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.