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17 SAMUEL BUTLER'S CAMBRIDGE BACKGROUND, AND EREWHON By Ruth Gounelas (The American College of Greece) On coming up to Cambridge at the age of eighteen in 1854, Butler, like Ernest of The Way of All Flesh, "had never doubted the truth of anything that had been told him about Christianity."! Soon after leaving it six years later he was claiming himself "one of Mr. [Charles] Darwin's many enthusiastic admirers,"2 and being praised by Darwin for having given such a "clear and accurate"3 interpretation of his theory of natural selection. Christianity, by this time, had not only been "doubted," but rejected for the reason that it "does not appear to be supported by sufficient evidence." These six intervening years, clearly, were times of considerable mental upheaval for Butler. Such radical changes of view are not of course uncommon at this period of one's life, and Butler, whose parents had been particularly cramping, had no doubt more reason than most to rebel. But before assuming that his new attitude was due solely to the desire to defy parents, we should look more closely at another possible source of influence: that of common attitudes at Cambridge during this period of the late 185Os. In doing so, the following questions are worth considering . What were the intellectual assumptions which Butler inherited here? Why was he so receptive to the influence of Darwin , also of Cambridge education? And above all, can his first major work, Erewhon, be said to owe anything to this Cambridge background? It would clearly not be possible to give a precise and comprehensive definition of "Cambridge thought" at any one particular time. Indeed, Cambridge has been noted for its resistance to any one enclosed school of thought. "Since the time of the Platonists ," according to Henry Sidgwick in his I876 article entitled "Philosophy at Cambridge," "the history of Cambridge shows no philosophical school or sect, and scarcely any philosophical coterie . "5 Still, as Sidgwick admits, it is possible to trace certain "general intellectual tendencies"0 in the Cambridge method. For example, he continues, there seems to be a preference for "exactness of method and certainty of results in comparison with breadth and completeness of view," and for this reason "a training in mathematics and physics" tends to be regarded as "a nat- „ ural preparation for taking part in methodological controversy."' Noel Annan's study of Leslie Stephen reinforces Sidgwick on this point. All the major Cambridge thinkers at this time, Annan notes, never strayed far from what may broadly be seen as the "mathematical approach": "Stephen, Sidgwick, Clifford, Marshall and Venn all came to philosophy through mathematics and gravitated to empiricism away from metaphysics which flourished in Oxford , the home of Aristotle." And he quotes a characteristic 18 warning of Stephen's: "one's conscience may be a dangerous guide unless itpCondescends to be enlightened by patient and impartial enquiry." Impartiality was especially emphasised in what many Cambridge men saw as times of frighteningly fierce partisanship. "This is a disagreeable age to live in," wrote Sidgwick in 1863; "there are so many opinions held about everything, and the advocates of each abuse their opponents so violently that it quite frightens a modest man."9 So in dealing with such important topical questions as biblical authority, the Cambridge man had developed methods of reasoning to safeguard against such dangers. "What was fixed and unalterable and accepted by us all," Sidgwick wrote of his Cambridge colleagues of the early '60s, was the necessity and duty of examining the evidence for historical Christianity with strict scientific impartiality ; placing ourselves as far as possible outside traditional sentiments and opinions, and endeavouring to weigh the pros and cons on all theological questions as a duly instructed rational being from another planet - or let us say from China - would naturally weigh them.-*·0 Whether or not these two Cambridge qualities of exactness of method and impartial enquiry had directly influenced Butler during his time there, it is certainly clear that he was most receptive in the years immediately following to works written according to these demands. One of the books which most influenced him in the breakdown of his Christian faith, Butler...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 17-39
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Ceasing Publication
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