Subtle, broad-ranging, and elegant, Thomas Dixon's The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain modestly promises readers a study of the mid-century French neologism "altruism," including its semantic history and evolution in Victorian Britain. What it delivers is a compelling new interpretation of the intertwined histories of moral philosophy, natural science, and religious thought.
Dixon is wonderfully skilled at critically summarizing the arguments of major figures including Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, Beatrice Potter Webb, Oscar Wilde, and G. E. Moore. Rather than trapping Darwin in some stable abstraction called "Darwinism," or Spencer in "Spencerism," he perceptively tracks the ongoing development of their arguments in relation to the changing historical circumstances in which they propounded them. He shows that Spencer's initial sympathy with altruism at mid-century hardened into condemnation by the 1880s and 1890s when altruism came to be identified with collectivist social welfare schemes promoting state intervention at the expense of individual freedom. Dixon juxtaposes Darwin's famous analysis of the brutal struggle and survival of the fittest in On the Origin of Species (1859) with his too-often-overlooked account in The Descent of Man (1871) of cooperation in the natural world among "courageous baboons, conscientious dogs, faithful elephants [and] cooperative pelicans" (148). He elucidates how Darwin reconciled these apparent tensions: natural selection favored sympathetic and loving individuals; community members reinforced cooperative behavior through praise; and most importantly of all, acquired moral improvements were inheritable. Such views were consequential, not just for ideas but for actions because they explain how Victorians simultaneously believed that the poor were a distinct race of degraded primitives yet capable of rescue through moral uplift. Dixon is equally attentive to tensions and arguments among those who donned the mantles of these thinkers to advance their own agendas. In so doing, he succeeds in saying something important about each of these major Victorian thinkers and their contentious legacies.
Comte's use of the word altruisme signaled a major shift in his writings from the elaboration of positivist science in the Cours de philosophie positive (1830–42) to his later writings on the religion of humanity encapsulated in his Catéchisme positiviste (1852). His creed of "living for others" was embedded in a utopian authoritarian vision of society led by atheistic priests abetted by technocratic captains of industry and banking. Comte argued that the Christian promise of personal immortality which rewarded only virtuous believers was fundamentally selfish because it appealed to the heavenly self-interest of individuals at the expense of promoting the well-being of humanity on earth. Closely identified with a godless religion of humanity in the 1850s, altruism came to be understood as an essential Christian virtue just three decades later, one associated with concern for the plight of the unwashed masses at home and abroad.
How did this happen? While it will come as no surprise that free thinkers identified with the Westminister Review were among the first in Britain to welcome "altruism," Dixon shows that they often did so with considerable reservations. Eliot, for one, distrusted the "one-sidedness" of altruism and instead preferred "sympathy" (112). It was not, however, small coteries of radical intellectuals but mainstream Christian sermonizers and moralists, including Canon Mozley and Dean Farrar, who were altruism's most effective albeit unintentional disseminators. By so vociferously condemning altruism for divorcing love of neighbor from love of God, they ironically broadened public interest in it. By the 1890s such debates produced a new synthesis—and a new audience—for altruism. Henry Drummond's Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man (1894) "rechristianized the scientific language of altruism" through the naturally self-sacrificing figure of the mother who provided a touchstone for all sorts of eugenicist appropriations by reformers (299), like the maternal and child welfare advocate Caleb Saleeby.
The most delightful part of this book is the inventive recovery of colorful popularizers, like Drummond, to whom Dixon rightly assigns a key role in producing what he calls "moral meanings" in Victorian Britain. These include authors of best-selling books such as Mrs. Humphry Ward's novel of conscience and social reform Robert Elsmere (1888), as well as heretofore...