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Imagination, Religion, and Morality: What Did George Eliot Learn from Spinoza and Feuerbach?

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Did George Eliot’s work as translator of the critical writings on religion of Ludwig Feuerbach and Benedict Spinoza influence her work as a novelist? Did she hold a comprehensive philosophy of religion? Through an examination of her non-fictional and fictional writings this chapter argues that we should take seriously Eliot’s claim that her novels are ‘experiments in life’. Building on the critiques of religion offered by Spinoza and Feuerbach, Eliot’s novels address the philosophical question: is morality possible in a godless world? The capacities necessary to a moral life are imagination, sympathy, and reflection. Her fiction contributes to the reformation of moral consciousness by experimenting with the interplay between these capacities.


  • Imagination
  • Morality
  • Philosophy and literature
  • Religion
  • Sympathy

In this chapter, the writings, including translations, of George Eliot will be abbreviated.

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  1. 1.

    Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and George Eliot met in June 1852 and formed a close friendship that continued until Eliot’s death. Although they held different views on social and political change, especially on the issue of women’s rights and suffrage, their respect for each other is clear from their letters. Bodichon was a co-founder in 1869 of the first residential college for women in England: Girton College, Cambridge.

  2. 2.

    Basil Willey, Nineteenth Century Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 238. Willey’s comment is made in relation to Sir David Cecil’s judgment that Eliot was ‘not religious’.

  3. 3.

    Eliot also translated David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in 1846. I shall not discuss Strauss here. Although Eliot was in agreement with much of what he argued, she was not sympathetic to the dogged mode of presentation of his arguments. When translating his book she complained of ‘Strauss-sickness’. The influence of August Comte’s idea of the ‘religion of humanity’ was also important; see Terrence R. Wright, The Religion of Humanity: The Impact of Comtean Positivism in Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

  4. 4.

    I am not claiming that Spinoza and Feuerbach were the only influences on the development of Eliot’s philosophy.

  5. 5.

    Eliot’s translation of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was never published and the manuscript has been lost. Her translation of the Ethics was not published until1981. Her English translation of The Essence of Christianity is still widely used.

  6. 6.

    Rosemary Ashton judges the influence of Spinoza on Feuerbach and German philosophy to be so strong that she writes ‘Spinoza counts as “German” for our purposes.’ See The German Idea (London: Libris, 1994), 24.

  7. 7.

    See ‘The Future of German Philosophy,’ Leader (July, 1855); this is reproduced in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 150.

  8. 8.

    U. C. Knoepflmacher, ‘George Eliot, Feuerbach and the Question of Criticism,’ Victorian Studies 7 (1964): 306–09, 306.

  9. 9.

    Two recent texts that consider Eliot’s philosophy as well as her novels are Catherine Gardner, Women Philosophers: Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy (Boulder Col.: Westview, 2004) and Pauline Nestor, George Eliot (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave, 2002).

  10. 10.

    In ‘The Moral of the Story,’ Critical Inquiry 34, 1, (Autumn 2007): 5–35, Candace Vogler offers a convincing critique of this approach to literature.

  11. 11.

    This is the problematic assumption made by Dorothy Atkins, George Eliot and Spinoza, Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Romantic Assessment, No.78 (Salzburg, Austria: Universität Salzburg, 1978).

  12. 12.

    See Kate Flint, ‘George Eliot and Gender,’ in The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot, ed. George Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 159–180.

  13. 13.

    See E, II, Prop. 13, especially the Axioms, Lemmas and Postulates immediately following. I follow the standard practice for referencing the works of Spinoza. E stands for the Ethics, I–V for its five parts; Prop. for Proposition, Schol. for Scholium; Cor. for Corollary; Dem. For Demonstration; Ax. for Axiom; Pref. for Preface; Appen. for Appendix. All references to the Ethics are from The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). References to both the Tractatus Politicus (TP) and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP) are to Samuel Shirley’s editions: Spinoza Political Treatise (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000) and Spinoza Theological-Political Treatise, second edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001).

  14. 14.

    For a more detailed account of Spinoza on the illusion of free will and the theological illusion see Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Spinoza, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1999), especially Chap. 4.

  15. 15.

    Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 159, emphasis original.

  16. 16.

    This is not to say that religion cannot be studied in a rational way (e.g., anthropology or philosophy of religion) but rather that religious experience cannot itself be made rational.

  17. 17.

    Quoted in Marx Wartofsky, Feuerbach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 86.

  18. 18.

    Compare Spinoza’s comment that if triangles could speak they would say that ‘God is eminently triangular’ Letter LVI to Hugo Boxel [1674], in Abraham Wolf, The Correspondence of Spinoza (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1966), 288.

  19. 19.

    Here one can see another similarity between Spinoza and Feuerbach. See E, II, Ax. 2: ‘we think’.

  20. 20.

    Feuerbach writes: ‘The son – I mean the natural, human son – considered as such, is an intermediate being between the masculine nature of the father and the feminine nature of the mother; he is, as it were, still half a man, half a woman, in as much as he has not the full, rigorous consciousness of independence which characterizes the man’ (EC, 71).

  21. 21.

    See Ryan Plumley, ‘Feuerbach and Gender: the Logic of Complementarity,’ History of European Ideas 29 (2003): 85–105.

  22. 22.

    See Vincent Geoghegan, ‘Religion and Communism: Feuerbach, Marx and Bloch,’ The European Legacy 9, 5 (2004): 585–95.

  23. 23.

    For example, even when I know the true distance of the sun from the earth, the way the sun appears to me does not change. Adequate knowledge does not displace the imagination but it should alter one’s attitude towards it. See Spinoza, E, II, Prop. XXXV, Schol.

  24. 24.

    For example, Feuerbach wrote about the power of the exemplar to connect the abstract to the concrete through the use of the imagination and argued that one of the tasks of philosophy ‘is to comprehend the relation of the imagination to the reason, − the genesis of the image by means of which an object of thought becomes an object of sense, of feeling’ (EC, 80–81). This argument appears in the context of a consideration of the figure of Christ who ‘mediates’ between the abstract idea of God and the concrete human world.

  25. 25.

    Eliot’s handwritten manuscript translation of the Ethics is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 25: IV.

  26. 26.

    In one of her letters Eliot mentions that she had been reading Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ with G. H. Lewes. Although she praises the work she nevertheless writes that ‘Development theory and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be, produces a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the process’ (GEL, III, 227).

  27. 27.

    ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,’ Westminster Review (October,1855); reproduced in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, ed. A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1991), 44.

  28. 28.

    See ‘Review of R. W. Mackay’s “The Progress of the Intellect,”’ Westminster Review (January, 1851); reproduced in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, 271.

  29. 29.

    For a fuller account of Eliot’s determinism, see George Levine ‘Determinism and Responsibility in the Works of George Eliot,’ PMLA 3, LXXVII, (June, 1962): 268–79.

  30. 30.

    Spinoza wrote: ‘I have taken great care not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand them’ (TP, I, 35).

  31. 31.

    Eliot’s epigraph to Chap. 64 of Middlemarch, where the consequences of Lydgate’s earlier actions begin to yield unwelcome effects, has a decidedly Spinozistic ring to it:

    1st Gent. Where lies the power, there let the blame lie too. /2nd Gent. Nay, power is relative; you cannot fright/The coming pest with border fortresses,/Or catch your carp with subtle argument./All force is twain in one: cause is not cause/Unless effect be there; and action’s self/Must needs contain a passive. So command/Exists but with obedience. (MM, 647)

  32. 32.

    See ‘The Natural History of German Life,’ in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, 127.

  33. 33.

    Eliot’s desire ‘to show the gradual action of ordinary causes rather than exceptional’ is noted in one of her letters with reference to Middlemarch. See GEL, V, 168.

  34. 34.

    Eliot wrote: ‘There is no subject on which I am more inclined to hold my peace and learn, than on the “Woman Question”. It seems to me to overhang abysses, of which even prostitution is not the worst’ (GEL, V, 58).

  35. 35.

    This sentiment is echoed in Felix Holt: the Radical, where Eliot writes: ‘there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life’ (FH, 50).

  36. 36.

    See Barry Qualls, ‘George Eliot and Religion’ in The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot, ed. George Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 119–37.

  37. 37.

    For example, Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda. In Romola Eliot refers to Cassandra Fedele, a fifteenth-century Venetian who was considered the most intellectually accomplished woman in all of Italy (R, 322). For an account of Fedele’s life and achievements see Margaret L. King, “Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance” in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia Labalme (New York: New York University Press, 1980), 66–90.

  38. 38.

    One of Eliot’s most vituperative essays is an attack on such ‘wishful thinking’. See ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ in Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings,140–63.

  39. 39.

    I borrow the phrase from William J. Hyde, ‘George Eliot and the Climate of Realism,’ PMLA 72, 1 (March, 1957): 147–64, 154.

  40. 40.

    See Adam Bede, Chap. 17, where realism and truth in fiction is vigorously defended.

  41. 41.

    In her review of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister Eliot praised Goethe’s aesthetic and moral realism and contrasted it with the type of novel in which ‘rewards and punishments are distributed according to those notions of justice on which the novel-writer would have recommended that the world should be governed if he had been consulted at the creation’ (Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, 308).



Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1980).


The Essence of Christianity (translation of Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christenthums [1840]), trans. George Eliot (Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 1989).


Daniel Deronda (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1996).


The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1954–78).


Impressions of Theophrastus Such (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 1996).


Middlemarch (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003).


Romola (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1997).


Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, eds. A.S. Byatt and N. Warren (Harmonsworth: Penguin Classics, 1991).


Silas Marner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1996).

AcknowledgementsI wish to thank Candace Vogler, Philip Kitcher, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Margaret Harris, Salman Bashier, and Eileen O’Neill for helpful conversations about, and comments on, earlier drafts. I am grateful for the peaceful environment provided by a Fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin where this chapter was first drafted (2007-08). Finally, I acknowledge the support provided by an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship (DP0665045).

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Correspondence to Moira Gatens .

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Gatens, M. (2019). Imagination, Religion, and Morality: What Did George Eliot Learn from Spinoza and Feuerbach?. In: O’Neill, E., Lascano, M. (eds) Feminist History of Philosophy: The Recovery and Evaluation of Women's Philosophical Thought. Springer, Cham.

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