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(C): GEORGE ELIOT - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, Vol. I (Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W.E. Gladstone) 
Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, edited with and Introduction by John Neville Figgis and Renald Vere Laurence. Vol. I Correspondence with Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W.E. Gladstone and Others (London: Longmans, Gree and Co., 1917).
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Dear Lady Blennerhassett,—
. . . The person who understands my article the least is myself. For clearly there is some mystery in it which I entirely fail to discover. I judge this from the strange variety of disagreement it encounters, but I have no idea where the difficulty lies.
No doubt, I rate George Eliot much higher than many people do. Not higher than Scherer, Spencer, or Hutton;6 and I have said very little about her talent, dwelling much on her deficiencies. So that I suspect the seat of trouble is elsewhere than in the literary estimate.
I was reviewing her life, not her works; and my standpoint was that of history, not that of criticism. I was dealing with that which the Life told, and the Works did not tell. It was not my object to interfere with the current opinion of her genius as a novelist or to venture any comparison with Scott or Hugo. Writing of Lessing or Rousseau it would be a waste of time to consider the dramatic merit of the one, or the prose style of the other. They stand on another level. They have to take their place with Jefferson,1 Hegel, Baader,2 Daub,3 Bentham, Rothe,4 Niebuhr—men of no literary quality whatever, but producers of ideas, like Socrates, Gournay,5 Martinez, who did not write at all.
The interest lies in the teaching, and in that alone. If her ideas had been common, traditional, Christian, her importance—to me—would have been less. She would have stood in the midst of a very large group, a little above, or a little below many other writers.
Instead of that, she was a perfect atheist, and had had to reconstruct her views of life without any aid at all from the habits and influences she had rejected. There was a complete solution of continuity. She made, in later life, no use of the motives common to religious society. When the resemblance is greatest, the distinction is complete. Every one of her ideas has grown up on ground absolutely atheistic. Now this has always appeared a serious danger. Many think that no enduring system of moral order can be founded on disbelief in God. Everybody sees that there is no security that the ethics of Infidelity will practically harmonise with the ethics of Belief. And we possess a great body of examples in Comte, in Mill, in the revolutionary movement, of the peril to morality from the rejection of the old bases of modern civilisation.
The signs of this peril may be found in the group of rather vulgar freethinkers among whom she lived until she was past thirty. She emancipated herself from all these surroundings, but then it was to embrace what was worse, what was worst, ethically, in all European thought at that time, Feuerbach1 and Comte. She was steeped in all that is most dangerous to Conscience in the systems of European thought, as they then existed.
And the people among whom she lived in the years which brought her mind to maturity, from 1850 to 1860, were people of a low type morally, people degraded by materialism. George Eliot had no contact with anything else. She was cut off from English society and despised it. Her whole soul drew its inspiration from doctrines repudiating all the spiritual world and the motives that belong to it.
Just then, after the middle of the century, it became a question of great moment, whether Infidelity could keep up the moral level. For 200 years, from the time of Hobbes, unbelief had been making its way. There had been a metaphysical phase, a doubting, a scoffing, an angry phase, and a good deal of indifference. At last there came a time when, quite apart from these influences, unbelief came to be founded on science. Nobody thought any more of putting it down or of conciliation any more than after 1648 they thought of establishing religious unity in Europe. It was sustained by the triumphant forces of the day. About one-half of the classic writing, of the creative thinking of the world was done by unbelievers. The influences that reigned were in great measure atheistic. It became needful to arrange a modus vivendi with the prevailing powers. No minds could be reared except by aid of Grote, Mill, Austin, Darwin, Lewis, Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford—to take England only. The universities were saturated with their books.
At the same time, from the decline of Hegel, all these schools of unbelief were marked by their inability to deal with Ethics. I do not refer to Cousin, who was a spiritualist, or to Herbart, who at least is not a definite atheist. But Utilitarianism, Positivism, Materialism, Pessimism, Feuerbach—were all destitute of any ethical system.
In short, towards 1860, unbelief was beginning to gain the day, and appeared totally incapable of moralising man. In many German Universities there were no lectures on Ethics, in the philosophic faculty.
All this is, no doubt, greatly changed. Both in Germany and in England there is a very powerful ethical movement; and I have at least twenty books on the Ethics of Unbelief written within the last ten years—Hartmann, Giżycki,1 Guyau,2 Spencer, Stephen, Sidgwick, Lorimer, etc. etc. etc.
Of all this movement there was not a trace (out of France) between 1840 and 1875. The career of George Eliot was run during the supremacy of atheism and the eclipse of (philosophic) Ethics. All the schools in which she learnt, all the groups with which she was connected, were peculiar for ethical impotence.
And yet her moral teaching is very high. Without any survival of Christian impressions, without aid from the philosophers, and without the least concession to the eighteenth century doctrines of pleasure, she contrived to become a grand moral teacher.
From the depths of atheism, from its worst school, from the midst of the poorest surroundings, a preacher of lofty virtue arose, not at all perfect indeed, or absolutely consistent, but far more impressive, more true, more elevated, than any but the very best of Christian writers, and capable of reaching those whom no Christian could possibly touch. To me this is one of the most wonderful facts, of the most wonderful feats, in the history of the human mind. Atheism, at the moment of its becoming a permanent and preponderant force, was rescued and redeemed from the most formidable and most ancient peril and reproach. The new and most puissant morality was even in some ways preferable to that of current religion. It had no weak places, no evil champions, no bad purpose, to screen or to excuse, unlike almost all forms of Christianity. The system of S. Francis was more lofty and heroic; but it proved the most inefficacious and transitory of systems.
Atheism, as a teacher of Life, became, roughly speaking, the equal of Christianity in moral dignity when it became its rival in mental power. And all through this one woman who lived among scoffers, professors of impurity, men ignorant of higher things, philosophers destitute of a moral code—a woman who had never read the books that teach the higher virtues to religious men. For these reasons which seem to me too obvious and too certain to be disputed, I would give all the imaginative literature of England since Shakespeare for George Eliot’s writings. She is altogether unique to my mind. For, if Kant is a great moralist, how highly educated one must be to follow him! No doubt, the idea which she used so much, because it goes down so well with British Christians, the certainty of earthly Retribution, is one which no historical-minded person can accept. She herself was aware that virtue is not much happier than crime; and she never filled up this tremendous gap.
But the mass of mankind is not more gifted with historical insight and experience than she was, and so her sermon was more impressive than Plato’s account of the just man’s fate. But surely, nobody can say that where I describe this doctrine of Retribution I treat it as if I thought it sound; or that I fail to indicate the fault in her Psychology, the confinement to domestic life without heed of the grander specimens of human nature.
What more can I say to make my meaning clear? Probably all this was already clear to every reader, and the difficulty lies in some place I have not guessed. I give it up.—Believe me, most truly yours,
72 Princes Gate,July 9, 1885.
[5 ] This letter concerns Acton’s article on “The Art of George Eliot,” which was published in the Nineteenth Century in 1885, and is reprinted in Historical Essays.
[6 ]Hutton, R. H., the editor of the Spectator.
[1 ]Jefferson, Thomas, the American (1743-1826). Revolutionist. He represented, in America, the views of the extreme equalitarian democrats, as against the Whig theories of Alexander Hamilton. He is the author of the Declaration of Independence. He approved of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and had in Washington’s Cabinet continual discussions with his co-Secretary Hamilton. In 1801 he became the third President of the United States.
[2 ]Baader. Franz Xavier von Baader (1765-1841) held a chair of philosophy at Munich, and wrote on many topics connected with mysticism and religion. He greatly influenced Montalembert and Döllinger.
[3 ]Daub, Karl (1763-1836), was Professor of Theology at Heidelberg. He did much to popularise Kant. But the advent of Hegel changed his view, and his most important work is dedicated to Hegel.
[4 ]Rothe, Richard (1799-1897), a great Protestant theologian, was a pupil of Daub at Heidelberg. He was afterwards for twelve years a professor there, then went to Bonn, but back again to Heidelberg. His great work, Theological Ethics, Acton used to regard as that most likely to convert a candid reader to Catholicism.
[5 ]Gournay, Vincent de (1712-59), was the master of Turgot, who wrote an Eloge de Gournay; French economist, and the author of the phrase “Laissez faire.”
“L’homme, dont nous allons parler, n’a jamais occupé de grandes places, il n’a été mêlé à aucun événement historique, il n’a écrit aucun livre. Cependant il a exercé une influence très réelle sur son temps et aussi sur le vôtre.”—G. Schelle, Vincent de Gournay.
[1 ]Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas, the Philosopher (1804-72). He was a pupil of Daub at Heidelberg.
[1 ]Giżycki, Georg von, a writer on ethics, who has published books on Kant und Schopenhauer, Grundzüge der Moral, etc.
[2 ]Guyau, Marie Jean, the writer on ethics and philosophy. His best known work is Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction. This, together with L’irréligion de l’avenir, was much studied by Nietzsche.