This post was written as part of CULA’s “Liberal Icons” essay competition; the winner and runner-up will be announced once all entries have been posted.
The liberal icon I’ve chosen is George Eliot, although I haven’t yet read most of what she wrote. She has been described as both a romantic conservative and a radical Millian liberal, and no doubt was both at different points in her life. But whatever the true trajectory of her politics, I think a brilliant statement of liberal values can be found in the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Finale’ of Middlemarch.
The idea expressed in these two short chapters might be called the liberalism of self-development. Eliot opens the novel with a discussion of the life of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish mystic and church reformer and the subject of a recent retrospective by Pope Francis. Eliot was not primarily interested in Teresa’s religion. Rather, she used her as a case study of what might happen when a woman of genius is born into a society in which she can’t flourish:
What were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to [Teresa]? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness … She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.
Teresa, at least, overcame the “light fuel” of gender norms, low-expectations, and shallow ideals of “chivalry and … social conquest”. Her genius latched onto the Church (though surely it was the source of many of the barriers in the first place), and, using it as the sounding board for her natural abilities, became a figure of world-historical importance.
Teresa was lucky. Eliot notes that “many Teresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life”. Of these contemporary Teresas, she writes that they are condemned to:
A life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity … With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness.
This echoes something J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty:
But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical, atmosphere and climate.
This is Mill’s famous argument for self-development, but I think Eliot makes the point better. It is not simply that a woman of genius finds it difficult to achieve her potential. Rather, such a person, existing in a society that stifles every possible expression of her potential—sets hard limits to her aspirations, to what she can think, feel, and say, and not just overtly through laws, but also through a million domestic subtleties—ultimately finds that her inner life has become corrupted. She is not the person she could be; but living the only life she knows, it’s not clear what “could be” means. In the ‘Finale’ of Middlemarch, Eliot applies this to her book’s heroine, Dorothea:
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of a young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.
Getting self-development right is crucial, because 21st century progressive politics is all about facilitating “authentic” expression in the face of explicit and implicit oppression on the basis of race, sex, sexuality, and gender identity. Eliot’s liberalism implies one positive vision of self-development, though there are others. There’s the self-development advanced by a slew of writers and ideologies from Marx, Kant, and Rousseau, to the major religions and 20th century communism and fascism. According to these creeds, some form of ideal harmony lies beyond all the ills and distortions of society. The self-development of one is, by this view, compatible with the self-development of all (or at least, of all within a certain well-defined group). For Marx and Engels, the end of the road was the withering away of the state and the emergence of mutual co-existence along communist principles; for Kant, it was the ultimate convergence of “free” minds under the universal moral law of rational creatures; for fascism it was an ethnically pure nation held together by hearth, home, and loyalty to the leader. All of these are wrong (though, it goes without saying, some of them are more wrong than others).
It is possible to imagine a society in which rights and identities are protected, where the rule of law sits alongside mutual respect and affirmation. This is not the sort of unity these utopian ideologies have in mind. They make a much stronger claim about the natural and necessary confluence of human goods, and it is this claim that Eliot refutes.
One lesson of her book is that self-development is intrinsically messy. We strive to attain something, and we often find it, but there is no final resting point, because what lies within (the “self”) is influenced by what lies without, and is, in any case, inherently unstable. Zadie Smith in her essay on Middlemarch puts it this way:
[Eliot] was thinking of Spinoza’s kind of striving, conatus. From Spinoza, Eliot took the idea that the good we strive for should be nothing more than “what we certainly know will be useful to us”, not a fixed point, no specific moral system, not, properly speaking, a morality at all. … [Eliot’s characters] think of the good as a dynamic, unpredictable combination of forces, different, in practice, for each of us.
Smith shows how this manifests in the tribulations of Middlemarch’s characters – especially the hapless romantic Fred Vincy. But it is not essential to know the book (which is gargantuan) or its plot (which is labyrinthine) to take home the message embedded in the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Finale’.
So, Eliot was a liberal because she was painfully aware of the impact that social oppression has on thousands of suffering Teresas (as well as those who are less extraordinary in ambition, but are no less impacted by stifling social mores). But she also knew that self-development is no simple matter of peeling back an oppressive skin to find the happy, harmonious society buried underneath. She was the antecedent to Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams, Judith Shklar, and other modern liberals who know that human life is more complicated than that.