C. A. J. Coady
Unlike John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick’s is hardly a household name in intellectual circles beyond the world of professional philosophy. His standing amongst many contemporary moral philosophers as possibly the greatest nineteenth-century writer on ethics would come as a shock to such householders, as would C. D. Broad’s estimate of his book The Methods of Ethics as ‘one of the English philosophical classics’ and ‘on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written’ ([5.15], 143). This high reputation could indeed be disputed, but it is not at all idiosyncratic. It is a reputation that has grown since his own time, and is probably at its peak today, but Sidgwick’s intellectual power impressed many of his contemporaries, and immediate successors, as well. ‘Pure, white light’ was one description offered of his intellectual presence ([5.13], 181), and the adjective ‘pure’ tells as much about the moral intensity with which he applied his mind to the problems that exercised him as the word ‘light’ testifies to the clarifying power of his intelligence.
Sidgwick was a typical Victorian in many respects, and, in fact, his life paralleled that of the woman to whom the era owed its name. He was born in the north of England at Skipton on 31 May 1838, less than twelve months after Queen Victoria assumed the throne and he died on 28 August 1900, preceding his monarch by about six months. He was the son of an Anglican clergyman who was the principal of a grammar school in Skipton. His father died when he was three, and a strong influence upon his early life was his second cousin, E. W. Benson, a man who was later to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Benson lived with the Sidgwick family for some years, and eventually (in 1859) married Sidgwick’s sister. Benson persuaded Sidgwick’s mother to send the boy to Rugby school (where he was himself to be, shortly afterwards, a master) even though Sidgwick’s father had been against a public school education for his children. Benson argued that the public