Front Page Titles (by Subject) HENRY SIDGWICK 1 - The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3
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HENRY SIDGWICK 1 - Frederic William Maitland, The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 3 
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 1911). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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“I think your book is one of a rare class—the class of biographies which are good in the sense in which good novels are good; I mean biographies which do not merely give the reader the feeling that the writer has performed a task incumbent on him in a competent manner, but which give him the peculiar pleasure and instruction that can only be given by the full unfolding of the intellectual and moral quality of a rare mind that has lived, developed, and produced important social effects in interesting circumstances.”
It was thus that Henry Sidgwick wrote to Mr Wilfrid Ward concerning W.G. Ward and the Catholic Revival; and it seems to me that judicious readers will find themselves silently addressing some very similar words to the authors of the recently-published memoir of Henry Sidgwick. He dated the “consulship of Plancus” in A.D. 1860-65; and in 1895 he retrospectively spoke of “the forward movement of the thought” of those hopeful years when “Hebrew old clothes” were being discarded. Then it was that he “took service with Reason.” That Forward Movement, with Reason as recruiting sergeant, may not yet have found its historian; but, if less picturesque upon the surface, surely it was not less worthy of remembrance than the Catholic Revival, which without offence—none is intended—might, I suppose, be called a Backward Movement. Altogether “the circumstances” of Sidgwick’s life, though not exciting, may well be deemed adequately “interesting,” by those who look beneath the surface of current history; and there can be no doubt that we are here enabled to see “the full unfolding of the intellectual and moral quality of a rare mind”—a very rare mind—and, be it added, of a singularly lofty and beautiful character.
Still loftier than his friends, or some of his friends, suspected? I think so; and, just about this one matter, I will venture, at the editor’s instance, to write a few lines without making the pretence that I am reviewing a book.
It is not mine to speak from the vantage ground of intimacy. Sidgwick, throughout his life, had deeply-attached and intimate friends, to whom, as sufficiently appears in these pages, he unbosomed himself unreservedly. Nor indeed have I any right to speak, except in the first person singular, though I have good reason to suppose that what I saw was what was seen by many other of his acquaintance who stood outside that innermost circle. And the first trait upon which I will lay a little stress is one that may not be—I do not feel sure about it—sufficiently evident to all readers of this memoir. May not some of them gather from it the notion that Sidgwick was so much engaged in self-scrutiny, self-criticism, perhaps even self-torment, that he can have had little time or energy for other pursuits, or, at any rate, that the native hue of resolution must have been sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought? I do not think that any reasonably careful reader ought to draw this inference, or that the writers of the memoir are in any degree to blame if so grave a mistake be committed. Apart from what they tell us, there is, on the face of Sidgwick’s own letters, ample evidence of the extremely keen interest that he took in all manner of human affairs. But what I may call the introspective passages, excerpted from letters and journals, are so deeply, and sometimes, it may be, so painfully interesting, that possibly they may throw the residue of story into the background. I can even imagine the habitual skipper skipping in search of more “revelations,” though assuredly he will be a loser if he skips. Therefore it may not be out of place to say, that a man who seemed less self-conscious or less self-centred than Sidgwick was not to be met; nor one who, to all appearance, so steadily and easily kept himself at an objective point of view. There are, for example, in this memoir, paragraphs written by distinguished colleagues of his, which, if they attract their proper share of attention, will give the right idea of Sidgwick’s ceaseless activity in the affairs of the University of Cambridge; but it should, I think, be added with some emphasis that whatever he did was done with ungrudging cheerfulness, and most of it with apparent enjoyment. One wondered whether there was any practical question that he would not study with zest; one wondered whether he could be bored, whether he could be irritated. If ever he was weary of well-doing, he kept his weariness very much to himself. Nobody—I need hardly say this—could have been less like the philosopher of traditional caricature, who carries his head in the clouds and does not see where he is going. The next step was, for the time being, the all-important step, and well worthy of the best thought that could be given to it. But further, I should have said that from any of those failings which betoken the habitual “introspector” (is there such a word?) Sidgwick’s behaviour was markedly free. His range of sympathy was astonishingly wide. He seemed to delight in divining what other people were thinking, or were about to think, in order that he might bring his mind near to theirs, learn from them what could be learnt, and then, if argument was desirable, argue at close quarters.
What was thus visible in the course of business was still more visible in the course of free conversation. Sidgwick was a wonderful talker; a better I have never heard. But Mr Bryce and Mr Benson and Leslie Stephen have said some part of what might be said of this matter; and I have nothing to add, save one small remark suggested by what I have just been writing. Sidgwick’s talk never became, and never tended to become, a monologue. He seemed at least as desirous to hear as to be heard, and gave you the impression that he would rather be led than lead. Even more than the wit and the wisdom, the grace and the humour, it was the wide range of sympathy that excited admiration when the talk was over. To see with your eyes, to find interest in your interests, seemed to be one of his main objects, while he was amusing and instructing and delighting you. As a compliment that was pleasant; but I cannot think that it was a display of mere urbanity. Sidgwick genuinely wished to know what all sorts of people thought and felt about all sorts of things. His irony never hurt, it was so kindly; and, of all known forms of wickedness, “Sidgwickedness” was the least wicked. Good as are the letters in this book, I cannot honestly say that they are as good, or nearly as good, as their writer’s talk. A letter, being a monologue, cannot represent just what seemed most to distinguish him from some other brilliant talkers. I imagine that superlatively good letters—I mean letters which will be called superlatively good when they are printed and published and read by strangers—are hardly to be written unless among their ingredients is a pinch—not more, but still a pinch—of egotism; and this is a spice which we cannot detect in Sidgwick’s epistles, at any rate in those that were written after the consulship of Plancus. He was a most unegotistical talker, and a most unegotistical man. But as to egoism in a philosophic sense, it has sometimes struck an old pupil of his that “the selfish system of morality” might be plausibly rehabilitated by any one who paid more regard to the practice than to the preaching of a certain professor of moral philosophy. That conflict between duty and enlightened self-interest, between “altruistic hedonism” and “egoistic hedonism”—did Sidgwick really know, could Sidgwick really know, anything about it from personal experience? It seemed hardly credible—so cheerfully, naturally, spontaneously, was every duty done. Much pains would be taken to ascertain the path of duty. An observer might readily guess that this philosopher’s “method of ethics” involved a calculation of consequences near and remote. Sidgwick’s mind was large; but it was also full, and, consequently, it required much “making up.” Any one, it may be parenthetically observed, can quickly pack a portmanteau if he has only a sleeping suit to put in it. But, when once the path of duty was ascertained, the step was at once taken; and it seemed to be taken not only gallantly but gaily. Sidgwick appeared to be so happily constituted that he found his greatest pleasure in active, though thoughtful, beneficence. That was how it struck an outsider. We could not say the same of all very good and dutiful persons.
And now we may know more, we “friends at a distance” who honoured and admired him. I do not think that we are or ought to be surprised or saddened; but I think that we are and ought to be profoundly grateful. Notwithstanding all his powers, attainments, virtues, Sidgwick never seemed to us in the least inhuman, even when some of us sat on benches and he stood on the further side of the chasm that lies somewhere between twenty and thirty-two. But he seems yet more human now, when we can see something of effort and conflict and suffering beneath the serene surface. I will pass by what he called his years of “storm and stress.” As we read the letters of those years the thought may come to us, and if it comes it will be painful, that possibly he may miss his vocation. Of his going wrong, in any serious sense of that phrase, there cannot be even a momentary fear. But there does seem to be a chance that this man, to whom so many brilliant careers are open, may not choose the noblest but most arduous of them all; and there does at times seem to be a chance that, while he is choosing, he may fall a prey to the insidious disease that is called “scholar’s paralysis.” To say this, however, is only to say that if Sidgwick had not been Sidgwick he would have been somebody else. And when, because of religious scruples, he thinks of resigning his fellowship, and reveals his inmost thoughts to his friends, though his distress must pain us, we do not feel inclined to avert our eyes, for there is nothing sickly or morbid or unlovely to be seen: only scrupulous veracity and unflinching courage. It is an inspiriting sight, though perhaps we are in some sort glad when it is over, and the “sun is shining and all shapes of life evolving overhead” (p. 200).
Passing to a later time, we see much that is attractive; but I will only mention what will move some of us most of all. We may have known something of it, and guessed a little more; it is here to be seen by all who can read this book with sympathetic eyes: namely, Sidgwick’s singular truthfulness. Of course this does not mean merely that he did not tell lies, or profess doctrines that he did not believe; it means that, beyond most other men, and, I fancy, beyond most other philosophers, he was honest with himself. A little self-deceit or self-mystification over the great ultimate problems of philosophy and religion, is it not very common, very easy, and even very excusable? Down here, among mundane matters, beliefs which are the offspring of desire fare badly. They come into collision with hard facts, and they perish soon. But up in those aerial regions where most of us soon feel dizzy, I fear that it is otherwise. A small change in a delicate scheme of values, a little shifting of scarcely ponderable weights, or of measures that can never be absolutely rigid, may satisfy the cravings of the heart without offending the head, unless that head be trained to severe sincerity. Now a very slight degree of moral obliquity, hardly enough to be seriously condemned, might, so it seems to me, have made Sidgwick the most plausible and popular of modern sophists, or (it is the same thing) of modern prophets. All other requisites were there: ingenuity, subtlety, resource, circumspection, erudition, besides a reserve of rhetorical and literary power upon which he seldom drew. Even by way of exercise for our imagination, we could not suppose him capable of maintaining what he did not believe; but, had it not been for his perfect probity, and that vigilant self-criticism which, so I gather from the public papers, has come as a surprise to some of those who knew and revered him, he might, as others often do, have forgotten the exact point where proof ended, and only hope remained. And then what a sophist or what a prophet he might have been, and what a “school” he might have founded!
The temptation was not wanting. In choosing to be a philosopher, he had chosen a thorny path. I do not know that a philosopher’s career must needs be exceptionally arduous. Whether it requires better brains and harder labour to write a good book on philosophy than to write a good book on physics, I cannot say. But if you take philosophy very seriously, it may distress you in a manner in which you will never be distressed by chemistry or philology or jurisprudence. The riddle of the universe may oppress and persecute you as no minor puzzles will, especially if you are truly solicitous about the welfare of your fellows, and the time is one when old theories and creeds are called in question on every hand. Sidgwick took philosophy very seriously: as seriously, I should suppose, as it was ever taken; and it is not precisely of the “consolations of philosophy” that this book will make us think, but rather of the burden of thought. There is a good deal of Weltschmerz (p. 277) in it. Sidgwick felt
Or rather, we ought to say, of this morally irrational world. Unless certain theses could be established, the universe was for him morally chaotic, and therefore distressful. Perhaps we others, we of the grosser clay, who know more of toothache than of Weltschmerz, cannot fully make his feelings ours. Moreover, I can see no room for pity here. We read of a very happy life. Fate aimed at Sidgwick—to her credit be it said—no one of her crushing blows. But what, so I think, we may all admire, is the watchful honesty which will not suffer any hope, however ardent, or any desire, however noble, to give itself the airs of proof. “Well,” wrote Sidgwick in 1891, “I myself have taken service with Reason, and I have no intention of deserting. At the same time I do not think that loyalty to my standard requires me to feign a satisfaction in the service which I do not really feel.” These words give us the core of the matter, which is stated more fully and with more emotion elsewhere. Is it painful reading? Not wholly painful, I think, especially if we remember, as at this point we must, that the Weltschmerz and the long continued conflict between head and heart did not cripple Sidgwick, or make of him a moral valetudinarian, but rather seem to have braced him for the service, the active, cheerful, spontaneous service, of his fellow men. In an able, appreciative, and affectionate review of this book, I saw it suggested that some “paradox” has been set before us in this quarter. It may be so. I have no skill in psychology, theoretic or applied; and certainly I could not sum up the character of Henry Sidgwick in any form of words. Still it seems to me that, somehow or another, all that we now learn blends with all that we remember. Rare the total result may be; but it is harmonious. Complex the character may be; and yet, in another sense, it is beautifully simple.
The prediction of the fate of Memoirs is, I should imagine, a peculiarly hazardous kind of prophecy; and perhaps it should never be undertaken by those who knew, even at a distance, the men whose lives are in question. Yet may we hope with some confidence that, even when many years have gone by, this book will still have for a few discerning readers some part of the charm that it has for many of us now. The whole of that charm they can never know; but they may at least see that one of the acutest, profoundest and most influential thinkers of our time was a true and good and noble man; and in some degree they may feel that he is even for them an encouraging master, a wise counsellor, and a delightful companion.
Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir. By A.S. and E.M.S. London: Macmillan & Co., 1906. Independent Review, June, 1906.