GEORGE ELIOT: GOD & HUMANISM
George Eliot’s exploration of religion and morality in her work
‘Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles around that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.’
During the nineteenth century, Britain was going through a process of secularization
, largely, one could claim, as a result of Charles Darwin
’s work The Origin of Species
, published in 1859
. Whilst neither attacking religion directly, nor providing an alternative explanation for the universe, Darwin’s work did provide a far more likely scenario, in evolution
, for the development of man and his fellow creatures than that laid out in Genesis
. Thus the philosopher
s of the day had to meet the challenge, in terms of explaining humanity’s role in a possibly God
-less world. George Eliot herself had a role to play in such discussions, partly due to her translation of the works of the likes of Strauss
, but also because of her writing in the ‘Westminster Review’, alongside such luminaries as Thomas Huxley
, and her partner, G. H. Lewes
. Brought up in a highly evangelical
household, Eliot eventually lost her faith and could be claimed to have grappled with religious and ethical issues throughout her work; indeed, it has often been suggested that Middlemarch
was the first secular
novel written. However, it could be argued that Eliot was not an atheist
, nor even a true humanist
– for her novels and critical works explore a wide range of philosophies, even alluding to as modern a concept as existentialism
. Therefore, one can argue that George Eliot was not only the greatest Victorian
novelist, but also an important part of the philosophical debate of her age.
When Charles Darwin wrote
It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the ‘plan of creation,’ ‘unity of design,’ &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.
he was quietly asserting that an ignorance of the prevailing scientific research
from the Church
was simply not good enough. This, of course, was at a time when science was changing the face of Britain: the Industrial Revolution
had created a manufacturing industry, sprawling towns and cities and the development of a transport infrastructure, the like of which had never been seen before. The Methodist
movement was attempting to take religion to all the disenchanted poor of the nation, at a time when the Church of England
and politicians remained preoccupied with the role of Catholic
s in public life. Meanwhile, the end of the eighteenth century had seen the emergence of the Enlightenment
movement in France
, pioneered by the likes of Descartes
, which attempted to place greater emphasis on the individuality and rationale of man – as well as his great achievements. A direct link, can therefore, be drawn from all of these contextual issues at the start of the nineteenth century, and the later development of romantic
thought, all of which Eliot was associated with.
One of Eliot’s first pieces of work was her translation of Strauss’s ‘The Life of Jesus
’ (1846), which argued from a logical positivist
view-point that the Bible
should be laid open to empirical
and historical rigour.
Having shown the possible existence of the mythical and the legendary in the gospels … it remains in conclusion to inquire how their actual presence may be recognized in individual cases?
The mythus presents two phases; in the first place it is not history; in the second it is fiction, the product of the particular mental tendency of a certain community. These two phases afford the one a negative, the other a positive criterion, by which the mythus is to be recognized.
This process of demythologizing
is very similar to that later suggested by Tillich
, during the twentieth century, and Strauss appears to draw similar conclusions – that the role of the scriptures, and indeed religion, is one of metaphor
, to aid us in both our moral judgements and our understanding of our own spirituality. Eliot, herself, later went on to criticise many of the Church’s clerics (specifically in a piece entitled ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’) for preaching rather than enacting Christianity
, and espoused a role for the Church in which it was there to support
and encourage its flock, rather than judge or condemn
it – and this can be seen in the characters of Irwine, Farebrother and Kenn in Adam Bede
and The Mill on the Floss
, respectively. Irwine is cited by Adam Bede as not ‘much of a preacher’, but his ‘influence in his parish was a more wholesome one than that of the zealous
Mr Ryde’; Farebrother admitted to doubts about his profession, but was of great help to Fred Vincy and Mary Garth; while Dr Kenn was the only man in St. Ogg’s who did not judge Maggie Tulliver over her conduct with Stephen Guest.
The nineteenth century also saw widespread interest amongst philosophers in the idea of subjectivity
was very much against this, and argued for an objective
‘truth’ which we all grow closer to, as society becomes more ‘humane, civilised and fair.’ However, Feuerbach broke with such a rationalist way of looking at religion – believing, much like Freud
, that religion was a human construct, enabling us to deal better with dissatisfaction in our own lives.
‘We have shown that the substance and object of religion is altogether human; we have shown that divine wisdom is human wisdom; that the secret of theology is anthropology; that the absolute mind is the so-called finite subjective mind. But religion is not conscious that its elements are human; on the contrary, it places itself in opposition to the human, or at least it does not admit that its elements are human.’
Therefore, it is little surprise that Eliot might regard the role of religion as one of fulfilling a human need, rather than chastising humanity for apparent guilt and sins, hence her famous statement, ‘with the ideas of Feuerbach I everywhere agree.’ One area, in particular, that her work and life closely parallels Feuerbach’s philosophy is on the subject of marriage
, for he believed that:
… marriage – we mean, of course, marriage as the free bond of love – is sacred in itself, by the very nature of the union which is therein effected.
FOOTNOTE: Yes, only as the free bond of love; for a marriage the bond of which is merely an external restriction, not the voluntary, contented self-restriction of love, in short, a marriage which is not spontaneously concluded, spontaneously willed, self-sufficing, is not a true marriage, and therefore not a truly moral marriage.
Eliot clearly took this to heart, not only in her relationship with Lewes, which was never legal
ly or social
ly acknowledged, but also in her writing of The Mill on the Floss, in which Maggie is torn between her ‘free bond of love’ with Stephen Guest, and her disgust at egoism
. Eventually this, as well as the judgements of the Christian people of St. Ogg’s, will lead to her disgrace, and ultimately her destruction. But this was undoubtedly a very real dilemma for Eliot, as well as her heroine – because for Eliot, egoism was the greatest sin
. Therefore, in Middlemarch she gave us the perfect portrait of the selfish egoist in Rosamond:
When he was gone, Rosamond left her chair and walked to the other end of the room, leaning when she got there against a chiffonniere, and looking out of the window wearily. She was oppress
ed by ennui, and by that dissatisfaction which in women’s minds is continually turning into a trivial jealousy, referring to no real claims, spring from no deeper passion than the vague exactingness of egoism, and yet capable of impelling action as well as speech.
However, Eliot’s distrust of egoism presented her with a problem in terms of her humanist beliefs, because of humanism’s Enlightenment origins, which emphasised man’s individualism
. For a start, we must distinguish between two different types of egoism – epistemological egoism
and moral egoism
. The former acknowledges that the world of each individual is ‘essentially mediated by his perceptions or ‘feelings’, while the latter urges us to be selfish in our choice of moral action. Eliot does not appear to have a problem with the former - Maggie Tulliver might be regarded as an epistemological egoist, while Captain Donnithorne is a moral one. Therefore, while she acknowledges this first type of egoism, she asks that we be aware of the bias
of our own perception
s and imaginings and counsels us to try and move beyond it, this Maggie does when she pulls away from Stephen at the last minute. Meanwhile, Peter Jones feels it is also the case with Dorothea Brooke:
She reached the view … that knowledge based upon experience undistorted by one’s imagination, enables one to understand others and to act aright; in such cases the course of action becomes self-evident, as if it were ‘chosen for the agent’.
Thus, this acceptance of reality would sit more comfortably with a humanist ideology, which states that, ‘humanity
is made up of beings with unique capabilities which should be recognised, nurtured and rejoiced in for their own sake.’
While the term ‘humanism’ was only coined in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Niethammer
, its origins date back much earlier: it is deeply rooted in both the Enlightenment and the Renaissance
, and its foundations could even be traced back to Ancient Greece
. It emphasises man’s development and artistic
achievements. Lydgate, therefore, could be regarded as a symbol of humanist ideology
– as he rejoices in scientific advancement and medical excellence. Humanists also believe in an objective morality, perhaps alluded to by Eliot when she talked of God, Immortality and Duty
and labelled the first as unbelievable, the second inconceivable and the third peremptory. However, there does appear to be some doubt amongst critics as to whether Eliot believed in an objective morality or not. Suzy Anger argues that she does, while Kerry McSweeny points to Eliot’s acceptance of Feuerbach’s views of a ‘subjective, humanised Christianity.’ In The Mill on the Floss she certainly appears to endorse a flexible, subjective morality
… moral judgements must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.
This is opposed to an objective, legalistic morality made up of maxims, which fail to take account of the ‘mysterious complexity of our life’. She goes onto attack the holders of such a view, for their laziness of thought, devoid of,
… patience, discrimination, impartiality, without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow feeling with all that is human.
Such a subjective view of morality and religion
, therefore, closely resembles Kierkegaard
’s model of existentialism that, like Eliot, rejects religion as an organised body, and Hegel’s assessment of it purely through reason
– instead believing it to be a matter of faith
. Similarly, they both reject the idea of morality as a series of maxims. Kierkegaard went onto say that,
It is perfectly true, isolated subjectivity is, in the opinion of the age, evil; but ‘objectivity’ as a cure is not one whit better. The only salvation is subjectivity, i.e. God as infinite compelling subjectivity.
Therefore, he believes that religion is a subjective choice, not based on historical facts or reason. This is what Strauss argued in his work ‘The Life of Jesus’. Newton, meanwhile, says that,
… for George Eliot it was the essential human content of religions and systems that was important and not their objective truth … this way of looking at religions and systems of thought differs markedly from the rationalist – Enlightenment tradition of thinking, which believed in objective truth.
This view of Eliot’s does not just differ from Enlightenment thinking, however, but also the accepted view of humanism, as already discussed. While, it would be a huge and unsustainable leap to then label her as an existentialist, especially given her rejection of an egoist philosophy, it does at least suggest that George Eliot, far from pigeon-holing herself into any accepted philosophical box, was actively pushing the boundaries of contemporary thought
Throughout her work George Eliot has explored questions of religion and morality – and this can be of little surprise, given her relationship with G. H. Lewes and her close association with Thomas Huxley, amongst others. Her agreement with Feuerbach, with regards to organised religion
, is alluded to in all three of the novels examined here, while her rejection of theistic belief
as something concrete and open to empirical examination would appear to go hand in hand with the works of Strauss, whom she translated, and therefore some of the philosophies of Kierkegaard, also. While it remains unclear as to whether she accepted the general humanist view of an objective morality, it would appear, again from her novels and her association with Feuerbach, that she found a subjective view far more satisfactory. Also her disgust at the selfishness of egoism means that she could never be labelled an existentialist, but some of the parallels between her ideals and Kierkegaard’s would suggest that her views were not as humanist as some biographers and critics would like to paint. In fact, George Eliot appears to be a woman incredibly difficult to pin down wholly to any one philosophy. Therefore, instead of regarding her novels as a series of moral assertions, it would perhaps make more sense to view them as an attempt to address questions of religion and morality. This is a feat with which she appeared to have little difficulty, given her insightful understanding of the philosophy of the day.
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Penguin Classics, 1985)
The Oxford Companion to English Literature ed. Margaret Drabble (Oxford University Press 2000)
Adam Bede by George Eliot (Penguin Classics, 1985)
Middlemarch by George Eliot (Penguin Classics, 2003)
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (Penguin Classics, 2003)
Selected Critical Writings by George Eliot (Oxford University Press, 1992)
Philosophy and the Novel by Peter Jones (Oxford University Press, 1975)
Philosophy of Religion for A Level by Jordan, Lockyer and Tate (Nelson Thrones, 2002)
The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot ed. George Levine (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Middlemarch by Kerry McSweeny (George Allen & Unwin, 1984)
George Eliot: Romantic Humanist by K. M. Newton (Macmillan, 1981)
New Casebooks: ‘Middlemarch’ ed. John Peck (Macmillan, 1992)
Existentialism and Humanism by Jean Paul Sartre, trans. Philip Mairet (Methuen Publishing, 1974)
Literature in Context ed. Rick Rylance and Judy Simmons (Palgrave, 2001)
Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Tanner (Oxford University Press, 2000)