I mentioned the dangers of taking a sentence or two of Newman's out of context last week, citing the example of the "live is to change" quote. On Saturday, I found this example, in which the author of an article not only takes a quotation from Newman out of context, but also, because he uses a secondary source (not Newman's letters, collected so meticulously by Oxford University Press in 22 volumes) repeats an error from that secondary source. The citation is used in the context of a review of a book about Intelligent Design, and discovering the context of the quotation includes finding out what the ellipsis left out.
Here is the quotation:
In the end, Darwin’s Doubt boils down to a fundamentally weak argument — the argument from personal incredulity about the origin and evolution of life on earth. As John Henry Newman wrote in 1872: “I have not insisted on the argument from design. . . . To tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for 40 years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.”
Here are the first problems--chronology and sourcing--which the author of this article discovers:
I’d now like to pass to what Mr. Farrell has to say about John Henry Newman (who was later made a Cardinal) [and is now a Blessed of the Catholic Church]. His first error is one of chronology: Newman did not write the words quoted by Farrell in 1872, but in a letter to a Mr. Brownlow, dated April 13, 1870, quoted in Volume 2, Chapter 28 of Wilfrid Ward’s Life of Cardinal Newman. Why does the date matter? Actually, it’s quite informative. It is highly unlikely that two authors would independently make the same idiosyncratic error in their writings. Thus when I discover that Professor Michael Ruse, in an article he wrote in 2007, makes exactly the same error in chronology – in his article, Ruse refers to “a letter written in 1872″ by Newman, about “his seminal philosophical work, A Grammar of Assent,” and I can find no other source on the Internet making a similar mistake – I am forced to conclude that Farrell copied his information directly from Ruse’s article, without bothering to check his sources. (I hope Mr. Farrell will not accuse me of resorting to an “argument from personal incredulity” in making this inference.) But there’s more. Mr. Farrell’s quote from Newman’s contains an ellipsis … and that got me wondering what he’d left out.
Then the author, Vincent Torley, finds the entire letter and cites it:
‘The Oratory: April 13th, 1870.
‘My dear Brownlow, — It is very pleasant to me to hear what you say about my new book—which has given me great anxiety. I have spoken of the argument for the being of a God from the visible Creation at page 70 paragraph 1. “Order implies purpose”;. I have not insisted on the argument from design, because I am writing for the 19th Century, by which, as represented by its philosophers, design is not admitted as proved. And to tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for 40 years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design. You will say that the 19th Century does not believe in conscience either — true — but then it does not believe in a God at all. Something I must assume, and in assuming conscience I assume what is least to assume, and what most will admit. Half the world knows nothing of the argument from design — and, when you have got it, you do not prove by it the moral attributes of God — except very faintly. Design teaches me power, skill, and goodness, not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.’ (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Now, I'm not ready to turn this blog over to a discussion of Intelligent Design, but I am ready to note that it's so dangerous not to check sources and try to go back to the original source, especially when using secondary sources. Or, as Mr. Torley so succinctly states:
If there is a moral to be drawn from the above, it is this: never quote from eminent people without checking what they actually had to say.