1 Introduction

This chapter explores two questions: what did Ellis bring to Cambridge, and what did Cambridge do for Ellis?Footnote 1 The answers will be reached through primary source materials available in Trinity College Library and at Cambridge University Library. Two forms of analysis will intertwine: the first a textual study of sources on Ellis’s character and friendships, and the second a contextual study of the Cambridge he inhabited, Trinity College and the Cambridge Network in particular – networks that shaped and provoked his unique and original contributions to knowledge.Footnote 2 While rich and well connected, confidently established within the Whig aristocratic elite, Ellis was sometimes portrayed as timid and reclusive. Why, with ‘abundance of character and richness of endowment’ did he appear ‘different to different people?’Footnote 3 What explains the attestations to his charismatic personality, Stoic character and his devoted following? The best evidential account is provided by his closest and most loyal friend of two decades John Grote (1813-1866), the Knighbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy and Vicar of Trumpington, and Charles Astor Bristed, a relative stranger whose path crossed with Ellis and Grote.Footnote 4

About Ellis and Grote, Bristed, a Yale immigrant – happily stranded by ill health in Cambridge – wrote that they were the two most intelligent men in the University. Of Ellis, Bristed wrote,

whereas geniuses of this kind are frequently one-sided and very much abroad in other subjects, he had knowledge enough of other branches to have given him a reputation without his Mathematics […]. Still it was not so much the extent of his information – for there were several men in the University, John Grote for instance, whose range covered more ground – that struck one so much as the power he had over it.Footnote 5

It was to his companionship and conversation with Ellis that Grote would attribute all that was original about his own work.Footnote 6 From their first meeting onwards, the two were inseparable, talking for hours on every possible subject. Bristed refers to Ellis as a great ‘Metaphysician’, an attribution perhaps equally applicable to Grote.Footnote 7 But Grote’s study of Ellis, published posthumously in 1872, is arguably the most reliable account we have of and about the man. As Grote summarized his incisive judgement of Ellis, he had ‘[i]ndependence, or individuality of judgement, with mental sociability, or attention and deference to the views of others’.Footnote 8

John Pilkington Norris’s (1823-91) contrasted account of Ellis as ‘religious’, and Goodwin’s as the ‘ideal scholar’ are challenged here.Footnote 9 Ellis was the guardian of the Cambridge canon, Grote the canon itself. Ellis produced scholarly output in conversation and articles, Grote in lectures, essays and books. Ellis’s reclusiveness allowed him the space and time to ruminate, and to produce a steady stream of brilliant and suggestive articles. The two inspired, prompted and pointed each other towards their shared goals. Grote’s interrogation of Ellis led to the latter’s description of Grote as ‘the fiend’, but they were co-dependent and co-productive.Footnote 10 We will argue that Ellis was neither the ideal Cambridge scholar nor the deferential Christian that others have made of him. Instead, he was an eccentric Cambridge genius, catalysed by his environment, and a Pascalian, agonistic verging on agnostic, in religious matters.

2 Obituarising the Man

Obituaries have their genres, and those on Ellis roughly fall into three categories: ownership, in this case for devout Christianity, in John Pilkington Norris’s contributions; scholarly and admiring, as in the case of Harvey Goodwin’s; and analytic, as in the case of Henry Luard and John Grote’s ‘A Study of Character’.Footnote 11 On his death Ellis was subjected to some of the indignities that his long illness had inflicted – intrusive analysis, unwanted and unhelpful pontificating, diagnoses and prescription. Due to the peculiarities of his life, writing an obituary was something of a challenge. All resorted to a chronological account of birth, education, social life, prizes, publications and achievements.

Apart from one – the claiming of the deceased as a devotee of Christianity, in this case by Norris – Ellis was lucky with his biographers. Harvey Goodwin managed to conjure the excitement of possibility that Ellis’s life engendered to his friends and readers alike. It was less what he did than what he could and would have done if a decade of debilitating illness and a death aged 41 had not ended ambition. To James David Forbes, Ellis was the ‘perfect ideal of the academical character’.Footnote 12 He was ‘[l]earned without pedantry, studious without asceticism, clear in his convictions without dogmatism, eminently pious, gentle, urbane, and sympathising’, while being ‘engaging in demeanour and comprehensive in intellect’.Footnote 13 Forbes recognized Ellis’s originality in pure reasoning, but occupationally he was more a muse than a conventional scholar. He inspired peers with his analytic conversational style, and called out the intelligence of his tutors with penetrating questions and hypotheses. He explored the abstract reaches of the mind (e.g. symbolic logic, integral calculus, inductive logic), and he aided Whewell as a consultant on such projects as the natural science curriculum, Roman Law and inductive logic. However, in order to dig deeper into Ellis’s character we should engage with Grote’s ‘A Study of Character’ rather than add details gleaned from letters and other sources.Footnote 14 Grote was at pains to distance himself from the judgements of his friends and colleagues whose views, he judged, had missed the key aspects that characterized his friend and marked his genius.Footnote 15

3 Approaching Knowledge

Sharing most characteristics with his mother, Ellis was lean and gentle, with fragile health. Exposed to anxiety, he was thrown into its cold clutches at the age of fifteen, with the death of his youngest sister, possibly tilting him towards hypochondria. Fortuitously, Robert fell into a congenial companionship with his father, whose agile and analytical character of mind he embraced. Association with adult minds led to Ellis’s adoption of mature ways of thinking from very early on, giving him ‘a remarkable maturity and independence of judgement, […] an individual curiosity and interest in knowledge’.Footnote 16 Private tutors in mathematics and classics aided Ellis, who never attended school and who, apart from the tutoring, adopted the practice of reading and learning alone. His preferred method seems to have been that which he used for book learning; to work out a problem from the inside for himself, beginning from the beginning and ignoring passive or rote learning.Footnote 17 Ellis rarely made notes from books or lectures. Instead, he listened, digested, ruminated and thought things through until the problems and solutions became clear. These thoughts he often consigned to his diaries. Thinking was like making a puzzle come out, it was applying more and more intensity to the problem until the problem itself or the mist surrounding it cleared.Footnote 18 Mathematics allowed for more definiteness but it was always this characteristic that he sought and demanded. Secondary texts were a distraction, useful only as contextual aids. Ellis captured the essence of this process, intense focus and concentration, writing that ‘[t]he perfect calmness of introspective contemplation, of thought wholly dissevered from action, has a charm beyond most things: there is another kind of calmness which I have felt too, when the mind is steadily fixed on one object of pursuit, & feels its energies rise with the occasion – like the former it arises from the absence of discord between the thinking & willing parts of man’.Footnote 19 For such a mind, the most important primary source was conversation, which provided ‘a good training for those qualities which were specially observed about him afterwards; − the definiteness of and readiness with which he expressed himself, the clearness of his ideas on such subjects as are likely to arise in conversation, and the apparently sharp and correct judgement about people who he met or saw’.Footnote 20 This observation requires some elaboration, for Ellis found his own mind, and others’ conversations and behaviour, to be primary sources for analysis and judgement. His letters and diaries are full of observations on the foibles, skills, merits and demerits of his acquaintances, some really quite harsh and even cruel.Footnote 21 We must remember the confidence to observe, ruminate and analyse others that his wealth, connections and upbringing had conferred. Like Montaigne, he was morally engaged, yet also an insider looking out, amused, intrigued and motivated just enough to engage the understanding. His diaries and letters reveal a man living between ‘act, character, and consequence, and also between ethical demands and the rest of life’.Footnote 22 These two likenesses of Ellis capture some of these qualities and provide materials for further analysis and judgement (Fig. 3.1).

Fig. 3.1
figure 1

Chalk drawing of Ellis in Trinity, attributed by J.P. Norris to Samuel Laurence (1812-1884) (Norris, “Review,” 2). (Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

A fidgetiness with concentration and focus made it possible for him to acquire the knowledge of a polymath, with interests similar to those of his Trinity colleague John Mitchell Kemble (1807-57). Greek, Roman, Arabic, Saxon, Viking, Danish and Norman sources on many different subjects were digested with equal enthusiasm. He was particularly concerned with the methods and thinking of Continental mathematicians, including Adrien-Marie Legendre (1752-1838), whom he probably met at John Herschel’s home. Cervantes and La Rochefoucauld remained constant magnetic forces, with Ellis brooding in August 1835 on the latter’s assertion that ‘the heart of man is framed to reconcile inconsistencies’ (11 August 1835). ‘Largeness’ he exuded and ‘littleness’ he eschewed, but his sheer ‘intellectual eminence’, ‘moral courage’ and ‘integrity’ led colleagues to both respect and trust his judgments.Footnote 23 He applied coherence as his criterion of truth, and sought completeness and coherence of all facts, theories and judgments, always probing principles and foundations. However, according to Grote, such an ‘intellectual conscientiousness’ produced in Ellis ‘the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction at anything being confusedly seen or not worked out, and of dislike at seeing it incorrectly put or fallaciously argued, [arising] from the feeling that truth is worth effect and patience…’.Footnote 24

4 The Making of the Man

John Stuart Mill often fretted about the role of non-resident Protestant landlords in Ireland of the sort Ellis represented. Ellis indeed inherited lands from various relatives, yet he spent most of his time in Bath, Malvern and Cambridge with his set. In Cambridge he kept to a minimum invitations to bond closely with the Anglo-Irish aristocratic set represented by Charles Brinsley Marlay, whose family home is now the centre of the University of Nottingham. He did engage with clubs and societies in Bath (Literary and Scientific Institution), Brighton, London (Oxford and Cambridge Club), and Cambridge (Cambridge Union Society). He retired variously to Malvern and Bath for a decade after he became an invalid and reported a social life with friends from many areas of his life, whose names appear in his correspondence: George Dance from Bath, R. Mate, D.F. Gregory, E.M. Cope, H.A.J. Munro, A. Thurtell, J. Armitage, J. Spedding, W.H. Thompson, A. Smith, C.B. Marlay, W. Walton, A. Cayley, J.W. Blakesley, A. Smith, R.C. Jenkins from Cambridge and James D. Forbes from Scotland. It seems that in the 1840s, during his years as a Fellow of Trinity, Ellis often found many excuses to absent college for Bath, his father and friends; he missed Bath especially and his affections for Cambridge were always qualified and somewhat reserved.

His diaries and letters to his sister (Lady Affleck) reveal a very full, rich and even slightly extravagant social scene; breakfasting, dining, visiting galleries, having visitors, walking, riding, and reading. In many ways, and quite justifiably, Ellis was respected, consulted and feted by William Whewell, the most influential man in Cambridge, and was further indulged by Trinity, friends and family. By 1843, Ellis was able to confide of his astonishing run of good fortune; ‘I went stumbling from one piece of good fortune to another for two decades’ (30 November 1834). But in another letter he admitted to an existential ennui, what Grote identified as a ‘lebensättigkeit’, a weariness with existence, a discomfort with life, a deep melancholy with ‘shades of mournfulness’.Footnote 25 Grote associated this with ‘a dark view of man’s lot in general’, writing that ‘the realities of life pictured themselves to him with full vividness’.Footnote 26 These were dispositions which Grote shared with Ellis. In reply, Ellis wrote in a letter from Great Malvern:

that kind of dissatisfaction which young men often fall which arises when one is conscious of powers of enjoyment for action to which nothing corresponds in one’s outward world. It is not that they have had too much of what life can give, but that they feel truly or falsely that it cannot give what they want.Footnote 27

Ellis and Grote shared many features of the Hegelian recognition of the ‘unhappy consciousness’, forever wanting and pursuing with vigour hardly attainable ideals, made bearable perhaps by comedy.Footnote 28

5 Character: The Man as Made

Ellis was not aloof, arrogant, not a ‘recluse’ as Goodwin judged, not introvert nor unsociable. He once ruminated that his life was ‘destroyed by two things, my indifferent health and irritable temper – both misfortunes’ (22 August 1835). On one occasion, he self-identified as possessing an ‘unfortunate manner – the result of a compound of coldness with something between haughtiness and insolence’ (10 December 1840). He was often withdrawn and sometimes difficult in company. This was in part due to impatience but also because he was vividly aware of human foibles and suffering, which unnerved him. Those parading platitudes, everyday opinions, fashions and commonplaces annoyed him, though he once advised an aspiring scholar in 1849 ‘to cultivate the act of being commonplace in habits as well as truth’, as ‘Cambridge is certainly a bad place for speaking one’s mind’.Footnote 29 Grote contends that his friend was too aware, too conscientious, too serious for ‘easy playing and almost trifling’ activities.Footnote 30

With Ellis, rumination led to brooding, brooding to foreboding, which became an insurance against future visitations and disappointment. He recorded in his diary for 6 January 1839 the return of ‘that sickening feeling which comes over me from time to time, & which I can but ill describe, & with some degree of manners bitter dislike of Cambridge & of my repugnance of the wrangler making process. There is but one place for me & that I cannot obtain’ (6 January 1839). He admitted to the return of ‘old hypochondriasis which made me say, “Thy terrors have I suffered from my youth up, with a troubled mind”’.Footnote 31 Old scars had been opened, ‘slightly healed wounds’ amplified by his normal ‘nervous temperament and opium’.Footnote 32 Benevolent acts reflected his non-providential thinking: he gave generously to Grote’s Subscription School, donated to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, treated servants respectfully amongst many other acts of generosity. Stoicism, a form of worldly and wise acceptance of the vicissitudes of life, was the other chosen companion for melancholy. Ellis had ‘the same taste for nature as Dryden’, and spoke approvingly and understandably of Lucretius as well as of modern French explorers of the human conditions such as La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Montaigne and Pascal, all early modern French explorers of the human condition.Footnote 33 The reasons why Rochefoucauld was referred to mostly lies in four factors: a complete rejection of essentialist, foundationalist and dualist ideas of the self associated with Descartes on one wing and the Utilitarians on the other; the recognition and acceptance that there were many varieties of self and natures mankind explores; that the admired ideals of Stoicism ignored the variety, complexity, nuances, sensibilities, drives, desires, fears and foibles experienced by contemporary humans; and hence, that it is better to explore the ever contingent human condition than a fixed human nature.Footnote 34 Ellis lived it, and Grote captured this with his concept of human Egence or Want that cannot ever find satisfaction or realization. Mathematics and science might offer some stability on the slippery surface, but also succour, escape and sometimes retreat until the final overwhelming episodes in later life.Footnote 35

Society and etiquette had also been distractions, but the events above reinforced Ellis’s ennui and melancholy. But at the start there was great optimism, many routes to advantage and a rewarding life. Sir William Napier had adopted Ellis as a patron and protégé, eventually pressing him to become Whig candidate for the Bath parliamentary seat. The early deaths of his two best friends at Trinity, Richard Mate and Duncan Gregory, created further dejection. He wrote from San Remo in 1849 that life is ‘almost from the first, a decline, one prospect after another taken away, as the whole darkens until it is dark’.Footnote 36 Several brief biographical accounts show Ellis to have engaged actively with student life in Cambridge; he may have asked to take examinations in a room alone, but he entertained and was entertained in student rooms around the university according to John Norris, Gregory, Goodwin, Bristed and Grote.

Charles Bristed recalled his first meeting at Ellis’s ‘turret’ rooms:

There was the usual amount of awkwardness and hesitation on both sides, while I stated my reason for my visit […]. We gradually fell into conversation upon other matters, till lighting on old English Ballad Poetry which happened to be a hobby with both of us, we kept up an animated conversation to a late hour, and after that night frequently exchanged visits.Footnote 37

He left a valedictory comment about Ellis, ‘mathematical genius’, which we are taking seriously here. However, in typically Ellisian fashion, poor Bristed was denigrated by Ellis for his efforts. He wrote, to his sister Lady Affleck ‘[s]o Bristed’s book has reached you. I do not know if you would read it with more interest if you knew the real names – I remember but few now […]. The book is an impudent one and like the author who reminds me of La Bruyere’s comparison of certain people to a dog in a church […] innocent of ill intentions and unable to see the impropriety of what he is doing’.Footnote 38 As hard on himself as on others, he repeatedly fretted at lost possibilities, unrealised ambitions and uncompleted missions.Footnote 39 For example, in what appears to be a dressing down to himself in August/September 1839/40 he commented that ‘[t]he fault of his character was a want of earnestness – decision and energy set against these – he was sincere in wishing to do right and his natural sentiments and dispositions […]’; he considered himself ‘a dreamer of dreams’ but ever ‘nervous and irritable’.Footnote 40

Grote summarised his review of his friend’s character with the signifier ‘many minded’, referring to his ability to see things from a variety of perspectives, to empathize with the merits of contrasting views, which made him appear ‘different to different people’.Footnote 41 He was less a Gregory and more a Dryden, Johnson or Boswell. Not so much original as many and deep minded. ‘Ellis was peculiarly a many-minded man not simply from his wide knowledge, but from his early disposition and habituation to think for himself, and to apply his thought to whatever might be the matter suggested to him.’Footnote 42 Ellis recognized Grote’s often overzealous intrusions into his (inner) life, and took care to not let the ‘fiend’ bind him into co-dependency.Footnote 43 But the significance of their relationship is implied in a long passage in the Exploratio from which I have abstracted the following:

My companionship with him (Ellis) I think was intellectually the most valuable portion of my life, for one reason, namely I learnt from it (I say from it rather than from him, for I think it was from the concurrence and conflict of our minds, which were very different, a something not easy to describe, but which has been the soul of all my notions about philosophy since: one might call it a belief in thought: a feeling that things were worth thinking about, that thought was worth effort, that half-thought or loose thought was something to be despised, that the getting to the bottom of anything was what would repay the trouble of it.Footnote 44

From an early age, ‘[t]he character of a philosophical lawyer’ was ‘remarkably to his [i.e. Ellis’s] taste’; but Grote was anxious to connect this to the wider set of skills that Ellis was developing, writing that ‘in the tracing of principles and analogies, and getting and embodying everything in the most exact and definite form, [Ellis] united a human and practical interest’.Footnote 45 Ellis was attracted to puzzles not worked out, to the intellectual challenge to work them out, and he had a deep ‘respect for form, and for the manner of doing things’, where ‘the perfectness of the form was not the result of special attention to that, but was a sign of the clearness and completeness of the thought’.Footnote 46 Law and science share respect for fact, truth, evidence and proof, as well as for the search for guiding principles, theories, conjectures, logic, validity and sound judgement. Disrespect or failings in these in himself and others he treated with irritation, which the beneficiaries of his thinking tolerated respectfully. One unique feature of his friend Grote’s ethical work shows the effects of this approach, the ideal of Jural Ethics. Traditionally, law is to be subservient to ethics and legal systems are to be analogous to ethical ones, as in Platonic and Natural Law traditions. It is worth mentioning that Grote deferred to Ellis’s reversal of this connection, using law – its making, operation and reform – as a model to throw light upon the formation and development of moral and ethical systems. Ethics is best understood through jurisprudence and legal history than through, say, natural law and utilitarianism; and morality, in turn, is best understood as the codification of customs that have changed over time, much in the way that Justinian and Gaius codified Roman Law. In direct opposition to the arguments of Mill and other Utilitarians that law should be shaped by the ethical goal of the ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, ethics is shaped by the same historical process of practice, codification and revision which have shaped English law. It is highly likely that the motive behind Ellis’s translation of Gaius was to give force to this reversal in then-current academic thinking. The same might be said of the work on Roman history and law by Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831), some of whose works were translated by the Cambridge academics Julius Hare and Connop Thirlwall (1797-1875).Footnote 47 In jural ethics, rights and duties in ethics are analogous to right and duty in law, obligation in ethics derives from status, position, relationships and not some superior moral principle. If one wants to know more about Ellis’s ethics, politics and metaphysics, one needs not go much further than John Grote’s corpus. The analogy of law and morality, distinct but similar, was a mantra of the Cambridge Platonists as well as of Whewell, and so the focus on and study of Roman (Gaius), civil and common law carried important implications for Cambridge thinkers.Footnote 48 With Ellis and Grote, there is an idealist demand that the actual captures and embodies the ideal, that things embody ideas, and that principles are abridgements of practices instead of vice versa.

6 Ellis and the Rising Tide of Doubt

We come then to the character of the man, the inner self embodied in his mannerisms, behaviour, acts and endeavours. Forbes observed that Ellis worked on ‘the frontiers of Mathematics and Metaphysics, of Natural and Mental Philosophy’.Footnote 49 I want to explore this image of frontiers by drawing an analogy with the Victorian geologists and beachcombers depicted in Wiliam Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of October fifth 1858’ of 1860, found in the Tate Gallery. Beachcombers are trying to make sense of what they are unearthing on the frontiers of belief and knowledge, between new knowledge and beliefs inherited from the past. They study evidence before them with intensity, they ‘notice’ things, assess and judge on the basis of the evidence. We may imagine Ellis as living on this shoreline, between the land and the sea, old and new, ancient and modern, familiar and innovatory, but also between the the firm territory inland of established beliefs and knowledge and the dark, melancholic, risky sea that might carry him, and us, away. It was this association of Ellis with the second option that Lady Affleck and John Norris sought to erase in their review of Goodwin’s ‘Biographical memoir of Robert Leslie Ellis’.Footnote 50 They suggested that Ellis preferred to stay near the shore, metaphorically speaking, examining the sedimentary rocks, the driftwood, the weather and conditions for facts and evidence of traditional certainties about what existed and was worth exploring.

Ellis had engaged with the geological knowledge of Sedgwick and the astronomical knowledge of Herschel and he respected the received knowledge, history and experience encultured in these elder beachcombers’ religion, legends and folklore. But he was analytical, sifting their judgments to get a ‘fit’ with what he thought to be better adapted to the scientific, historical and philosophical insights he had acquired. He was innovative and he contributed new insights, but he was less an explorer or adventurer than the analyst who examined what was known with sharper focus and deeper intensity, ‘noticing’ things, then producing new and better explanations and understandings. He shared with many knowledgeable mid-Victorians a rather uncomfortable unease, a melancholic reflectiveness, as the dominoes that made up the dominant ideology wobbled and toppled.Footnote 51 Norris did what he could to preserve the idea of religious fortitude to the end, but we know enough to judge this was an exaggeration.Footnote 52 Norris had been approached by Lady Affleck, who was keen to save her brother’s moral reputation, virtue and honour from Gregory, Goodwin and Grote, who she considered had stressed wrongly Ellis’s modern-age professional intellectual genius, skills and accomplishments. The two planned their riposte, stressing ‘manliness’ and ‘character’ rather than ‘intellectual character’, the assignment of sainthood and religious purity in the face of the opposing mere ‘intellectual’ characterisation as the quotation below shows. Rather than working at the frontiers of modern speculation, Norris stressed that Ellis sought to expose the ‘irrelevance of modern speculation’.Footnote 53 This came via an obituarial re-write for the Athenaeum (after its initial rejection from Macmillan’s Magazine), as reported by Walton.Footnote 54 Goodwin concurred with the re-write in his ‘Biographical memoir’.Footnote 55 Norris reconstructed Ellis’s mission as a ‘voice against the undue estimate of intellectual power’, and re-estimated his achievements as follows:

To bear witness, or rather, perhaps, to be a witness against the characteristic tendencies of modern thought, to protest against idolatry of all kinds, – idols of intellect, of success, of physical science, of high art, – if not by lifting up his voice, yet by standing erect amongst a thousand who bowed down; to oppose to this the one true worship required of the mind no less than the heart; to manifest in every highest efforts of speculation the same principles of obedience and reverence to One who was yet higher, that he had acknowledged as the prayer of his childhood; […] this seemed to be the appointed purpose of his life and death.Footnote 56

It should be remembered, however, that Ellis had a deep aversion to being forced into taking orders, to having to subscribe to conventions, musing that ‘I begin to understand how men go into the church as a matter of convenience’ (28 February 1840), a fate his wealth allowed him to avoid. There was probably some other aspects of Ellis’s later life Fanny and Norris were expunging, something they considered shocking and shameful and which was popularly experimented with by aristocrats and aesthetes – hallucinogens, and opiates especially.Footnote 57 This might explain the many pages missing, carefully cut, especially from the diaries, but evidenced in letters to Grote. Ellis availed himself, and was pressed by others, to seek all remedies and cures for his condition, using galvanic apparatus, water and spa treatments but also including the prescription of opium. Opiates were freely available at chemists and prescribed by doctors to the upper classes. Laudanum usage amongst the poor was widely understood as needless intoxication and condemned. Amongst romantics and aesthetes like Samuel T. Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, usage had some cachet, but respectable society harboured doubts about opium’s capacity to undermine moral standards, encourage laxity and weaken manliness. Mark Pattison is reputed to have made his wife pledge denial of opium, even when advised by doctors, during a long and painful deathbed.Footnote 58 Ellis’s acquaintance with opium had begun earlier. He recorded in his diary of 9 May 1840: ‘Went to Deck’s to get some solution of opium – the shopman asked me if I knew how to use it. He ought to have known me, but I suppose he had an idea equally lively & just of the misery of a ‘good man’s’ existence’ (9 May 1840). Over long periods of illness and depression, indigestion could and would have presented Ellis with many disturbing effects to both the users and carers. Ellis and Grote kept most visitors at bay from 1855 onwards, though for other reasons; infringement of Ellis’s dignity, the shame and lack of respectability associated with invalidity and illness, practical hygiene reasons. But the disturbing effects of medications was most likely also a factor. From 1840 to 1859 most opiates and cocaine-based drugs were freely available for medical, experimental and leisure usage. Drug dens in cities, for the poor, doctors’ prescriptions, for the well off, supplied a growing demand which itself created a moral crisis and scandal, with Coleridge, and De Quincey exposed in opium-eating accusations. Ellis’s opium usage was legitimate and indeed essential, it did not fit into either the addict or romantic explorer paradigms.

With individuals who place a high value upon honour and attach great value to autonomy, the ever-present dangers are exposure to guilt and shame.Footnote 59 These may explain Ellis’s growing reluctance to allow visitors to Anstey Hall.Footnote 60 Shame is a feature of my personal judgement of self and of ‘what I am’.Footnote 61 Ellis’s whole character exhibited self-surveillance, discipline and control, strengthened by a perfect ‘sense of honour and propriety’ for which autonomy was a precondition.Footnote 62 Shame is motivated primary by sight, and Ellis’s whole appearance during the years of decline, which ‘made him grieve over his forced indolence,’ must have evoked this response.Footnote 63 Furthermore, shame is ‘the emotion of self-protection’ and in the experience of shame one’s whole being is ‘diminished or lessened’.Footnote 64 Embarrassment, in turn, is the indicator of present shame, hiding, and disappearing, the tactics usually deliberately chosen. Guilt is deeper still; the person in question understands that he has failed others in some way by acts of omission. Where shame is measured on a subject’s own scale of respectability and norms, guilt tracks conventional morality or values; the former is self generated, the latter impressed upon the self.Footnote 65 Ellis had few grounds for guilt, and we read of his dislike of imposing upon friends for errands, support and kindness. His fashioned and highly-tuned character made a sense of shame understandable, perhaps even inevitable, considering the suffering that he himself considered too ‘painfull to dwell’ upon.Footnote 66 Norris’s image of Ellis’s last hours surrounded by Bibles rather than medical apparatus is understandable in this context. He would have performed a better task if he adopted Ellis’s own handling of Gregory’s last days. ‘At length, on 23rd February 1844, after sufferings, on which, notwithstanding the admirable patience with which they were borne, it would be painful to dwell, his illness terminated in death’.Footnote 67

The issue of the compatibility of belief in the sovereignty of the Divine with human suffering was evidently more than intellectual in the case of Ellis and his long and painful illness. As with his encounters with opiates, the questions of why God would let him suffer was forced upon him. Like Pascal in his Pensées, Ellis looked at the evidence for God’s existence and the case for devotion with the eyes of a mathematician and philosopher. Unable to prove or disprove either, he seems to have reverted to probabilities, engaging with Pascal’s ‘Wager’.Footnote 68 ‘His religion had something of a struggling character like that of Pascal, into whose mind he entered much, but few people have had more need of the comforts of religion than he had, and he found them’.Footnote 69 Perhaps when it came to religion Ellis was ‘burdened with anxiety like Pascal’.Footnote 70 Ellis was more a Pascalian sceptic than a conventional believer – but he was certainly not an atheist – admitting to Grote: ‘For my own part I am not very fond of declarations of belief but declarations of unbelief are surely a great deal worse’.Footnote 71 But the fact that Ellis resisted taking Holy Orders, which prevented the renewal of his Trinity fellowship, indicates serious reservations about religion, the clergy, or both. In his final days, Grote observed that Pascal’s Lettres provinciales occupied Ellis’s mind, rather than scriptures. These texts, written against the backcloth of censorship and religious intolerance, deploy wit, humour and satire to debunk casuistry and the logic of the Jesuists. Grote’s own, more religiously committed views – which might be understood as a kind of rejoinder to Ellis on these matters – can be found in his essay ‘Pascal and Montaigne’ of 1877.

7 ‘A Galaxy of Great Men’: The Cambridge Network

Ellis’s roles within Trinity and the Cambridge Network are illustrative of how each party organized itself for mutual and enduring benefits. Both were powerful knowledge networks, the second extending beyond the borders of the first but building upon its structures, institutions and processes. The Cambridge Network was a coterie of intellectuals from many disciplines, who cooperated over decades to organise and reform knowledge production and reproduction. It achieved its goals, and the present eminence of both Trinity College and the Cambridge Network can be attributed largely to their early Victorian activities. ‘A galaxy of great men’ (15 October 1839), Ellis once quipped after talking with Whewell, Peacock and Heath. Within Trinity, a role was fashioned for Ellis that benefited the College but that also fitted with his preferences and skills. Ellis was not a conventional don; he did not take Holy orders; he was neither a manager of existing programmes nor a leader of new ones. He was not a College administrator or syllabus reformer, nor did he act as a reproducer of knowledge by regular tutoring, lecturing or textbook writing, though he did hold a titular role as Greek Lecturer and acted as a Moderator and Examiner in the Mathematical Tripos.Footnote 72 Perhaps he achieved the role once identified by Sir William Napier as appropriate for him, namely that of ‘quasi fellow’ (13 June 1840).Footnote 73 It might be best to say that he played various, equally valued roles that helped the University and College: setting and examining Tripos papers; helping create new or revising old curricula; responding to scholars such as William Whewell and Augustus De Morgan as a discussantFootnote 74; assisting the under-librarian to translate and transcribe Newton’s letters and diagramsFootnote 75; sharing editorship of the Cambridge Mathematical Journal, co-editing Bacon’s Works, supplying Whewell with arguments to defeat Mill over inductive logicFootnote 76; assisting Whewell with revisions for a book of Butler’s Sermon’s; providing evidence to prove that Roman Law was the embodiment of Roman ethics and morality; helping Whewell revise both his Morality and PolityFootnote 77 and his Lectures on the History of Moral PhilosophyFootnote 78 and further a quasi-Kantian philosophy of knowledge to ground inductive logic; and then translating Gaius, probably from the original in Italy, in 1849.Footnote 79 Helping found and run the first professional journal dedicated to pure mathematics was by itself remarkably innovatory and of great benefit to mathematics and mathematicians.Footnote 80 Ellis even dreamt of completing ‘the propositions Newton left’.Footnote 81 All in all, he networked with and between some of the best minds in mathematics and philosophy of his day – and this with propitious results.

Eccentricity requires the ordinary, and in Cambridge in the mid-nineteenth century, the ordinary was, measured by contemporary standards, extra-ordinary. Ellis was in the company of giants, indeed of a ‘a galaxy of great men’. Laura Snyder’s two recent studies build upon a generation of revisionist writings that have challenged the received “Sidgwickian”Footnote 82 view of this pre-1860s period in Cambridge as one of conservatism, rationalism and intuitionism.Footnote 83 Her focus on one local elite, the four members of the ‘Breakfast Club’, narrows the focus, but the excitement of her recovery of these figures is undeniable. Walter (Susan Faye) Cannon originally unearthed the wider circle or coterie who drove the Club’s ambitions; the more idealist Cambridge Network. Robert Preyer explained how this Coleridge-inspired ‘Romantic Tide’ reached Cambridge and swamped the lowlands of rationalism. Sheldon Rothblatt and Richard Robson then revealed how a new generation of dons embodied and then transformed the production and reproduction of knowledge, professionalising science, mathematics and law as well as furthering the newly emerging disciplines of psychology, anthropology, political economy, comparative studies and philology.Footnote 84 What we arguably know now from Snyder is not about the existence of such a Network, but more about its breadth, scope and almost unimaginable impact.

By the time that Ellis and Grote came to the attention of Babbage, Herschel, Airy, Hare, Whewell and Sedgwick, Cambridge was almost indisputably the leading centre of knowledge in Britain. This was accompanied by its embrace of emerging currents of idealism, largely home-grown but with influences from Scotland, Ireland, Germany and France.Footnote 85 The originators needed to pass on the baton in the 1850s; ‘choosing’ Ellis and Grote was the easy part. Getting genius to produce, and fast, was more difficult. What will be argued in this section is that Cambridge produced Ellis and Grote, and they in turn reproduced Cambridge. For Whewell, Ellis and Grote were the torchbearers of the Breakfast Club’s mission; Whewell marrying Ellis’s sister allowed Whewell to strengthen their bond through familial relationship. We will show that Ellis’s few remarkable innovations were occasioned by this unique and fertile Cambridge world. Ellis was a genius, but that was both allowed and encouraged by the milieu he inhabited. In the diaries we find this account of a meeting between Ellis and Whewell that indicates how some of the missions, agenda and methods of the Network were reproduced.

Went to Whewell, & had a long conversation with him about the fellowship, the method of induction, the value of Bacon’s writings, the character of their merit, the application of the doctrine of probabilities to philosophy, which we agreed in thinking a vicious principii petitio. He was very civil. (7 March 1839)

The original Breakfast Club members gave themselves the same job as the Philosophical Radicals, the enormous and even presumptuous mission of ‘reforming knowledge’ for the modern age, and not just transforming science and philosophy as Snyder asserts.Footnote 86 Equipped with the providential faith of the Liberal Anglicans and Broad Church theologians, and experiencing amazing leaps in knowledge around themselves in all disciplines, they met to plot the future of knowledge production and reproduction, making Cambridge generally, and Trinity particularly, a site of revolution.Footnote 87 Whewell was the constant, though contested leader and champion. His contemporary reputation is still undervalued today, which is largely the result of attacks by the Philosophical Radical Mill, from outside, and from his initial sympathisers, Leslie Stephen and Henry Sidgwick, inside Cambridge.Footnote 88 Menachem Fisch, Simon Schaffer and others, in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, and Richard Yeo, in Defining Science, have previously drawn attention to Whewell’s sweeping ambitions, both intellectually and politically. Perry Williams captured it by writing that ‘Whewell’s underlying aims were practical and political […] to counteract the spreading influence of utilitarianism, atheism, and radicalism by bringing people to appreciate the true nature of knowledge. His aim, in short, was to make subversive thought unthinkable’.Footnote 89

The core intellectual elements of their network included, apart from the Liberal Anglican adaption of Vichian cycles to understand historical evolution, an eclecticism that imagined the truth as a synchrony of ideas, theories and facts. There was an openness to blending mathematical deductive certainties alongside inductive scientific discoveries, while accepting the authority of the classical canon. In a rather modern Cambridge way, they were committed to clarifying muddles via wide-ranging studies of languages alongside an idealistic, quasi-Kantian philosophical outlook. Here I agree with Verburgt rather than Snyder who considers Whewell’s position as more akin to a priori intuitionism than idealism.Footnote 90 The Network shared other idealist commitments – e.g. a focus on the historical development of ideas, truth and knowledge, and a recognition that within ethics and law, the actual indicates the real, and the real contains the rational – all bound together with the Broad Church beliefs. Cognising and knowing involved human minds meeting each other; and learning was meeting other minds coming to you, and embracing the idea of coming to know the Absolute, gradually recognizing and building on the minds of predecessors and possibly understanding God’s plans, the ‘Divine Mind’.Footnote 91 Thought is a kind of co-intelligence; the world knowable, and it is our task to get to know it. Knowledge networks like the College, the University, the Breakfast Club, the Grote Club and the Cambridge Movement made such co-intelligence possible. As Grote, who, like Whewell and Ellis was a member of the Romantic node of the movement – tracing back to S.T. Coleridge and the Hare brothers – wrote: ‘God has given us the choice to explore all options to satisfy our human want and to try to understand the want of God himself. Reconciliation of these and the realization of human and divine ideals are an avenue to everlasting satisfaction’.Footnote 92

For the members of the Cambridge Network, and of the Breakfast Club in particular, developing ‘an up to date version of Bacon’s method, and spread the word in books, articles, and speeches’ was agreed to be an essential tactical step.Footnote 93 Inductive logic was agreed to be the essential ingredient to the transformation of the sciences, and of knowledge more generally, but Bacon’s methodology, while useful, was flawed and so unable to do the job. How could these flaws be removed and inductive methodology revised and reformed? What is at stake here is both the nature of the revision of inductive methodology within the Network, especially by Whewell, and the role that Ellis played in this process.

The original Breakfast Club members were stars of the nascent British Association for the Advancement of Science and of the wider mid-Victorian intelligentsia, also forming a local elite. Apart from Whewell, members included Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873), John Herschel (1792–1871), George Peacock (1791–1858), Richard Jones (1790–1855) and Charles Babbage (1791–1871); later associates who widened the ‘Club’ into a Network were George B. Airy (1801–92), Augustus De Morgan (1806–71) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831–78). Innovators from various intellectual centres and other Networks were invited and engaged to cooperate for mutual benefit. These included Julius Hare (1795–1855), who brought the best library of contemporary German philosophy to Trinity,Footnote 94 Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–72), philosopher and Broad Church theologian; two Irish prodigies, William Rowan Hamilton (1805–65) and George Boole (1815–64); several Scottish thinkers, such as Clerk Maxwell; and two Scandinavian revisionist historians, Baron von Bunsen (1791–1860) and Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831).

By the 1840s–50s, the main protagonists were ageing, and had realized that, in order for the overarching mission to be achieved, it needed to be further embedded within a new generation of Network members.Footnote 95 This is where Grote and Ellis came to be identified as significant players for the Cambridge Network and its missions. Grote is easier to place: Whewell needed a philosopher who could unpack in more detail what was entailed in the new programme, as well as a successor in the Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy and Casuistry. They differed on many things, including proposals for reforming Trinity College, the elimination of ‘Casuistry’ from the title and remit of the Knightbridge chair, and changes to the Moral Sciences curriculum and reading lists. Although Whewell would have been stung by Grote’s two-chapter dissection of his inductive logic, he did advance Grote as his successor to the Knightbridge chair. Whewell got what he wanted; a mind able to sift out what was of value in contemporary British philosophy and reformulate a very English solution to contemporary problems around an idealist ontology, epistemology and ethics. Grote did not quite deliver on the propagandist front, but with the Grote Club, the appointment of Moral Sciences lecturers and important revisions of the Moral Sciences Tripos, he clearly achieved a measure of professionalisation in philosophy, history, law and economics at Cambridge.Footnote 96

It is possible that John Venn (1834–1923) came to Ellis’s frequency theory and the problems around chance, induction and probability, through exposure to Ellis via the Grote Club Meetings at Trumpington vicarage, where Venn’s whole book (Logic of Chance) was talked over in the period before publication.Footnote 97 Grote brought on the next generation of Cambridge social scientists via his Club and influence including Venn, Joseph B. Mayor, Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Marshall, John R. Mozley, John B. Pearson, and James Ward. According to the Utilitarian and close friend of Mill, Alexander Bain, Grote contested effectively the main views of the Philosophical Radicals, especially those of Mill and Bentham on inductive logic and utilitarianism, in chapters 8 and 9 of the Exploratio Philosophica (1865) and the Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (1870). We find here what is perhaps the best critique of what at the time was the major alternative to the Network’s ambitions.Footnote 98 Philosophical critiques of Mill’s Logic were brief and few, which adds heightened significance to chapters 8 and 9 of the Exploratio.Footnote 99 With deepest respect and sincere motives, Grote calls upon the reader to identify numerous confusions, contradiction and incompatibilities, as with Mill’s use of the term ‘induction’, and draws attention to methodological fallacies of relativism, “notionalism”, “mis-phenomenalism” and “mis-psychology”.Footnote 100 Mill responded to George Grote’s invitation to respond to John’s wide ranging criticisms with a footnote in the eight edition of the System of Logic.Footnote 101

Ellis was also a profound critic; he considered Bacon’s error to be less severe than Mill’s, as Mill had the advantages of historical hindsight. He identified errors in Mill’s System of Logic, pointing to Mill’s reliance on an ideal-type methodology and his ignorance of how scientists actually work, of the history of scientific discovery and even of basic logic.Footnote 102 It is interesting to observe that Grote took on the major (“Whewellian”) question of what the human mind brought to science, and to induction in particular, producing a very English form of ‘real logic’ that bore all the hallmarks of Ellis’s thinking.Footnote 103 Grote and Ellis wished to revise the Whewellian (as well as the Baconian) corpus, expunging the errors and bringing out the potential in what was left of it, beginning with a reordering and reconception of the key sources and ending with Grote’s two chapters of painfully precise critique.

Ellis possibly performed the greater task, considering that a reformulation of inductive logic through a reworking of Bacon – in such a way that Mill was proven wrong – was perhaps the key intellectual priority of the Cambridge Network. Whewell had published several reassessments of Bacon with which Herschel and others could not concur. At the same time, Mill’s version of Baconian inductive logic, put forward in his System of Logic, was gaining ground, even at Cambridge. Douglas Denon Heath (1811–97), a first-class classicist and linguist, well networked within the Cambridge Apostles, became involved. But it was his professional experience with legal texts that made him key to making sense of the range and complexity of Bacon’s unpublished manuscripts on professional legal matters. Ellis was in the right place at the right time in 1847; a brilliant mind without a mission who could not only sift out the key texts, but also understand them and assess them critically. Until 1853, when ill health forced him to withdraw from the project, Ellis worked hard on the Baconian corpus. Around 1849, he started to write the key to the whole project, a philosophical analysis and critique of Bacon’s – and, ipso facto, Mill’s works – on induction, with additional recommendations as to how they could be reworked to provide a new logical scientific method for modern science.Footnote 104 What stands is the combination of precision and brevity, insight and critical evaluation as well as surgical precision and metaphysical power, allowing him to deliver on Whewell’s hopes. Replacing rationalism and intuitionism as the foundations of metaphysics and epistemology with idealism allowed Whewell to try and protect Cambridge from Millian influence.Footnote 105

Despite Bacon’s being a favourite read for Ellis, it is unlikely that he would have gravitated towards editing Bacon without being prompted by Cambridge Network conversations.Footnote 106 It was largely on his own initiative, however, that he engaged with other, closely related tasks, such as that of clarifying how inferences are made and how the validity of conclusions can be improved. One major activity, in this regard, was that of his work in probability theory, a topic almost completely neglected by Whewell. My suggestion is that Ellis provided useful service to Whewell, and the Network at large, originating new insights on the foundations of the theory, which he sought to make consistent with Whewellian views on philosophy of science.

The recovery of Grote’s heavily annotated copy of Ellis’s edition of the Novum organum gives us an insight into the intensity of the research, conversation and analysis that went on during this time in Cambridge.Footnote 107 This is the closest we will get to the productive conversations that Grote claims he had with Ellis, apart from their correspondence. Evidence for the concurrence of Grote’s with Ellis’s analysis of Bacon’s methodology can be found in a footnote, containing a brief comparison of Bacon’s and Mill’s approaches, found in the Exploratio. ‘Mr Mill criticizes Bacon’s view, Vol. II. p.128, second Edit. See the accurate description given of this part of Bacon’s method by Mr. Ellis, in his General Introduction to Bacon’s Philosophical Works, Ellis and Spedding’s Edition’.Footnote 108 Other key second-generation Network members included William Walton (mathematician, confidant and editor of Ellis), Isaac Todhunter (mathematician and Whewell’s editor), John Seeley (historian), Henry Maine (comparative law), John Mitchell Kemble (the Anglo-Saxon scholar), Aldis Wright (the editor of the Cambridge Shakespeare), Richard Chenevix Trench (poet, philologer, theologian) and Frederick Denison Maurice (philosopher and theologian). We can arguably identify a philosophical lineage continuing later through James Ward, William Sorley, Ellis McTaggart, Charlie Dunbar Broad, Michael Oakeshott and Ludwig Wittgenstein.Footnote 109

8 Conclusion

Ellis’s character made it possible for him to make the kind of innovations and contributions to knowledge that he made. At Cambridge he became inculcated into an already heady intellectual network that fed his mind and fashioned his wide-ranging intellectual engagements. Randall Collins has specified several conditions for a knowledge network to become of global, long-term value and interest. It has to have a size and range of skills in one place long enough to lay down permanent routes. It needs a few elites and many new members elaborating and propagandising its outputs. Above all it must find ways to reproduce itself as well as its knowledge and missions. Collins identifies the Cambridge Network – Whewell, Herschel, Babbage, Peacock. De Morgan, Cayley, Grote and Venn especially, but unfortunately not Ellis.Footnote 110 It is true that Robert Leslie Ellis was not one of the leaders, nor was he an obedient disciple. He was, however, an originator, a catalyst, a much admired and respected mind and a source of intellectual stimulation and innovation. His character, his conversations as well as his writings fully deserves the title of ‘genius’.

Just how original Ellis was, how much he influenced colleagues, and how he contributed to different kinds of knowledge is what we are to decide in this book. Readers and critics will argue on the elements and significance of his originality, his influences and his impacts on scholarship and knowledge, but, there is no doubt as to the qualities of the man and the University which operated for mutual benefit.

So what did Ellis bring to Cambridge, and what did Cambridge do for Ellis? He brought a brilliant and original mind, a “post-Stoic”, “proto-existentialist” character, a loved and admired friend and conversationalist. Cambridge provided him with a home, friends, a vocation, libraries, a vital channel for an active and acute mind. Personally, Ellis provided me with a beacon of hope and stimulation to keep researching Cambridge in this period, because he illustrated the sort of scholar Cambridge produced and housed in those heady days from the 1830s to 1860s. If he was John Grote’s long-time companion, this meant Grote must have been as able and stimulating. For a long time Ellis was a puzzle, an enigma to me, one which we are today beginning to dispel. This book will hopefully give rise to a more firm grasp of the ephemeral mind that was Robert Leslie Ellis. For now, I will refer to Grote’s neat summary of Ellis’s intellectual nature, which Grote held to be ‘a curiously happy mixture of independence, or individuality of judgement, with mental sociability, or attention and deference to the views of others’ – a brilliant mind within a fertile knowledge network.Footnote 111

Of his friends and colleagues, Ellis probably thrived with and derived most from Gregory. We might take his own summary of Gregory’s character to apply equally to himself:

His upright, sincere, and honourable nature secured to him general respect. By his intimate friends, he was admired for the extent and variety of his information, always communicated readily, but without a thought of display, – for his refinement and delicacy of taste and feeling, – for his conversational powers and playful wit; and he was beloved by them for his generous, amicable disposition, his active and disinterested kindness, and steady affection. And in this manner his high-toned character acquired a moral influence over his contemporaries and juniors, in a degree remarkable for one so early removed.Footnote 112