The Sage of Unbelief: George Eliot and Unorthodox Choices

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TODAY IT APPEARS that we live in a world where many of our ideals seem lost and forgotten and a disturbing indifference has settled in. A number of people suffer from either knee-jerk conformity or ironic detachment. As a result we may have at last come to a time when we need reminders that our hard-won personal beliefs are worth rescuing. One way is to return to the lives and work of notable others who have wrestled with many of the same problems and asked some of the same questions.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Marian Evans Lewes, also known as George Eliot, was considered a fallen woman--"not a prostitute exactly" writes Kathyrn Hughes in George Eliot: The Last Victorian, "but a woman who had become sexually intimate with a man who could not or would not marry her. Cast out from society, her only way of living was quietly and anonymously." Evans was thereby unconventional, ostracized, and guilty of making unorthodox choices.

Ironically though, in later years she became one of England's greatest novelists, a moralist and a secular saint of iconic status. One of the philosophical beliefs that brought her to a kind of sainthood was her answer to that basic question "How shall we live now?" that emerged after her young stepson, Thornie, died a horrible death at home. Her response was that she couldn't take refuge in the "easy consolations of orthodox faith" writes Hughes, and instead felt one should "nourish fellow feeling towards the men and women you encounter every day." Later it was Evans' combination of intellectual understanding and warm empathy that drew hundreds of people to her home with their religious difficulties and their troubled souls. They had come to believe that she held the secret of how to live a good life. Thus she was known as the "Sage of Unbelief."

In sum, she left the Church of England in favor of agnosticism, went against the marriage canon, and developed a unique way of living, calling it "Meliorism," stemming from the word ameliorate. All told, she went counter to custom and society's rules and regulations and in so doing became one of her nation's greatest novelists of the time, elevated to "the rank of the Immortals."

To understand how this all came about one has to go back to Evans' youth on a large estate in Warwickshire, where her father worked as the foreman (thus her roots in a country ambiance). She was sent off to a private school where she came under the teaching influence of Maria Lewis, a follower of evangelicalism, a brand of Anglicanism and a wing of the Church of England. Its fundamentalist fervor appealed to the teenage Evans, as she devoted herself to the constant diet of prayer, Bible study, and self-scrutiny. However, when her father fell ill, she came home to tend him and began to read extensively from many sources. She eventually enjoyed a great self-education.

Part of that education included a book written by Charles Hennell, the brother of Cara Bray, a close friend who lived near Evans and her father in Coventry, where they had moved from nearby Warwickshire. Cara and her husband Charles Bray were Unitarians, members of the most tolerant, rational, and forward-thinking of the many Protestant sects of the time. To them, Jesus was a great teacher and philosopher but not the son of God, and they felt the individual's duty was to question every new piece of information, a view which in turn greatly influenced Evans. Hennell had written An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, which separated the known historical facts about Jesus from the later myths and fantasies, claiming that "Everything that happened to him was explicable within 'the known laws of nature.'" Thus, having read Hennell's book, she began questioning her evangelical faith.

In the mid-1850s, Marian Evans, as she called herself upon reaching adulthood (rather than her given name of Mary Ann), translated into English the work of Auguste Comte, the French father of sociology, Benedict Spinoza's Ethics, and the German work of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Es sence of Christianity. …