On Eliot’s translation of Spinoza

One of the most illuminating curiosities to have emerged from the study of George Eliot’s early writing is the amount of time she spent engaging with the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. She began her life of letters as Marian Evans, translating David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, which owes a debt to Spinoza, while still in her twenties. Having taught herself Latin, she pored over Spinoza’s works for over a decade before producing the first complete English language translation of the Ethics in 1856Sadly, it was never published in her lifetime. 

Less than a year after completing the translation, she began publishing fiction under a nom de plume, and her formidable reputation as a novelist soon eclipsed her early interest in theology. But her engagement with continental philosophy provides a useful lens through which to view her later work, as Dr Clare Carlisle explains in the fascinating introduction to Eliot’s translated Ethics, published this year by Princeton University Press. 

The argument of the Ethics is astounding in its implications, but it can be hard going as a reading experience, painstakingly accumulated in the Cartesian language of axioms, propositions, demonstrations and scholia. Eliot recognised this and felt that translation from Latin into English was only half the battle; though she never wrote an explicit analysis of the work, Carlisle notes that ‘some readers have found in her novels literary “translations” of Spinozism, accomplished through character and narrative.’ Could it be that the budding novelist of society had begun to conceive of human affairs with the cool geometry of the Ethics, ‘as if the subject were lines, surfaces or solids’?

In the text, the audacity of Spinoza’s radical conception of ‘God or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura) is somewhat dampened by Eliot’s decision to parenthesise ‘or Nature’, though perhaps that helps to avoid the mistake of assuming that Spinoza considered God to be a wholly material entity, when in reality he saw physical extension as merely one attribute of an infinite, panentheistic God. We might liken this to our lack of intuitive understanding of multiple dimensions in string theory, since we only have empirical access to three – Spinoza, through Eliot, would say that ‘the human mind perceives no external body as actually existing except through ideas of the affections of its own body’. 

The originality of its theological underpinnings sometimes overshadows the fact that the Ethics is intended to concern human experience, behaviour and morals. One of the greatest apparent challenges to our ability to act ethically is his deterministic approach: ‘Men believe themselves free solely because they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.’ Indeed, modern neuroscience appears to support the idea that our brains choose a course of action up to ten seconds before we consciously ‘decide’. How, then, are we to act morally, if we are no more than automata? Spinoza might respond that such reasoned debate is part of the process that pushes us towards understanding our place in the world, and it is this which leads us toward ‘blessedness’ and peace of mind. Unhappiness follows from confused perception; only by recognising that we are a finite mode of God (or Nature) can we find true freedom.

Scholars will be pleased to note the critical material showing Eliot’s amendments to her manuscript, as well as a useful comparison of important word choices against other translators into English (Where others write ‘joy’, Eliot writes ‘pleasure’; what others call ‘gladness’ or ‘relief’, Eliot calls ‘joy’). Those reading purely for interest have the rare combined pleasure of engaging with one of the world’s greatest philosophers, rendered in precise and analytical prose by one of the greatest English novelists. It might seem a shame that Eliot’s translation was not available to her peers, just as Spinoza’s Ethics was not published in his lifetime, but she was in sympathy with the philosopher when she recalled, at the close of Middlemarch, that ‘the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’.

First published in New Humanist.

I am the book murderer

We should never bisect the things we love. Friends, nations, puppies. I would argue an exception for pizza. But over the last 24 hours I have found that almost everyone on the internet agrees we should not chop books in half, even if they are very long.

It started when my colleague saw half a paperback on my desk and called me a “book murderer”. I had been enjoying it so much at home that I found the end of a 16-page section, chopped off the remaining pages, bound the unread half in some cardboard to prevent the pages getting too dog-eared, and brought them to work in my pocket. I thought my colleague was overreacting, but when I posted a picture of my latest victims on Twitter, it started trending next to Jess Phillips – who had real news to share. People were replying in other languages, copying in the International Criminal Court, the FBI and the Metropolitan police. Others suggested chopping me in half.


First published in the Guardian.

Life as a journey

I’ve finally been out of school for as long as I was in it.

School takes ages, doesn’t it? It used to feel almost like a waiting room to me. You get ushered into a room and told to sit quietly for hours at a time and the reading material they’ve laid out maybe isn’t what you would choose for yourself. After what seems like forever, your name is called and you’re finally ushered through the door and on the other side you find… Another waiting room. It’s like a recurring nightmare. I always imagined that once I got to the thirteenth waiting room, I would go through a door that said 18 on it in a red circle. On the other side of the door would be a place called Real Life where I would finally be treated like an adult. I would immediately get into a car, drive it to a casino, order an alcoholic drink and seduce a lady. I was always waiting for Real Life to start.

You often hear people say that life is a journey. They say that you need to have a sense of direction. That you could go far. I actually think those are good metaphors for what life is like. The problem is, when you talk about journeys and directions in 2018 it makes it sound like you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there because you looked it up on Google Maps. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. When people came up with the idea that life was like a journey, it was more like trying to find your way in the age of Christopher Columbus. Back then, not only did they not have GPS but they hadn’t even figured out how to navigate using the stars.

They used a simple system called dead reckoning. Every day, you wake up on your ship and you look at your compass to see roughly what direction you’re travelling in, and then you throw a random item overboard to see how fast you’re going, and you put a pin in the map where you think you have got to. The next day, you wake up and do the same thing, but this time your starting point is the guess you made yesterday. Eventually your position is a guess based on a guess based on a guess. You know roughly where you are heading but the truth is, you don’t really know whether you’re right until months later when the map says there should be an island on the horizon and you pick up your telescope and hope to God there isn’t just a wide, flat, empty sea.

When I first heard about dead reckoning I thought people must have been lost at sea all the time. It sounds like it would be a miracle if anyone ever ended up where they wanted to go. But the strange thing is that it worked pretty well. You don’t need to know everything about the whole journey. You only need to know three things: which way you’re facing, how fast you’re going, and what you did yesterday. I really like that idea. But there is one big, glaring problem with thinking of life as a journey. It’s the same problem with thinking of school as a waiting room. In fact, almost every time people talk about life, they make it sound as if the entire point of it all is to arrive at your destination and put your feet up. Now I don’t have all the answers but I’m pretty sure the best bit of my life is not going to be the ending.

One of my favourite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, put it this way: ‘Columbus was happy not when he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it. Take my word for it, the moment when he was happiest was just three days before the discovery of the New World, when the mutinous crew were on the point of returning to Europe in despair. It wasn’t the New World that mattered. Columbus died almost without seeing it, and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life – the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.’

You have done amazing things with your life. You have amazing things ahead of you. This isn’t a waiting room; this is already real life. There is no master plan. On the best days, you manage to find one of those tiny islands in the middle of a huge ocean. Enjoy that moment. It’s incredible to think that you have got exactly where you wanted to go just by heading in roughly the right direction day after day and trying not to be blown off course. Better still, the next day you wake up and it is one of those rare days when you know exactly where you are and you can choose where you go next. You have not reached America yet, but this is the exciting part, out here on the water. Some days you might feel a bit lost, or even lose heart – that happens to everyone. But never doubt what you are capable of. On those days when everything ahead of you looks like an empty sea, all you need to do is look back and you’ll see how far you’ve come.

I gave a version of this talk at Bournemouth School’s 2018 prize giving day.