did, he would think too plain to speak about or attempt to prove. Each starts with a First Principle, and they differ from each other in first principles.

For instance, supposing two persons to dispute whether Milton was or was not a poet; it might so happen, that they both took for granted that every one knew what a poet was. If so, they might go on arguing to the end of time and never agree, because they had not adjusted with each other the principles with which they started.

Now, here the mistake is very obvious; it might, however, very easily be a First Principle which did not come so prominently forward in the discussion. It might come in by the by, neither party might see it come in at all, or even recognise it to himself as a proposition which he held in the affirmative or negative, and yet it might simply turn the decision this way or that.

Thus again it happens, to take an instance of another kind, that we cannot tell why we like some persons and dislike others, though there are reasons, if we could reach them; according to the lines,—
"I do not like thee, Dr. Fell;
The reason why I cannot tell."
Or a person says, "I do not know how it is that this or that writer so comes home to me, and so inspires me; I so perfectly agree with him," or "I can so easily follow his thoughts." Both feelings may be accounted for, at least in many cases, by a difference or agreement in First Principles between the speaker and the person spoken of, which shows itself in the words, or writings, or deeds, or life of the latter, when submitted to the criticism of the former.

Sometimes two friends live together for years, and appear to entertain the same religious views; at the end of the time they take different courses; one becomes an unbeliever, the other a Catholic. How is this? Some latent and hitherto dormant First Principle, different in each, comes into play, and carries off one to the East, the other to the West. For instance, suppose the one holds that there is such a thing as sin; the other denies it,—denies it, that is, really and in his heart, though at first he would shrink from saying so, even to himself, and is not aware he denies it. At a certain crisis, either from the pressure of controversy or other reason, each finds he must give up the form of religion in which he has been educated; and then this question, the nature of sin, what it is, whether it exists, comes forward as a turning-point between them; he who does not believe in it becomes an unbeliever; he who does, becomes a Catholic.

Such, then, are First Principles; sovereign, irresponsible, and secret;—what an awful form of government the human mind is under from its very constitution!


There are many of these First Principles, as I have called them, which are common to the great mass of mankind, and are therefore true, as having been imprinted on the human mind by its Maker. Such are the great truths of the moral law, the duties, for instance, of justice, truth, and temperance. Others are peculiar to individuals, and are in consequence of no authority; as, for instance, to take a case which cannot often occur, the opinion that there is no difference between virtue and vice. Other principles are common to extended localities; men catch them from each other, by education, by daily intercourse, by reading the same books, or by being members of the same political community. Hence nations have very frequently one and the same set of First Principles, of the truth of which each individual is still more sure, because it is not only his own opinion, but the opinion of nearly every one else about him. Thus, for instance, it was the opinion of the ancient pagan Romans, that every one should follow the religion of his own country, and this was the reason why they persecuted the first Christians. They thought it exceedingly hard that the Christians would take up a religion of their own, and that, an upstart religion, lately imported from Palestine. They said, "Why cannot you be contented to be as your ancestors? we are most liberal on the point of religion; we let a Jew follow Jewish rites, and an Egyptian the rites of Egypt, and a Carthaginian the Punic; but you are ungrateful and rebellious, because, not content with this ample toleration, you will be introducing into your respective countries a foreign religion." They thought all this exceedingly sensible, and, in fact, unanswerable; statesmen of all parties and all the enlightened men and great thinkers of the Empire gave in their adhesion to it; and on this First Principle they proceeded to throw our poor forefathers to the beasts, to the flame, and to the deep, after first putting them to the most varied and horrible tortures. Such was the power of an imperial idea, and a popular dogma; such is the consequence of a First Principle being held in common by many at once; it ceases to be an opinion; it is at once taken for truth; it is looked upon as plain common sense; the opposite opinions are thought impossible; they are absurdities and nonentities, and have no rights whatever.

In the instance I have mentioned, the folly and the offence, in the eyes of the Romans, was proselytising; but let us fancy this got over, would the Christian system itself have pleased the countrymen of Cato at all better? On the contrary, they would have started with his First Principle, that humiliation was immoral, as an axiom; they would not have attempted to prove it; they would have considered it as much a fact as the sun in heaven; they would not have even enunciated it, they would have merely implied it. Fancy a really candid philosopher, who had been struck with the heroic deaths of the Martyrs, turning with a feeling of good will to consider the Christian ethics; what repugnance would he not feel towards them on rising up from the study! to crouch, to turn the cheek, not to resist, to love to be lowest! Who ever heard of such a teaching? It was the religion of slaves, it was unworthy of a man; much more of a Roman; yet that odious religion in the event became the creed of countless millions. What philosophers so spontaneously and instinctively condemned has been professed by the profoundest and the noblest of men, through eighteen centuries;—so possible is it for our First Principles to be but the opinions of a multitude, not truths.

Now be quite sure, my Brothers, that I make clear to you the point on which I am animadverting in these instances. I am not blaming Cato and his countrymen for using their First Principles, whatever they were, while they believed them: every one must use such opinions as he has; there is nothing else to be done. What I should blame in them would be their utterly despising another system with which they did not sympathize, and being so sure that they were right; their forgetting that the Christians might have First Principles as well as they, and opposite ones; their forgetting that it was a question of First Principles; that the contest was not ended—that it had not begun. They viewed Christianity with disgust, at first sight. They were repelled, thrown back, they revolted from the Religion, and they took that mere feeling of theirs as an evidence that the Religion really was wrong and immoral. No, it only showed that either the Religion or they were wrong, which of the two had still to be determined. Christians had their First Principles also; "blessed are the meek," "blessed are the persecuted," "blessed are the pure-hearted." These First Principles the Pagans had no right to ignore. They chose to apply their own First Principles, as decisive tests, to the examination of the precepts and practice of the Church, and by means of them they condemned her; but if they had applied Christian principles as the measure of her precepts and her practice, they would, on the contrary, have been forced to praise her. All depends on which set of principles you begin by assuming.

The same thing takes place now. A dispassionate thinker is struck with the beauty and the eloquence of the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church; he likes to be present at them, but he says they are addressed of course only to the imagination, not to the reason. They are indefensible in the eye of reason. What does he mean? Why this, when he explains himself:—he says he cannot understand how the Divine Being needs propitiating—is He not good? what can be the use of these ceremonies? why, too, such continual prayer? why try to get others to pray for you too, and for your object, whatever it is? what the use of novenas? why betake yourselves to saints? what can they do for you? So he might go on, speaking against the whole system of deprecatory and intercessory prayer, and we might be grieved and perplexed at such a line of thought in so candid a man, and we should ask ourselves how it came to be. Now if it turned out at length that the said critic disbelieved the virtue of prayer altogether, or that the Divine Being was really moved by it, or that it was of any good whatever beyond the peace and sereneness which the exercise poured over the soul, I think you would consider that this fact quite explained those criticisms of his which distressed you; you would feel that it was nugatory to argue points of detail with one, who, however candid, differed from you in principle; and, while you would not quarrel with him for having his own First Principles (seriously as you thought of them theologically), your immediate charge against him would be that he had forgotten that a Catholic has First Principles too, and forgotten also that we have as much right to have our theory of prayer as he to have his own. His surprise and offence constitute no proof even to himself that we are wrong; they only show, that, as we have our First Principles, which we consider true, but which are not capable of proof, so has he his. The previous question remains—Which set of principles is true? He is a theorist, using his theory against our practice, as if our practice might not have its own theory also. But, in fact, he does not dream that we have any intellectual principles whatever as the basis of what we do; he thinks he is the only intellectual man; he has mind on his side, it never came into our heads to have it; we do not know what mind is. Thus he imagines and determines, knowing nothing whatever of our acute, profound, subtle philosophers, except by name, and ridding himself of the trouble of reading their works by nicknaming them schoolmen or monks. [....]

This being considered, have we not, my Brothers, a curious sight before us? This is what we call an enlightened age: we are to have large views of things; everything is to be put on a philosophical basis; reason is to rule: the world is to begin again; a new and transporting set of views is about to be exhibited to the great human family. Well and good; have them, preach them, enjoy them, but deign to recollect the while, that there have been views in the world before you: that the world has not been going on up to this day without any principles whatever; that the Old Religion was based on principles, and that it is not enough to flourish about your "new lamps," if you would make us give up our "old" ones. Catholicism, I say, had its First Principles  before you were born: you say they are false; very well, prove them to be so: they are false, indeed, if yours are true; but not false merely because yours are yours. While yours are yours it is self-evident, indeed, to you, that ours are false; but it is not the common way of carrying on business in the world, to value English goods by French measures, or to pay a debt in paper which was contracted in gold. Catholicism has its First Principles, overthrow them, if you can; endure them, if you cannot. It is not enough to call them effete because they are old, or antiquated because they are ancient. It is not enough to look into our churches, and cry, "It is all a form, because divine favour cannot depend on external observances;" or, "It is all a bondage, because there is no such thing as sin;" or, "a blasphemy, because the Supreme Being cannot be present in ceremonies;" or, "a mummery, because prayer cannot move Him;" or, "a tyranny, because vows are unnatural;" or, "hypocrisy, because no rational man can credit it at all." I say here is endless assumption, unmitigated hypothesis, reckless assertion; prove your "because," "because," "because;" prove your First Principles, and if you cannot, learn philosophic moderation. Why may not my First Principles contest the prize with yours? they have been longer in the world; they have lasted longer, they have done harder work, they have seen rougher service. You sit in your easy-chairs, you dogmatize in your lecture-rooms, you wield your pens: it all looks well on paper: you write exceedingly well: there never was an age in which there was better writing; logical, nervous, eloquent, and pure,—go and carry it all out in the world. Take your First Principles, of which you are so proud, into the crowded streets of our cities, into the formidable classes which make up the bulk of our population; try to work society by them. You think you can; I say you cannot—at least you have not as yet; it is yet to be seen if you can. "Let not him that putteth on his armour boast as he who taketh it off." Do not take it for granted that that is certain which is waiting the test of reason and experiment. Be modest until you are victorious. My principles, which I believe to be eternal, have at least lasted eighteen hundred years; let yours live as many months. That man can sin, that he has duties, that the Divine Being hears prayer, that He gives His favours through visible ordinances, that He is really present in the midst of them, these principles have been the life of nations; they have shown they could be carried out; let any single nation carry out yours, and you will have better claim to speak contemptuously of Catholic rites, of Catholic devotions, of Catholic belief.

 What is all this but the very state of mind which we ridicule, and call narrowness, in the case of those who have never travelled? We call them, and rightly, men of contracted ideas, who cannot fancy things going on differently from what they have themselves witnessed at home, and laugh at everything because it is strange. They themselves are the pattern men; their height, their dress, their manners, their food, their language, are all founded in the nature of things; and everything else is good or bad, just in that very degree in which it partakes, or does not partake, of them [...] are many men of one idea in the world: your unintellectual machine, who eats, drinks, and sleeps, is a man of one idea. Such, too, is your man of genius, who strikes out some new, or revives some old view in science or in art, and would apply it as a sort of specific or as a key to all possible subjects; and who will not let the world alone, but loads it with bad names if it will not run after him and his darling fancy [...] History and travel expand our views of man and of society; they teach us that distinct principles rule in different countries and in distinct periods; and, though they do not teach us that all principles are equally true, or, which is the same thing, that none are either true or false, yet they do teach us, that all are to be regarded with attention and examined with patience, which have prevailed to any great extent among mankind. Such is the temper of a man of the world, of a philosopher. He may hold principles to be false and dangerous, but he will try to enter into them, to enter into the minds of those who hold them; he will consider in what their strength lies, and what can be said for them; he will do his best to analyze and dissect them; he will compare them with others; and he will apply himself to the task of exposing and disproving them. He will not ignore them;—now, what I desiderate at the present day in so many even candid men, and of course much more in the multitude which is uncandid, is a recognition that Catholics have principles of their own; I desiderate a study of those principles, a fair representation, a refutation. It is not enough, that this age has its principles too; this does not prove them true; it has no right to put ours on one side, and proceed to make its own the immediate touchstones and the sufficient tribunals of our creed, our worship, our ecclesiastical proceedings, and our moral teaching.

-John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851)

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