Apostle eagerto dip into the other side

Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe
April 8, 2005

Mary Warnock finds method in an eminent Victorian's quest to prove the universe friendly.

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) published his most important philosophical work The Methods of Ethics in 1874. The chief question that occupied Sidgwick, both in Methods and for the rest of his life, was: why should I be good? He held that it was rational for human beings to pursue their own interests, but it might, by all common-sense standards of morality, be their duty to postpone their interests in favour of those of others or of society at large. Could these motives be reconciled?

Utilitarianism, as expounded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, had never shown how seeking one's own happiness related to seeking the greatest happiness of all. Sidgwick argued that the coincidence of self-interest and duty could be demonstrated, the conflict concluded in harmony only if there could be proof of the existence of a benevolent God whose purpose was this outcome. But he was increasingly reluctant to invoke such a solution. He had resigned his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, because he could not honestly subscribe, as required, to the 39 Articles; and he became a professional philosopher in the modern sense, eventually elected to the Knightbridge chair of ethics at Cambridge. The Methods of Ethics is thus an academic work, not widely read except by other professionals. J. B. Scheewind in his excellent Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (1977) says: " The Methods ... is so modern in tone and content... that it has not seemed to call for any historical or exegetical study. To write about it has... been simply to write ethics."

Herein lies the problem for Bart Schultz, attempting a full biography. No feats of historical imagination are required to outline the contents of The Methods . But great imagination is needed to understand Sidgwick's life, his taken-for-granted assumptions and his inner struggles.

Sidgwick can be seen almost as a symbol of Victorian thought, torn apart in the great war between theology and science, unable altogether to give up hope in the former, yet committed intellectually to the methods and principles of the latter. He longed especially to be able to prove that his pursuit of ultimate truth would bring him reassurance that "the universe is friendly", that common-sense morality was not futile but somehow justified by the way things are. But his commitment to reason rendered him sceptical.

For contemporary readers, and not only academics, perhaps the most incongruous outcome of this inner battle was his increasing enthusiasm for what he thought of as strictly scientific experiments to prove the existence of life after death, a world of spirits. At the end of the first edition of The Methods he had concluded that without faith in a benevolent God he could not show that the "deepest problem of ethics" could have any solution. Now he began to hope for a theology based on empirical evidence.

He became involved, along with his wife and many Cambridge friends, in the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research, having already formed a group of his own to pursue this interest. He insisted that the methods of the society should be those of any empirical science, and no less rigorous.

If communication could be established between the living and the dead, the immortality of the soul could be empirically proved and the friendliness of the universe finally established. However, Sidgwick was always more sceptical than many of his friends; and it was difficult to keep the supposed new science free of fakes, frauds and the paraphernalia of table-turning and seances that were becoming increasing popular in Cambridge.

Schultz does not emphasise the dottiness of the craze for psychic research.

And perhaps a biographer is right simply to record it. Instead, he attempts to hold together the different aspects of Sidgwick's life by a continuing thread that he traces from his undergraduate days onwards. This is the overwhelming influence exerted on him by his membership of the Apostles, that most elite and self-admiring Cambridge society. According to Schultz, the Apostles taught him that "intimate confession and drawing out were what it took to get at the deeper truth about human nature". The Apostles, by tradition, kept nothing back from each other; their conversations were Socratic inquiries, but of a highly personal nature; their friendships were intense and intensely, even if not overtly, homosexual.

Thus what may seem a disproportionate number of pages is devoted to the friendship between Sidgwick and John Addington Symonds, whose family background, erotic poetry and taste for picking up soldiers occupies half of one enormous chapter. All this was undeniably of great importance to Sidgwick; and it formed material for the moral questioning, thought to be inseparable from religious questioning, that dominated intellectual life at the end of the 19th century. But despite the details and the lengthy quotations from the letters exchanged between friends, Schultz fails to make us enter into the feel of these friendships, how unremarked, for the most part, they were and the astonishing effect they must have had on the married lives of the participants. Sidgwick himself was apparently sexually impotent. (It is perhaps not to be wondered at that poor Mrs Sidgwick took so enthusiastically to the spirit world.) The failure to see these male friendships as they seemed at the time is one aspect of Schultz's failure of historical imagination. Far more irritating is his manifest outrage, expressed in the most nannyish terms, at Sidgwick's acceptance of and indeed admiration for the British Empire.

Schultz describes variously as "worrisome", "mysterious" and "inexplicable" his failure to condemn colonialism (though giving just praise to some of his thoughts on how to introduce a rule of law between nations). And he notes with horror that in a letter to Lord Lytton (to whom writing in any case was wrong: he was too grand) Sidgwick uses the word "nigger". Schultz cannot understand such racism, combined, though he hates to say it, with elitism. So profound a thinker as Sidgwick ought to have known better. For Schultz, political correctness is a timeless value.

Schultz must have had a hard time writing his biography; I for one had quite a hard time reading it. Being a very fat tome, it is difficult to handle. But that apart, it is, in some ways, and sadly, a silly book. It is difficult to put up with the modern vulgarism "Oxbridge" (especially since the differences between the two universities are properly emphasised) or with "The Bloomsberries". And there is a disturbing (you could say worrisome) tendency - by inventing adjectives ("Millian" for example or "Whewellian" or, of course, "Apostolic") - to make it seem clear what precise influence on Sidgwick's thought is referred to, where in fact the ascription of influence may be disputable or at least in need of justification. Finally, there may be those (John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey were among them) who think Sidgwick's life too boring to bother with. I do not think that; but I see no particular merit in sexing it up.

Baroness Warnock, a former mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords.

Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography

Author - Bart Schultz
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 858
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 521 82967 4

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