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George Eliot on God and the Good

November 7, 2011

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face;

And Love, the human form divine;

And Peace, the human dress.

The lines above, written by William Blake in his poem Innocence, are given to us by George Eliot at the opening of chapter 76 of Middlemarch. It is in this chapter that Lydgate confesses to Dorothea, and in which Dorothea promises to help Lydgate in any way she can. The emphasis they place on the human is striking, and they echo one of the central messages found throughout George Eliot’s work; that it is through human actions and human feelings that we see “good”, and that this good should be driven by feeling for our fellow humans.

In this essay I will look at the treatment by Eliot of the “good” and human righteousness, both in her fiction and in her critical writings. I will explore the relationship that she saw between the source of morality and its application, and discuss the place for God that Eliot had in this picture.

Auguste Comte, who died in 1857, the year that Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot’s first work of fiction, was published, coined the word “positivism”. This is the idea that ‘all genuine knowledge must be rooted in and testable by sense experience’ (Grayling: 271). He still held that humans need something akin to religion in order to satisfy their spiritual needs and provide a basis for morality. This led him to found his controversial “Religion of Humanity”. Whilst not so popular in their execution, his philosophical ideas influenced Eliot’s contemporaries John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, T.H. Huxley and, most importantly, G.H. Lewes, Eliot’s partner (Grayling: 273). It is an idea that was developed into a more subtle form by Eliot.

To say that Eliot formed her opinions on religion early in life would be to vastly oversimplify things. It is more accurate to say that Eliot discovered what she didn’t believe early in life, and then spent the remainder developing her thoughts into a more positive belief system. Hennell’s An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity led her to the translation from German of Strauss and Feuerbach, the latter of particular importance.

Feuerbach, who argued that God is just a projection by man of his own agreeable attributes, taken to an infinite degree, on to the “divine”, wrote in chapter 26 of The Essence of Christianity that in the religious model people do good because they love goodness itself, not out of love of fellow man. This is taken to heart by Eliot, who writes later that:

It is in vain for Dr Cumming to say that we are to love man for God’s sake: with the conception of God which his teaching presents, the love of man for God’s sake involves, as his writings abundantly show, a strong principle of hatred (Eliot, Selected Critical Writings: 169)

If we love man because of the relation man has to God, Eliot tells us that this will lead us to hate the majority of mankind, and our outward actions will be good only because it is the idea of good that we are in love with. The only reason the followers of the evangelical Dr Cummings are not ‘revolted’ by this is that they are ‘stifled by dogmatic beliefs, and their reverence misled by pious phrases.

We can see the glimmerings of a solution in the work of Feuerbach, the translation of which was completed a year before the writing of the attack on Dr Cumming. He tells us that our fellow humans should be ‘sacred in and by themselves’ (Eliot, SCW: 71). This is a message echoed by Eliot. Early on, before it was fully developed, it can be seen in Adam Bede:

We are children of a large family, and must learn, as children do, not to expect that our hurts will be made much of – to be content with little nurture and caressing and help each other the more. (Eliot, Adam Bede: 320)

In her review of Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, Eliot remarks that in every age ‘human beings, human parties and human deeds are made up of the most subtly intermixed good and evil’ (Eliot, SCW: 115). This frank, honest view of history brings to mind the ethics of Spinoza, translated by Eliot in 1854-5. He held that, whilst egoism is inevitable in humans, altruism is possible, and indeed desirable. In the works of Eliot it is by seeing the bad that inevitably happens in life that we are led to see the good, and most importantly the source of that good. ‘[T]he line between the virtuous and the vicious, so far from being a necessary safeguard to morality, is itself an immoral fiction’ (Eliot, SCW: 132)

We can thus find a perfect mirror for the opening poem in another work of Blake:

Cruelty has a Human Heart,

And Jealousy a Human face;

Terror the Human Form Divine,

And Secrecy the Human Dress.

(Blake: 221)

Human nature can exhibit the very antithesis of the poem Innocence, and we must not forget this fact through idealistic morality.

Another “source” of morality that Eliot criticises is renunciation. This is perhaps best personified by Eliot in the opening chapters of Middlemarch, where Dorothea, before her “march” to new views, thinks of riding ‘that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way , and always looked forward to renouncing it’ (Eliot, Middlemarch: 10), something that she proceeds to inform Sir James of. In the words of her sister, ‘”She likes giving up”’ (Eliot, Middlemarch: 18).

What is it about the doctrine of renunciation that we should object to?

It is not the fact that what duty calls on us to renounce, will invariably prove “not worth keeping”; and if it were the fact, renunciation would cease to be moral heroism, and would be simply a calculation of prudence. (Eliot, SCW: 120)

Instead, renunciation should be motivated by a ‘keen sympathy with human misery’, a sympathy that drives us to prefer to suffer on our own account rather than allow an ‘indefinite number of other human beings’ to suffer in our stead (Eliot, SCW: 120). We should have an ‘immediate impulse of love or justice’ (Eliot, SCW: 121).

The message through both these criticisms is clear. Morality that ignores our fellow man, or that does not take into account the world and conditions in which we find ourselves, is not a true morality. Rather than following the evangelistic “dogmatic” path, we must consider life and how to live it.

There is a positive doctrine of morality to be found in Eliot, and it is founded on human nature:

Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may hamper, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls round the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure operation of the sap (Eliot, SCW: 167-168)

As noted earlier, religion can lead us astray to love goodness rather than fellow man. What if our love is directed to its proper object? We would then see that we are part of a bigger existence, part of a moral landscape in which we must find our place. The complexities and harsh realities that we find exist may mean that our hopes and dreams are subsumed into a “higher” reality, but out of this too good can come. Life is a complex web of interactions.

The “web” analogy is one that is often used by Eliot, perhaps most effectively in Middlemarch. The lives of the central characters are woven into the events and lives of those around them in Middlemarch, a vast array of characters contributing to the complex forces shaping the outcome of the story. The town is itself just one part being pushed and pulled by the forces shaping England at the time the story is set: reformist forces that combine with the traits of those in Middlemarch to ensnare the lives of ordinary people. Lydgate seems naturally to be drawn to support Bulstrode, and from there it is a seemingly inevitable slide downwards. If we realise that we are part of this web, might we be able to develop our morality in a more realistic setting?

In Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot, Hodgson tells us that:

George Eliot is trying to tell us to trust our emotions, our feelings, to regard them as putting us in touch with what is real and true, and to view doctrines as interpretations of feelings rather than vice versa. (Hodgson: 19)

If we take this as our guide, then we can see the moral influence at work in Eliot’s fiction. Take the famous scene from Adam Bede, in which the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris stays with Hetty the night before she is to be executed.

See, Lord, – I bring her, as they of old brought the stick and helpless, and thou didst heal them: I bear her on my arms and carry her before thee…. What is my love or my pleading? It is quenched in thine. I can only clasp her in my weak arms, and urge her with my weak pity. (Eliot, Adam Bede: 490)

It is with these words (and more) that Dinah prays to Jesus to help Hetty. What is important about this scene is the very human form it takes. Dinah is “bearing” Hetty on her arms, she is clasping her, and she is feeling for her. It is this very human contact that is themost powerful element of the scene. When Dinah arrives, Hetty will not talk.

Not a word was spoken. Dinah waited, hoping for a spontaneous word from Hetty; but she sat in the same dull despair, only clutching the hand that held hers, and leaning her cheek against Dinah’s. It was the human contact she clung to, but she was not the less sinking into the dark gulf. (Eliot, Adam Bede: 487)

The scene gets darker and darker, until we are left with only the human contact between Dinah and the silent Hetty. From this contact comes pity, and it is pity that drives Dinah’s prayer. On its own Dinah’s pity may indeed me weak, but when it has as its object a fellow woman’s suffering, it is made into a power force, one that is used for good as Hetty confesses to Dinah.

The scene has an ambiguous end. After her confession, Hetty asks Dinah if God will forgive her. Dinah does not reply one way or the other, instead saying ‘Let us pray, poor sinner: let us fall on our knees again, and pray to the God of all mercy’ (Eliot, Adam Bede: 494). There are obvious religious conclusions that could be drawn from this, but given the nature of the preceding scene they would not seem to complete the picture. Instead this response can be viewed as an exhortation to share the request for forgiveness with another, to join together and feel the pity of a fellow human and to use this to seek comfort. This will put us in touch with the true nature of forgiveness, that given to us by our fellows.

There are similar concepts explored in The Mill on the Floss. Hodgson argues that here however they are to be viewed differently from my interpretation of Adam Bede above. He says that:

Human renunciation, suffering, sympathy, pathos-for-the-other are empowered by the divine renunciation, suffering, sympathy- incarnate in the anguished love of the Cross. What is entailed is an imitation not of ourselves but of Christ… (Hodgson: 72)

Given the critical works of Eliot, I think this is to overreach, and to very much impose a personal interpretation on the work not in keeping with Eliot’s beliefs. Whilst the motives for the feelings mentioned may well be religious in nature, the important point is that they are human emotions felt for a fellow human. Without that connection they could not exist. They do not, in Eliot’s view, require an incarnation on the Cross to be realised in us.

What place is there then for God in this view of morality? Hodgson, in his discussion of Daniel Deronda, tells us that ‘God seems to function in relation to the world in the mode of an efficacious ideality’ (Hodgson: 145). What does this mean, and how is it relevant to Eliot’s morality?

…I don’t resign myself. I shall do what I can against it. What is the good of calling people’s wickedness Providence?’ (Eliot, Daniel Deronda: 233). This is Gwendolen’s response to Mrs Davilow when told to resign herself to the influence of divine Providence. It tells us that Providence does not manifest itself in all the things that influence our lives; wickedness at least is exempt from this manifestation. Aristotle is quoted by Eliot at the beginning of chapter 41 as saying ‘It is a part of probability that many improbable things will happen’ (Eliot, Daniel Deronda: 509). Perhaps then it is Providence that opens up the possibilities that make up life, making possible each of our actions, both the good and the “wicked”. Rather than being part of a divine plan, the good that we do is transformed into something that God makes it possible for us to do.

Gwendolen is the typical egoist. She is loved by many, but this love is translated not into fellow feeling but into love of herself. The struggles that she goes through are part of the web of life that Eliot is so skilled at creating, and when she finds support from Daniel it is, yet again, in the form of human compassion. But now we have the idea that it was Providence that allowed the possibility of the support that Daniel provides. Furthermore, it is up to Gwendolen to put her life right; there cannot be a life which ignores the position that she has placed herself in.

We can thus form the concept of a God who asks us to live with the consequences of our actions. This is a theme carried through all the fiction written by Eliot. We see it in Adam Bede, when Hetty, despite confessing and being shown the compassion of another human by Dinah, must still live with the earthly consequences of the murder she committed. We see it in Middlemarch, with Lydgate being ruined by the “natural” consequences of his actions. And Gwendolen sees it only too clearly: ‘She was a banished soul – beholding a possible life which she had sinned herself away from’ (Eliot, Daniel Deronda: 702).

The ‘efficacious ideality’ that Hodgson asks us to consider is thus seen in the ‘transforming power of ideas’ (Hodgson: 145). Equating the divine with truth, we come to discover the divine via idealism with regards to our lives. In similar terms, the divine influences our lives through the truths that affect us. Hegel would say that God is the synthesis of the real and the ideal, that the divine is realised in and by nature and our actions within it.

One thing that is vitally important to note is that Eliot, whilst dismissing dogmatic, evangelical Christianity with little hesitation (and considerable scorn), does not dismiss religion in general. She acknowledges that religion can and does play an important role in society. Most importantly, she does not tell us this in such broad, sweeping, terse terms as that put forward by Maugham say:

Perhaps religion is the best school of morality. It is like one of those drugs you gentlemen use in medicine which carries another in solution: it is of no efficacy in itself, but enables the other to be absorbed. (Maugham: Chapter 88)

Eliot is much more subtle than this. Nowhere is her view put into plainer words than in Adam Bede. In the church after attending the funeral of his father, Adam is sat thinking of Hetty. Eliot’s commentary on Adam in this service is worth quoting at length:

But Adam’s thoughts of Hetty did not deafen him to the service; they rather blended with all the other deep feelings for which the church service was a channel to him this afternoon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility. And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearning, and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise – its recurrent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done… (Eliot, Adam Bede: 217)

Here we see tied together all the threads that Eliot spends the rest of her fiction picking apart for us. There are the complex interactions that bring us to just this point in time, this place. There are human hopes and dreams for what will be, be it marrying Hetty Sorrel, contemplation of the future of a sleeping child, or advancing the science of medicine. Finally, there is the realisation that we do indeed live with the consequences of our choices and thoughts. And all of these are brought together for Adam by the church.

The church was an incredibly established part of social life, as is emphasised by Eliot repeatedly. It was, in the words of Matthew Arnold, ‘a great national society for the promotion of goodness’, with a reach far into peoples lives. It helped to ‘bind man together and give a higher worthiness to their existence’ (Eliot, Letters: IV, 472) and as such could be considered a ‘vital element’ to human existence. With its mixture of tradition, evocation of emotion and power to connect, the church was for Adam the place that best showed him the moral connections that he had with everyone around him, and that helped him to live the life that Eliot wants us all to live.

There are limits to the power of the church. In particular, we must be careful that the power of faith is not allowed to go unchecked. As spoken about earlier Eliot, in the positivistic tradition of Comte, wants us to look to sense experience, to the world itself, in order to guide our actions. In her discussion on Antigone, she tells us that

Wherever the strength of a man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection brings him into opposition with the rules which society has sanctioned, there is renewed the conflict between Antigone and Creon; such a man must not only dare to be right, he must also dare to be wrong – to shake faith, to wound friendship, perhaps, to hem in his own powers. (Eliot, SCW: 246)

In the same year she tells us that ‘the truth of infinite value…is realism’ (Eliot, SCW: 248). So, the church can draw us together, can show us a possible path to morality, but it should not be given too much power. We must fight against it when it goes too far, when it makes claims on us that are unsupported by a proper appreciation of nature and reality. For whilst the possibilities open to us may in part be shaped by God, they are also made possible by nature itself.

In 1859 On the Origin of Species was published. Eliot read this within days of publication, and she understood the implications that it presented. It fully conformed to her philosophy that life depends on possibilities, that egoism and “evil” are an inevitable part of life, but that good can arise from it.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin: 427)

Her works make clear the grandeur that can be seen in everyday life. Consider the conclusion to Middlemarch. The hopes and dreams of Dorothea have not materialised as she would have hoped at the beginning of the novel. Her nature has spent itself like a river coming up against a rock mid-stream. But,

the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric act; 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. (Eliot, Middlemarch: 838)

It is this consequence of her being that allows Eliot to call Dorothea a Saint Theresa, whose loving heartbeats are ‘dispersed’. The life that she has can be looked back at as beautiful, as having evolved from the complex of strands that influenced her and those around her. Eliot, who often makes it appear that our lives are governed by “fixed laws”, allows us to be confident that good can come out of the endless forms that life seems to take. Darwin showed us that we are a part of nature, but if this is the case then so too is the good that we create.

With the drop of ink at the end of her pen, Eliot has shown us that ‘as healthy, sane human beings we must love and hate – love what is good for mankind, hate what is evil for mankind’ (George Eliot in a letter to Harriet Beacher Stowe). We do so in the knowledge that, whatever God makes possible, we must trust in our fellow man and be prepared to live with our actions in this world, in this life.


William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1974)

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: Penguin 2009)

George Eliot, Adam Bede (London: Penguin 2008)

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (London: Penguin 2003)

George Eliot, Middlemarch (London: Penguin 1994)

George Eliot, Selected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000)

George Eliot, The George Eliot Letters, ed. by Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: 1954-5)

A.C. Grayling, Ideas that Matter (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2009)

Peter C. Hodgson, Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot (London: SCM Press 2001)

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (London: Vintage Classics 2008)

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