The advantage that tragic poetry has over historical narrative seems to lie in the way individual deeds are portrayed: they are enacted. The confrontation of Angelo by Isabella in the second act of Measure for Measure, culminating in her speech against “man, proud man,” does something far better than naming the heroine’s courage, it invites us to embody that courage, first in our hearts by thrilling to the speech as performed, then by speaking it ourselves (not merely saying the speech, but performing it with proper emphasis and emotion), and, crucially, by making it one of the instances by which we locate the mean and the excellence that is the virtue itself so that it can be accessed as a guide for our own action. History at its best, however, can accomplish much the same function as dramatic poetry, and John Henry Newman’s Church of the Fathers does just that.
The work was originally published serially in the 1830s in the pages of the British Critic, and later collated, edited, and to a degree refashioned by Newman after his conversion. The Fathers of the fourth century were to Newman models of theological seriousness and of heroic sanctity whose example promised to help the Church of England regain its apostolic character. Newman warned his reader that the Church of the Fathers contained mere “sketches,” whose “form and character” he qualified as “polemical.” Yet he was just as clearly at pains to avoid offending his reader’s sense of how a good story ought to be told as he was eager to put before them such puzzling topics as clerical celibacy and the warfare between the saints and demons. Not only would a careful telling of the story of the saints help to diffuse criticism and to discourage scoffing, it would also make the saints more available as models to imitate. Newman explained that the “frankness” that he would employ in depicting the “lingering imperfections” of the saints would “surely make us love them more, without leading us to reverence them the less, and act as a relief to the discouragement and despondency which may come over those who, in the midst of much error and sin, are always striving to imitate them.” It was in this spirit that he wrote the first four of the ten chapters which eventually made up The Church of the Fathers, on Saints Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen.
Taken together, these chapters paint a sort of dual portrait of the two friends and saints against the backdrop of what Newman called the “drama in three acts” of the Evangelization of the Roman Empire, the rise and growth of the Arian heresy, and the overrunning of the Empire by the barbarians. It was in the second of these three acts that Basil and Gregory played out their roles as “instruments of Providence in repairing and strengthening” the Church. They were builders and rulers, but unlikely ones, because, as Newman explained, they were not indomitable leaders of the stamp of Ambrose or Athanasius, but instead were like “the retired and thoughtful student . . . chastening his soul in secret, raising it to high thought and single-minded purpose, and when at length called into active life, conducting himself with firmness, guilelessness, zeal like a flaming fire, and all the sweetness of purity and integrity.” The form that Newman gave to his narrative of the two saints was that of the tragi-comedy, like Corneille’s Cinna, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, or, perhaps, Austen’s Emma. The stakes in the drama are high, the possibility of a tragic ending is real, but, at long last, virtue is rewarded, if in a surprising, characteristically Christian way. Basil is the lead character, Gregory his counterpart and indeed foil. The story is one of the tragic parting of friends and the Providential resolution of their difficulties.
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Basil, his resolve steeled through successive conflicts with the Imperial administration, Arian and Arianizing bishops, and even with his paternal uncle, is shown to have been a man of principle and integrity; his conflict with Gregory—one of his oldest and dearest friends—was to a degree unavoidable. Their story, in other words, had the makings of a tragedy. With the single-mindedness of a general organizing a campaign, Basil had insisted upon Gregory’s appointment to the episcopacy, but his friend was unsuited to the task and retired from the fray. Their friendship foundered upon the consequent misunderstanding, and although they did see one another once again before Basil’s death, their joyful camaraderie in the service of the Gospel had come to an end. Yet after Basil’s death, “Basil’s spirit, as it were, came into [Gregory], and within four months of it he had become a preacher of the Catholic faith in an heretical metropolis, had formed a congregation, had set apart a place for orthodox worship, and had been stoned by the populace.”
Newman masterfully portrayed the difference in temperament that seems to have been the deepest cause of the “melancholy crisis of estrangement” of the two saints, choosing a letter of Gregory’s to Basil to illustrate that difference. The more retiring saint explained to his friend the lesson he had learned from their dispute, a lesson learned not without effort: “Well, play the man, be strong, turn everything to your own glory, as rivers suck up the mountain torrent, thinking little of friendship or intimacy, compared with high aims and piety, and disregarding what the world will think of you for all this, being the property of the Spirit alone; while, on my part, so much shall I gain from this your friendship, not to trust in friends, nor to put anything above God.” Abandonment to Divine Providence, then, is the hard lesson that Gregory learned, and that we must too.
To those familiar with the subsequent course of the Oxford Movement and Newman’s sermon on “The Parting of Friends,” his account of the end of the friendship between Basil and Gregory will remind them that his collegiate life at Oxford had already included a sufficient number of tensions and struggles to teach him real lessons about the importance of forbearance. It seems a real and significant blessing of the communion of saints—and of histories that enliven our sense of that communion—that we wayfarers can find consolation in their sufferings and trials.
Newman’s treatment of Basil and Gregory is a dramatic narrative, a story of virtues and vices, heroes and villains, conflict and resolution, and through it all, of human character revealed by words and deeds. What Newman the historian accomplished with this passage was indeed to reconstruct the past as it actually happened, because the past, like the present, is at its heart a spiritual drama, in which each and every one of us fights (or fails to fight) to conquer self and to serve God. The tools that he used in his sketches of Basil and Gregory were the same tools that he had forged as a student, tutor, and preacher at Oxford. From the close reading and discussion of the plays of Sophocles, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and the Old and New Testaments, Newman had gained a habitual cast of mind in which the human good is both an attractive and a threatened ideal, dynamically sought and imperfectly gained by historical actors and by ourselves. He carried this cast of mind into the writing of history.
May it be said that Newman’s Church of the Fathers is a kind of retort to Aristotle’s claim that tragedy is more philosophical than history? Aristotle had thus privileged the poet’s work because it presents the universal aspects of human action shorn of extraneous matter. Yet does anything stop the historian from accomplishing the same end of offering materials for reflection upon the drama that is human life? The historian, after all, does enjoy the advantage of dealing with human actions that have actually been chosen and completed. Much like Jane Austen, whose works he admired, Newman displayed tremendous care in the exercise of his judgment of character. Noticing the danger of attempting to adjudicate between two saints, he declared that he was merely “reviewing their external conduct,” that is, exercising his judgment upon their words and deeds, not those internal dispositions that are the subject to scrutiny incomparably higher than that of any historian or poet.