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 philosophersby Clare Carlisle / January 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
“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…