George Eliot's philosophy is central to her fiction. Image: CSU archives/ Everett Collection/Bridgeman Images

The philosophy of George Eliot

She is one of England’s greatest novelists, but the author of Middlemarch also deserves to be remembered as one of the country’s finest philosophers
January 30, 2020

“My mind presents an assemblage of disjointed specimens from history, ancient and modern; scraps of poetry picked up from Shakespeare, Cowper, Wordsworth and Milton; newspaper topics; morsels of Addison and Bacon, Latin verbs, geometry, entomology and chemistry, reviews and metaphysics—all arrested and petrified and smothered by the fast-thickening, everyday accession of actual events, relative anxieties, and household cares and vexations.” So wrote Mary Ann Evans in 1839, in a letter to her friend Maria Lewis. She was 19 years old and her intellectual appetites were voracious. If she had been a man, and wealthy, she would have been at Oxford—perhaps plotting to revive the Anglican Church with John Henry Newman and his friends at Oriel College or, more likely, arguing against them. But she was a lower-middle-class woman, stuck in her father’s farmhouse in Warwickshire, her ambitions “arrested and petrified and smothered.”

Twenty years later this woman would publish Adam Bede, her bestselling debut novel, under the pseudonym “George Eliot.” Several more remarkable novels followed, including The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Today Eliot claims undisputed recognition as one of the greatest English novelists—but she is rarely seen as a philosopher. Few people know that she completed the first English translation of the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s controversial masterpiece, the Ethics (1677). In fact, she was the first female translator of Spinoza into any language. With this in mind, it is striking that as a 19-year-old she listed Latin verbs and geometry, as well as metaphysics, among her self-administered curriculum: although she had not yet discovered Spinoza, these studies would equip her to translate his profound, groundbreaking final work, which was written in Latin in a deductive form modelled on Euclid’s Elements of Geometry.

Eliot’s novels exhibit a powerful emotional intelligence that has made them life-changing for many generations of readers. The penetrating wisdom of her narrative voice and the insights dramatised through her characters’ experiences was due not to untutored feminine intuition, but to her meticulous reading of the Ethics during the 1850s, just before she began to write fiction—for in Spinoza’s great work human emotions are placed at the centre of a compelling philosophical system. Translating the Ethics provided the woman who would become George Eliot with a radical philosophy of the human condition, which explained with rigorous precision how our lives are shaped by our relationships with other people. Long before the breakthroughs of modern psychology, this philosophy revealed how understanding our own emotions can be therapeutic and empowering.

An unofficial honeymoon

Her encounter with Spinoza is a fascinating story. In 1841, after moving with her father to the outskirts of Coventry, she entered a circle of free-thinking intellectuals who expanded her cultural horizons, giving her access to a cosmopolitan world of literature, art, science and philosophy. She studied the history of religion, translating David Strauss’s massive, groundbreaking book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined into English from German, and she began to translate Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), which offered a searing critique of religious dogmatism and persecution. She met the publisher John Chapman, who encouraged her to join him in London to edit the Westminster Review. This journal was closely associated with English philosophy: it was founded in 1823 by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham to serve the causes of radicalism and reform, and later edited by John Stuart Mill. Under Chapman’s proprietorship the journal was a liberal, progressive platform for new political and moral thinking. Marian Evans—who adopted this more modern spelling of her name when she moved to London—ran the journal from 1851 until 1854, commissioning and writing substantial reviews of historical, scientific, philosophical and literary works, while lodging in John Chapman’s house on the Strand. She was a brilliant editor, both authoritative and diplomatic, and dealt skilfully with the Westminster Review’s eminent contributors and funders.

[su_pullquote]"Her life as a metropolitan bachelorette came to a scandalous end"[/su_pullquote]

Her life as Marian Evans, metropolitan bachelorette at the vibrant heart of literary London—and often the only woman in the room—came to a scandalous end when she entered into a public relationship with the well-known writer George Henry Lewes, who was married, though separated from his wife. In the summer of 1854 they left London for Weimar in Thuringia, then travelled on to Berlin, as Lewes conducted research for his biography of Goethe. It was at this time that Evans—or “Mrs Lewes,” as she started to call herself—began to translate the Ethics. By the end of her unofficial honeymoon she was halfway through her translation, and she finished it in England in 1856. It was the last large project she undertook before she summoned the confidence to write her first three stories, Scenes of Clerical Life, which launched a mysterious new author, George Eliot, on the literary scene.

Her interest in Spinoza, then, stretched across the years of her spiritual and personal emancipation, from the early 1840s and into the later 1850s. She first encountered the Jewish philosopher at a time when his controversial ideas were beginning to attract attention among avant-garde English intellectuals. At the turn of the 19th century, the early German Romantics had turned to Spinozism as an alternative to conventional Christian theology, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, inspired by these German thinkers, was one of the first Englishmen to advocate for Spinoza. Coleridge was not, however, an effective populariser of philosophy. It was George Henry Lewes who introduced Spinoza to the British public in a long Westminster Review article titled “Spinoza’s Life and Works,” published in 1843. Lewes later recalled how he first learned about Spinoza in a pub on Red Lion Square in Holborn, where a group of amateur philosophers gathered on Saturdays for “the amicable collision of contending views.” This was around the late 1830s, and “at that time,” Lewes explained, “no account of Spinoza was accessible to the English reader; nothing but vague denunciation or absurd misrepresentation.”

We do not know whether Mary Ann Evans came across Lewes’s 1843 article when it first appeared, but she began to read Spinoza around this time, when Robert Brabant, who had been Coleridge’s doctor, lent her a copy of the Theologico-Political Treatise. This work evidently made a deep impression on her. In a letter to her friend Sara Hennell in October 1843, she repeated one of its core arguments—“We must part with the crutches of superstition. Are we to go on cherishing superstitions out of a fear that seems inconsistent with any faith in a Supreme Being?”—and endorsed Spinoza’s belief that “We cannot fight and struggle enough for freedom of enquiry.” When she and Lewes met in London in 1851, they must have compared notes on their Spinozist enquiries during the previous decade—and perhaps this is how they came up with the plan to translate the Ethics. Lewes would obtain an agreement from the publisher Henry Bohn, who specialised in works of philosophy, and Marian Evans would do the translation.

Why were Spinoza’s ideas so compelling for George Eliot? To begin with, his views on Christianity probably drew her attention. Spinoza, raised in Amsterdam’s Jewish community (from which he was famously expelled as a young man), lived under the sway of the 17th-century Dutch Reformed Church, and he criticised the -Calvinists’ -moralistic grumbling about the weakness and depravity of human nature. At a time of religious oppression and conflict, Spinoza argued that religion should empower individuals and promote peace in society. Popular images of God as a despotic prince offering favours in return for loyal service, or as a forbidding father figure threatening punishment for bad behaviour, were infantilising. As an early Enlightenment figure, Spinoza urged his readers to cultivate their rational powers and to purify their imaginations of anthropomorphic, superstitious religious ideas.

Despite frequent accusations of atheism, Spinoza’s philosophy offered spiritual sustenance as well as strict rationality. One of the fundamental claims of the Ethics is that everything is in God. This means that we are in God, and Spinoza argued that understanding our relation to God—an infinite, eternal power that, he suggested, might also be regarded as the productive power of nature—brings us the deepest happiness. Einstein’s remark that he believed in the “God of Baruch Spinoza” is sometimes cited as summing up his scientific mysticism.

Although Spinoza himself was a sober thinker, devoted to stability and order, the German Romantics refashioned his image: the poet Novalis described Spinoza as a “God-intoxicated man,” and the revival of Spinozism in the early 19th century was often associated with a free-loving, pantheist spirituality. Wordsworth, for example, found more spiritual meaning in nature and poetry than in churches or official creeds.

Calvinism was a powerful cultural force in 19th-century England, as it was in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, and while she was a young woman Mary Ann Evans had channeled (or, perhaps, sublimated) her passions into an austere Evangelical faith. During the 1840s, her freethinking friends in Coventry supported her as she questioned both her own piety, and the conservative Anglicanism of her family upbringing. Spinoza’s careful philosophical arguments offered this serious young woman a powerful antidote to conventional religion. But Spinoza was also a profound and original moral thinker—and it was his deep insight into human nature, more than his radical theology, that had a lasting influence on Marian Evans.

Being a philosopher, Spinoza didn’t just offer psychological observations about human behaviour. His account of our emotional and ethical life was grounded in a metaphysical vision of what a human being is. Instead of regarding human individuals as substances, a concept that denotes self-sufficient individuality, Spinoza argued that only God is substance—and everything else is a mode of this substance, which is the reality underlying everything. Modes are dependent on substance, and inseparable from it. The relation of a mode to substance is analogous to the relation of a wave to the ocean, or of a smile to a face. Modes are ephemeral beings that arise and pass away, that change their form and depend on all sorts of shifting conditions. By arguing that we are modes, not substances, Spinoza denied that we are autonomous individuals with fixed essences and -impermeable boundaries. While a human life lasts longer than a wave or a smile, we are similarly fluid, shape-shifting beings—and since we are formed by our organic and social environments, and -perhaps most of all by our relationships with other people, the idea of free will makes little sense.

Spinoza emphasised that we are fluctuating beings, constantly striving to preserve ourselves. At times our power increases, at times it decreases—and eventually we will all be irrevocably diminished, and then we die. Because we are both conscious and embodied, these fluctuations in our power can take different forms. For example, a programme of healthy eating and exercise may strengthen us physically, while a rewarding friendship or satisfying work may strengthen us mentally or spiritually. (Spinoza often used the Latin word anima, which can be translated as “mind” or “soul,” to describe this non-physical aspect of our nature). Because humans are highly self-conscious, we can feel the fluctuations of our own mental and physical power—and emotions are precisely these feelings of fluctuation. Spinoza identified three basic emotions: joy, which is the feeling of an increase in our power; sadness, the feeling of a decrease in our power; and desire, the feeling of our striving to persist in being. All other emotions—love, hatred, anger, grief, jealousy, regret, pride, benevolence, pity, and many more—are variations of one of these three basic feelings. Since our emotional life is rooted in our nature as finite, fluctuating modes, fully understanding our emotions means knowing ourselves in a philosophical way. For Spinoza, our emotions are not an obstacle to philosophical knowledge. On the contrary, our feelings offer vital clues about the nature of our own existence, and can guide us in the pursuit of wisdom.

The creature without

The literary form of the novel enabled George Eliot to explore the philosophical questions raised by Spinoza. Like him, she thought that human freedom was not the precondition of moral life, but its goal—something that we have to struggle for and cultivate as best we can. She also followed Spinoza in seeing morality (what philosophers sometimes call “the good life”) as a project of empowerment and enlightenment, and in being suspicious of a black-and-white moralism based on fixed values of right and wrong, good and evil. This moral vision shapes our deepest ethical questions in a certain way. Since we are all shaped by our encounters and relationships, how can we live in ways that will empower us, not diminish us?

At the end of Middlemarch, George Eliot’s narrator suggests that “There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” This is a Spinozist insight: in the Ethics he wrote that—in the novelist’s translation—“we can never bring ourselves to a state in which we should want nothing external in order to preserve our existence, or so live as to have no commerce with things outside ourselves.” George Eliot’s novels bring into view complex webs of causes and networks of relations that shape her characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, which these characters themselves often glimpse only dimly and partially. She was masterful at depicting human error, blindness, foolishness and self-deception. But she also portrayed characters gaining greater understanding of themselves and their relations to others: Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke all grow in self-knowledge over the course of their narratives. Though their understanding is never complete, it enlarges their souls and empowers them to live happily in relation to other people.

As readers of these novels, we become privileged spectators of the hidden processes whereby individual lives are formed and changed. The omniscient narrator of Middlemarch tells us that, in surveying the interconnected lives of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate and their neighbours, he is “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven.” George Eliot came to see her stories as having the same kind of enlightening, therapeutic effects that Spinoza sought through his philosophical writing.

[su_pullquote align="right"]"She knew Spinoza's Ethics more intimately than anyone else in 19th-century England"[/su_pullquote]

I don’t want to suggest that Eliot simply lifted Spinoza’s philosophy out of the Ethics, and translated it into fictional form. She was acquainted with the ideas of many philosophers—including Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Auguste Comte and Ludwig Feuerbach—and she blended their insights with her own vision of human life, which responded to her particular historical and geographical situation. Sympathy, tolerance and compassion are the virtues that loom largest in her novels and given them their distinctive moral atmosphere.

Yet Spinoza was the single most significant philosophical influence on her thinking, and she knew the Ethics more intimately than anyone else in 19th-century England. Sadly her translation was not published, because Lewes fell out with the publisher Henry Bohn over the terms of their contract—but all her work on Spinoza’s dense Latin text did not go entirely to waste. By weaving Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical insights into her novels, injected with a healthy dose of humour, she made them accessible to ordinary people who were unable to approach Spinoza’s austere, difficult works.

While contemporary academics worry about the dearth of women in the history of philosophy, George Eliot’s philosophical accomplishments too often go unacknowledged. Translating the Ethics required logical precision and metaphysical reflection, as well as expertise in Latin. Considered afresh, this achievement gives us good reason to recognise her as the most important female intellectual of the 19th century. More than this, though, in her own fiction writing George Eliot practised philosophy in ways that are only now becoming recognisable, as we expand our conception of philosophy beyond the rather narrow confines of professionalised academic argument, which have tended to define it over the last century or so. If philosophy is about knowing ourselves as thinking, feeling, self-conscious beings, learning to express our true nature, and living well with others—as it certainly was for Spinoza—then the author of Middlemarch, who explored these same questions in profound and original ways, may even rank as England’s greatest philosopher.