English, Department of



William Klein

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


One of the primary intellectual influences that shaped George Eliot's thought was positivism, or rather the various influence of positivistic philosophers such as Comte, Mill, Spencer, Feuerbach and Lewes, who each in his own way subscribed to an empiricism dictating that knowledge of anything but actual phenomena is impossible, and thus rejected any metaphysical speculation concerning ultimate causes or origins. This is a broad definition of positivism, and perhaps generalizes at the expense of the fine points of the thinkers under discussion; however, George Eliot's ultimate rejection of the notion of a God whose existence cannot be empirically demonstrated was a result of the belief that "that which is beyond nature, if there is anything, is completely unknowable, and speculation about it and about the nature of things in themselves is fruitless." 1

The process of nature as the positivists and as Eliot understood it constitutes a system of physical laws that are universally constant and inexorable, whereby cosmic movement is manifest whether in the cycle of the seasons or the death of a fly. This system of natural or cosmic law is causative: each phenomenon is the result of the interaction of countless other phenomena receding infinitely into the past. The existence of a divine being is neither affirmed nor denied by such a system, but it is not verifiable because it is an ultimate cause. Yet the system does intrinsically reject the idea of a deity who orders the universe for the sake of humanity or who "responds to men's prayers, or compensates for injustice ... [This] is a waking dream of the human mind. There is no reprieve from death, and there is no forgiveness of sins; causes are invariably followed by their effects, and once a deed is done it is ineradicable. "2 In chapter xxvii of Adam Bede the narrator tells us:

'For if it be true that nature at certain moments seems charged with a presentment of one individual lot, must it not also be true that she seems unmindful, unconscious of another? For there is no hour that has not its births of gladness and despair, no morning brightness that does not bring new sickness to desolation as well as new forces to genius and love. There are so many of us and our lots are so different: what wonder that Nature's mood is often in harsh contrast with the great crisis of our lives?'3