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George Eliot's Ethics

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Spinoza's Ethics

Translated by George Eliot

Edited by Claire Carlisle 

Princeton Univertiy Press, pp.384, $26.95

“Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped up small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve it up hot in feeble English, when not required.” George Eliot prepared the way for her literary career by throwing acid on popular women writers of the 1850s. In “Silly Novels of Lady Novelists,” Eliot lacerates three fantasies of philosophical superheroines: Laura Gay, Compensation, and Rank and Beauty. Her anonymous review has outlasted these long-forgotten novels. Some feminists accuse Eliot of condescending to women who write for women—disparaging “chick lit”—and even starting a “catfight” to gain the attention of a male audience. (Our lingo belies any comfort we might take in living in more enlightened times.) All this leaves more than a scratch on the author of Middlemarch. Marian Evans was taking a risk in 1856 when she turned from philosophical translation to write the classic novels of “George Eliot.” Perhaps her tirade against silly “mind-and-millinery” novels, as she called them, suggests a prick of self-doubt. After all, Evans was about to create philosophical heroines of her own. And if her learning could no doubt put the anonymous author of Laura Gay to shame, nonethelesssuch accusations can backfire. An older Eliot shows us an unforgettable example when the pedantic Causabon accuses the better-read, more talented Will Ladislaw of “sciolism.” On the other hand, Eliot does not write philosophical treatises in novelistic form. Her novels just as often hold a brief for common sense. The narrator of Middlemarch, for example, describes human beliefs as “natural growths” that evolve beyond any systematic confinements. But perhaps this is only the mature Eliot who, after a decade of writerly success, is confident that poets have insights into the emotional life of nations that elude those of any philosopher or savant. Who was Marian Evans before she became George Eliot? An important piece of the puzzle is now available: her unpublished translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Clare Carlisle has done the great service of preparing Evans’s translation of the Ethics, the first complete version in English, for publication—and only two hundred years behind schedule. In 1859, Spinoza was already becoming the central point of interest in modern philosophy, and not only by Matthew Arnold’s lights. He would remain un-Englished for another quarter century. Despite rising interest in Spinoza, Evans’s letters hint at “severely practical reasons” for her “particular wish” not to be known as the translator of the Ethics. Professor Carlisle’s illuminating introductory essay speculates that Evans’s overnight literary success that same year gave her reasons to mothball her translation. Not only did the sales of Adam Bede alleviate her need for the £75 offered by the publisher, but Evans had a new interest in concealing the identity of George Eliot. We can understand how the indignation in “Silly Novels of Lady Novelists” was deeply personal for Evans. If anyone is an English philosophical superheroine of the 1850s, it is Marian Evans; her résumé is at least as impressive as those of Harriet Taylor Mill and Harriet Martineau. But unlike the silly lady novelists’ philosophical superheroines who are comme il faut in the best social circles, the eminent Victorians did not hold Evans in universal esteem. Quite the contrary. Her father almost threw her out of his home for religious dissent. (Here she has a personal connection with the Jewish excommunicate Spinoza.) John Chapman took credit for her work at the radical Westminster Review—where “Silly Novels of Lady Novelists” appeared—and had an affair with Evans while she lived in his (and his wife’s) home. She left in tears. Soon afterwards she came, like Harriet Taylor, to love and live with a man who was not her husband: George Henry Lewes. A mari complaisant with whom Evans lived in concubinage, it was Lewes who negotiated with the publishers, demanding £75 for “his” translation of the Ethics. Severely practical, Evans understood the disadvantages of taking credit for her own scholarly work. Respectable Victorian women, she realized, did not squander their youth owlishly translating German higher criticism, much less shack up with the men—some more well-intentioned than others—who could provide access to the world of letters. Our #MeToo generation will easily detect the ways she was likely exploited and victimized, and in ways that continue to afflict women philosophers today. If Evans was exasperated by the fantastically charmed life of Laura Gay, who can really blame her? Evans first encountered Spinoza when she was twenty-three, through the Rosehill Circle of Coventry freethinkers who met in the home of Charles and Caroline Bray, a group which at one time or another included Martineau, Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, and—for a brief visit in 1848—Ralph Waldo Emerson. A core member of the circle and the late Coleridge’s physician, Robert Brabant, gave her a copy of the Tractatus theologico-politicus in 1843. At this time, Evans was translating another book that was said to have been forged in hell: David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus. (When Robert Evans threatened to throw his daughter out, it was not for village atheism.) At sixty-two, Dr. Brabant saw himself as Evans’s second father—he called her “Deutera,” his second daughter—but the physician’s blind wife saw there was more to this relationship, and turned her out. This is the first of Evans’s relationships with men whom she found intellectually attractive. Eliot scholars draw parallels from this embarrassing episode to Dorothea’s infatuation with Casaubon in Middlemarch. With her strong intellectual constitution, Evans is able to imbibe a powerful distillation of Spinoza’s thought. But she remains sober. This is a difficult feat. Even today, as Spinoza increasingly attracts intense and highly specialized philosophical attention, the fact that there are so many Spinozas testifies to the truth of an observation that Coleridge made long ago: “I never yet knew… a single person whom Spinoza had ever converted to his way of thinking; but I know a half-dozen at least who convert Spinoza to theirs!” Coleridge never met Evans, but this would not have mattered: Spinoza never converted her to his way of thinking. Yet, as Professor Carlisle shows us in her introductory essay, Evans understood Spinoza well. A translation of Spinoza was one thing, Evans realized, but as she told Charles Bray in 1849, what the English needed was a “true estimate” of his system. She did not believe that her translation work gave her a deeper understanding of Spinoza’s thought. Yet she had one. Evans did not share the Romantic enthusiasm for Spinoza, exuded at one time or another by Coleridge, the Shelleys, and Lewes. But neither did she entirely follow James Anthony Froude’s often-emulated attempt to domesticate Spinoza by accommodating his ideas to English common sense. The younger brother of Hurrell Froude, of Oxford Movement fame, he had written of his despair of Christianity in The Nemesis of Faith, a novel that Evans admired. While Evans found much to commend in Froude’s 1855 article on Spinoza in the Westminster Review, she disagreed with his conclusion that Spinoza was a “plain, practical person.” Pantheism is a byword, however misleading, for Spinoza’s most infamous argument: “there can be no substance besides God.” Evans’s translation is more matter-of-fact than the Edwin Curley’s standard rendition of Proposition 14, Demonstration: “except God, no substance can be, or consequently, be conceived.” (While Evans’s translation is too inconsistent to pass scholarly muster today, it reads as well as the Ethics possibly can.) Both Lewes and Froude already understood, like Goethe and Schelling, that Spinoza did not simply mean that God is the world. Spinoza’s God is “naturing nature” as well as “natured nature,” and always infinite causal potential beyond the actuated world. Spinoza is no pantheist, then, but a panentheist who holds the view that everything is in God. (Ironically, Panentheismus was originally coined as a contradistinction to Spinoza’s pantheism.) Professor Carlisle praises Spinoza for reintroducing Saint Paul’s understanding of a God in Whom we live and move and have our being, and recovering an older panentheism lost during the Reformation, with its focus upon divine judgment. She also praises Froude for recognizing that the “world” for Spinoza is only one of the infinite expressions of an impersonal “God.” Froude is critical of Spinoza’s determinism; as for so many others, he is concerned that the denial of free will erodes any basis of moral responsibility. Yet Evans’s reservations are different, I think, and center upon the practicality of Spinoza’s philosophy. For Evans, the problem is that Spinoza’s ideas about God, self, and world simply cannot be part of our practical lives. What would it mean to see the world through Spinoza’s eyes? Voltaire thought that Pierre Bayle offered the decisive parody. If nothing is outside of God, Bayle quips, then the result of a battle can only be described as something like “God modified into Germans has killed God modified into ten thousand Turks.” For Spinoza, the knowledge of causes is the Roman road to the knowledge of God. He arrays philosophy against “theologians”—invariably political theologians—who impress our flaws and limitations upon us so that we despair of our collective, godlike potential, and accept their control and remediation. However, if we understand what determines all our actions, and everyone else’s, we thus empower ourselves to the maximum extent possible. Spinoza thinks we experience empowerment as joy, and disempowerment as sadness. The philosopher who knows God, or the causes of things, discovers all the joy in the world, and so learns to love the world. Nietzsche is right to recognize a predecessor in Spinoza, another teacher of amor fati, the love of fate that embraces our life in all respects. Only Spinoza still calls this “God.” In Spinoza’s world, tragedy is only in view for the short-sighted, while the “wise man” sees a lovable whole. Emil Fackenheim argues with good reason that Spinoza’s God is intolerable to contemplate modified into the “Muselmänner” starved and killed in the Nazis’ death camps. But Evans did not need the Shoah to find Spinozism incompatible with a world pervaded by tragedy. Pace Nietzsche, this was not because she remained in thrall to any Christian theology of sin and redemption. From her childhood reading the ancients in the library of Arbury Hall (where her father was property manager) down to her late letters, Evans steadfastly maintains that we share the same basic experience of life as the tragic Greeks. There are some fates that none can love. The narrator of Middlemarch admits that we must share the fashions of our time, but only to the extent that we cannot “always” be classical. The idea that some lives are not worth living is not a Christian idea. Nietzsche argues that Eliot fails to realize that a Christian moral culture will not long survive the eclipse of Christianity. But Evans’s tragic sense of life is the part of Eliot that never was Christian, and a sense in which Eliot is more Greek than the notorious German classicist. Spinoza’s philosophy is impractical, for Evans, so long as the world contains tragic possibilities. The world is a web of causes, most of them obscure to us, the hidden pathways of feeling and thought that for Eliot lead up to every moment of action. The narrator of Middlemarch is Spinozist enough to admit that “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” But Professor Carlisle is right to insist that the Ethics offers no skeleton key to Eliot’s novels. We see the full measure of Evans’s philosophical genius, instead, as a sympathetic critic of Spinoza. For she finds reasons to doubt that scientific knowledge—even that of the rare “wise man” whom Spinoza describes at the end of the Ethics—can dispel religious superstition and transform the world into an enlightened, progressive, and democratic society. In the 1850s, there was no better representative of Spinoza’s progressive hope, in its broadest contours, than Herbert Spencer. Spencer tried to win Evans around the time her affair with Lewes began, and he was touchy about reports of this love affair for the rest of his life. He failed to woo her philosophically also. Nancy Paxton shows how Daniel Deronda rejects Spencerian notions of progress, especially when Deronda accuses Lilly of mistaking tendencies for laws, and failing to account for the mysterious parts of the human soul that resist improvement, or which for some of us seal lives of personal tragedy. We can always be doomed by the unexpected. “There are characters,” the narrator of Middlemarch reminds us, “which are continually creating collisions and nodes for themselves in dramas which nobody is prepared to act with them.” A John Raffles can always appear. The world is composed of more authors and novels than we are aware of, and it is hubris to think we ever grasp the master narrative composing them all. If the mysterious, the tragic, and the unexpected remain ineradicable aspects of modern life, then Spinoza’s God can only appear in the guise of chance. The narrator of Silas Marner argues that the man who loses his religion will revert to the infallible worship of chance: favorable chance is “the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.” This is a riposte to the intellectual love of Spinoza’s God no less than a hedge against Nietzsche’s love of fate. If the future is unpredictable, we can only embrace the immanent world in the love of chance, not fate. And tragic possibilities cannot be excluded. There is a strain of Victorian common sense that is already (to employ a current academic buzz­word) “post-secular.” Evans credits the influence that Thomas Carlyle, at least in his earlier historical writings, had upon the mind of her age. The narrator of Silas Marner echoes his post-atheist second look at the value of religion: “The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.” When he poo-poos “little moralistic females à la Eliot,” Nietzsche reduces her appreciation of religion to its moral function. But it seems to me Eliot is describing the consolation that the gods of the hearth provide, that Spinoza’s impersonal world-God cannot. A tragic world requires them still. The gods of the hearth define peoples no less than persons, Evans thinks. A volkisch Evans celebrates the resistance of the practical peasant to “intellectual proletarians” like Spinoza, Nietzsche, and (for that matter) me. In 1856, the same year she published “Silly Novels of Lady Novelists” and finished her translation of the Ethics, Evans contributed a glowing review of Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl to the Westminster Review. Riehl was a folklorist who traced the intimate connections between the natural German landscape and the German people. Like Riehl, Evans celebrated rustic common sense, and appreciated how difficult it is to dislodge. Timothy the “wiry old labourer” in Middlemarch is a fine example. He presents the well-intentioned Caleb Garth (as he would even the greatest orator) with the difficulty known “to any person attempting in dark times and unassisted by miracles” of reasoning with “rustics,” who have arrived at an “undeniable truth… through a hard process of feeling, and can let it fall like a giant’s club on your neatly carved argument for a social benefit which they do not feel.” The third part of Spinoza’s Ethics, “On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions,” fails to provide the basis for a social science. Because philosophy fails to map all of the hidden pathways of feeling and thought, Evans advises us, some undeniable truths are only learned by encounters with hardship, misfortune, and tragedy. Philosophy is no substitute for these hard processes of feeling. It is remarkable that Evans rejects Spinoza without being a Christian. What resists Spinoza is her tragic sensibility, her classicism, or the common sense that appears not only throughout her writing, but also in her wide reading. She is sympathetic to Christianity, not only as a cultural and political institution, beating Arnold to Matthew Arnoldism, and showing her work. She gently lampoons Arthur Brooke for reducing religion simply to “the dread of a Hereafter.” Christian faith and hope address the tragic dread of the Here, directly, without promising that a proper understanding of our world dispels tragedy. Hence the narrator of Middlemarch again, now mustering indignation on behalf of Christianity: “What right have such men to represent Christianity, as if it were an institution for getting up idiots genteelly?” Even if she did not share their faith, Eliot shares with two of her great philosophical contemporaries, Saint John Henry Newman and Søren Kierkegaard, a desire to ratify the hard-won beliefs of common people. After reading Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Eliot confesses a “close fellowship” with the saint’s “spiritual needs and burthens,” and even memorizes some of his sermons. (As an accomplished scholar of Kierkegaard, Professor Carlisle is in a unique position to appreciate Evans as a quiet critic of Spinoza.) While Newman and Kierkegaard sympathized deeply with the awe of nineteenth-century Christians, Eliot understood their dread. A decisive answer to Spinoza appears in these literary philosophers of the mid-nineteenth century. It is no longer fashionable to understand the God-world relationship as the central question in the history of philosophy, along the lines of Leslie Stephen’s English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. But if we stubbornly persist, Spinoza’s near-God-world-identity and the near-absolute transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God are clear contraries. These two towering protestant theologians—Spinoza may not be a Christian, but he is certainly a protestant critic of Catholic political theology—are like the poles, and so much modish German philosophical clothing hangs on the line between Amsterdam and Copenhagen. If Spinoza most emphatically thinks philosophy should take the view sub specie aeternitatis—“a mode of thought,” Evans translates, “that is eternal”—then Kierkegaard most decisively wrenches philosophy back to Socrates’ concern with common opinions. The keenest critics, such as Iris Murdoch, set the novels of Eliot apart for a similar reason: she is interested in chance, and in the diversity and divergence of common opinion, so much so that her characters act as if they are in stories of their own composition. If we take Evans seriously, and allow her to speak to us, she can remind us how our prejudices are shaped by our culture. We cannot avoid Spinoza, as the emblem of a world that science can understand completely. Yet Evans shows us that even if ours is no longer a Christian world, it will never be entirely Spinoza’s. The world with all its hidden pathways is a gift—the Danish meaning (“poison”) points us to the double significance of the etymon. It shall always contain mystery and tragedy, and this will continue to shape the emotional lives of nations, even if all the philosophers and savants deny this. The ethics of the Ethics, in Parts III and IV, have never garnered the attention of the shocking “pantheism” and determinism of Parts I and II. But ethically, Evans aligns more perfectly with Spinoza, the first philosopher to step “beyond good and evil.” More subtly than Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, Spinoza collapses Saint Paul’s admonition that we love the good and hate the evil. Love is good, hate is evil. If the world is God, then everything in the world is to be embraced and loved, and the only thing to hate is hate itself. In this way, Spinoza is the original author of liberalism’s prime directive to avoid cruelty, identified by Newman (as gentlemanliness) and more fulsomely in recent times by Judith Shklar. Evans takes up Spinoza’s moral project of expanding our sympathies until we hate nothing and no one. At the end of Middlemarch, the reader is invited to reflect how unhistoric acts of kindness, such as Dorothea’s, are the stuff of the growing goodness of the world. But even so, Evans has reservations. For she thinks a practical ethics will always require a few simple moral guidelines, “a few plain truths,” with which to “object to what is wrong,” as Arthur Brooke tells Reverend Farebrother. If understanding the world is the path to ethical improvement, for Spinoza, what goes wrong with human beings? Simply put, envy. Envy is “nothing else than hatred, considered as disposing man to rejoice in the evil that befalls another and to be sorry for the good that befalls another.” As in the scriptures, envy is the root of evil. Seeing others as obstacles to our happiness (rather than probing what causes them to be so) is the “hallucination”—Evans makes an interesting translation choice of imaginatio in Part III, Proposition 26—that what is evil for or hateful to another is good for or lovable to us. Spinoza thinks we are taught from “our earlier years” to become envious. These are Spinoza’s only comments about education and children in the Ethics, and they seem to have stuck with his translator: “It is the practice of parents to excite their children to virtue solely by the stimulus of envy and vanity.” Evans considers inducements to envy and vanity an especially crippling aspect of women’s education, no doubt because she reads Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller alongside Spinoza. This appears most clearly in Rosamond Vincy’s “delicious sense” that she attracts “envious homage.” Mrs. Lemon’s school for girls teaches its pupils to arouse envy. Rosamond is more self-aware than Laura Gay, the eponymous philosophical superheroine of the “silly novel,” when she innocently makes men jealous by quoting Cicero, Horace, and Livy from memory. But what other opportunities are there for the empowerment of the nineteenth-century woman, apart from outshining her rivals, and making others rival one another for her affections? Writing novels, Evans points out. A world of opportunity can solve the problem of envy, Spinoza thinks, for in it our close rivals no longer appear to be insurmountable obstacles to our happiness. But as Susan James and other Spinoza scholars have pointed out, though Spinoza is the first modern proponent of democracy in the philosophical canon, he never considers its moral effects upon women. Evans sees, however, that denying women opportunities threatens to make them particularly vain and envious. She finds the cause of silliness from ladies and lady novelists here, under Spinoza’s nose. Robert Wyllie is an assistant professor of political economy at Ashland University.

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