Three Victorian Ideas.

Left - Charles Darwin by Spy for Vanity Fair, centre - Karl Marx by Tullio Pericoli, and right - J. S. Mill by Spy for Vanity Fair.

Last week I found myself drawn to Victorian non-fiction and I read three books that would have a great impact on the Victorian world, the repercussions of which are still felt to this day: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859), Utilitarianism by J. S. Mill (1861), and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848). 

Darwin depicted on the front page of
La Petite Lune (1878).
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life is a scientific work on evolution that contradicted the accepted theological beliefs on origin. It was largely based on Charles Darwin's Beagle Expedition - his voyage that included a stay in the Galápagos Islands (during this visit he collected Harriet, his tortoise, in 1835: Harriet would die 130 years later in 1965). From here he continued his research and developed his theory on variation, which he explains in On the Origin of Species. This theory is well familiar to us now: it argues that all species have adapted, evolved, and then differentiated throughout time, which leads, through limited natural resources, a struggle for survival. As Darwin writes in the last paragraph of the fifth chapter,
Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring of their parents - and a cause for each must exist - it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.
These ideas on modification and variation are in direct conflict with the idea that God created all distinct species and lead to a rather rigorous debate (which is putting it mildly!). Darwin's theory had an impact on political theory too with the right wing using the ideas to justify the oppression of the poor. We can also see the impact of Darwinism in literature: Émile Zola springs immediately to mind with his Rougon Macquart series that presented a literary study on the ideas of heredity.

Utilitarianism is another idea that dominated Victorian thought and often creeps into literature - I'm thinking here specifically of Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854). The book I read, though, was J. S. Mill's Utilitarianism which was published later in 1863, a book that developed the work of Jeremy Bentham. The theory, in short, advocates bringing about the best, and the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill's problem (and Dickens' for that matter) was that this philosophy had a tendency towards being cold, calculated, and unemotional. What Mill suggested was that happiness was to be the goal, but there are different kinds of happiness as Aristotle noted - higher and lower. Achievement of goals is a key part in happiness, for example. This is, Mill argued, a natural tendency and indeed natural morality, encompassing the ideas of justice. In Utilitarianism Mill discusses this at length as well as refuted what he perceives as unfair preconceptions against utilitarianism.

The idea of the greater good for the greatest number was also encompassed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their pamphlet The Communist Manifesto, first published in German in 1848. They wrote,
Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, Unite!
In it they embrace Hegel's philosophy of the history of ideas: that each epoch has been dominated by an idea that divides people: today, and indeed then, capitalism is the idea and it divides people into the class and the ruling class, the 'haves' and 'have nots', or, another way of putting it, the proletarians and the bourgeoisie. The idea of a society leads to exploitation: the working classes are exploited for their labour as in the feudal system the serfs were exploited by their masters. It is a very black and white work and there is little room for the idea of 'responsible capitalism' - I've read Ed Miliband use that term and it stuck with me - he said -
A choice between an "irresponsible capitalism" which sees huge gaps between the richest and the poorest, power concentrated in a few hands, and people are just in it for the fast buck whatever the consequences.
And a "responsible capitalism", and this is an agenda being led by business, where companies pursues profit but we also have a equal society, power is in the hands of the many and where we recognise our responsibilities to each other.
And my case is a "responsible capitalism" isn't only fairer but we're more likely to succeed as a country with it.
But I digress. Marx and Engels believed that no amount of policy reform will achieve the goal of equality or the end of exploitation: a revolution was what was needed. Since 1848 we have seen revolutions and we see, in the tradition of this pamphlet, that they are based on black and white views - one side is good, one is bad. It aims to bring the greatest good for the greatest number and for that I sympathise, but it leaves one hell of a bloody trail in its wake, and for that The Communist Manifesto makes me shudder. Removing the idea of revolution (which one cannot truly do, I admit), this does have some very interesting and convincing ideas and I think it is an eye-opener for those who insist capitalism is a good and fair thing. It's problem is how very brutal it is. Perhaps the liberal in me is showing, but I hope I will never see a communist revolution. Some mild socialist reform is far more attractive. Still whether I liked it or not, it had one of the biggest impacts on the world and does have in it some excellent points. It's also a historical document that sheds a great deal of light on the treatment of the working classes in Europe in the mid-19th Century and should not be dismissed because some of the effects of the publication were so disastrous.

And so last week's reading had some fairly tough titles! I can't say I really enjoyed any of them. The Communist Manifesto was the easiest read, unsurprising as it was written as an educational pamphlet, and Darwin was a tricky read. I'm afraid I did find Mill a very dull read which hampered by ability to take it all in. But they're all worthy reads as they each played a part in some of the most dominant Victorian ideas on society, science, and philosophy. 


  1. remarkable reading in only a week! that probably covers the gamut, or mostly, of all human thought... if it weren't for T.H. Huxley, though, Darwin's theory would most likely have been submerged under a flood of religious objection. he was a brilliant speaker and scientist: his debates with Soapy Sam Wilberforce are classic... Darwin was rather shy of the limelight...

    1. Yes, it was quite a week for reading. Was suddenly drawn to non fiction! Just about half way through Tolstoy's What is Art and also finished Proust's Against Saint-Beauve - after that I'll be pretty tired out of all this difficult thought. May *have* to return to the Moomins!


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