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Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Cornelis J. Schilt

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Apologia Pro Vita Sua

"The Thinker" (1900), a 208.3 x 106.7 cm oil on canvas by Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote his Apologia pro vita sua (1864), he had lived an eventful life, religiously and intellectually. From a prominent member of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Church, he converted to Roman Catholicism in his early forties and soon became one of the Church’s most notable apologists. Little did he know that the best was yet to come. Newman’s conversion was not a matter of instant awakening, or realization. It came rather gradually, accompanied by prolonged moments of doubt and pain. Confronted with the death of a dear old friend around the time of his conversion, he wrote:

He was in simple good faith.… I had expected that his last illness would have brought light to my mind, as to what I ought to do. It brought none. I made a note, which runs thus: “I sobbed bitterly over his coffin, to think that he left me still dark as to what the way of truth was, and what I ought to do in order to please God and fulfil his will.”

As a young academic and Anglican priest, Newman had been an ardent spokesman for the Anglican faith as a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, particularly through a series of tracts published in 1834. However, beginning in the late 1830s, his thinking and writing underwent a profound change, and he began to seriously consider Catholicism as a viable option. None of this came easily. Even before he formally converted, colleagues and friends cut ties; afterwards, even most of his family abandoned him. Yet Newman’s prime concern was not with his own pain and suffering: “my one great distress is the perplexity, unsettlement, alarm, scepticism, which I am causing to so many… I had for days a literal ache all around my heart; and from time to time all the complaints of the Psalmist seemed to belong to me.”

Newman became a great source of inspiration when I converted to Catholicism half a decade ago, out of a deep desire for spirituality and unity within the worldwide church. He never turned his back on the church he left and remained in close contact with many an Anglican friend—relationships sometimes restored after decades. I personally remain grateful for the Calvinist upbringing I received, as it taught me to deeply love and study Scripture. Here too a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism would be desirable.

Earlier this year, Newman acquired an even greater meaning when I experienced a second conversion: a political conversion. In my heart, I have always been a conservative. In particular when it comes to matters of faith and family, of life and death, of aesthetic, of literature, and of pedagogy, I am and remain deeply traditional. Yet little of this comes to the fore when one glances over my public profile. As an academic, a historian of knowledge-making in the early modern period, I currently research and teach at a ‘free’ university. Before that, I was at Oxford, at what is possibly its most ‘diverse’ and ‘liberal’ college. Until very recently, my Twitter-sphere consisted primarily of liberal academics, and the discussions I was involved in revolved around matters far removed from the political domain. I thought it was possible to live in the shadows, to refrain from actively partaking in debates on socio-political, moral, and ethical issues. It felt as if I somehow managed to dodge all bullets related to Black Lives Matter, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, and issues like abortion and gender ideology. With every smile, I died a little. 

There were two very compelling reasons not to speak up. The first was a morbid fear of being found out and hurt. The second was a morbid doubt about the validity and worth of my own ideas and positions on these issues. Both of these were deeply personal, and deeply institutional. I grew up in an environment where standing out was considered a bad thing. Anyone with just an ounce more intelligence than average was considered a nuisance, or worse, a threat. Instead of learning to be proud of one’s capacities and abilities and work hard to make the most of one’s self, I was taught to keep quiet and to avoid ‘boasting’ or ‘showing off.’ 

Additionally, I never learned to properly appreciate the values of the tradition I grew up in. Low countries’ Christianity is slowly dying because the church has not realized that younger generations no longer blindly accept its customs and traditions. Instead of defining and legitimizing these valuable traditions, churches either throw them overboard to appease the never-satisfied or continue to navigate Scylla and Charybdis blindfolded, with predictable results. The church I grew up in was of the latter type, with little room for an intellectually curious young believer. Toss into the mix a close relative whose right-wing extremism made a mockery of all I considered valuable, and the resulting outcome of fear and doubt need not come as a surprise. 

On the institutional level, these personal reasons were exacerbated by a hostile climate towards everything I consider holy. There is nothing liberal about a ‘liberal’ college or university when it comes to opinions not considered ‘liberal.’ I abhor abortion, yet even bringing up the topic seems anathema. With LGBTQ+ rights everywhere, a discussion on the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, biologically defined, is out of order. Suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has more than one angle is akin to writing one’s resignation note. The worst amidst all of this is the passive-aggressive coercion not to bring up anything that might disturb the carefully cultivated peace. I hang my head in shame for giving in, at times even voicing something that could be considered support for the new totalitarianism, in order to save my skin and not to be found out. 

Over the years, I have doubted whether I should stay in academia. The opportunity to do relatively independent research and teach students about the foundations of modern science compelled me to obtain a doctorate in history of science and pursue an academic career. Yet the friction between the socio-political values of the institute and my own did not magically disappear. If anything, it is getting worse. 

When I first read about the ‘Equity Canoe’ meetings at Evergreen State College, I could scarcely believe it. When I saw the actual footage, it was even worse than I could have imagined. I thought that this was an aberration, a college gone wild, an outlier. I was wrong. The current academic climate is rapidly going the Evergreen route. Words like diversity, equity, and inclusion have become the newspeak of totalitarianism. Earlier this year, an academic whom I respect suggested that I had better not cooperate with another academic because of his ‘polarizing’ ideas; it might damage my reputation and prevent me from securing tenure. It felt like a moment of sheer relief, because I suddenly knew exactly what to do: cooperate. It opened up a world I never thought I would enter, due to the fears and doubts outlined above. That academic was Yoram Hazony; we met in person the next week, and the rest is history. 

Never again will I live by lies. I remain afraid, but no longer do I doubt the validity and relevance of my orthodox, conservative beliefs. I would rather be ostracized for the truth than hide in shame living a lie. I refuse to embrace an illiberal, totalitarian ‘liberalism’ based upon distorted versions of truth, justice, and history. As an intellectual and as a historian who specializes in exactly the period in which these distortions began to rear their ugly heads, I believe I have a duty to shout out that the emperor has no clothes. No more ‘fear and doubts,’ but a righteous ‘frygt og bæven’ (fear and trembling). Like Newman, I dread the perplexity, unsettlement, alarm, and scepticism that I will be causing to so many and the pain that I will experience. But never again will I live by lies.

If there is anything that history shows, it is the validity and justness of conservatism. Yet if there is anything conservatism needs, it is a deeper rooting in history. As we speak, history is being rewritten by liberal academics whose agenda is not to right past wrongs, but to wrong past rights. It is an agenda once more couched in the unholy trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the same sort of pseudo-historiography embraced by totalitarian regimes to control the narrative. As Orwell put it in 1984,

Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished?… Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

If anything, let us preserve for posterity the world as it was and strive for its rediscovery by generations to come.

Cornelis J. Schilt is a historian of knowledge, specializing in early modern history of science and scholarship. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and lives with his family in the Flemish countryside.