Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Religious and Philosophical Landscape: A Middlemarch Interlude

First things first: I promise that this isn't on its way to becoming The Middlemarch Blog.  I'm aiming to post three times a week, with only Fridays being about the book. Regular programming will resume soon, I promise. It's just that right now, with the ramp-up to the semester, I've had precious little time to post about the many things medieval and modern that I've been thinking about. And for the next few weeks, one of the remaining two posts per week is getting folks -- and myself! -- up to speed on the context of the novel so we know what the heck is going on. So this is one of those "Middlemarch interludes."

Once again, corrections and emendations from more expert commenters are welcome.

This past week's reading had a leitmotif of "ardent" versus "rationalist." And here, Eliot may be drawing on a big change that took place in English religion about a century before her time, and that was still a very fraught issue during the time the novel is set in. Previously, the major conflicts in English religion, broadly speaking, were between Protestants and Catholics, with the Anglican church (or Church of England) representing the former. As noted in the previous post on the upper classes in Victorian England, political position, whether in parliament or in the provinces, was often tied to membership in -- or even clerical position within -- the Anglican church. The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw some fringe movements within the broader body of Protestant believers, but these sects -- folks like the Quakers, for example -- never had the large-scale membership that would make them anything but a fringe curiosity.

That all changed in the late eighteenth century with the rise of two important movements: Utilitarianism, and evangelicals/Methodists. These seem to have arisen and become popular in part as spiritual responses to the social and political upheavals associated with the "triple revolution" of the mid-eighteenth century: changes in industry, agriculture, and an explosion in population, especially in the cities. I'm particularly interested in these new religious movements because they each representing one of the approaches to life (rationalist vs. ardent) that we saw a lot of in chapters 7-12 of the novel. Not saying that these characters in Middlemarch are Utilitarians or Evangelicals, but they do represent a growing debate in English society that has its roots in these new religions.

First, the Utilitarians, and their avatar, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's Utilitarian philosophy rejected the premise that one's actions should be dictated by abstract ideals that characterize most religious practice. For Bentham, "good" is defined by its outcomes: that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Bentham even referred to a "felicific calculus": individuals, institutions, and actions are only as good or as bad as the results they produce.

On the other end of the scale, we have evangelicals (later "Methodists"), represented by John Wesley (1703-91). In contrast to the Utilitarians, evangelicals were emotional, personal, and individualistic in their philosophy, embracing an emotional and personal faith based on individual experience of a salvation that is based in grace, but manifested in an individual's godly works. Some of this latter included the ascetic tendencies we tend to associated with Wesley and his followers: renouncing things like drinking, dancing, and frivolity. But evangelicals also embraced philanthropy, and a strong social reformist streak that blended with moral censoriousness. Despite this philanthropic side, it would be a mistake to think this was a theology of social revolution: Wesley supported the social hierarchy, and urged his followers to look for their rewards in the next world, not this one. Nevertheless, the individualism of this movement appealed a great deal to the middle classes, who saw moral reform as a key to self-reliance.

Finally, we should note that elements of this evangelical philosophy existed within the Anglican church -- a small faction to be sure, but one that focused on promoting individual faith and societal reform (many such Anglicans, for example, were deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement) from within existing structures.

So, to the characters: they're all Anglicans, but to what degree do they represent either of these philosophies, for all their Anglican affiliation? Casaubon seems very Utilitarian to me, while Dorothea is clearly a reformer in the evangelical mold. Keep an eye out for this in chapters 13-17, and more, as they unfold...

3 comments:

Sarah C said...

I question the "Catholic Question" about which Causobon supposedly wrote something rather surprising but about which we hear nothing of detail. Know anything?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Off the top of my head, no. But I can certainly look it up.

MS1964 said...

I think it might have to do with Peel, and the Roman Catholic Relief Act. I don't know what was surprising about C's piece, but maybe it was supportive?
Nice post, girl scholar. Where's the "like" button?