- Henry Sidgwick, Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography
The Victorians made Oxford the stuff of legend. Hughes sent Tom Brown there. Arnold proverbialized its dreaming spires, lost causes, and impossible loyalties. Hardy set it shimmering like an unreachable El Dorado in the vision of Jude the Obscure. And the legend is still intact. It draws modern minds again and again to the preachers, teachers, and poets of Victorian Oxford: Newman, Jowett, Green, Bradley, Ruskin, Pater, Arnold, Clough, Swinburne, Wilde. It entices us to navigate and renavigate the currents of thought and feeling that took their rise there: Anglo-Catholicism, Hellenism, Pre-Raphaelitism, Idealism, Aestheticism. Oxford has long fed, and continues to feed, our appetite for Victorian drama, Victorian ideas, Victorian scandal, and Victorian kitsch.
Victorian Cambridge has been much less doted on. Oxford's piquancy and sheen has made Cambridge after Byron and before Bloomsbury look monochromatic and wan. In his biography of Leslie Stephen, published in 1952, Noel Annan investigated the "Cambridge Mind"; but he trailed the Bloomsbury connection quite heavily, and his book did not dispel the impression that Cambridge had been a dull backwater before the great days of Moore, Keynes, Wittgenstein, and Russell.
There was no major revival of interest until late in the twentieth century, when John Rawls and J. B. Schneewind, among others, rediscovered the work of Henry Sidgwick. Bart Schultz has now given the revival a further boost by publishing a panoramic, erudite, evocative, and lyrical study of Sidgwick and his circle. He portrays an intellectual and cultural landscape that is different from Oxford's, though no less visited by the Socratic spirit and no less emblematic of its time. We have often been reminded that Cambridge is the university of Bacon and Newton; but the Cambridge in Bart Schultz's book is different—less dreamy than Oxford, less apparently the stuff of legend—not so much because its traditions were more empirical and mathematical as because it was more deeply scarred by the cataclysms of the Victorian age.
The genius loci of Victorian Oxford was belief. Oxford experienced and recovered from the Victorian crisis of faith. The home of lost causes consoled itself with exotic creeds—with German metaphysics, French positivism, Greek paganism, and Roman Catholicism. The genius lociof Victorian Cambridge was doubt. The sun did not again break through. Skepticism and agnosticism remained heavy in the air, because Cambridge experienced not one crisis of faith but two. After the first storm came a second that scuppered the lifeboats. At Cambridge the collapse of Christianity was followed by the failure of parapsychology to rescue belief in the afterlife. The Society for Psychical Research, founded by Cambridge intellectuals in [End Page 224] 1882, investigated telepathy and ghostly phenomena. Its eminent members attended séances and cross-examined mediums. Hopes were raised—but never fulfilled. The dead remained silent, and science could only report that the wages of virtue might well be dust.
Sidgwick was a Cambridge philosopher who resigned his college fellowship when he discovered that he could not, as the regulations required, subscribe to the Articles of the Church of England. But the regulations were subsequently changed, and he became the first nonsubscribing Knightbridge Professor. From his position of influence and authority he led the Cambridge effort both to recover belief in the supernatural and to come to terms with its loss. However, he failed to do either and was left to admire and envy the metaphysical stoicism of Oxford—especially as it was evident in the Weltanschauung of his friend John Addington Symonds, an agnostic who contemplated the Death of God with equanimity.
Sidgwick tried to construct a secular theory of ethics to compensate for the loss of Christian assurances of reward and punishment. He aimed to renovate the philosophy of the Utilitarians, who had promised heaven on earth as the reward of right conduct. They had preached the ethics of universal hedonism: the pursuit of self-interest through general happiness. When Sidgwick took it up, Utilitarianism was discredited. It had been overtaken by...