“Tell me, can you find indeed
Nothing sure, no moral plan
Clear prescribed, without your creed?”

—Matthew Arnold

Awaiting trial for a murder he did not commit, Dmitri Karamazov is visited in jail in the closing pages of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov by the progressive intellectual Rakitin. Rakitin tries to explain why modern ethics no longer needs religion. “What will become of men then . . . without God and immortal life?” Dmitri wants to know. Rakitin answers that “one can love humanity instead of God.” Dmitri remains unconvinced: “Only an idiot can maintain that.”

If we accept Dmitri’s harsh verdict—and it is surely Dostoevsky’s own—then we can hardly reach a more favorable opinion of many of the most prominent leaders of Victorian culture. For by the late 19th century, many leading Victorians shared Matthew Arnold’s conviction that religion had lost its credibility for the educated mind and that hereafter our “sense of conduct” must be shaped by “the social idea,” expressed in great works of literature and art. As much as they disagreed on other things, Arnold and Carlyle, Eliot and Hardy, Shaw and Morris, Meredith and Mill all agreed on the need for a new moral affirmation not rooted in Christian faith. Leslie Stephen, renowned during his years at Cambridge as a “muscular Christian,” came finally to declare: “I now believe in nothing, but I do not the less believe in morality.” Similarly, George Eliot found God “inconceivable” and immortality “unbelievable,” but Duty remained “peremptory and absolute.” In the same vein, some scant paragraphs after rejecting “the Christian Mythus” as implausible, Carlyle affirmed the one precept still binding upon “him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light . . . ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee.'”

In his graceful and meticulously researched biography of Leslie Stephen, Noel Annan allows us to see up-close the effects of this profound shift in moral thinking in the life of one prominent Victorian, “a representative, not an aberrant, figure.” On the other hand, in the lucid and insightful essays of Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians, Gertrude Himmelfarb traces the broader intellectual and social implications of this cultural sea change. Both books can only enhance the already distinguished reputations of their authors as intellectual historians. Together they provide a telling portrait of a generation that largely succeeded in standing at moral attention, like rigid tin soldiers, but whose children broke ranks and started a social riot. Himmelfarb views Victorian morality as “all the more admirable . . . because it tried to maintain itself without the sanctions and consolations of religion,” yet there is no escaping the conclusion she reaches after tracing the metamorphosis of this morality “from Clapham to Bloomsbury”: “Late-Victorian morality . . . was too impoverished, too far removed from its original inspiration, to transmit itself to the next generation.” The failure of Victorian morality to transcend its generation shows itself nowhere so clearly as in the Stephen family: Like most British intellectuals of his day, Stephen “had no doubt that anything which shook the family, such as adultery, must shake society”; his children, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, joined with other Bloomsbury intellectuals in self-conscious promiscuity and “The Higher Sodomy.”

Stephen may be long remembered for his shrewd literary judgments on Wordsworth, Johnson, and Coleridge; for the pioneering scholarship of his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876); and for his inaugural editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography. His Rakitin-like efforts to construct a modern, secular, and scientific basis for morality deserve only quiet oblivion. Seeking a terrestrial decalogue, Stephen argued in The Science of Ethics (1882) that virtue developed as the product of evolutionary pressures on society. Social welfare presides as final arbiter of good and evil. No wonder his daughters refused to bow the knee to such an earthbound and impotent deity. Annan, a generally sympathetic biographer, dismisses Stephen’s ethics as a “fraudulent” equation that makes “men seeking their own pleasure . . . identical with [men] seeking each other’s pleasure.” Nor does Annan’s own manifest skepticism prevent him from censuring Stephen for his blindness to “the splendors and glories of religion and the infinite variety of ways in which it corresponds to men’s needs.”

But Stephen’s folly in trying “to make the social sciences do the work of religion” was matched by that of other contemporaries likewise looking for surrogate faiths: Mill made a creed out of Utilitarianism; Ruskin and Arnold worshiped Art and Poetry; Spiritualism attracted Alfred Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Frederick Myers; Shaw and the Webbs burned incense for Socialism; Spencer and Huxley preached a Darwinist gospel; George Eliot and G.H. Lewes followed Comte into Positivism. These substitute faiths seldom wore well. John Stuart Mill suffered a breakdown when his faith in utilitarianism collapsed and had to be supplanted by a less scientific humanism; Ruskin gave up on social regeneration through Art; Beatrice Webb served as panegyrist for Stalin; Wallace chased phrenologists and mesmerists; Spencer ended his life haunted by a vision of “omnipresent death”; Huxley repudiated his hopes that evolution would lead to moral progress.

The cases of Spencer and Huxley loom particularly large. For although not all late Victorians staked their moral philosophy upon evolution, after 1859 no serious ethical thinker could ignore the implications of this new theory. Himmelfarb makes the point that rationalism, naturalism, and utilitarianism had effectively subverted religious orthodoxy long before Darwin. “Darwinism . . . did not so much displace God by man as displace man by nature, moral man by amoral nature.” Victorians who had gone to bed convinced they were human beings woke up to discover they were merely primates becoming. Moral convictions that had looked like sturdy realities vanished into mere curls of smoke rising above the evolutionary fire. Suddenly, the Victorian “Religion of Humanity” carried no more credibility than the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Some quietly resigned themselves to the sterility of this philosophic vista. Darwin himself bade farewell (with some reluctance and pain) to music, poetry, and God—though he doubted “whether the masses were ripe for atheism.” The codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Wallace, never ripened. We turn away from the embarrassing spectacle of a leading scientist attending seances and promoting pseudo-science, but there is something noble and even heroic in Wallace’s insistence that evolution could account for neither Mind, Spirit, Veneration, Hope, Wonder, Ideality, nor Wit. With William Blake, Wallace dared to assert the inadequacy of “a finite organical perception” of “the Human Form Divine.” Especially since he could not write poetry like Blake’s, Wallace paid the price of intellectual respectability, both in his own day and since.

In the final analysis, though, neither Wallace nor Blake offer a fully credible witness for transcendence. Nor do the Utopians Himmelfarb justly censures for their vehement attacks on Darwin’s heirs in the sociobiology movement. We need E.G. Wilson, David Barash, and Konrad Lorenz to remind us of the givenness of our biological nature. What we need more is someone like Pascal, someone who knows that human nature borders on both the brute and the angelic and that we ignore either boundary at great peril. But to share Pascal’s perspective, we must share his faith. A devout (though Jansenist) Christian as well as a brilliant mathematician, Pascal counted no cranial protrusions, created no private mythology, and sought out no levitating tables.

Spencer and Huxley dispensed with Christianity as cheerfully as they rejected spiritualism, confident that Darwinian evolution would provide a new bulwark for morality. Both made their reputations as writers, not scientists, but both demonstrated something like scientific honesty in their eventual admissions that in fact Darwinism and moral hope could not be reconciled. A relentless systematizer, Spencer pursued his materialist vision as far as it would take him—only to prophesy a universal destiny of “dung and death.” Spencer’s unflinching candor in confronting this conclusion continues to disturb today’s scientific thinkers, including the Nobel laureate and philosopher of science Peter Medawar. “What can have been responsible,” Medawar recently asked, without answering, “for the much greater weight [Spencer] gave in his later thought to the phenomena of dissipation and dissolution?”

A more subtle thinker than Spencer, Huxley early professed “the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school” and scorned “popular anti-theology.” Forced to choose between “absolute materialism” and “absolute idealism,” Huxley expressed a preference for the latter. Clearly, his moral thought was growing more idealist when in his Romanes Lecture of 1893 he repudiated his former assertion that man’s moral impulses could be traced to the “fixed order of nature.” Rather, moral behavior meant “a checking of the cosmic process,” even “combating it.” Huxley left unanswered the question of where man would find the inspiration or guidance for opposing natural forces, but some may take their hint from his designation of his Romanes Lecture as “a very orthodox discourse on the text, ‘Satan, the Prince of this world.'” For if Huxley’s discourse survives as anything more than a relic in the museum of Victorianism, the reason is that his scriptural “text” points us to truths still living long after we have joined Galsworthy in bidding farewell to “the bier of the Queen, [and] the coffin of the Age.”


[Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian, by Noel Annan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) $14.95]

[Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) $19.95]