Trilling and Newman, on the same page
New York Review Books recently published a new edition of Lionel Trilling’s great 1950 collection, The Liberal Imagination. In an essay about the novel, titled “Art and Fortune,” Trilling writes, “Where misunderstanding serves others as an advantage, one is helpless to make oneself understood.” A simple and obvious truth given perfect expression. It is a kind of corollary to Newman’s famous observation: “When men understand what each other mean, they see for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.” Taken by itself, this sounds like a warrant for resignation and silence: either people basically agree, or else they don’t and never will. As a convert, Newman knew from experience that people could change their minds — and that this change was not always just a matter of discovering what they already knew. But if conversion was always possible, it was never easy; it always had to overcome the twin inertias of sloth and pride. Something in us wants to misunderstand whatever might knock us off the perch of our intellectual or spiritual complacence. Only grace can overcome our natural resistance to truths that threaten our settled self-understanding. Sometimes grace does this by overpowering our skepticism; just as often, though, it works by redirecting our skepticism against our own hidden preserves of credulity.