Read CHAPTER X - DISTINCTIVE TEACHINGS of George Eliot A Critical Study of Her Life‚ Writings & Philosophy, free online book, by George Willis Cooke, on

Science was accepted by George Eliot as furnishing the method and the proof for her philosophic and religious opinions. She was in hearty sympathy with Spencer and Darwin in regard to most of their speculations, and the doctrine of evolution was one which entirely approved itself to her mind. All her theories were based fundamentally on the hypothesis of universal law, which she probably interpreted with Lewes, in his Foundations of a Creed, as the uniformities of Infinite Activity. Not only in the physical world did she see law reigning, but also in every phase of the moral and spiritual life of man. In reviewing Lecky’s Rationalism in Europe, she used these suggestive words concerning the uniformity of sequences she believed to be universal in the fullest sense:

The supremely important fact that the gradual reduction of all phenomena within the sphere of established law, which carries as a consequence the rejection of the miraculous, and has its determining current in the development of physical science, seems to have engaged comparatively little of his attention; at least he gives it no prominence. The great conception of uniform regular sequence, without partiality and without caprice the conception which is the most potent force at work in the modification of our faith, and of the practical form given to our sentiments could only grow out of that patient watching of external fact, and that silencing of preconceived notions, which are urged upon the mind by the problems of physical science.

The uniformities of nature have the effect upon man, through his nervous organization, of developing a responsive feeling and action. He learns to respond to that uniformity, to conform his actions to it. The habits thus acquired are inherited by his children, and moral conduct is developed. Heredity has as conspicuous a place in the novels of George Eliot as in the scientific treatises of Charles Darwin. She has attempted to indicate the moral and social influences of heredity, that it gives us the better part of our life in all directions. Heredity is but one phase of the uniformity of nature and the persistence of its forces. That uniformity never changes for man; his life it entirely ignores. He is crushed by its forces; he is given pain and sorrow through its unpitying disregard of his tender nature. Not only the physical world, but the moral world also, is unfailing in the development of the legitimate sequences of its forces. There is no cessation of activity, no turning aside of consequences, no delay in the transformation of causes into necessary effects.

George Eliot never swerves from this conception of the universe, physical and moral; everywhere cause is but another name for effect. The unbending order adopts man into its processes, helps him when he conforms to them, and gives him pain when he disregards them. The whole secret of man’s existence is to be found in the agreement of his life with the invariable sequences of nature and moral activity; harmony with them brings true development, discord brings pain and sorrow. The unbending nature of law, and man’s relations to it, she has portrayed in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” when describing Tina’s sorrows.

While this poor little heart was being bruised with a weight too heavy for it, Nature was holding on her calm inexorable way, in unmoved and terrible beauty. The stars were rushing in their eternal courses; the tides swelled to the level of the last expectant weed; the sun was making brilliant day to busy nations oil the other side of the expectant earth. The stream of human thought and deed was hurrying and broadening onward. The astronomer was at his telescope; the great ships were laboring over the waves; the toiling eagerness of commerce, the fierce spirit of revolution, were only ebbing in brief rest, and sleepless statesmen were dreading the possible crisis of the morrow. What were our little Tina and her trouble in this mighty torrent, rushing from one awful unknown to another? Lighter than the smallest centre of quivering life in the water-drop, hidden and uncared for as the pulse of anguish in the breast of the tiniest bird that has fluttered down to its nest with the long-sought food, and has found the nest torn and empty.

The effect of the uniformities of nature upon man, as George Eliot regarded them, is not quite that which would be inferred from these words alone. While she believed that nature is as unbending and pitiless as is here indicated, yet that unbending uniformity, which never changes its direction for man, is a large influence towards the development of his higher life. It has the effect on man to develop feeling which is the expression of all that is best and most human in his life.

George Eliot believed that the better and nobler part of man’s life is to be found in feeling. It is the first expression which he makes as a sentient being, to have emotions; and his emotions more truly represent him than the purely intellectual processes of the mind. She would have us believe that feeling is rather to be trusted than the intellect, that it is both a safer and a surer guide. In Middlemarch she says that “our good depends on the quality and breadth of our emotions.” Her conception of the comparative worth of feeling and logic is expressed in Romola with a characteristic touch.

After all has been said that can be said about the widening influence of ideas, it remains true that they would hardly be such strong agents unless they were taken in a solvent of feeling. The great world-struggle of developing thought is continually foreshadowed in the struggle of the affections, seeking a justification for love and hope.

In Daniel Deronda, when considering the causes which prevent men from desecrating their fathers’ tombs for material gain, she says, “The only check to be alleged is a sentiment, which will coerce none who do not hold that sentiments are the better part of the world’s wealth.” To the same effect is her saying in Theophrastus Such, that “our civilization, considered as a splendid material fabric, is helplessly in peril without the spiritual police of sentiments or ideal feelings.” She expresses the conviction in Adam Bede, that “it is possible to have very erroneous theories and very sublime feelings;” and she does not hesitate through all her writings to convey the idea, that sublime feelings are much to be preferred to profound thoughts or the most perfect philosophy. She makes Adam Bede say that “it isn’t notions sets people doing the right thing it’s feelings,” and that “feeling’s a sort o’ knowledge.” Feeling gives us the only true knowledge we have of our fellow-men, a knowledge in every way more perfect than that which is to be derived from our intellectual inquiries into their natures and wants. In Janet’s Repentance this power of feeling to give us true knowledge of others, to awaken us to the deeper needs of our own souls, when we come in contact with those who are able to move and inspire us, is eloquently presented.

Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another! Not calculable by algebra, not deducible by logic, but mysterious, effectual, mighty as the hidden process by which the tiny seed is quickened, and bursts forth into tall stem and broad leaf, and glowing tasselled flower. Ideas are often poor ghosts; our sun-filled eyes cannot discern them; they pass athwart us in thin vapor, and cannot make themselves felt. But sometimes they are made flesh; they breathe upon us with warm breath; they touch us with soft responsive hands; they look at us with sad, sincere eyes, and speak to us in appealing tones; they are clothed in a living human soul, with all its conflicts, its faith and its love. Then their presence is a power; then they shake us like a passion, and we are drawn after them with gentle compulsion, as flame is drawn to flame.

She returns to the same subject when considering the intellectual theories of happiness and the proportion of crime there is likely to occur in the world. She shows her entire dissent from such a method of dealing with human woe, and she pleads for that sympathy and love which will enable us to feel the pain of others as our own. This fellow-feeling gives us the most adequate knowledge we can have.

It was probably a hard saying to the Pharisees, that “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.” And certain ingenious philosophers of our own day must surely take offence at a joy so entirely out of correspondence with arithmetical proportion. But a heart that has been taught by its own sore struggles to bleed for the woes of another that has “learned pity through suffering” is likely to find very imperfect satisfaction in the “balance of happiness,” “doctrine of compensations,” and other short and easy methods of obtaining thorough complacency in the presence of pain; and for such a heart that saying will not be altogether dark. The emotions I have observed are but slightly influenced by arithmetical considerations: the mother, when her sweet lisping little ones have all been taken from her one after another, and she is hanging over her last dead babe, finds small consolation in the fact that the tiny dimpled corpse is but one of a necessary average, and that a thousand other babes brought into the world at the same time are doing well, and are likely to live; and if you stood beside that mother if you knew her pang and shared it it is probable you would be equally unable to see a ground of complacency in statistics. Doubtless a complacency resting on that basis is highly rational; but emotion, I fear, is obstinately irrational; it insists on caring for individuals; it absolutely refuses to adopt the quantitative view of human anguish, and to admit that thirteen happy lives are a set-off against twelve miserable lives, which leaves a clear balance on the side of satisfaction. This is the inherent imbecility of feeling, and one must be a great philosopher to have got quite clear of all that, and to have emerged into the serene air of pure intellect, in which it is evident that individuals really exist for no other purpose than that abstractions maybe drawn from them abstractions that may rise from heaps of ruined lives like the sweet savor of a sacrifice in the nostrils of philosophers, and of a philosophic Deity. And so it comes to pass that for the man who knows sympathy because he has known sorrow, that old, old saying about the joy of angels over the repentant sinner outweighing their joy over the ninety-nine just, has a meaning which does not jar with the language of his own heart. It only tells him that for angels too there is a transcendent value in human pain which refuses to be settled by equations; that the eyes of angels too are turned away from the serene happiness of the righteous to bend with yearning pity on the poor erring soul wandering in the desert where no water is; that for angels too the misery of one casts so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of ninety-nine.

Again, she says in the same story,

Surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analogies of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and-work the life-and-death struggles of separate human beings.

George Eliot would have us believe, that until we can feel with man, enter sympathetically into his emotions and yearnings, we cannot know him. It is because we have common emotions, common experiences, common aspirations, that we are really able to understand man; and not because of statistics, natural history, sociology or psychology. The objective facts have their place and value, but the real knowledge we possess of mankind is subjective, grows out of fellow-feeling.

The mental life of man, according to George Eliot, is simply an expansion of the emotional life. At first the mental life is unconscious, it is instinctive, simply the emotional response of man to the sequences of nature. This instinctive life of the emotions always remains a better part of our natures, and is to be trusted rather than the more formal activities of the intellectual faculties. In the most highly developed intellects even, there is a subconscious mental activity, an instinctive life of feeling, which is rather to be trusted than reason itself. This is a frequently recurring statement, which George Eliot makes in the firmest conviction of its truthfulness. It appears in such a sentence as this, in The Mill on the Floss: “Watch your own speech, and notice how it is guided by your less conscious purposes.” In Daniel Deronda it finds expression in the assertion that “there is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.” It is more explicitly presented in Adam Bede.

Do we not all agree to call rapid thought and noble impulses by the name of inspiration? After our subtlest analysis of the mental process, we must still say that our highest thoughts and our best deeds are all given to us.

George Eliot puts into the mouth of Mordecai the assertion that love lies deeper than any reasons which are to be found for its exercise. In the same way, she would have us believe that feeling is safer than reason. Daniel Deronda questions Mordecai’s visions, and doubts if he is worth listening to, except for pity’s sake. On this the author comments, in defence of the visions, as against reason.

Suppose he had introduced himself as one of the strictest reasoners: do they form a body of men hitherto free from false conclusions and illusory speculations? The driest argument has its hallucinations, too hastily concluding that its net will now at last be large enough to hold the universe. Men may dream in demonstrations, and cut out an illusory world in the shape of axioms, definitions and propositions, with a final exclusion of fact signed Q.E.D. No formulas for thinking will save us mortals from mistake in our imperfect apprehension of the matter to be thought about. And since the unemotional intellect may carry us into a mathematical dream-land where nothing is but what is not, perhaps an emotional intellect may have absorbed into its passionate vision of possibilities some truth of what will be the more comprehensive massive life feeding theory with new material, as the sensibility of the artist seizes combinations which science explains and justifies. At any rate, presumptions to the contrary are not to be trusted.

As explicit is a passage in Theophrastus Such, wherein imagination is regarded as a means of knowledge, because it rests on a subconscious expression of experience.

It is worth repeating that powerful imagination is not false outward vision, but intense inward representation, and a creative energy constantly fed by susceptibility to the veriest minutiae of experience, which it reproduces and constructs in fresh and fresh wholes; not the habitual confusion of probable fact with the fictions of fancy and transient inclination, but a breadth of ideal association which informs every material object, every incidental fact, with far-reaching memories and stored residues of passion, bringing into new light the less obvious relations of human existence.

Imagination, feeling and the whole inward life are being constantly shaped by our actions. Experience gives new character to the inward life, and at the same time determines its motives and its inclinations. The muscles develop as they are used; what has been once done it is easier to do again. In the same way, our deeds influence our lives, and compel us to repeat our actions. At least this is George Eliots opinion, and one she is fond of re-affirming. After Arthur had wronged Hetty, his life was changed, and of this change wrought in his character by his conduct, George Eliot says,

Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds; and until we know what has been or will be the peculiar combination of outward with inward facts which constitute a man’s critical actions, it will be better not to think ourselves wise about his character. There is a terrible coercion in our deeds which may at first turn the honest man into a deceiver, and then reconcile him to the change; for this reason that the second wrong presents itself to him in the guise of the only practicable right. The action which before commission has been seen with that blended common sense and fresh untarnished feeling which is the healthy eye of the soul, is looked at afterward with the lens of apologetic ingenuity, through which all things that men call beautiful and ugly are seen to be made up of textures very much alike. Europe adjusts itself to a fait accompli, and so does an individual character until the placid adjustment is disturbed by a convulsive retribution.

What we have done, determines what we shall do, even in opposition to our wills. After Tito Melema had done his first act towards denying his foster-father, we have this observation of the author’s:

Our deeds are like children that are born to us; they live and act apart from our own will. Nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never; they have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness; and that dreadful vitality of deeds was pressing hard on Tito for the first time.

When Tito had openly denied that father, at an unexpected moment, we hear the ever-present chorus repeating this great ethical truth:

Tito was experiencing that inexorable law of human souls, that we
prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or
evil that gradually determines character.

As a river moves in the channel made for it, as a plant grows towards the sunlight, so man does again what he has once done. The impression of his act is left upon his nature, it is taken up into his motives, it leads to feeling and impulse, it repeats itself in future conduct. His deed lives in memory, it lives in weakness or strength of impulse, it lives in disease or in health, it lives in mental listlessness or in mental vigor. What is done, determines our natures in their character and tendency for the future. “A man can never separate himself from his past history,” says George Eliot in one of the mottoes of Felix Holt. We cannot rid ourselves of the effects of our actions; they follow us forever. This truth takes shape in Romola in these words:

Our lives make a moral tradition for our individual selves, as the life of mankind at large makes a moral tradition for the race; and to have once acted greatly, seems a reason why we should always be noble. But Tito was feeling the effect of an opposite tradition: he had now no memories of self-conquest and perfect faithfulness from which he could have a sense of falling.

A motto in Daniel Deronda reiterates this oft-repeated assertion.

Deeds are the pulse of Time, his beating life,
And righteous or unrighteous, being done,
Must throb in after-throbs till Time itself
Be laid in stillness, and the universe
Quiver and breathe upon no mirror more.

Feeling is to be preferred to logic, according to George Eliot, because it brings us the results of long-accumulating experiences, because it embodies the inherited experiences of the race. She was an earnest believer in “far-reaching memories and stored residues of passion,” for she was convinced that the better part of all our knowledge is brought to us by inheritance. The deeds of the individual make the habits of his life, they remain in memory, they guide the purposes of the will, and they give motives to action. Deeds often repeated give impulse and direction to character, and these appear in the offspring as predispositions of body and mind. In this way our deeds “throb in after-throbs” of our children; and in the same manner the deeds of a people live in the life of the race and become guiding motives in its future deeds. As the deeds of a person develop into habits, so the deeds of a people develop into national tendencies and actions.

George Eliot was a thorough believer in the Darwinian theories of heredity, and she has in all her books shown the effects of hereditary conditions on the individual and even upon a people. Family and race are made to play a very important part in her writings. Other novelists disregard the conditions and limitations imposed by heredity, and consider the individual as unrestricted by other laws than those of his own will; but George Eliot gives conspicuous prominence to the laws of heredity, both individual and social. Felix Holt never ceases in her pages to be the son of his mother, however enlarged his ideas may become and broad his culture. Rosamond Vincy also has a parentage, and so has Mary Garth. Daniel Deronda is a Jew by birth, the son of a visionary mother and a truth-seeking father. This parentage expresses itself throughout his life, even in boyhood, in all his thought and conduct. Heredity shapes the destiny of Tito Melema, Romola, Fedalma, Maggie Tulliver, Will Ladislaw, Gwendolen Harleth and many another character in George Eliot’s novels. It is even more strongly presented in her poems. In The Spanish Gypsy she describes Fedalma as a genuine daughter of her father, as inheriting his genius and tendencies, which are stronger than all the Spanish culture she had received. When Fedalma says she belongs to him she loves, and that love

is nature too,
Forming a fresher law than laws of birth,

Zarca replies,

Unmake yourself, then, from a Zincala
Unmake yourself from being child of mine!
Take holy water, cross your dark skin white;
Round your proud eyes to foolish kitten looks;
Walk mincingly, and smirk, and twitch your robe:
Unmake yourself doff all the eagle plumes
And be a parrot, chained to a ring that slips
Upon a Spaniard’s thumb, at will of his
That you should prattle o’er his words again!

Fedalma cannot unmake herself; she has already danced in the plaza, and she is soon convinced that she is a Zincala, that her place is with her father and his tribe. The Prior had declared,

That maiden’s blood
Is as unchristian as the leopard’s,

and it so proves. His statement of reasons for this conviction expresses the author’s own belief.

What! Shall the trick of nostrils and of lips
Descend through generations, and the soul
That moves within our frame like God in worlds
Convulsing, urging, melting, withering
Imprint no record, leave no documents,
Of her great history? Shall men bequeath
The fancies of their palates to their sons,
And shall the shudder of restraining awe,
The slow-wept tears of contrite memory,
Faith’s prayerful labor, and the food divine
Of fasts ecstatic shall these pass away
Like wind upon the waters, tracklessly?
Shall the mere curl of eyelashes remain,
And god-enshrining symbols leave no trace
Of tremors reverent?

This larger or social heredity is that which claims much the larger share of George Eliot’s attention, and it is far more clearly and distinctively presented in her writings. She gives a literary expression here to the teachings of the evolutionists, shows the application to life of what has been taught by Spencer, Haeckel and Lewes. In his Foundations of a Creed, Lewes has stated this theory in discussing “the limitations of knowledge.” “It is indisputable,” he says, “that every particular man comes into the world with a heritage of organized forms and definite tendencies, which will determine his feeling and thinking in certain definite ways, whenever the suitable conditions are present. And all who believe in evolution believe that these forms and tendencies represent ancestral experiences and adaptations; believe that not only is the pointer born with an organized tendency to point, the setter to set, the beaver to build, and the bird to fly, but that the man is born with a tendency to think in images and symbols according to given relations and sequences which constitute logical laws, that what he thinks is the necessary product of his organism and the external conditions. This organism itself is a product of its history; it is what it has become; it is a part of the history of the human race; it is also specially individualized by the particular personal conditions which have distinguished him from his fellow-men. Thus resembling all men in general characters, he will in general feel as they feel, think as they think; and differing from all men in special characters, he will have personal differences of feeling and shades of feeling, thought and combinations of thought.... The mind is built up out of assimilated experiences, its perceptions being shaped by its pre-perceptions, its conceptions by its pre-conceptions. Like the body, the mind is shaped through its history.” In other words, experience is inherited and shapes the mental and social life. What some philosophers have called intuitions, and what Kant called the categories of the mind, Lewes regarded as the inherited results of human experience. By a slow process of evolution the mind has been produced and shaped into harmony with its environment; the results of inherited experience take the form of feelings, intuitions, laws of thought and social tendencies. Its intuitions are to be accepted as the highest knowledge, because the transmitted results of all human experience.

As the body performs those muscular operations most easily to which it is most accustomed, so men as social beings perform those acts and think those thoughts most easily and naturally to which the race has been longest accustomed. Man lives and thinks as man has lived and thought; he inherits the past. In his social life he is as much the child of the past as he is individually the son of his father. If he inherits his father’s physiognomy and habits of thought, so does he socially inherit the characteristics of his race, its social and moral life. George Eliot was profoundly convinced of the value of this fact, and she has presented it in her books in all its phases. In her Fortnightly Review essay on “The Influence of Rationalism,” she says all large minds have long had “a vague sense” “that tradition is really the basis of our best life.” She says, “Our sentiments may be called organized traditions; and a large part of our actions gather all their justification, all their attractions and aroma, from the memory of the life lived, of the actions done, before we were born.” Tradition is the inherited experience of the race, the result of its long efforts, its many struggles, after a larger life. It lives in the tendencies of our emotions, in the intuitions and aspirations of our minds, as the wisdom which our minds hold dear, as the yearnings of our hearts after a wider social life. These things are not the results of our own reasonings, but they are the results of the life lived by those who have gone before us, and who, by their thoughts and deeds, have shaped our lives, our minds, to what they are. Tradition is the inherited experience, feeling, yearning, pain, sorrow and wisdom of the ages. It furnishes a great system of customs, laws, institutions, ideas, motives and feelings into which we are born, which we naturally adopt, which gives shape and strength to our growing life, which makes it possible for us to take up life at that stage it has reached after the experiences of many generations. George Eliot says in Middlemarch that “a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition.” We come into a world made ready for us, and find prepared for our immediate use a vast complex of customs and duties and ideas, the results of the world’s experience. George Eliot believed, with Comte, that with each generation the influence of the past over the present becomes greater, and that men’s lives are more and more shaped by what has been. In The Spanish Gypsy she makes Don Silva say that

The only better is a Past that lives
On through an added Present, stretching still
In hope unchecked by shaming memories
To life’s last breath.

This deep conviction of the blessed influence of the past upon us is well expressed in the little poem on “Self and Life,” one of the most fully autobiographical of all her poems, where she makes Life bid Self remember

How the solemn, splendid Past
O’er thy early widened earth
Made grandeur, as on sunset cast
Dark elms near take mighty girth.
Hands and feet were tiny still
When we knew the historic thrill,
Breathed deep breath in heroes dead,
Tasted the immortals’ bread.

In expressive sentences, in the development of her characters, and in many other ways, she affirms this faith in tradition. In one of the mottoes in Felix Holt she uses a fine sentence, which is repeated in “A Minor Prophet.”

Our finest hope is finest memory.

The finest hope of the race is to be found in memory of its great deeds, as its saddest loss is to be found in forgetfulness of a noble past. In The Mill on the Floss, when describing St. Ogg’s, she attributes its sordid and tedious life to its neglect of the past and its inspiring memories.

The mind of St. Ogg’s did not look extensively before or after. It inherited a long past without thinking of it, and had no eyes for the spirits that walk the streets, Since the centuries when St. Ogg with his boat, and the Virgin Mother at the prow, had been seen on the wide water, so many memories had been left behind, and had gradually vanished like the receding hill-tops! And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. The days were gone when people could be greatly wrought upon by their faith, still less change it: the Catholics were formidable because they would lay hold of government and property, and burn men alive; not because any sane and honest parishioner of St. Ogg’s could be brought to believe in the Pope. One aged person remembered how a rude multitude had been swayed when John Wesley preached in the cattle-market; but for a long while it had not been expected of preachers that they should shake the souls of men. An occasional burst of fervor in Dissenting pulpits on the subject of infant baptism was the only symptom of a zeal unsuited to sober times when men had done with change. Protestantism sat at ease, unmindful of schisms, careless of proselytism; Dissent was an inheritance along with a superior pew and a business connection; and Churchmanship only wondered contemptuously at Dissent as a foolish habit that clung greatly to families in the grocery and chandlering lines, though not incompatible with prosperous wholesale dealing.

This faith in tradition, as giving the basis of all our best life, is perhaps nowhere so expressively set forth by George Eliot as in The Spanish Gypsy. It is distinctly taught by all the best characters in the words they speak, and it is emphatically taught in the whole purpose and spirit of the poem. Zarca says his tribe has no great life because it has no great national memories. He calls his people

Wanderers whom no God took knowledge of
To give them laws, to fight for them, or blight
Another race to make them ampler room;
Who have no whence or whither in their souls,
No dimmest lure of glorious ancestors
To make a common breath for piety.

As his people are weak because they have no traditional life, he proposes by his deeds to make them national memories and hopes and aims.

No lure
Shall draw me to disown them, or forsake
The meagre wandering herd that lows for help
And needs me for its guide, to seek my pasture
Among the well-fed beeves that graze at will.
Because our race has no great memories,
I will so live, it shall remember me
For deeds of such divine beneficence
As rivers have, that teach, men what is good
By blessing them. I have been schooled have caught
Lore from Hebrew, deftness from the Moor
Know the rich heritage, the milder life,
Of nations fathered by a mighty Past.

The way in which such a past is made is suggested by Zarca, in answer to a question about the Gypsy’s faith; it is made by a common life of faith and brotherhood, that gives origin to a common inheritance and memories.

O, it is a faith
Taught by no priest, but by their beating hearts
Faith to each other: the fidelity
Of fellow-wanderers in a desert place
Who share the same dire thirst, and therefore share
The scanty water: the fidelity
Of men whose pulses leap with kindred fire,
Who in the flash of eyes, the clasp of hands,
The speech that even in lying tells the truth
Of heritage inevitable as birth,
Nay, in the silent bodily presence feel
The mystic stirring of a common life
Which makes the many one: fidelity
To that deep consecrating oath our sponsor Fate
Made through our infant breath when we were born
The fellow-heirs of that small island, Life,
Where we must dig and sow and reap with brothers.
Fear thou that oath, my daughter nay, not fear,
But love it; for the sanctity of oaths
Lies not in lightning that avenges them,
But in the injury wrought by broken bonds
And in the garnered good of human trust.
And you have sworn even with your infant breath
You too were pledged.

George Eliot’s faith in tradition, as furnishing the basis of our best life, and the moral purpose and law which is to guide it, she has concentrated into one question asked by Maggie Tulliver.

If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should
have no law but the inclination of the moment.

Although this question is asked in regard to an individual’s past, the answer to it holds quite as good for the race as for the individual. She repudiates all theories which give the individual authority to follow inclination, or even to follow some inner or personal guide. The true wisdom is always social, always grows out of the experiences of the race, and not out of any personal inspiration or enlightenment. Tradition furnishes the materials for reason to use, but reason does not penetrate into new regions, or bring to us wisdom apart from that we obtain through inherited experiences. George Eliot compares these two with each other in The Spanish Gypsy in the words of Sephardo.

I abide
By that wise spirit of listening reverence
Which marks the boldest doctors of our race.
For Truth, to us, is like a living child
Born of two parents: if the parents part
And will divide the child, how shall it live?
Or, I will rather say: Two angels guide
The path of man, both aged and yet young,
As angels are, ripening through endless years.
On one he leans: some call her Memory,
And some, Tradition; and her voice is sweet,
With deep mysterious accords: the other,
Floating above, holds down a lamp which streams
A light divine and searching on the earth,
Compelling eyes and footsteps. Memory yields,
Yet clings with loving check, and shines anew
Reflecting all the rays of that bright lamp
Our angel Reason holds. We had not walked
But for Tradition; we walk evermore
To higher paths, by brightening Reason’s lamp.

Man leans on tradition, it is the support of his life, by its strength he is able to move forward. Reason is a lamp which lights the way, gives direction to tradition; it is a beacon and not a support. Tradition not only brings us the wisdom of all past experience, but it develops into a spiritual atmosphere in which we live, move and have our being. This was Comte’s idea, that the spiritual life is developed out of tradition, that the world’s experiences have produced for us intangible hopes, yearnings and aspirations; awe, reverence and sense of subtle mystery: mystic trust, faith in invisible memories, joy in the unseen power of thought and love; and that these create for us a spiritual world most real in its nature, and most powerful in its influence. On every hand man is touched by the invisible, mystical influences of the past, spiritual voices call to him out of the ages, unseen hands point the way he is to go. He breathes this atmosphere of spiritual memories, he is fed on thoughts other men have made for his sustenance, he is inspired by the heroisms of ages gone before. In an article in the Westminster Review in July, 1856, on “The Natural History of German Life,” in review of W.H. Riehl’s books on the German peasant, and on land and climate, she presents the idea that a people can be understood only when we understand its history. Society, she says, has developed through many generations, and has built itself up in many memories and associations. To change it we must change its traditions. Nothing can be done de novo; a fresh beginning cannot be had. The dream of the French Revolution, that a new nation, a new life, a new morality, was to be created anew and fresh out of the cogitations of philosophers, is not in any sense to be realized. Tradition forever asserts itself, the past is more powerful than all philosophers, and new traditions must be made before a new life can be had for society. These ideas are well expressed by George Eliot in her review of Riehl’s books.

He sees in European society incarnate history, and any attempt to disengage it from its historical elements must, he believes, be simply destruction of social vitality. What has grown up historically can only die out historically, by the gradual operation of necessary laws. The external conditions which society has inherited from the past are but the manifestation of inherited internal conditions in the human beings who compose it; the internal conditions and the external are related to each other as the organism and its medium, and development can take place only by the gradual consentaneous development of both. As a necessary preliminary to a purely rational society, you must obtain purely rational men, free from the sweet and bitter prejudices of hereditary affection and antipathy; which is as easy as to get running streams without springs, or the leafy shade of the forest without the secular growth of trunk and branch.

The historical conditions of society may be compared with those of language. It must be admitted that the language of cultivated nations is in anything but a rational state; the great sections of the civilized world are only approximately intelligible to each other, and even that, only at the cost of long study; one word stands for many things, and many words for one thing; the subtle shades of meaning, and still subtler echoes of association, make language an instrument which scarcely anything short of genius can wield with definiteness and certainty. Suppose, then, that the effort which has been again and again made to construct a universal language on a rational basis has at length succeeded, and that you have a language which has no uncertainty, no whims of idiom, no cumbrous forms, no fitful shimmer of many-hued significance, no hoary archaisms “familiar with forgotten years,” a patent deodorized and non-resonant language, which effects the purpose of communication as perfectly and rapidly as algebraic signs. Your language may be a perfect medium of expression to science, but will never express life, which is a great deal more than science. With the anomalies and inconveniences of historical language, you will have parted with its music and its passion, with its vital qualities as an expression of individual character, with its subtle capabilities of wit, with everything that gives it power over the imagination; and the next step in simplification will be the invention of a talking watch, which will achieve the utmost facility and despatch in the communication of ideas by a graduated adjustment of ticks, to be represented in writing by a corresponding arrangement of dots. A “melancholy language of the future!” The sensory and motor nerves that run in the same sheath are scarcely bound together by a more necessary and delicate union than that which binds men’s affections, imagination, wit and humor with the subtle ramifications of historical language. Language must be left to grow in precision, completeness and unity, as minds grow in clearness, comprehensiveness and sympathy. And there is an analogous relation between the moral tendencies of men and the social conditions they have inherited. The nature of European men has its roots intertwined with the past, and can only be developed by allowing those roots to remain undisturbed while the process of development is going on, until that perfect ripeness of the seed which carries with it a life independent of the root....

It has not been sufficiently insisted on, that in the various branches of social science there is an advance from the general to the special, from the simple to the complex, analogous with that which is found in the series of the sciences, from mathematics to biology. To the laws of quantity comprised in mathematics and physics are superadded, in chemistry, laws of quality; to those again are added, in biology, laws of life; and lastly, the conditions of life in general branch out into its special conditions, or natural history, on the one hand, and into its abnormal conditions, or pathology, on the other. And in this series or ramification of the sciences, the more general science will not suffice to solve the problems of the more special. Chemistry embraces phenomena which are not explicable by physics; biology embraces phenomena which are not explicable by chemistry; and no biological generalization will enable us to predict the infinite specialties produced by the complexity of vital conditions. So social science, while it has departments which in their fundamental generality correspond to mathematics and physics, namely, those grand and simple generalizations which trace out the inevitable march of the human race as a whole, and, as a ramification of these, the laws of economical science, has also, in the departments of government and jurisprudence, which embrace the conditions of social life in all their complexity, what may be called its biology, carrying us on to innumerable special phenomena which outlie the sphere of science, and belong to natural history. And just as the most thorough acquaintance with physics, or chemistry, or general physiology, will not enable you at once to establish the balance of life in your private vivarium, so that your particular society of zoophytes, molluscs and echinoderms may feel themselves, as the Germans say, at ease in their skins; so the most complete equipment of theory will not enable a statesman or a political and social reformer to adjust his measures wisely, in the absence of a special acquaintance with the section of society for which he legislates, with the peculiar characteristics of the nation, the province, the class whose well-being he has to consult. In other words, a wise social policy must be based not simply on abstract social science but on the natural history of social bodies.

Her conception of the corporate life of the nice has been clearly expressed by George Eliot in the concluding essay in Theophrastus Such. In that essay she writes of the powerful influence wrought upon national life by “the divine gift of memory which inspires the moments with a past, a present and a future, and gives the sense of corporate existence that raises man above the otherwise more respectable and innocent brute.” The nations which lead the world on to a larger civilization are not merely those with most genius, originality, gift of invention or talent for scientific observation, but those which have the finest traditions. As a member of such a nation, the individual can be noble and great. We should almost be persuaded, reading George Eliot’s eloquent rhetoric on this subject, that personal genius is of little moment in comparison with a rich inheritance of national memories. It is indeed true that Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Shakspere have used the traditions of their people for the materials of their immortal works, but what would those traditions have been without the genius of the men who deal with the traditions in a fashion quite their own, giving them new meaning and vitality! The poet, however, needs materials for his song, and memories to inspire it. The influence of these George Eliot well understands in calling them “the deep suckers of healthy sentiment.”

The historian guides us rightly in urging us to dwell on the virtues of our ancestors with emulation, and to cherish our sense of a common descent as a bond of obligation. The eminence, the nobleness of a people, depends on its capability of being stirred by memories, and for striving for what we call spiritual ends ends which consist not in an immediate material possession, but in the satisfaction of a great feeling that animates the collective body as with one soul. A people having the seed of worthiness in it must feel an answering thrill when it is adjured by the deaths of its heroes who died to preserve its national existence; when it is reminded of its small beginnings and gradual growth through past labors and struggles, such as are still demanded of it in order that the freedom and well-being thus inherited may be transmitted unimpaired to children and children’s children; when an appeal against the permission of injustice is made to great precedents in its history and to the better genius breathing in its institutions. It is this living force of sentiment in common which makes a national consciousness. Nations so moved will resist conquest with the very breasts of their women, will pay their millions and their blood to abolish slavery, will share privation in famine and all calamity, will produce poets to sing “some great story of a man,” and thinkers whose theories will bear the test of action. An individual man, to be harmoniously great, must belong to a nation of this order, if not in actual existence yet existing in the past in memory, as a departed, invisible, beloved ideal, once a reality, and perhaps to be restored.... Not only the nobleness of a nation depends on the presence of this national consciousness, but also the nobleness of each individual citizen. Our dignity and rectitude are proportioned to our sense of relationship with something great, admirable, pregnant with high possibilities, worthy of sacrifice, a continual inspiration to self-repression and discipline by the presentation of aims larger and more attractive to our generous part than the securing of personal ease or prosperity.

Zealous as is George Eliot’s faith in tradition, she is broad-minded enough to see that it is limited in its influence by at least two causes, by reason and by the spirit of universal brotherhood. We have already seen that she makes reason one of man’s guides. In Romola the right of the individual to make a new course for action is distinctly expressed. Romola had “the inspiring consciousness,” we are told, “that her lot was vitally united with the general lot which exalted even the minor details of obligation into religion,” and so “she was marching with a great army, she was feeling the stress of a common life.” Yet she began to feel that she must not merely repeat the past; and the influence of Savonarola, in breaking with Rome for the sake of a pure and holy life, inspired her.

To her, as to him, there had come one of those moments in life when the soul must dare to act on its own warrant, not only without external law to appeal to, but in face of a law which is not unarmed with divine lightnings lightnings that may yet fall if the warrant has been false.

It is reason’s lamp by which “we walk evermore to higher paths;” and by its aid, new deeds are to be done, new memories created, fresher traditions woven into feeling and hope. National memories are to be superseded by the spirit of brotherhood, for, as the race advances, nations are brought closer to each other, have more in common, and development is made of world-wide traditions. Theophrastus Such, in the last of his essays, tells us that “it is impossible to arrest the tendencies of things towards the quicker or slower fusion of races.”

The environment of her characters George Eliot makes of very great importance. She dwells upon the natural scenery which they love, but especially does she magnify the importance of the social environment, and the perpetual influence it has upon the whole of life. Mr. James Sully has clearly interpreted her thought on this subject, and pointed out its engrossing interest for her.

“A character divorced from its surroundings is an abstraction. A personality is only a concrete living whole, when we attach it by a network of organic filaments to its particular environment, physical and social. Our author evidently chooses her surroundings with strict regard to her characters. She paints nature less in its own beauty than in its special aspect and significance for those whom she sets in its midst. ’The bushy hedgerows,’ ’the pool in the corner of the field where the grasses were dank,’ ’the sudden slope of the old marl-pit, making a red background for the burdock’ these things are touched caressingly and lingered over because they are so much to the ‘midland-bred souls’ whose history is here recorded; so much because of cumulative recollection reaching back to the time when they ‘toddled among’ them, or perhaps ’learnt them by heart standing between their father’s knees while he drove leisurely.’ And what applies to the natural environment applies still more to those narrower surroundings which men construct for themselves, and which form their daily shelter, their work-shop, their place of social influence. The human interest which our author sheds about the mill, the carpenter’s shop, the dairy, the village church, and even the stiff, uninviting conventicle, shows that she looks on these as having a living continuity with the people whom she sets among them. Their artistic value is but a reflection of all that they mean to those for whom they have made the nearer and habitually enclosing world.” The larger influence in the environment of any person, according to George Eliot, is that which arises from tradition. Cut off from the sustenance given by tradition, the person loses the motives, the supports of his life. This is well shown in the case of Silas Marner, who had fled from his early home and all his life held dear. George Eliot describes the effect of such a change of environment.

Even people whose lives have been made various by learning, sometimes find it hard to keep a fast hold on their habitual views of life, on their faith in the Invisible nay, on the sense that their past joys and sorrows are a real experience, when they are suddenly transported to a new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas where their mother earth shows another lap, and human life has other forms than those on which their souls have been nourished. Minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love, have perhaps sought this Lethean influence of exile, in which the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.

She delights to return again and again to the influences produced upon us by the environment of childhood. In The Mill on the Floss she tells us how dear the earth becomes by such associations.

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows the same redbreasts that we used to call “God’s birds,” because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers, and the blue-eyed speedwell, and the ground-ivy at my feet what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us, and transform our perception into love.

In the backward glance of Theophrastus Such this anchorage of the life in familiar associations is described as a source of our faith in the spiritual, even when all the childhood thoughts about those associations cannot be retained.

The illusions that began for us when we were less acquainted with evil have not lost their value when we discern them to be illusions. They feed the ideal better, and in loving them still, we strengthen, the precious habit of loving something not visibly, tangibly existent, but a spiritual product of our visible, tangible selves.

In the evolution philosophy she found the reconciliation between Locke and Kant which she so earnestly desired to discover in girlhood. The old school of experimentalists did not satisfy her with their philosophy; she saw that the dictum that all knowledge is the result of sensation was not satisfactory, that it was shallow and untrue. On the other hand, the intellectual intuition of Schelling was not acceptable, nor even Kant’s categories of the mind. She wished to know why the mind instinctively throws all experiences and thoughts under certain forms, and why it must think under certain general methods. She found what to her was a perfectly satisfactory answer to these questions in the theory of evolution as developed by Darwin and Spencer. Through the aid of these men she found the reconciliation between Locke and Kant, and discovered that both were wrong and both right. So familiar has this reconciliation become, and so wide is its acceptance, that no more than a mere hint of its meaning will be needed here. This philosophy asserts, with Locke, that all knowledge begins in sensation and experience; but with Kant, it affirms that knowledge passes beyond experience and becomes intuitional. It differs from Kant as to the source of the intuitions, pronouncing them the results of experience built up into legitimate factors of the mind by heredity. Experience is inherited and becomes intuitions. The intuitions are affirmed to be reliable, and, to a certain extent, sure indications of truth. They are the results, to use the phrase adopted by Lewes, of “organized experience;” experience verified in the most effective manner in the organism which it creates and modifies. According to this philosophy, man must trust the results of experience, but he can by no means be certain that those results correspond with actuality. They are actual for him, because it is impossible for him to go beyond their range. Within the little round created by “organized experience,” which is also Lewes’s definition of science, man may trust his knowledge, because it is consistent with itself; but beyond that strict limit he can obtain no knowledge, and even knows that what is without it does not correspond with what is within it. In truth, man knows only the relative, not the absolute; he must rely on experience, not on creative reason.

George Eliot would have us believe that the sources of life are not inward, but outward; not dependent on the deep affirmations of individual reason, or on the soul’s inherent capacity to see what is true, but on the effects of environment and the results of social experience. Man is not related to an infinite world of reason and spiritual truth, but only to a world of universal law, hereditary conditions and social traditions. Invariable law, heredity, feeling, tradition; these words indicate the trend of George Eliot’s mind, and the narrow limitations of her philosophy. Man is not only the product of nature, but, according to this theory, nature limits his moral capacity and the range of his mental activity. Environment is regarded as all-powerful, and the material world as the source of such truth as we can know. In her powerful presentation of this philosophy of life George Eliot indicates her great genius and her profound insight. At the same time, her work is limited, her genius cramped, and her imagination crippled, by a philosophy so narrow and a creed so inexpansive.