Moira Gatens. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 33, Issue 1. April 2009.
Marian Evans began to write novels under the pseudonym George Eliot toward the end of 1856. Several years before “George Eliot” was conceived, the thirty-year-old evans was the clandestine editor of London’s premier journal of ideas, The Westminster Review. She wrote many of its articles, including book reviews, opinion pieces on social and political themes, and reports on contemporary writing from europe, especially Germany. She also translated David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus in 1846, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity in 1854, and Benedict Spinoza’s Ethics in 1856. All three theorists were significant figures for the German higher criticism movement, and its influence on British thought owes much to her. This movement sought to reinterpret scripture as an historical record of the thoroughly human endeavor to make sense of life, death, suffering and the place of human being within nature. Strongly influenced by Feuerbach, Evans approached religion in terms of a natural history of the genesis and development of human values. Although she understood the phenomenon of religion to be a function of the imagination, she was a firm adherent to ethical values rooted in Christianity. For her, the question had become: how can we ground these values within nature and revere them in the absence of God? When she turned to writing novels, she sought to show that the values posited by religion as transcendent could be understood in naturalistic terms. She was among the first in Britain to theorize the ethical potential of the novel and to treat it as a serious medium for philosophical thought.
In 1964 U. C. Knoepflmacher asserted that until we are able to appreciate George Eliot simultaneously as an artist and a philosopher we will fail “to do full justice to her work.” His comment remains apposite today. Eliot’s critics rarely treat her literature and her philosophy as a genuinely integrated whole. Despite the existence of several excellent monographs about her intellectual milieu, much remains to be said about Eliot as a philosopher. I argue that her novels should be understood as attempts to practice philosophy in an alternative key. Her decision to write novels rather than conventional philosophy reflects her desire to actively engage the imaginative and affective, as well as the cognitive, powers of her readers. on her view the imagination grounds our disposition to feel sympathy for our fellow human beings. it is this disposition and its potential for refinement as moral knowledge that she sought to realize in her novels. An appreciation of her philosophical commitments is necessary in order to understand her efforts to construct an immanent ground for moral life. The parts played by the imagination, reason and emotion in the attainment of moral knowledge were of prime concern to both Spinoza and Feuerbach. Each philosopher offered an account of the relations between these capacities and argued for their reformation. This reformative task is one that Eliot attempted in her novels. The radical holism of Spinoza and Feuerbach resonates throughout her work. She had a deep suspicion of dualistic philosophies that separate reason and imagination. Like Spinoza and Feuerbach, she understood these ruptures within our capacities, indeed within our very being, to derive in large part from religion, especially Christianity. The reform of our habitual ways of understanding the world must therefore begin with critical reflection on religion.
It is important to clarify at the outset the scope of my interpretative claim about Eliot’s philosophy and its expression through literature. I do not treat her novels as valuable raw materials that the discerning philosophical eye can convert into capital. My claim is that her novels are a new form of philosophical writing. Nor do I consider her novels to be instances of philosophical writing in the sense that they provide literary clothing for philosophical ideas. Eliot unequivocally rejected this description as inimical to the integrity of her writing practice. When a friend suggested that she write a novel that would illustrate the ideas of Auguste Comte and so increase the influence of positivism, she firmly declined stating that such a venture would be inconsistent with her commitment to write truthful and realistic fiction that “deals with life in its highest complexity.” Her response raises an important question: what have realism and truth to do with fiction that surely, by definition, is neither real nor true but rather a product of the imagination? This question points us to the philosophies of Spinoza and Feuerbach and their views on the imagination.
Spinoza refers to the imagination as knowledge of the first kind (reason and intuition being the second and third kinds). He means by this that human consciousness at its most fundamental level is a register of bodily awareness. This kind of knowledge is inadequate because imaginative experience characteristically mistakes effects for causes. For example, he writes: “the drunk believes it is from a free decision of the mind that he speaks the things he later, when sober, wishes he had not said. So the madman, the chatterbox, the child, and a great many people of this kind believe they speak from a free decision of the mind, when really they cannot contain their impulse to speak.” The fiction of free will is a product of the imagination and arises because we are aware of our impulses to act but ignorant of the causes by which these urges are determined. Reason can reflect on and correct for the epistemic deficiencies of the imagination. But, in the absence of reason, we tend to connect our various imaginings and construct fictions that systematically misconstrue the actual order of causes and effects. The Appendix to Part i of the Ethics is an extended meditation on how human perplexity about nature ends in positing an underlying supreme force, namely the will of God or what Spinoza calls “the sanctuary of ignorance.” The untutored imagination is the source not only of the feeling of free will but also of the anthropomorphic conception of God as legislator and judge.
When placed in a social context, Spinoza’s account of the imagination has profound implications. No one, Spinoza says, is born rational. Given the right conditions, we might aspire to become rational, but the fulfillment of this aspiration is necessarily a collective enterprise. Part of the story concerns the collective dimension of what and how we come to know. Humans are naturally sociable in the sense that we are unable to flourish, indeed even to survive, in isolation. We are born into profound dependence on a community of our fellows whose social and political arrangements precede us and that are almost entirely beyond the power of the individual to alter. Another part of the story is captured by Yirmiyahu Yovel’s comment that, for Spinoza, “knowledge is more a mode of being than of having, not something we possess but something we are or become.” The basis for different historical and cultural ways of being in the world must be sought in particular collective ways of knowing that are expressed in the laws, customs, religions, and other embodied beliefs and habits that specific peoples build up into a coherent story over time. So how likely is it that the right conditions for the development of rationality will obtain? The communities into which we are born might be constituted in a way that actually hinders the realization of our rational powers. It is in this context that Spinoza considers the roles of religion and theology.
Although he had little patience with theologians, Spinoza’s attitude to religion is ambivalent. Religion can capture the imagination of individuals in a way that affectively binds them together into a collectivity with a shared narrative. It can promote the peace and harmony prerequisite to an increase in the ability of a group to survive, to create, and to grow. This positive side to religion is exemplified in Spinoza’s account of the story of Moses. His achievement was to bind together the Jews recently released from their bondage in Egypt into a viable collective (TTP, Pref. p. 6). For those whose conditions of life prevent the development of reason, religion has enormous social utility. But its utility depends on its appeal to the imagination and its capacity to harness the passive affects of fear and hope. Religion, in short, is knowledge of the first kind. A religious community’s way of being corresponds to particular ways of knowing oneself, one’s fellows, and one’s community. Understood as imaginative knowledge, religion answers to the practical demands of life through its ability to order and give meaning to social interaction. However, religion can prepare the ground for the development of reason when it provides the opportunity for peaceful flourishing. Where human beings have begun to realize the capacity for reason-meaning, the capacity to understand cause and effect-there one can say: homo homini Deus est [man is God to man] (E, iV, Prop. 35, schol.).
On the negative side, theologians frequently do claim for their religions the status of truth. In its dogmatic forms religion hinders the development of reason, for example, when it attempts to enlist philosophy in the endeavor to prove God’s existence or the literal truth of the Bible. In other words, when it seeks the impossible: to turn what are essentially imaginative thoughts and feelings into rational knowledge. This is not to say that religion cannot be studied in a rational way-for example, as anthropology or philosophy of religion-but rather that religious experience itself cannot be made rational.
In spite of the centuries that separate them, there is fundamental agreement between Feuerbach and Spinoza concerning religion. In his History of Modern Philosophy Feuerbach endorsed Spinoza’s separation between theology and philosophy and offered virtually a paraphrase of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: “The value and function [of religion] is a practical one, uniquely; it is to lead those who are not determined by reason to dutifulness, virtue and happiness.” There is nothing especially original about Feuerbach’s fundamental critique of religion. Man makes God in his own image: “By his God thou knowest the man, and by the man his God.” religion is fundamentally egotistical and Feuerbach’s reversal of the biblical phrase, God made man in his own image (Genesis 1:27), resonates with Spinoza’s quip that if triangles could speak they would say that God is eminently triangular. Feuerbach claims to let religion itself speak, seeing his role only as attentive listener. He offers an anthropological interpretation of the Bible, understanding it as “man’s earliest and also [most] indirect form of self-knowledge” (EC, p. 13). Religion involves the self-contemplation of human nature but only in a latent or indirect and imaginative form (p. 33). On this view, although religion involves illusion, it is not mere illusion but rather reveals important truths about human consciousness and existence.
Religious experience, Feuerbach argues, arises from our apprehension of our selves as particulars belonging to a natural kind. In short, religion arises from the individual’s awareness of his participation in a shared species being [Gattungswesen]. In common with Spinoza’s “we think” (E, ii, Axiom 2), and in contradistinction to Descartes’ solipsistic I think, Feuerbach asserts: “Man thinks-that is, he converses with himself” (EC, p. 2). Self-consciousness arises from an awareness of the nature that we share with others. Distinctively human thought and feeling necessarily involves thinking with another person (p. 82). Feuerbach’s relational conception of identity understands human being to be essentially interdependent: “my fellow-man is the bond between me and the world. I am, and I feel myself, dependent on the world, because I first feel myself dependent on other men.” for our brute existence, we have to thank nature, but our specifically human existence we owe to fellow human beings (p. 82).
Refuting the accusation of atheism in terms that resonate with Spinoza, Feuerbach affirms the immanent reality of love, forgiveness and justice. What he rejects is their status as mere predicates of a divine Being (p. 21). What he calls for is not so much the end of religion as the end of a certain alienated form of religion. The human species, marriage, friendship, and love, according to Feuerbach, are all sacred in their way. But this divinity is wholly immanent: “my fellow-man is per se the mediator between me and the sacred idea of the species. Homo homini Deus est” (p. 159). In each place in The Essence of Christianity where Feuerbach reiterates Spinoza’s phrase, man is God to man (pp. 83, 159, 271), his aim is to insist upon the immanent value of human life. Morality does not require a transcendent guarantor. Rather, moral relations emerge naturally and Feuerbach writes that they are sacred in and by themselves (p. 273). Our gratitude, love and adoration should be directed away from theological abstractions (for example, the Madonna, the heavenly father, the crucified Christ, the saints) and towards their proper objects: the actual mother and father who care for us, the embodied spouse or friend who compensates for and forgives our failings, and our fellow-humans whose knowledge and labor are what make possible our distinctively human existence. It is these natural, concrete, embodied, living relationships that immanently and spontaneously generate our love for others, our sympathy for them, and our moral obligations towards them.
Feuerbach’s insistence on difference-on both i and thou-dethrones the sovereign individual of Western philosophy and exposes the egoism of Christianity. Each individual exists “only by virtue of the conditions which constitute him a member of the whole, or a relative whole” (p. 171). The importance of difference includes the sexual difference that, according to Feuerbach, is the first condition for the development of consciousness and personality (p. 92). It is only together that man and woman constitute a whole human being. It is only together that we can realize our capacity for knowledge, morality and justice. Insofar as Feuerbach treats the I-thou relation as the condition for subjectivity and takes the existence of others as the very condition of thought, he posits a relational model at the very heart of his philosophy. Abstract dichotomies, such as mind and body, reason and emotion, or universality and particularity are displaced in favor of an embodied duality that allows for shifting content: it may be realized as the relation between friend and friend, husband and wife, or community and community.
Many have interpreted Feuerbach’s philosophy as treating religious experience as a primitive stage in the history of human development. This was the basis of Karl Marx’s argument that religion is destined to disappear and be replaced by more adequate forms of knowledge, such as science. However, Feuerbach’s texts also can support a spinozistic interpretation where religion is understood as a kind of knowledge rather than a (destined to be superseded) stage in the historical development of thought. For both Spinoza and Feuerbach imaginative knowledge is necessary to the development of human sociability. Spinoza’s theory of the imitation of the affects resonates with Feuerbach’s account of the distinctively human disposition to feel-with the other, that is, sympathy [Mitgefühl]. It is through this disposition to feel-with-an innate contagiousness of the emotions-that Spinoza explains the origin of love, benevolence, and other sociable emotions (see E, iii-iV). Neither philosopher wholly condemns the human imagination or religion. On the contrary, for both the imagination and religion have an essential role to play in human development. Moreover the imagination, and the egotistic religious feelings to which it gives rise, will continue to be features of human life for as long as it remains embodied life.
Both Spinoza and Feuerbach argued that a primary task of philosophy is to articulate the relation between imagination and reason. Understood and used correctly the imagination is not an epistemological defect but rather an essential power of human beings. The collective or socialized imagination is not a stage to be superseded but a permanent structure of human sociability. Philosophical thought can strive to reform the structure of this imaginary but cannot eradicate it. But how might this reformative task proceed? According to Feuerbach, speculative philosophy cannot help because it is itself largely the work of the imagination. In fact, he viewed abstract philosophy as the continuation of theology by other means. In the aphoristic Principles and Philosophy of the Future (1843), he rejected any approach to philosophical inquiry that involved a priori system building. Eliot shared Feuerbach’s skepticism about abstract philosophy. In the next section i argue that she takes up the philosophical task of reforming the relations between imagination, feeling and intellect through her literary works.
“The mind does not err from the fact that it imagines” (E, ii, Prop. 17 schol.). In Eliot’s handwritten manuscript translation of Spinoza’s Ethics this phrase-uniquely, i believe-is underscored. Error arises when we fail to understand the limitations of the different ways of knowing: for example, when we treat the products of the imagination on a par with those of reason (E, i, Appen.). Adopting aspects of Spinoza’s and Feuerbach’s philosophies, Eliot treats the imagination as a source of knowledge. For her the imagination is the necessary starting point for attaining dependable knowledge because it both affectively and cognitively connects us to others and to the world. The sympathetic imagination allows us to put ourselves in the place of others and so gain some grasp of their situation. This is an especially important capacity of human beings given that, on her view, there is no transcendent power to stand as guarantor for truth or morality. Nor can science, even the theory of a shared evolution, provide a foundation for morality. Because agreement on moral matters seems unlikely, Eliot argued that “we turn to the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union” (GEL, 1, p. 162). On her view, this truth is accessible only through the proper use of the imagination and its ability to connect us to others through sympathy.
The influence of both Spinoza and Feuerbach can be seen in Eliot’s synthetic conception of the parts that imagination, feeling and intellect should play in life. It is significant that for her the exercise of imagination, feeling and intellect working harmoniously together, is necessary to the achievement of moral knowledge. Rather than write a philosophical treatise that would argue for this as an abstract thesis, and so attempt to elicit cognitive agreement from her readers, Eliot’s novels seek to embody this claim. They are demonstrations that strive to engage, all at once, her readers’ imaginative and affective as well as cognitive powers. This is to say that Eliot’s novels do not offer a theory of morality but rather present an imaginary world, as complex as the medium allows, through which her philosophy is expressed.
Eliot referred to her novels as “simply a set of experiments in life- an endeavor to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of-what stores of motive, actual or hinted as possible, give promise of a better after which we may strive-what gains from past revelations and discipline we must strive to keep hold of as something more than shifting theory” (GEL, 6, p. 216). The opening lines of the Prelude to her most highly regarded and best-known novel, Middlemarch, echo this idea of her novels as laboratories for experiments in life. Eliot wrote there that knowledge of the history of human nature consists in attending to how that “mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time.”
Commentators on Middlemarch often find the metaphor of the web irresistible and it is not difficult to understand why this is so. Religious, political, social, economic, and ideological strands are woven together to create a rich and complex tapestry of life in the provincial english town of Middlemarch around the time of the 1832 reform Act. I will focus on just one thread of this complex web and preface my analysis with a quotation from Chapter 20:
… we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (MM, p. 194, emphasis added)
In addition to our general coarseness and stupidity, religion also offers some protection from that roar which lies on the other side of silence by giving our everyday suffering a meaning and through the comforting idea of an afterlife when each finally will receive justice.
If we take Spinoza and Feuerbach to have provided a kind of diagnosis of the human condition then we might understand Eliot to be attempting a sort of prognosis. She responds to the question: given this condition, what resources do we possess for the construction of a naturalistic morality in which we take responsibility for human life? Eliot understands our resources to be those that were identified by Spinoza and Feuerbach, namely, imagination and sympathy regulated by intellect. The crucial question then becomes: how should these powers be reconfigured in the absence of the theological illusion? Before turning to this question, it is worthwhile to reiterate five important conclusions from the philosophies of Spinoza and Feuerbach that provide the premises for Eliot’s experiments in life. First, the idea that man is god to man means that our highest aspirations and achievements are grounded in nothing other than our shared human life in nature. Second, our mode of being is constitutively relational: we learn who and what we are, or can become, through interacting with our fellow human beings. Recall the importance of the I-thou relation for Feuerbach, an important aspect of which is the relation between the sexes. Third, in order to form an ethical relation, every person must first overcome an inborn egoism. Fourth, if moral life is to become independent of traditional religion then we need to be capable of taking responsibility for the power of our emotions and learn how to regulate sympathy and imagination through reflection. Finally, all these processes are best understood in evolutionary terms. Revolutionary and speculative philosophies typically fail to calibrate the actual capacities of historically situated individuals with abstract designs for institutional reform. One important implication of this stance is that the reform of ethical life cannot entirely be institutionally driven. The reformation of ethical life also devolves to the individual, in proportion to his or her capacity to bear this responsibility.
The not unusual tragedy which prompted the authorial comment from Middlemarch about that roar beneath the silence is the failing marriage between Miss Dorothea Brooke and the reverend Mr. Edward Casaubon. It is through the narrative thread of this marriage that I will give flesh to each of the five points just mentioned. Dorothea certainly is well endowed with the sympathetic imagination that Eliot so prized. Her nature is ardent and she has intense spiritual yearnings. We are told that she “had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night and reading old theological books” (MM, p. 9). Although 1832 was not a time in which women enjoyed great social or political freedom, the nineteen-year old Dorothea chooses the elderly scholar Casaubon for a marriage partner quite as much as he chooses her. Her attraction to Casaubon stems, in part, from her belief that he will open up the world of masculine knowledge to her. She considers his unfinished “Key to all Mythologies” to present an opportunity for her to contribute to great scholarship even if this is “only as a lamp-holder” (p. 18). Her imagined future life as Mrs. Casaubon includes the thought that there “would be nothing trivial about our lives. Everyday-things with us would mean the greatest things. It would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by … I should see how it is possible to lead a grand life here-now-in england” (p. 29).
But what does Dorothea really know about Casaubon and his incomplete magnum opus? her initial grasp of who he is, is mostly imaginary: she “had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon’s mind [and saw] reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought” (p. 24) for, so it seems, “Mr. Casaubon had been the mere occasion which had set alight the fine inflammable material of her youthful illusions” (p. 84). Although Casaubon is a reverend he is not interested in the wellbeing of his community and does not preach to his parish. He has assigned that task to a minister of less wealth and status. Rather, he is obsessed with his scholarly work. His Key to all Mythologies aims “to show that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed” (p. 24). But despite long years of study and research his project is not progressing. He has amassed copious notes about the various beliefs of numerous cultures but has yet to identify the necessary unifying principle and so prove his thesis of a single origin for all religions and myths. Indeed, Casaubon’s project has already been superseded. As his provocative young cousin observes: “if Mr. Casaubon read German he would save himself a great deal of trouble” (p. 208). Although Eliot does not say it, among the authors Casaubon should have read are Strauss and Feuerbach.
What do we know about Casaubon’s image of Dorothea? Dorothea’s desire to learn is matched by his willingness to instruct an impressionable and enthusiastic young pupil. He “liked to draw forth her fresh interest in listening, as a means of encouragement to himself: in talking to her he presented all his performance and intention with the reflected confidence of the pedagogue, and rid himself for the time of that chilling ideal audience which crowded his laborious uncreative hours with the vaporous pressure of Tartarean shades” (p. 86). Unlike Dorothea, Casaubon has little interest in or sympathy for others. His “soul [was] sensitive without being enthusiastic … it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity” (p. 279).
It is perhaps obvious that this marriage is unlikely to be felicitous and that each partner will fail to find fulfillment in the other. As indicated above, Eliot counts the tragedy presented by marriages such as this one as ordinary, not unusual, even as frequent. It provides merely one instance of the everyday sufferings of our fellows that we are protected against because we are, as she puts it, well wadded with stupidity. What, then, has gone wrong with this instance of Feuerbach’s paradigmatic I-thou relationship? There are two major causal factors: one internal, the other external. The latter has to do with the distorting effects of the existing social conditions relating to education, marriage and property laws, and so on. For example, if Dorothea’s education had provided something more substantial than instruction in music and a smattering of French and Italian, then perhaps she would not have placed such heavy expectations on Mr. Casaubon’s frail shoulders. The laws and social norms of the period were a hindrance to friendship and reciprocity between the sexes, even or perhaps especially in the context of marriage. The internal factor centers on what Eliot calls the inborn egoism of each individual. Of course, these internal and external factors are in a dialectical relation, each shaping and re-shaping the other.
In a justifiably famous passage from Middlemarch Eliot offers a powerful image for the distorting effects of egoism, comparing it to the effect that is produced by holding a candle close to a reflective surface:
An eminent philosopher among my friends … has shown me this pregnant little fact. 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 round 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. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent. (p. 264)
The imaginary representations that Dorothea and Casaubon form of each other necessarily unravel over time. Although she lacks a classical education, Dorothea has an astute mind and eventually comes to doubt the viability of the Key to all Mythologies. She also begins to have misgivings about Casaubon’s superiority and is disturbed by his lack of fellow feeling. She “had not distinctly observed but felt with a shifting depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowither” (p. 195). Meanwhile, “Poor Mr Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs … [he had] lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours” (p. 197). Far from his young bride playing the role of an enthusiastic secretary, as he had hoped, her increasingly pertinent queries about his life’s work oppress him: “instead of observing his abundant pen scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, [Dorothea] seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference” (p. 200). Rather than providing a buffer against the criticisms of other scholars, he now wonders whether, in marrying Dorothea, he had “only given [them] a more substantial presence” (p. 202). Although their situation appears somewhat desperate it nevertheless holds out the possibility for mutual moral and intellectual growth if only they could overcome, and work through, their respective egoisms.
If Casaubon could open himself to his fellows-for example, to Dorothea and to his scholarly critics-his life and his work would be much enhanced. But Casaubon remains dazzled by the concentric circles formed by his little sun. He does not escape the egoistic illusion. Rather, it is Dorothea who comes to understand the illusions engendered by her little sun. The ability to distinguish her initial imaginative grasp of Casaubon from her intellectual grasp of his indifference only gradually comes to reverberate with her feelings towards him:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling-an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects-that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (p. 211, emphasis added)
Mr. Casaubon is not quite so robust. As we have seen, his sensitiveness is limited by petty self-regard and lacks the force necessary for transformation into sympathy for others. He dies of his degenerative heart condition: lonely, unfulfilled, mistrustful of his wife, and without finishing his life’s work.
Eventually, Dorothea remarries and moves away from the town of Middlemarch. We learn in the finale that she has children and that her life is filled with beneficent activity (p. 836). Her youthful yearning to live “a grand life here-now-in England” has not been realized. In fact, it was not a realizable aim. It was beyond Dorothea’s power even to help her husband to learn to love, to trust, and so to grow with her. Nevertheless, the many threads that radiate out from Dorothea connect her with her fellows in Middlemarch and elsewhere. Unlike Casaubon, her sympathetic disposition allows her to form ethical relationships. Her moral growth in the course of the novel is profound. Her behavior towards others such as the tenant farmers and their children, Dr. Lydgate, and Rosamund Vincy, makes a genuine difference to the conditions and quality of their lives.
Eliot makes use of the figure of St. Theresa of Avila to underline the contrast between Dorothea’s grand aspirations and her actual achievements in a way that highlights the dialectical relation between the internal powers of the individual and the external force of context. The contrast between the ordinariness of Dorothea’s fate and the extraordinariness of St. Theresa’s provides the novel with its frame. in the cautionary Preface to the novel Eliot wrote: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity” (p. 3). She returns to this theme in the final pages and observes that “the medium in which [the] ardent deeds [of st Theresa] took shape is forever gone” (p. 838). The comparison also serves to emphasize Eliot’s Feuerbachian opposition to transcendent saintly ideals. Instead she offers the figure of Dorothea, whose life events and actions are not epic. But surely this is the point? Although Dorothea’s life lacks the grandeur for which she yearned, nevertheless “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (p. 838).
Eliot shows that the quest to live a moral life is far from solved once the theological illusion is acknowledged. On the contrary, this yields a new and difficult moral task, one that is experienced as a burden perhaps able to be borne by few. Eliot gives body to this insight in each of her novels and shows that the attainment of moral knowledge requires change in the individual quite as much as in social and political institutions. Her philosophy advocates self-reformation as well as institutional reform. More importantly, she urges that each reformative project should attune with the other. As she put it in one of her essays: “there is a perpetual action and reaction between individuals and institutions; we must try and mend both by little and little-the only way in which human things can be mended.” Eliot’s contribution to such mending is to uncover the complexities of the relationships between individuals within particular political, religious and social contexts and to offer a sober account of the possibilities for change given the relevant internal and external conditions. Perhaps anticipating the disappointment that many readers would feel about Dorothea’s fate, namely, to be “absorbed into the life of another” and to be known only “as a wife and a mother,” Eliot observes that “no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done” (p. 836, italics added). A few pages later, as if to emphasize the point, she writes: “there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it” (p. 838).
Eliot rightly resisted being classified as an ordinary novelist (GEL, 3, p. 302). What lies behind this resistance is the fact that her literary works are not constructions of what she called the fictions of fancy or mere transient inclination. This disciplined approach to writing manifests itself in two ways. First, she worked to calibrate the exercise of her own imaginative powers with her commitment to aesthetic and moral realism. This means that she aimed to present her imaginary persons, places and times truthfully with scrupulous attention to historical detail and that she renounced those comforting illusions that guarantee stories that end in accordance with a theory of just deserts. Second, the discipline that she brought to her writing is deftly deployed in a literary demonstration of the destructive and constructive powers of the imagination along with its role in the cultivation of moral life. This sense of the aim of Eliot’s novels finds confirmation in a letter where she described her writing in terms of a desire “to help my readers in getting a clearer conception and a more active admiration of those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their existence; and also to help them in gradually dissociating these elements from the more transient forms on which an outworn teaching tends to make them dependent” (GEL, 4, p. 472, italics added). These vital elements that bind us together are the embodied beliefs and embedded practices characteristic of a given way of life. It is the ways of knowing that life which Eliot sought to reform through engaging the affective, imaginative and cognitive powers of her readers in the unfolding of her experiments in life. Insofar as her novels achieve a reformation of her readers’ ways of knowing, Eliot’s deployment of both art and philosophy goes beyond the mere critiques of religion offered by Spinoza and Feuerbach.