The Casuistry of George Eliot

George Eliot wrote in a letter to Dr. Payne in 1876, "My writing is simply a set of experiments in life--an endeavor to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of--what stores of motive...give promise of a better after which we may strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory" (Paris, preface). K. M. Newton calls her a philosophical novelist and explains: "...I mean not merely that certain ideas find expression in her fiction, or that her work reflects a particular philosophy, but that she uses her fiction as a means of thinking about philosophical and moral issues" (1). I agree with Newton's assessment wholeheartedly; George Eliot's fiction, her "experiments in life," were the "realistic" novels in which she worked out many of the moral dilemmas of her time. I also agree that Eliot was an original thinker who, though influenced by prominent scholars, wove any adopted strains of thought into her own unique vision. Tracing the threads of some of her adopted philosophical ideas is the goal of this paper, not only to facilitate a better understanding of the source and context of many of Eliot's most important ethical views, but to expand such an understanding to the culture in which she lived.

This paper explores the contributions of three philosophers to Eliot's work: Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Benedictus Spinoza. The first half of the paper is as thorough a summary as possible of the philosophies of each thinker. The second half attempts to discover some of these philosophical ideas embedded within certain themes in Eliot's fiction in three rough, and necessarily overlapping, areas: Eliot's vision of society and how it develops, her ideas regarding the nature of the interaction between society and the individual, and her views relating to ethical behavior, i.e., the moral responsibility of the individual and his relative potentials for spiritual freedom and growth.

George Eliot came into intimate contact with the theories of these three philosophers, through study and translation, before she began writing fiction in 1856. Eliot's translation of Strauss' Life of Jesus was published in 1846, and her translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity was published in 1854. Willey asserts that in the eight years between these translations of two of the "Higher Critics", the first solidifying her rejection of Christianity and the second providing a humanistic substitute, George Eliot was first exposed to Comte's writings; his Positive Philosophy appeared in 1853 while she was working on Feuerbach (228). I agree with Willey that the similarity of the two philosopher's views must have struck Eliot strongly. Though Eliot had also worked on translating Spinoza as early as 1843, she worked on the translation of Spinoza's Ethica from 1854-6 for publication, but due to a misunderstanding between Lewes and the publisher, the translation was not published, although it was finally being prepared for publication in 1978 (Atkins ii,6). George Eliot began writing fiction seven months after she completed work on Spinoza's Ethica (Ibid. 4). After summarizing each gentlemen's philosophies, I will show how many general aspects of their theories are similar, both in content and because of common influences and influences upon each other. These similarities constitute one of the reasons I believe George Eliot was attracted to these particular philosophers and why they made an impact on her work. Sorting out the subtleties of influence will be the task of the second half of this paper.

Part I: Comte and Positivism

The philosophical position called positivism was primarily developed by Claude Henri de Rouvrey (1760-1825), one of the founding fathers of French socialism (Flew, 311), but was elaborated more explicitly and influentially by Auguste Comte in19th century France. Comte's "positive" philosophy greatly influenced 19th century English scholars and thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, and through Lewes, George Eliot. The basic principles can be broken up into those relating to epistemology and those relating to cosmology.

Positive Epistemology: "We have no knowledge of anything but phenomena; and our knowledge of phenomena is relative, not absolute. We know not the essence, nor the real mode of production, of any fact, but only its relations to other facts in the way of succession or of similitude. These relations are constant; that is, always the same in the same circumstances. The constant resemblances which link phenomena together, and the constant sequences which unite them as antecedent and consequent, are termed their laws. The laws of phenomena are all we know respecting them. Their essential nature, and their ultimate causes, either efficient or final, are unknown and inscrutable to us" (Mill, 6).

This position towards knowledge is identical with empiricism in which all knowledge is based on sense experience only, dismissing other types of experience such as mystical experience, moral experience, intuitive experience, etc., as illusionary. Thus, since the question of first causes is unknowable through the senses, it is essentially irrelevant. All knowledge is relative because things cannot be known as they are in themselves but only as they appear to human consciousness. Also, humans "have neither divinely implanted innate ideas nor imposed categories of perception--the contents and modes of consciousness are entirely the product of evolution and experience" (Paris, 73). Finally, the discovery and systemization of the invariable laws of phenomena through observation and deduction, i.e., through science, constitute the basis of the positive methodology.

Thus, positive knowledge relies exclusively on science, and Comte "aimed at a systematic unification of all known truth on the basis of scientific method" (Willey, 188). However, after constructing a hierarchy of the sciences, he extended his method to history, politics, and morality, and is thus credited with creating the science of sociology (Ibid.), and his theories in this area are those that most concern us in Eliot's work.

Comte believed that society, like all other phenomena, develops according to invariable laws, progressing through three distinct, historical stages, not only as concerns the development of human intelligence itself, but these stages also extend to each subsequent branch of human knowledge. The first stage is the Theological in which "natural phenomena are ascribed to the volitions of supernatural beings," in the Metaphysical stage "supernatural power is superseded by abstract "principles" or "forces," and in the Positive stage "social phenomena are studied in exactly the same way as those of chemistry or physics" (Willey 189). Or, as Paris succinctly puts it: "the Theological or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive" (75). The positive philosophers ardently desired to hasten this third stage in the consideration and analysis of social phenomena, for they viewed the 19th century contemporary situation as one of anarchy caused by the destruction of the "theological" by the "metaphysical," and the only solution to the crisis was the rapid emergence of "positivism" (Willey 190).

Here, one arrives at the cosmology of positivism, the primary tenets of which were: "(1) that all phenomena manifest the law of causation, and (2) that change results from the interaction of the laws of the entities involved" (Paris 27). The essence of such a view is that society is viewed like an organism. "The state of every part of the social whole at any time, is intimately connected with the contemporaneous state of all the others. Religious belief, philosophy, science, the fine arts, the industrial arts, commerce, navigation, government, all are in close mutual dependence on one another, insomuch that when any considerable change takes place in one, we may know that a parallel change in all the others has preceded or will follow it" (Mill 87). In addition to this organic view, in which a determinism concerning human and social development is explicit, is also the implication that this extension of the scientific method to the study of society is inevitable and progressive and, indeed, positivism benefited by the more general19th century optimism concerning science's benefits towards human progress, (Flew 283).

Finally, positivism extended to an analysis of human nature to explain social existence. "Man has a spontaneous propensity to the society of his fellow beings...and possesses a certain amount of natural benevolence, but these social tendencies are always antagonistic to his selfish ones...[however], human nature is capable of great amelioration...and improvement results from the increasing strength of the social instincts" (Mill 90). Comte later went on to develop a utopian "Religion of Humanity" whose goal was this amelioration of human nature which was synonymous with the progress of society. Comte's beliefs included duty, (defined as the obligations of duty, as well as the sentiments of devotion), to the human race, (conceived as a continuous whole, i.e., past, present, and future), as the ultimate determiner of individual action that would engender a personal and collective convergence of effort leading to a harmonized, social unity (Mill 134,140). However, it rested with the philosopher Feuerbach to enrich the mechanical, positivist notions of human nature and society for George Eliot with the notion of sympathy in a fuller form.

Feuerbach's Christianity

Comte conceived of the 'Religion of Humanity' as a necessity through which to "systematize" human morality (Mill 140). Feuerbach went much further in proclaiming that "the truth, the essence of religion" can be isolated by a recognition of Christianity's symbolic expression of concrete psychological needs (Feuerbach xxxvii). Religion is the anthropomorphic formulation of man's highest aspirations. "The yearning of man after something above himself is nothing else than the longing after the perfect type of his nature" (Feuerbach 281). Man has objectified his consciousness, thereby setting "God before him as the antithesis of himself" (Ibid. 33). "Man has consequently alienated himself from the God of his own creation. But he can recover Christianity, the religion of suffering, by recognizing in it his own subjective veneration of human solidarity, the "Love" which Feuerbach detects in all its doctrines, sacraments, and practices" (Knoepflmacher 52). As Willey says "Here was another version of the Religion of Humanity--not, like Comte's, chilly and over systematic, but oracular, full of sacred rage" (230).

Nevertheless, Feuerbach considered his religious views "positive." He replaced faith in a revealed religion with his own developmental view of history, which regarded all religions as evolving processes originating in time and subordinated to the laws of change. Though the product of Man's higher aspirations, religion depended on the same laws of causation that connected natural phenomena with each other (Knoepflmacher 46). Yet, the bulk of his argument is directed to proving that everything humanity calls God is really an aggregate of projected human qualities, needs, and desires. The Incarnation is the love of God to Man and this is the love of Man to himself (Feuerbach 289). Therefore, Man has created God in his own image and "if human nature is the highest nature to man, then practically also the highest and first law must be the love of man to man" (Ibid. 271). After similarly recasting such concepts as prayer, miracle, and the Resurrection in human terms, Feuerbach makes his most powerful argument about love when he juxtaposes the Christian concepts of faith, "which makes Man partial and narrow" by creating a distinction between believer and non-believer, and love, "the opposite of faith" (Ibid. 257), which perceives virtue even in sin, is by nature universal, and is the morality of Christianity (Ibid. 263), and insists that the two are in contradiction. Only when Christianity dispenses with faith will love be able to flower fully as a guiding and healing force. In this way, love is the unifying force of humanity and the "essence" of Christianity. "The relation of child and parent, of husband and wife, of brother and friend--in general, of man to man--in short, all the moral relations are per se religious" (Ibid. 271).

The philosophies of Comte and Feuerbach resemble each other in their basic reliance on the "positive" laws of causation and the developmental view of history, and in replacing Christianity with a general "Religion of Humanity," but they diverge in their conception of a humanist religion, both in scope and depth. This difference is crucial when considering the impact each philosopher had on George Eliot's thinking. However, before investigating the respective philosophers' influence on George Eliot's fiction, I would like to present the third philosopher for consideration as a primary influence for Eliot's conception of the world.

Spinoza and Oneness

Benedictus Spinoza was a rationalist philosopher of Jewish parentage, who was born in Amsterdam and spent his working life in Holland. "Spinoza (1632-1677) believed that all reality can be explained within a single philosophical system, and that human reason can reach ultimate knowledge" (Atkins 19). Like DesCartes, Spinoza believed that explanation was in essence deductive, which was a reflection of emerging 17th century thought: "Scientists such as DesCartes and Galileo explained the nature and activity of bodies by concentrating on their measurable aspects. Universal laws were stated in quantitative terms, and the behavior of individual bodies or classes of bodies was shown to follow logically from these laws" (Flew 335). Spinoza followed DesCartes' lead by establishing a cosmological and epistemological system based on deductive reasoning so that everything we understand "can be shown to follow with logical necessity from a few basic axioms of a very general kind" (Ibid.). Spinoza did not duck the question of first causes as Comte did, but established a firm foundation on which he built a whole ethical system. He began by echoing DesCartes in declaring "Substance is that which exists without depending on anything else" (Atkins 23). "By Substance, I understand that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; in other words, that, the conception of which does not need the conception of another thing from which it must by formed" (Ibid.). On this basis Spinoza argues the essential oneness of the universe. God and Substance are one and the same and underlies all other things, and for Spinoza, God is not a personal, creative agent, separate from the universe he creates (Flew 335). "Substance is self-sufficient, perfect, and complete. Because it is perfect and complete, it can never change since change would involve a transition to something either more or less complete, which cannot be" (Atkins 25). To sum up, God exists as Substance, is impersonal and devoid of anthropomorphic attributes, encompasses all creation, including human beings, and is the foundation of a deterministic universe. God is both the creative principle, the source or cause of reality, and the plurality of objects created. To quote Henry Lewes from an article about Spinoza that appeared in the Westminster review, "God is not the material universe, but the universe is one aspect of his infinite Attribute of Extension" (Ibid. 26).

Spinoza's focus was moral philosophy so his aim was to develop an ethical system that could guide people's moral decisions. After determining the existence and nature of God, Spinoza then established the relationship between God and humans. Since there is but one Substance underlying all things, and that substance is God, Spinoza believed that though God has infinite attributes, human beings can only know two of these attributes: mind or thought, "as understanding in the thinking being," and the extensions of thought, motion and matter (Ibid. 30). However, humans are part of substance, "...we are in Substance and Substance is us" (Ibid. 35) and, as such, are not independent beings. Thus, human action that is contradictory or in opposition to the substantial reality is a source of human unhappiness. In a determined universe, Spinoza believed that intellectually reasoned knowledge, that includes an adequate perception of the universe and one's place in it, is the essential factor that can lead to the greatest human good. The knowledge that humans are Substance, not like Substance or striving for Substance, is the key to moral responsibility and therefore, internal feelings, feelings that derive from basic human nature, are valid indicators of moral behavior (Ibid. 40). If humans govern their lives in accord with "adequate" knowledge and these internal, "intuitive" feelings, they maintain harmony with themselves and Substantial reality. However, humans are surrounded by countless other modes that reflect the complexity of the natural world and if they are distracted by the surface beauty and texture of their environment, they can lose touch with the intuitional knowledge of their essential nature as Substance (Ibid.). Humans suffer when this happens.

To put it more in formal terms, Spinoza believed there are three types of knowledge: (1) Inadequate knowledge which includes sense impressions, sense experience, and opinion, (2) adequate knowledge which is derived from common notions, observed facts, and deductions drawn from cause and effect relationships or conclusions from premises, and (3) intuitive knowledge which advances from adequate knowledge and verifies intellectual knowledge with an internal confirmation based on the essence of human nature (Ibid. 59). The first type of knowledge leads to confused ideas, error, and bondage to unreasoned emotions whereas the other two types of knowledge leads to clear ideas, sympathy, and freedom. In striving after these last two types of knowledge, human beings can be in harmony with the Substantial reality. By recognizing they are part of Substance, humans can attain freedom (which for Spinoza is the same as happiness) through viewing existence from this wide and detached perspective of the totality of the universe. "When one has gained intellectual control of the emotions and achieved freedom from bondage to the passions, one can know that true peace of soul for which all humans strive," a state Spinoza calls blessedness (Ibid. 86).

This freedom for the individual is the basis of the community or state. Human fellowship is necessary and desirable. Spinoza does not assert that humans in this determined universe need the intercession of superior or transcendent forces, but wrote in 1666 that "the most important thing to man is other men" (Ibid. 12), a point echoed by Feuerbach. And since humans are interdependent, when individuals act from unreasoned passions and inadequate ideas, they adversely affect others around them. Conversely, when humans attain adequate knowledge, they have a beneficial effect on their community and society.


This is a somewhat superficial summary of Spinoza's philosophical system, which is complex and cohesive. However, the basic principles that influenced George Eliot's fiction, such as the ideas of a determined universe, the nature of moral responsibility, and the importance of human community are sketched out. Also, aspects of Spinoza's philosophy are echoed in Comte and Feuerbach. All three have a deterministic view of the universe, arrived at largely through deduction, although Comte's and Feuerbach's 'positivism' emphasizes the evolutionary aspect of history, whereas Spinoza believed a society progresses as more and more individuals within a society develop "adequate ideas' in which they understand their relationship to Substance, and make moral decisions accordingly. Comte's and Feuerbach's laws of causation, which explained the inter-relatedness of phenomena, was true for Spinoza but also included the consequences of individual behavior on and within society because the universe itself is essentially unchanging: actions based on inadequate knowledge and passion were the source of 'evil,' error, 'bondage,' and unhappiness, actions based on reason and intuition engendered joy and freedom. Scientific advances that Comte and Feuerbach would term progress in human knowledge, Spinoza would term the natural process of replacing inadequate ideas with adequate ones.

Furthermore, all three philosophers focus on social relations, emphasizing the importance of human community, and discuss the moral obligations they entail, but where Feuerbach greatly expands Comte's idea of duty with his doctrine of love, Spinoza goes further by establishing an ethical system based on individual freedom and growth, i.e., the idea that a society is as developed as its individual members. Both Comte and Spinoza struggle with the concept of knowledge and human duty in a deterministic universe, but Spinoza retains a concept of God as a first cause and also admits the fullness of human nature in allowing for knowledge based on reason and intuition, in addition to sensory experience. On the whole, Spinoza's philosophy addresses all Comte's points but goes significantly beyond them to create a fuller and richer view of the universe and humanity's place in it. Likewise, both Spinoza and Feuerbach discuss the 'higher' nature of man, his needs and desires for fulfillment, but Feuerbach does not carry his ideas far enough to develop an ethics applicable to human behavior.

To relate all three philosophers within an historical context, the roots of Feuerbach's criticism of religion may be traced through Hegel to Spinoza, as George Lewes himself does in his article on Spinoza, published in the Westminster Review in 1843, "Hegel's mind was more akin to Spinoza's than any of the others...It may be curious here to quote Spinoza's anticipation of the Hegelian Christology, which in the hands of Strauss, Feuerbach, and Bruno Baur, had made so much noise in the theological world," (Atkins 13). Curiously, Mill points out a similar fact about Comte when he explains that Comte always considered DesCartes and Leibnitz as his principal precursors (199). Spinoza acknowledges DesCartes as a primary influence, and he in turn influenced Leibnitz along with Hegel. This "passing down and around" of ideas and influence, from DesCartes to Spinoza in the 17th century through other philosophers to Comte and Feuerbach in the 19th, accounts for much of their general similarity of ideas and highlights the subtle but significant aspects of difference. More importantly, the fact that many of these ideas were developed by Spinoza first adds to the realization that Spinoza's system, of the three, is the more developed and more all-encompassing from which subsequent philosophers would add or remove parts, or quarrel with emphasis or conclusions, but could not, in the cases of Comte and Feuerbach, equal in cohesiveness or scope. I believe George Eliot recognized this, having read or translated each philosopher as explained in the opening paragraph, and though she was influenced by all three philosophers in her work, I believe Spinoza's impact on George Eliot's thought was the most definitive.

Part II: Society as an Organism

George Eliot was committed to the idea of society as a slowly evolving organism. The societies in her fictions are culturally organic: some possessing a high degree of collective identity based on a shared culture and shared traditions, most notably Adam Bede and Silas Marner, set the farthest in the past (including Romola), to societies in which there are conflicts of interest and relativism of values, such as in Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda (Newton, 81). Nevertheless, the community is what preserves "(however limited its members may be) an inherited wisdom about the human condition" (Jones, 59). This theme occurs as a significant backdrop throughout her fiction and is detected most clearly in her narrative voice. In her admittance of the narrowness of the Dodsons and Tullivers of The Mill on the Floss, Eliot concludes by invoking science: "I share with you this sense of oppressive narrowness; but it is necessary we should feel it, if we care to understand how it acted on the lives of Tom and Maggie...the suffering, whether of martyr or victim, which belongs to every historical advance of mankind, is represented in this way in every town and by hundreds of obscure hearths: and we need not shrink from this comparison of small things with great; for does not science tell us that its highest striving is after the ascertainment of a unity which shall bind the smallest things with greatest?" (363). This strain of thought evolved so that Mordecai, in Daniel Deronda, exclaims to his "philosopher's club:" "The life of a people grows , it is knit together and yet expanded, in joy and sorrow, in thought and action; it absorbs the thought of other nations into its own forms, and gives back the thought as new wealth to the world" (449).

I believe Comte and "positivism" were a primary influence for Eliot's concept of society as an organism. The two quotes cited above, each one from an early and later novel and among hundreds in her fiction relating to this issue, illustrate that not only did her views about societal development remain consistent, but these views are virtually identical with the positivist concept of an organic society, subject to the internal laws of causation and evolving change. Eliot's fictional world is often determined by these forces.

Both in Felix Holt and Romola, Eliot illustrates and explores how historical forces impact individual lives. Middlemarch is a world that Eliot variously calls "the train of causes" (564), "the force of circumstances" (313), and the "rush of unintended consequences" (523). Many critics agree that Eliot sets her characters in a deterministic universe. "One can hardly read George Eliot's novels without confronting, on several occasions the question of determinism. When a writer presents so fully the quality of a mind and the forces, external and internal, that impel it to a decision, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that no other decision would have been possible" (Jones 90), and "seeing the characters thus inmeshed in a wider context develops in George Eliot's readers the sense of a tortuous, half-unpredictable, slowly changing world of a thousand humdrum matters" (Holloway, 119), i.e., "Any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another..." (Middlemarch, 68).

Although the "positivist" concept of a determined organic society subject to the laws of causation appear to be the primary influence in Eliot's fiction in this area, Spinoza's idea of a determined "oneness" in the universe also surfaces. Granted, Comte's and Spinoza's views could be argued to be barely indistinguishable, but Comte's focus was a more mechanical process whereas Spinoza aimed at a "spiritual" oneness. This can be seen in Mordecai's statement, "...we know not all the pathways...all things are bound together in that Omnipresence which is the plan and habitation of the world, and events are as a glass where through our eyes see some of the pathways" (Daniel Deronda, 543). This view is not Comte's system of interacting parts, but Spinoza's more holistic view which includes an underlying, unifying essence. When Holloway agrees by saying that "For George Eliot, Man is a part of Nature, and Nature is a vast and complex system of which the parts are subordinate to impersonal forces governing the whole" (124), he virtually paraphrases Spinoza's theories of what Paris dismisses as pantheism. But, as I have shown, Spinoza's philosophy is not just pantheism, but a structured system that describes a unique vision of God and creation, that includes an ethical doctrine for human behavior.

The Importance of Community

Most of Eliot's novels deal with the interactive tension between society and the individual (Jones, 65). Eliot makes clear that man needs society, an idea echoed by Feuerbach's and Spinoza's emphasis on "man's love for man." This is brought out most clearly in Silas Marner, but is also emphasized when threatened alienation from society is often the worst punishment she metes out to her characters, such as to Hetty and Arthur in Adam Bede and Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. However, the deterministic nature of society discussed above is part of the dynamic between the individual and society. Eliot shows the laws of causation affecting human lives. Many of her characters must be educated by the observation of the natural consequences of actions. Here again, Eliot extends Comte's positivist concepts based on science to human activity, but Spinoza's prescribed method for humans to gain "adequate ideas" through "observed facts and deduction based on cause and effect relationships" are just as present. These ideas are embedded in George Eliot's plots. As Paris says, "Note how many social, economic, and political conditions and personal motivations, each with its own complex history, George Eliot depicts in her explanation of the election day riot at Treby Magna and its consequences for Felix Holt. Not only does she show every situation and act as the product of natural causes; she also strives to give the whole picture, the whole network of relations, past and present, inner and outer, or as much of it as possible" (31). Adam's painful moral education in Adam Bede, the agonies suffered by Mrs. Transome because of her past actions in Felix Holt, and Romola's discovery in Romola that external moral teachers can also be fallible can be interpreted to illustrate both Comte's laws of causation and Spinoza's emphasis on the importance of learning from experience.

The reconciliation of individual needs and societal forces is a major theme of Eliot's fiction. "Tragedy consists," she argued, "in the terrible difficulty of the adjustment of our individual needs to the dire necessities of our lot" (Paris, 22-23). Dorothea's story in Middlemarch is transformed into a forward struggle against determining conditions "in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion" (Finale, 765). From Dorothea, through Lydgate and Ladislaw, Fred and Rosamond Vincy, Casaubon and Featherstone, all of their desires to make an impression on the world are blunted by the irony of events, and tempered by experience (Knoepflmacher, 110).

In working through the issue of society vs. individual needs, it seems Eliot turned away from positivism in which moralism tended to serve realism. Though Eliot accepted empiricism and science, "basic in her moralism was her concern with religious experience" and she searched for "a means of mediation between the teachings of science and at the same time satisfy the individual's demand for a moral relation to the universe" (Paris, 3-4). Eliot found a humanistic morality in Feuerbach. Feuerbach's ideas did not contradict science, but was instead a "positive" view of religion in which the doctrine of "love" assumed a suitable prominence. In 1854, Eliot wrote, "With the ideas of Feuerbach I everywhere agree" (Knoepflmacher, 53). Feuerbach's focus on the development of a sense of human fellowship as the basis for morality is seen in many Eliot characters. Her ideal clergymen are those "who exclude their dogmatic convictions from the realm of emotional fellowship--Mr. Tryan, Irwine, Kenn, and Lyon" (Ibid. 43). One can hear Feuerbach in Irwine's statement, "These fellow mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people--amongst whom your life is passed--that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love" (267), a sentiment echoed in Dorothea's thoughts on Christianity, "I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest--I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it" (338). Eliot's narrative voice contributes in Middlemarch: "There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our mortality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men" (562). Feuerbach's emphasis on the "essence" of Christianity by perfecting a "religion" of love was the way Eliot's characters could develop a moral relationship with the universe and resolve conflicts within a scientific and deterministic society.

However, even Feuerbach's theories were inadequate to many of the issues George Eliot's fiction dealt with. Engels points out some of the weaknesses of Feuerbach's views and of "positivism" in general. Firstly, he simply points out that up until the time his critique on Feuerbach was published (1912) all the various experiments in the direction of a religion based on love, with a minimum of faith, have been failures (16). Willey makes a similar point in regards to the fate of Comtean "positivism" (187). Time has proved Engels' statement true that none of the humanitarian religions seemed to fulfill the needs of the times and thus dogmatic religions persist (17). Obviously, when Feuerbach did his critique of faith and love, he forgot that even if religion is a human projection, humans felt the need to include the idea of faith in their anthropomorphic, religious systems; it was not imposed from above. The main problem with Feuerbach's concepts are that they are too abstract. "He begins with man, but the discussion has absolutely nothing to do with the world in which this man lives, and so, instead of the man, stands an abstract man, who preaches sermons concerning the philosophy of religion" (Engels, 83). As Engels concludes, "What Feuerbach communicates respecting morals must therefore be exceedingly narrow" (85). These weaknesses in Feuerbach's philosophy are noted by other critics, and I believe George Eliot also became aware of them. Feuerbach's extreme idealism forced Eliot "to minimize the existence of sin and evil" and provided "no ethical vehicle" for her morality (Knoepflmacher, 60-1). Knoepflmacher claims Eliot resorted to "culture" as a spiritual force but I believe it was the Ethics of Spinoza that provided Eliot with a fully developed ethical vehicle.

Right Ideas

Spinoza's reliance on "adequate ideas" as the foundation of a personal ethical system is seen clearly in Felix Holt's Address to the Working Man: He does not want to reform institutions, but wants to change men's ideas. As already shown, Eliot's education of her characters through experience is a Spinozian credo. Experience and deduction are the methods of developing "adequate ideas." Through "adequate ideas" and intuition humans achieve Spinoza's idea of "freedom," another way of expressing the existence of free will in a determined universe. Jones observes that in Eliot's novels " in the life around us, some people appear to be far more "free" than others" (90). Yet, both Spinoza's and Eliot's idea of freedom consists of a larger understanding of oneself in the context of the world at large, and the willingness to place oneself in alignment with it; it is not an arbitrary exertion of the will in contradiction or neglect of the rest of humanity and the universe.

Besides the reliance on "adequate ideas," Eliot's characters rely on intuitional knowledge, or "feeling," to guide them. The positivist, empirical positions of Comte and Feuerbach never categorized and explained the role of "feeling" as Spinoza does, who gives it a prominent place in his philosophy as a valid method of acquiring knowledge. Comte's ideas about feeling were not distinguished between passion and selfish desires, and intuition; Feuerbach was equally vague, yet, Spinoza's concept of intuitional knowledge is found throughout Eliot's fiction. This feeling is the basis of and guide to moral duty. Esther Lyon develops partly through Felix's attacks on her ego and partly through a growth of sympathy. "The best life," she declares, "is that where one bears and does everything because of some great and strong feeling--so that this and that in one's circumstances don't signify" (356). Romola's struggle to discover a moral authority, and her disillusion with Savonarola, finally lead her to "...find the authority she has been searching for which can interact with feeling and give her life meaning and purpose. Instead of submitting feeling to an external authority separate from it, which had been the main difficulty during her Christian period, she discovers that in feeling itself she can find the basis for the larger moral vision she has been seeking" (Newton, 70). This calls to mind an exchange between Ladislaw and Dorothea in chapter 22 of Middlemarch in which he asserts that a poet's soul is one "in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge," to which Dorothea replies, "I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to me just what I experience" (204-5). Dinah's premonition concerning Hetty in Adam Bede in chapter 31 reflects an instance of intuitional knowledge. Adam Bede declares of religion, "I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings" (226). This reliance on intuition as a valid and direct source of knowledge is one of the most important aspects of a mystic tradition. Spinoza believed that humans, through their intellect and intuition, could develop correct ideas about the nature of reality and the universe. They could obtain "blessedness," or enlightenment here on earth. Such a contentment is what the characters of Dorothea and Daniel Deronda obtain, what Dinah Morris possesses, what Romola finally finds. They are free in the Spinozian sense.

In contrast, other characters who, instead of aligning themselves with a determined universe, attempt to extract their own actions from the fabric of the whole, who are guided by "inadequate ideas" based on passion uninformed by reason, and by a fragmented conception of the universe, are bound by illusion and suffer. Tito Melema, Harold Transome, Lydgate, Hetty and Rosamond are all egoists who fail because they act from an incomplete understanding of their place in the world; they do not understand their inner lives and they are cut off from a holistic conception, they fail to realize they are connected to a universe that is "one." These characters are bound to their passions and cannot transcend them through a larger vision, and this larger understanding, developed through correct knowledge and intuition, is a guide in moral decisions. Holloway says what defines sinful characters in Eliot's fiction is "...not a deep feeling but a lack of feeling, it is an insensibility blinding us to feelings and sufferings in others, and causing us to face life with excessive demands" (127). In Spinoza's system, this bondage to wrong ideas is the source of evil, error, and suffering. I think Eliot agreed with this idea because even her most unsuccessful characters are treated with compassion and understanding. The narrator holds the view that these characters deserve our pity, not our condemnation. Spinoza also realized how difficult it was to liberate oneself from passion, desire, and wrong ideas, yet he maintained it was the only way to freedom. Paris agrees that Eliot's characters are divided along the lines of egoists and those who acquire a larger vision of life, though he mistakenly, in my view, attributes this tendency to Feuerbach's influence (83-5).

One of the aspects of the freedom Eliot's successful characters attain is a larger vision of the universe. This is what Spinoza calls "living under the aspect of eternity" (Atkins, 139). "The freedom which Spinoza advocates is a form of transcendence because it enables humans to view their existence from the aspect of eternity through the eye of Substance or God, timelessly and without striving. This perspective does not deny the basic fact that humans are emotional and rational beings who both suffer and rejoice because of these essential natures," (Ibid. 73-4), yet offers an alternative view in which humans are not trapped in time. Dorothea's attainment of a larger view after she suffers disillusion in chapter 80 in Middlemarch whereby "...she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of mental labor and endurance. She was a part of involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining" (722), conveys exactly Spinoza's idea of transcendent blessedness. Romola tells Lillo, Tito's son, "We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves" (Romola, 674), and Eliot's narrative voice tells the reader of Adam Bede, "The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength: we can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy, than a painter or a musician can wish to return to his crude manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula" (574). George Eliot viewed this larger perspective as indispensable to moral growth, and though many would argue that Eliot gleaned these ideas from the positivists, since Eliot herself read both Spinoza and Comte, I believe she recognized the origins of these ideas in Spinoza's philosophy and was influenced accordingly. After all, she started writing fiction after translating Spinoza, not Feuerbach and not Comte. It seems Spinoza's very complete vision gave her the confidence to write fiction rather than to continue to struggle with these issues in the formal realm of philosophy.


George Eliot struggled with the issues of her time in the medium of fiction. She presented a unique world to her readers, a determined yet moral world, in which her characters wrestled with the issues of real existence. Her fictional world was highly idiosyncratic, yet reflected a sweeping vision, understanding, and awareness of historical and cultural change that was rarely matched in the fiction of her day. Her attempt to reconcile human spiritual needs in a scientific society is the common modern dilemma. And just as the work of philosophers guided her thought, so can they do the same for us today. Comte has many disciples today, although they don't call themselves positivists. Feuerbach's beliefs have become truisms in some circles. Spinoza's ideas, because his philosophy is more complex, are not so widespread, but in my view, could serve us better. The idea that humans are not separate from creation, but have a duty and responsibility within the grand scheme of things could prove beneficial in our current environmental crisis at the very least. But George Eliot, through the popular medium of fiction, clothed these ideas in stories about people that reminded us of ourselves. This is the reason George Eliot's writing continues to capture the imagination, garner the admiration, and promote the intellectual stimulation of the readers of today.


Atkins, Dorothy. George Eliot and Spinoza. Salzburg, Austria: Institut Fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universtat Salzburg, 1978.

Engels, Frederick. Feuerbach: The Roots of Socialist Philosophy. Trans. by Austin Lewis. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1912

Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. by George Eliot. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.

Flew, Anthony. Ed. A Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: St. Martin's Press,1979.

Holloway, John. The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument. London: MacMillan & Co., 1953.

Jones, R. T. George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970

Knoepflmacher, U. C. Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965.

Mill, John Stuart. Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1968.

Newton, K. M. George Eliot: Romantic Humanist. Totowa, N. J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1965.

Willey, Basil. Nineteenth Century Studies. New York: Harper & Row, 1949.

© 1993 Shirley Galloway

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